I wish all authors could- at some point- get an invisibility cloak that only disguises them in the room while their work is being read by agents, beta readers, or editorial staff. I certainly don’t want to work with the author hanging over my shoulder, but there are often things I wish I could tell them but don’t have the appropriate means to do so. Mostly I want them to know why their story was or wasn’t picked, and what was good, what wasn’t working, what parts of the choice were opinion or objectively made.
After selecting the works for the first edition of Curating Alexandria, there were broad stroke themes of how decisions were made.
Some insight into the reading process might help authors know how these were picked. We have three reading phases: a story-content read, a technical read, and a “good story bad story read aloud.” These three might happen in any order but published stories must pass all three phases. Each phase is associated with a staff member’s skill set and balanced by bringing in trusted listeners and taking multiple passes at each story. It’s sad but true, sometimes the mood of the readers can influence decisions. A story that sounds good at 9pm on a Saturday night might feel very different at 7am on Tuesday. For this reason, works are read and reread, discussed, revisited, and then decided.
Our story-content reader focuses on the story arc. When she reads, she’s looking at what happens, who the characters are, what are the meanings and motivations? These elements are her own skills as an author (world setting, character creation, plot twists, classical and pop culture allusions) and she has a keen eye for spotting the trope ridden, surprising, and bold. As a reader, she also perseveres to the end of stories, no matter how rough the writing style. She’s in it for the story told and makes choices on that ground.
The technical reading is the fastest. This process is done by an editor and looks at writing style. This read usually involves the first half page, last page and one or two paragraphs in the middle. The technical read asks “is the writing style itself, on a technical level, well developed?” While the story might be great, does the word choice, punctuation and grammar contribute to something that is easy and pleasurable to read? For example, a story in this phase (no matter how great the concept) might be rejected because the author used on the adjective “wonderful” for every.single.thing. Or maybe every sentence was *technically* not a run-on but used dashes, parenthetical asides, colons and semicolons and was so darn difficult to read that even skilled readers would give up on the first paragraph. Well developed writing style is what lets your readers what you want them to do: READ. The best story in the world won’t be read if it’s not well told.
“Good Story Bad Story” is our read aloud game, and the name is misleading. I’d like to assert right now that we have yet to read a truly bad story. It’s a game designed to get a quick, gut reaction, instinctual response to the stories. The fact is, our decision on each story is in fact binary: we can publish it or not. No matter how much we might like something, and our reaction is in some grey area between “good and bad,” our choices have to manifest as black and white. Sometimes these reads are done just between two staff members but are often repeated in larger settings with a lot of ears on the content. The game is as straight forward as it sounds. One reader narrates the first page of a story, stops, and asks everyone “good story? bad story?” What we look for at this point isn’t a literature review, but to know if it has caught attention and people want to know more. Do you think it’ll be a good story? The best part of the game (ok, for me this is the best part) is how often the room is divided. It’s very seldom that everyone agrees on the status of a work- and I think that speaks well of a submission. We are here to collect stories and appeal to a wide range of people. If we only publish one kind of voice, we have not done our job.
We received a lot of beautiful stories and creative explorations of mythology and are happily printing most of them. We can also very happily report that all submissions were written with a basic level of literacy, polish, attention to detail, and writing style. As an editor, I’ve seen a great deal of manuscripts, ostensibly “ready” for publication, that contain simple proofreading errors. Curating Alexandria had a magical quarter in that regard: the work we read was higher-than-average quality.
The stories printed now and that have been accepted for future publication all have something in common: they’ve passed every phase of our reading process, they relate to mythology, folk lore, fairy tales or legends, they fit within a collection we are producing, they leave us thinking on the work or wanting more.
The word rejection is hard. Sending rejections is hard and I don’t like doing it! If I had the time, I would sit down with every author, pull out their story, my purple editing pens, and give them hours of delving into their work. Anyone who has slaved over a story, paid $4.00 to submit and subjected their work to the discernment of others is very brave and I wish I could do more to honor their courage and vulnerability.
If you were rejected it might be on the basis of technical writing. This is the HARDEST part of writing for most people. On that front, we can only advise that you learn what you can about how to write. Read books, take conferences, get beta readers who aren’t afraid to give you honest feedback.
Another cause for rejection is unnecessary grotesque violence. We know classical myths and legends have violence and don’t shy away from it at all. However, there seems to be a trend right now of gore for its own sake. Those stories were passed on.
Some stories were rejected because they weren’t about any identifiable myth (legend, lore, etc). We are happy to learn more about myths we don’t already know and have asked that submitters explain their inspiration if they send us something obscure. I don’t know if these stories had an allusion we didn’t understand or if the submitters didn’t understand the guidelines.
Lastly, stories were turned down for being underdeveloped. Occasionally there was a submission that was *almost* good. The story had potential! The writing could be cleaned up with a few emails back and forth with the editor! It was creative and inventive and really really close. Those are the stories that keep me up at night when I’m fretting over this publication. If I had more time, I’d work with those authors and help their work develop and grow. I want them to do well, mature in their craft, submit again to us and other publications, and see success.