Meeting the Meanjin and Melbourne Books editors

According to Zora Sanders, deputy editor at Meanjin, if she has to read one more short story about children in the bush with an alcoholic father she might well head to the bush and take to drink herself. Not surprising if you have to read 30-50 submissions a week.

Sanders was at the Wheeler Centre on a typically cold, dark Melbourne Monday night along with Adolfo Aranjuez editor of Melbourne Books, which publishes the annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing. It was a Writers Victoria event held in conjunction with the Society of Editors (Victoria) called Ask the Publisher: Short Fiction, facilitated by Editors Vic co-president, Liz Steele. BTW Aranjuez is also working with designer Nina Read on the new design-rich journal Fragmented and is associated with Voiceworks.

Hearing what ends up in that slush pile at the other end of the publishing email system is probably the most intriguing thing for writers to hear and was what made this event really worth going to. That, and asking questions. Sadly, many of these events make me feel like I’m at a lonely hearts’ club where no one of the gender you, or anyone else there, is looking for has turned up, ie. cashed up publishers.

Along with the hot-Aussie-summer-bush-battler-family-soul-searching stories being written by authors who’ve barely left Burwood both Aranjuez and Sanders said they see a lot of realism, present tense and first person (even collective first person (with a ‘we’)) stories. Sanders remarked she’s seeing quite a few David Foster Wallace imitators and both said they also see many stories written in the voice of a child, something I can’t help thinking might be a result of the success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Meanjin also get a lot of theses which even when interesting are far too academic for the publication; that or straight journalism, which again, they don’t publish. Check out their website, its memoir, essays, fiction and poetry.

So what then is unusual, what stands out? Funnily enough for literary journals like Meanjin it turns out to be genre. Sanders said she’d love to receive more literary fiction that used genre conventions in clever and interesting ways particularly speculative or science fiction, which can provide a vehicle for social criticism and commentary. Aranjuez finds strangeness compelling, so long as it makes sense internally. Perhaps unsurprisingly editors are attracted to original ideas, ideas that are strong or unusual. Often these turn out to be stories built upon unexpected or obscure facts or historic events that illuminate our world in unexpected and interesting ways. They also don’t necessarily have to have a strong sense of place, or for Meanjin need to be set in Australia.

Although Meanjin is focussed on Australia and Australian authors (a necessity of their public funding), they are still interested in stories by Australian authors written about other places, or stories about Australian overseas or even overseas writers talking about Australia literature.

In the to-be-expected “it’s a tough market in this economic environment” section of the discussion both editors talked about writers who don’t read. Sadly one of the best markets for people who want to write is other writers, if only they’d buy and read each other they say. Instead there’s a growing cohort of poets and writers but not of interested readers seeking them out, in say literary journals.

Meanjin’s high volume of submissions doesn’t seem that big until you hear how seriously they take each one. Each submission gets read twice by the editorial assistants and if it gets one or two yes’s it gets moved on up to Sanders for the final yes or no. Then it gets edited.

I was very surprised that Meanjin provides so much assistance to their writers in terms of editing. They work closely with authors to shape their stories, sometimes asking for full re-writes or doing heavy structural editing, and that’s before it goes to copy-editing and proof reading. That said, if there’s a great story that needs no editing and a great story that needs a lot of work, time pressures are likely to tip the balance in favour of the former.

Sanders counts working with authors as the best part of her job, and finds enormous satisfaction from seeing authors they’ve nurtured go on to publish successful novels and receive wider acclaim. She’s also mentored authors who have developed on-going relationships with the journal over a number of years, such as Elmo Keep.

It’s a different story at Melbourne Books for their anthology of course, as all the submissions to the anthology have already won first prize a competition. Each story receives only a light copy edit and revisions to align them with house-style. The stories they publish have been either sought out from prominent competitions or received winning authors.  However, for Fragmented and Voiceworks, which publish younger authors, there is far more editing and working with the authors.

Once submissions to Meanjin had to be hard copy, so old school, but it did keep down the submission spam, ie. fiction, articles and lots of poems coming in from all around the world and often from people who’ve never read the journal and have no idea what they do. To try and get their electronic database under control Meanjin have closed submissions for a few months while they move to a US-based management system called Submittable (they should open again around September 2012). Writers who submit through Submittable have to registered, which will slow down some people, but it’s also hoped it will result in better tracking and improve response times.

Some other tips that came out of the night:

  • Don’t assume it’s a no, sometimes they just haven’t had time to get back to you.
  • Write a lot, submit rarely, given the amount of reading each submission gets they will remember names and if you keep submitting stuff that’s half-cooked they’ll remember you for all the wrong reasons.
  • Be aware of the usual length a journal publishers, neither journal is likely to publish a 15,000 thesis, novel extract or story – between 1,000 and 4,000 words is a better target range.
  • Be aware of the style of each publication and only submit work that seems a good fit.
  • Adalfo also made the important point that just as reading the submissions is part of the work of editors, reading the publications is part of the work of the writer.

Look out for Meanjin’s Canberra Centenary themed edition early next year and their Anthology, a collection of the best writing from 70 years of Meanjin, that will also be coming out next year.

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