On writing...and editing Posted by Sarah Marrs April 11, 2011

I’ve heard that all editors are writers but I’ve always wondered if that goes both ways. Are all writers editors? If they’re not, they should be. Editing for the Labletter has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a writer. It’s certainly made me a better writer—I can never get upset at my own editor because I know her edits aren’t personal and that the most important thing a writer can do is not get too attached to her own work because odds are, some jerk editor is going to want to change it.

The process of choosing stories to publish in the Labletter is easy—pick the best stories submitted. The action of choosing those stories is rather a bit tougher. For the 2011 edition, it was even harder because of the sheer number of submissions. Not only did we receive over three hundred submissions, but many of the writers were MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients, O. Henry Award winners, Pushcart Prize finalists, published novelists, and writers previously featured in publications like The New Yorker, Zoetrope and McSweeney’s. How do you begin to process all that?

It starts with me staying up very late, reading stories. It continues with me reading more stories. Eventually our managing editor, Robert Kotchen, will ask me how it’s going and if I need help. The answer is always “terribly” and “YES PLEASE” but I tell him that it’s fine and that I have everything under control. The truth is, while I respect Robert very much and he probably has better taste than me, I don’t want anyone else messing in my sandbox. Fiction is my section—if I have to read five hundred stories I’ll do it because it’s ultimately my decision and I want the fiction section to reflect my taste and my taste alone.

And that’s the key to editing for a journal like the Labletter. It’s all about individual taste. Each section reflects that particular editor’s taste and interests. It can be really intimidating to read stories from writers whose accomplishments outrank mine, who are likely older, wiser and better educated than I’ll ever be. I just have to remind myself of the thing that I think every editor says to herself: “I’m responsible for this. Whatever it ends up being, I’m responsible for it and I have to think that it is the best thing ever.”

The first story I landed on for this edition was Rolli’s “Chimpanions”. I was halfway through the story when I put it aside and shot off an email to Rolli telling him we’d be publishing it. I allow for simultaneous submissions, so I didn’t want to risk getting a message from Rolli, in the few minutes it would take me to finish his story, that another publication picked it up. Once I had “Chimpanions” in the bag, the task became about finding a story that would partner well with it. I came across Daniel Pearlman’s “Canine Virtues” with about a hundred stories left to go and set it aside. I loved the story but it was a bit long, a little daunting given that word count is important with the Labletter. But after reading all the stories I didn’t like any of them as much as “Canine Virtues” and so I just made it work.

Because that’s what editors do—make it work. I didn’t initially start out to pick two stories that had animalian themes but that’s what I ended up with. That’s what the two best stories submitted ended up being. They worked well together, they appealed to my literary and humorous sensibilities. The quality of the writing was excellent. So of course, as a jerk editor, I wanted to change it. Most of the edits were limited to syntactical changes made to smooth out the flow of the stories. With Rolli there was some word-choice wrangling—he’s Canadian and he used a couple words that aren’t familiar to American readers. The upside of having so many, and such quality, submissions is that I have the luxury of pulling out stories that are so good they require little interference. I’m hard on my authors—I think their stories are the best thing ever and I will push and argue and demand until we make those stories as good as they can possibly be.

You can read an excerpt from “Chimpanions” here, but to read both stories in their entireties, please visit the Labletter store to purchase a copy. Also, you can like us on Facebook—being liked is nice. I’m very proud to present both “Chimpanions” and “Canine Virtues” in the 2011 Labletter. I believe these are the best stories we’ve published so far, and I hope you enjoy them.


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