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Editing an Anthology: A Year in Review

Shortly after Steve brought me on as an intern to Ice Cube Press, I tapped into my natural audacity and floated the book proposal that would become Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland to Steve Semken, my ever-cheerful boss. Despite my lack of former publications (i.e. none), Steve agreed to publish the book through Ice Cube Press. After nearly a year of work, Prairie Gold is moving into the final stages of production, and I feel strangely ecstatic, relieved, and exhausted all at the same time. Whenever I express this paradoxical amalgamation of lightning raw emotions to other published authors and editors, I usually receive a a knowing smirk and a nod as if to say, “welcome to the club.” In this past year, I’ve experienced a lot of reasons for joy and hardship in this herculean task of compiling, editing, and marketing Prairie Gold, and I feel obliged to share some of those lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve enjoyed (or hated) with a larger audience:

Put Yourself Out There

To quote one of my favorite hobbits, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” When I became an intern, I secretly wanted to publish a book with Ice Cube Press, but I lacked any concrete ideas for a book that would complement our mission in publishing stories related to the natural environment or the American Midwest. Because I received my B.A. in English Writing from University of Pittsburgh, I thought I should write a novel. My work in graduate school at Iowa State University, however, revolved around an M.A. in English Literature, and I spent (and continue to devote) the majority of my time to literary scholarship. Besides, writing a good novel requires a great deal of energy and focus, and I simply lacked either for a new creative project. Since Xavier Cavazos and I developed a friendship shortly after my arrival at Iowa State, I expressed to him my disappointment in what I perceived would be another unfulfilled aspiration. Though I’m not a psychiatrist, I must’ve subconsciously possessed some hope for a publishing project because anyone that’s met Xav even once knows that he practically breathes encouragement and creativity. Within a few scant days, Xav and I fleshed out the idea for proposing a collection of Midwestern literature that contained only new pieces of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Because we both happened to know Mary Swander, the Poet Laureate of Iowa, we approached her about the idea, and she, too, encouraged us to draw up the proposal and shoot it to Steve Semken. After a few days of writing, editing, and performing market research, I submitted the proposal to Steve, and before I knew it, I began sending out a call for submissions.

I’m aware that my experience with securing Prairie Gold‘s publication likely deviates from the most common scenarios for publishing writers or editors. Steve is a one-of-a-kind guy, and I’m sure that I would not have enjoyed such immediate success if I approached a different publisher. From what I’ve experienced, most authors or editors receive book deals through the auspices of an agent, or they ink a book deal after acceptance of submitted cover letters and partial manuscripts to an acquisition editor at a publishing house. Nonetheless, Prairie Gold would not exist as much more than a passing idea if I did not possess the confidence (or even temerity, either will do) to submit my idea. An author acts as their own harshest critic–as well they should–but no author should let their inner critic stifle their ambition. We might tell ourselves our work is never good enough, that we compare unfavorably to all the great authors we’ve read, and all those rejection letters seem to prove our darkest fears, but even if 99 publishers pass on a manuscript, we only need one to say yes. For me, sending a carefully typed cover letter and the best part of a manuscript for consideration induces far less anxiety than applying for a job or presenting a scholarly essay. Never stop writing, and always follow your ambitions regardless of what others may say.

Establish a Habit of Art

A “habit of art” refers to a practice of setting up a schedule for working on a creative project that suits an author or editor. Simply prepping an anthology–let alone organizing, editing, and writing for it–requires an enormous dedication of time and effort, and the same goes for forging any volume of creative writing. Given my hefty time obligation to graduate school (and, I admit, an insurmountable addiction to acquiring and playing video games), I generally did not work every day on producing necessary materials for Prairie Gold. Besides, daily work on creative projects invariably led me to grow disgusted with those projects a few short weeks after their inception. Instead, I prefer to write in large, productive chunks of work. After work began on Prairie Gold, Steve provided me with a laundry list of tasks for getting the book off the ground: writing a bio for myself, collecting Xav’s bio, outlining the guidelines for submissions, writing the call for submissions, researching where to send the call for submissions, locking down a graphic designer for the book cover, etc. I could’ve spread these tasks out evenly over a week or so by devoting a couple hours each day to completing one task after the next. But as I’ve said, I can hardly work like that, so I accomplished all of those tasks in eight to ten hour blocks across two weekends. Regardless of how I divvied up my time, I completed the tasks that needed performing.

