I've finished my deliberations now for Southword and picked six stories for the summer issue. I am this year's Fiction Editor but in fact it is only this issue that I get to choose stories for, since the second issue of the year will run the winning and runner-up stories from the Sean O'Faolain competition, which I am judging. Which made my task that much harder. My one shot at choosing the fiction section of a literary journal!
To be honest, I hadn't thought it would be that hard. I thought, Ok, find the six stories that speak to me the most. But it wasn't that simple, not by any means, and I thought writing about it here might be informative in some way.
I feel extremely honoured to be asked to do this, and it gave me an invaluable glimpse at the other side of the business that we, as writers who send our work out, are involved in. As a writer I have received - and continue to receive, on a weekly if not daily basis - many rejections from many literary magazines of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. I have also been delighted to receive acceptances, far far less of them than the rejections, but those are the odds. That's how it works. At first, each rejection really stung. I took it personally, that I had been turned away, that I wasn't good enough. Often, I was submitting entirely the wrong kinds of stories to journals - sending magical realism to a journal that only publishes traditional fiction, things like that. I naively thought I could "persuade" them with the sheer perfection of my story! But no. An editor likes what an editor likes. That was the lesson I had to learn.
I received one rejection that really stuck with me, where the editor said he had loved my flash story but that it just didn't fit with the others he was choosing for that month. If he could have, he would have designed the issue so that it did fit, but those weren't the stories he received. I liked that. I felt that it wasn't just a brush-off; after all, he didn't have to say anything, did he? A form rejection. Or, as sometimes happens, total silence.
It wasn't until I was picking the 6 Southword stories did I understand what "fitting together" meant. I wanted the stories to mean something as a whole, to say something together, not just to be great stories in their own right. I wanted to put my personal stamp on the issue. But how they would fit together isn't something I could put my finger on. Just a gut feeling.
Now, the problem was, over 180 stories were submitted, and there were more than 6 stories that spoke to me. Quite a few more. I started sending out rejection emails to the ones that didn't speak to me, a fairly kind - I hoped - sort of general rejection. But I did feel each one that I sent out, because I knew, in my gut, how it would be received. And because this was not done anonymously, some of the names were familiar to me, some were friends. That was not fun at all.
Then I held on longer to the yesses and the maybes, re-reading them, changing my mind every few days. But I had a deadline. So I had to choose. And that was really difficult.
In the end, I went with my gut. I took the plunge, and the delighted responses to my acceptances almost cancelled out the distress of having to reject 174 stories. I was rejecting the stories but even I felt I was rejecting the person. Don't hate me, I wanted to say. It's just my job. What kind of defence is that? But I couldn't even publish 10, let alone 180.
It wasn't until I had all my six that I suddenly saw how they fit together. Now, if you read the issue, you may not think they do at all. But for me, they make up something, a whole. And that turned out to be very important. I had to turn down several stories I really loved. And a whole lot more that I liked a great deal. That's the way it goes. I think I did it as best I could, but it's never going to be easy to receive the email that doesn't say "Yes! I want to publish your story".
If you've never received a rejection, odds are that you've never sent your stories anywhere at all. That is the safe way to do it. Very safe. Sending your words out there, to be read by a stranger or even a friend, to allow that person the power to accept or turn down your work, is very unsafe. It's scary. And believe me when I say to all 180 of those who submitted: I do not take that lightly. I thank you for letting me read your stories. Well done for taking that risk.
I look forward to reading all the stories sent in by those taking that risk again, for the Sean O'Faolain competition. This time my task is easier in that it is anonymous, and I only have to choose winners, not reject anyone at all. But there will be hundreds more stories, and there will be many more that speak to me than the number I am designated to pick. It is, once again, a privilege. But afterwards - and I would not have said this before - I think I might just stick to being the one sending out my stories, happier to jump off that cliff instead.