When I began my internship at the Santa Fe Writers Project, I was very much looking forward to reading submissions. To be let in on the secrets of the other side of a Submittable page felt a bit like being allowed to sit at the table reserved for grownups at Thanksgiving or like having one’s first sip of alcohol; it couldn’t help but be revelatory, finally experiencing firsthand precisely what it’s like. Unlike my first sip of beer – people drink this on purpose?! I thought, horrified – reading hasn’t let me down. If anything, it has exceeded my expectations.
For the last several weeks, I have been reading book entries for the 2022 Literary Awards Program, a contest which past winners have described as career-launching. The winner receives $1,500 and 90% of them go on to be published. There are no genre restrictions, so everything from erotica to memoirs to YA fantasy has come across my desk. Although I am allowed to read up to 25 pages, I am encouraged to get a feel and make a decision by page 10, and I’m usually able to.
In my last post, I described how being a reader for SFWP has helped me appreciate the fact that there are just so many factors that go into a piece being accepted or denied, promoted to the next level or declined. While I had been reading, judging, and writing comments on stories, I had been doing it in a bit of a vacuum. I’d received some bare instructions on how to read for SFWP, but even as I tried to respect them, I worried that I was doing a poor job of it in that my ideas about what works are good and what works aren’t up to standard might be radically different from those of Andrew whose baby the SFWP is.
Still, I went along, carefully reading the pieces and being totally amazed by their quality. In the instructions for reading, it was noted that there would be a number of them that you would be able to write off immediately, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. I can think of only three or four that were unequivocally not a good fit from the get-go. Instead, there were many that I had to drag myself away from and tenfold more that I thought were very, very good. That feeling of not wanting to stop reading has been one of the best bits of my internship thus far, to know that there are people out there writing brilliantly and striving toward the same goals that I have is reassuring. There is so much talent yet undiscovered, and so many names we have yet to know that one day will feel as though they were always there.
This past week, the layers of my learning were deepened even more as I got to read for the first time Andrew’s notes on the stories I had also been responding to. It’s incredible how differently a story can feel from one person to another. A piece that I might find compelling, Andrew may feel is oppressive in its style. A protagonist he instantly likes may fill me with distaste. There are so many examples of this, and we are only two of the many people whose eyes will be on these works before the final one is chosen. Now, even more so than before, I see just how subjective all of this is – almost maddeningly so. However, even though there is a degree of frustration that comes along with this, far more important to me is the understanding it has given me. I feel much better prepared for my future and think I have a more nuanced idea of where I fit into the vast machine that is publishing.
TW: Covid death, teen suicide
It's been an incredibly tough beginning to the year. We started this semester off losing our uncle to Covid (our fourth family member to pass from it in the last six months alone). Our upstairs bathroom decided to try to come through our living room ceiling (oh, the joys of a very old house) the costs of which to repair are just…astronomical. And then this past week, a former student of mine and one of my daughter’s best friends committed suicide. It came out of nowhere, although I suppose it must feel like that most of the time. But to lose a child like that is especially awful.
So, it has not been the start I had hoped for.
While typically I feel hopeful about new years – a clean slate! A chance to make things better! Do things I’ve always meant to do! - I generally dislike beginnings. It comes from a place of perfectionism. I hate not knowing how to do a thing The Best Way, and that period of time between starting a new endeavor and being introduced to new processes and struggling through them to find your own groove and understanding is difficult for me. So it was unsurprising to me that I was anxious about this internship and all that I might be expected to learn and navigate with it. So far, though, it hasn’t been particularly stressful, though it has been time consuming.
Part of this is that Andrew appears to be very, very busy during this time and therefore unable to give me much attention. I feel as though I’ve barely interacted with him, which I don’t fault him for. In some ways, that has made it easier because it has allowed me space to grow without observation.
My responsibilities thus far for SFWP have been being a reader for the contest. To do this, I received access to the SFWP Submittable and a sheet that described how I should approach reading. Most of it was simple enough – dismiss entries with overt issues such as racism, sexism, etc., stop reading after 25 pages - but two bits stuck out to me. The first was that lots would be unreadable or bad within the first few pages. The second was that I should be able to complete reading 20 to 30 entries per hour. Holy shit, I thought! That was a lot of entries to complete in an hour. However, I thought, if lots really were unreadable within the first few pages, maybe it was possible.
Alas, while that number might be reasonable for a seasoned reader, it has not been my experience. There have been precious few that I felt could be thrown out within the first few pages, and I generally have to read around ten to confidently decide whether or not an entry should progress to the next level. After reading, I must comment on the story so that Andrew can have a basis for responding to the entry. Although I read at what I’ve believed to be a pretty good pace previously, it’s still taken me about an hour to finish ten entries and sometimes longer.
Being on this side of the submissions process has been illuminating. Although I understood intellectually before this that literary magazines, publishers, and websites receive such a large volume of work that it is extremely difficult for your submission to just happen to hit all the right buttons it needs to get accepted (be of excellent quality, be the correct length, be a topic that fits in with the flow of the magazine, etc.), it is different to be on the receiving end and actually sifting through all of these entries.
There are so, so, so many incredibly accomplished writers sending beautiful work out. It’s stunning, really, just how much talent there is out there. Of all of those I read, I probably progressed fifty to the next level, and of those, a solid twenty would all be so excellent (from what I’ve read) that if any of them won, I would have to nod and agree that yes, they deserved it. So that really helps put things into perspective, to not just know something because you’ve read it and been told it but to really experience it firsthand and see just how chancy the whole process is.
A side effect of that is that it’s also made me feel good about the choices that I’ve made since early 2020. When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t create anything. I couldn’t enjoy reading. It was like my entire writerly spirit had been drained from me. But I had just at the beginning of 2019 declared that I was going to pursue being a writer, and 2019 had been good to me. I didn’t want to lose that momentum, so I considered that from everything I could tell, success in being a writer depended on three things: talent, education, and platform. You couldn’t just be talented; talent plus is necessary.
So I decided to invest in those things as much as I could during that period of being unable to write, and now, nearly two years later, I believe it’s really paid off. I’m coming closer to the end of my studies through which I feel I’ve learned an incredible amount that I’ve been able to put back into my writing, and I have a platform that I can be proud of and might just be enough leverage that I could one day get a reasonable book deal. It’s good to have that positive to look to right now. The past two years haven’t only held tragedy; they’ve held good stuff, too, and it may just pay off someday.