While craft books and famous writers prescribe everything from nuanced work schedules (daily time requirements, weekly word counts, etc.) to a loose collection of aphorisms (see Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments for a writing routine), I believe the best schedule derives from whatever works for the author or editor as long as they stick to their schedule. As a small caveat, I would advise that the planned work schedule allow the author/editor to complete their necessary work within their stipulated deadlines. As I’ve said in other blog posts, authors should always strive to demonstrate their responsibility by meeting deadlines. Just like proper tire maintenance on a car, establishing and sticking to a good habit of art provides better control and performance while working.

Learn from Setbacks; Seek out Encouragement

In its initial conception, Prairie Gold would only contain writing produced by  graduate students attending Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, and University of Iowa. After watching our colleagues and friends relentlessly toil for publication in even the most fringe and esoteric literary magazines, Xav and I wanted to provide a unique publishing opportunity for creative writing MFA students that could boost their spirits, add distinction to their CVs, and encourage them to continue in their noble craft. We wrote and sent innumerable emails to friends, acqauntainces, and total strangers at each university asking–no, begging–them to alert their students to Prairie Gold. Despite several months of work, we received far, far less submissions than even the minimum we hoped to attain. Essentially, the first call submissions amounted to a failed endeavor, and that failure set Prairie Gold back at least three months if not more. We did, however, receive several emails from non-students hoping that they could submit their work because they loved the idea behind the anthology, and frankly, few publishers or literary magazines specifically seek work that addresses or celebrates the American Midwest. After reviewing our small batch of submissions and discussing the project’s original intent and its future, we decided that broadening the submission guidelines to anyone writing about the Midwest adhered closer to Prairie Gold‘s purpose. We re-formatted our call for submissions and expanded our network of contacts, and whaddya know? We received submissions that surpassed our expectations both in quantity and quality.

Whether writing a creative piece or editing an anthology, all large projects will experience setbacks. Whether the great rushing river of creativity dwindles to a trickle or a massive familial or personal catastrophe derails concentration, artistic projects rarely proceed as planned. While I think authors and editors should cleave to their original artistic ideas and values, the nature of creativity allows for art to thrive under the pressures of disappointment or adversity. When we failed to meet our goals for submissions that first time around, Xav and I sought out the encouragement and advice of our colleagues, friends, and families. In my experience, the best inspiration springs from friendly acquaintances that do not write or have not listened to me blather on about a project since I conceived of it. Regardless of who the motivation comes from, authors should always seek encouragement from a trusted source (so yes, that might be a good time to call your parents for once) so they can garner the motivation to learn from their setbacks and move forward with their work.

Be Flexible and Collaborate Whenever Possible

After receiving the enormous influx of submissions, Xav and I were at a loss. With almost a hundred authors submitting multiple pieces of work, we could not possibly hope to provide each work with a fair amount of reading time and attention and still cling to our acceptance deadline. From the project’s beginning, I had (politely) refused several offers of help from would-be editors on the project. I felt that adding another editor to the project would somehow detract from the efficiency of the Cavazos/Sacknoff team by over-complicating the judging and editing process with another voice. Those feelings, however, proved entirely unfounded when I realized that we could not avoid bringing on a third editor and acquiesced to including Stefanie Brook Trout to our editing team; Stefanie immediately waded into our virtual submission stacks, and we met our deadline for announcing our accepted submissions. Furthermore, Stefanie’s involvement (and strong opinions) provided another layer of good literary taste that allowed for a more diverse set of accepted work, and that diversity led to a much stronger overall collection. I acknowledged that I needed to exercise some flexibility on my anti-additional editor stance, and by bending a little and bringing Stefanie on board, Prairie Gold benefited.

All print publications birth from a massive team effort; an idea and manuscript may originate with a single individual, but the published text requires hours of effort and input from editors, publicists, marketers, graphic designers,  and distributors to name a few. We rely on colleagues, friends, and family to encourage us to keep writing and working, and most (if not all) authors seek out editorial comments from trusted readers while crafting all the iterations of their manuscripts. If we understand a print publication as a naval vessel, then as long as the author maintains their position as captain, they should welcome the input from all the other parts of the crew necessary for a successful voyage from computer keyboard to library shelf. All great undertakings benefit from collaborative effort, especially when all collaborators feel comfortable making suggestions or raising concerns because everyone involved in the project have a common goal: publishing and disseminating thought-provoking, life-changing, reality-shaping literature.

