After giving three fairly firm thumbs down, I waffled about how to respond to a fourth fiction submission I was assigned to review for the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly. With no experience as an editor or fiction writer, a limited view of what the journal had previously published and being very new in my role as intern, I didn’t entirely trust my own reactions.
Besides, when I started the internship, I assumed I would be working through some terrible slush pile, where the likelihood of coming across anything worthwhile would be incredibly slim. So my first surprise was reading something pretty good.
The writer drew me in so nicely. She wrote beautifully constructed sentences painting a portrait of a Bolivian community in the States, as colorful as one might expect, replete with lively parties, traditional cuisine, a big Catholic funeral, and boisterous extended families. She introduced me to the men of the neighborhood as an interesting collective group and made me fall in love with a particular woman named Betty who, after a few pages, I wanted as my own best friend.
Our heroine was white and from a completely different upbringing. She was lonely and looking for both a partner and a place to call her own. Compelling story. Her scenes she were entertaining and compelling, and gave the inside view a reader loves to have. I felt part of the action and that this writer was taking good care of me while her identity evolved to embrace the idea she was “Bolivian in her soul.”
Until the ending. It was pat and unconvincing. That was my second surprise – not a good one.
Full disclosure: I have problems with endings in general. I would wager that more than half of vetted, published, adored pieces of writing leave me cold at the end. Movies and TV series do the same. But I still found myself inordinately disappointed.
I was tempted to recommend a straight pass because I was so put off. But I remembered that the Quarterly had published her before, which meant she had something they liked, and the fact that I wanted so much to like the whole piece made me consider it further. Being so sensitive and sympathetic to both publisher and writer, when I found the story intriguing until the last page, I re-read it before I made any notes or recommendations.
I finally told the editor everything I was thinking and asked if we might discuss the ending with the author and see if there was a possibility of working with her on it a bit. My third surprise was that he was not only entirely willing to do that, but he also wanted me to make the overture.
“But do I say I’m an intern? An MFA student? A volunteer?” I asked Kyle. “That sounds sort of, I don’t know, not very good,” I said, demonstrating both my lack of confidence and probably making him second-guess my own writing abilities.
“Say you are a reader and that you are writing on behalf of the editor,” he replied helpfully. “Then we’ll see how she responds.”
So I reached out to the author of the lovely story called “Blue Dove.” My fourth surprise was her speedy, gracious and helpful response, replete with a possible alternate ending. As a writer who has been submitting work and filing away flat rejections, I could appreciate that someone (even a lowly reader/MFA student/intern/volunteer) giving her feedback and accolades felt good. But I had initially thought it was equally possible she would say “forget it.”
Then I got stuck again because I didn’t exactly love the new ending. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t sure. So I threw it back to Kyle, who told me my correspondence with the author had been excellent, which was deeply reassuring, and that he felt we should pass on the piece while encouraging her to keep submitting. He asked if I would like to tell her. This time, I asked him to do it, but to BCC me on it so that I could learn from him how he writes these things. (Also, I wouldn’t have to be the actual bad guy. Cop out, I know.)
And then yesterday, instead of emailing me that note, he emailed to tell me a new editor is taking over the Quarterly, who feels the piece is a go with the new ending, and I have been asked to edit it for publication! What an exciting fifth surprise.
Photo: By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Blue Glass Dove, Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37880041