Shape Personal Resentment into Productivity

Compiling and editing Prairie Gold required me to critique the work of a vast number of total strangers, and while many authors displayed a spirit of flexibility and collaboration, several took even the most mildly voiced criticisms as a personal attack. After the first round of submissions, Xav and I decided to provide “Accepted” or “Request to Edit and Resubmit” answers to all submissions instead of outright rejections. For those asked to edit and resubmit, I provided some feedback on where Xav and I saw the need to edit submitted work so that we might accept it in the second round of submissions. This method proved incredibly time-consuming, but I wanted those individuals who demonstrated support for Prairie Gold by submitting their work early on to know that Xav and I appreciated their enthusiasm by giving them direction for crafting a stronger piece that we would accept for print. In some cases, I received several rather nasty responses that attacked everything from my competency to my personal character, and of course, those authors did not make it into Prairie Gold. Other authors, such as John Linstrom and his piece, “Fuckaroo!” made a concerted effort to be flexible and collaborate. In the initial submission, “Fuckaroo!” demonstrated exceptional writing talent and skill, but it far exceeded our page limitations for submissions. Instead of pushing back about any suggested cuts in a story, John worked with me to shape his essay into a more concise narrative, and that decision to swallow any personal resentment and collaborate with an editor produced the concise, smartly written, and highly amusing nonfiction narrative that we accepted to appear in the anthology.

I know I’m espousing a generalization, but my overwhelming experience with writers has shown me that artists–especially serious authors–have a tendency to react irrationally/over-emotionally to criticism or rejection of their work. Personally, I can empathize with feeling irrationally angry that someone might question my judgment, direction, style, or handling of work that, by its very nature, represents an intimate part of my character. In order to write a volume or compile a collection of good literature, authors and editors must reveal a part of their innermost personhood–or soul, if you like–to convey a story, essay, or poem that reverberates as exceptionally honest and “true.”As a sensitive person, I initially perceive everything from writing critiques to rejections of endorsements for Prairie Gold as personal attacks, but I do not let that immediate sense of acrimony influence my reaction. And, I do not pretend that any author or editor–even the most well-published and acclaimed–can simply turn a mental dial and cool the slow simmering personal resentment bubbling up from the heat of rejection or criticism. Authors should channel that heated resentment into fiery motivational forge, and like any craftsmen, authors and editors should use that burning incandescence to reevaluate, reshape, and resubmit their craftsmanship for inspection and appreciation. Rather than look at criticism and think “Screw them, they don’t understand my work,” authors should listen to their critics and think, “I’ll show them!” At the very least, the latter way of thinking endorses writing more, and as I’ve observed, consistent productivity contributes to an author’s success more than any latent natural talent.

Accept that Nothing is Perfect and Move on

Even with two other primary editors, a consulting editor, a group of copy editors, and a slew of writers constantly rereading and polishing their own work, I recognize that errors will still pop up after Prairie Gold‘s release. My own literary scholarship in semiotics forces me to accept that all language (and especially the English language) is a malleable abstract that imperfectly conveys experience and emotion regardless of grammatical, stylistic, and technical mastery or linguistic precision. When we read or write a text, we look into an imperfect reflection in a fissured mirror with each word gracefully winding and twisting its way across the surface so subtly that even a hairsbreadth movement or the faintest blink will lose that minute crevice and present another that may subtly or entirely change the that first reflection. Art, and therefore literature, contains all the imperfections of the humanity that artistic expression attempts to encapsulate. While authors and editors should always rectify as many grammatical and stylistic errors or unintentional ambiguity  or imprecise language as they can find, a few minor flaws will always appear to those who look hard enough. As long as those minor blemishes do not disrupt the story, their presence merely alerts the reader to the fallibility of human perception, and far from divorcing a reader from the text, these little defects remind the reader that nothing, including their own attitudes and viewpoints, are perfect. If the point of literature is to impute a sense of empathy, arouse curiosity, or induce laughter–in short, make a total stranger feel something–then even a grammatical flaw accomplishes the objective of writing in the first place. If we can accept that, then we can move on to a new project with a sense of accomplishment instead of abandonment.

As I finish writing this blog and notice the nearness of Prairie Gold‘s release on my laptop calendar, I cannot help but think that everything above–quite literally everything–seems like general common sense advice. Yet, it took a year of actually encountering many instances from each section for me to feel like I have actually absorbed the advice that I presume to give. If you’ve read this blog and found it obvious or overly general, then I can only urge you to go and experienced all of it as I have. Even if you derive nothing new or epiphanic from the publishing experience, at least you’ll have a physical and sacred talisman–a book–that total strangers will read, and you will have the knowledge that you introduced new concepts, borders, and horizons to people and advanced the collective empathy of the world at least one iota. The experience of influencing unknown persons for the benefit of other unknown people stands as perhaps the most powerful and rewarding experience in this past year of editing our anthology, Prairie Gold.