Fixing the System: A Lit Mag Finds Compassion For its Contributors
A chat with Alexis Santi, Editor of Our Stories
Alexis E. Santi earned his MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Fiction. In 2005, he founded Our Stories because of his commitment to helping emerging writers find not only a home for their work but to legitimize the work of countless others who feel that their work would be otherwise ignored. His own creative writing has been published in Word Riot, In Posse Review, Dark Sky Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Cubista Magazine, Revista 22, and The Plum Ruby Review. In 2006 he was one of two Americans awarded a translation grant to live in a castle for three months. He has reviewed thousands of manuscripts since Our Stories was founded six years ago and written extensively on his unique perspective of being a writer and editor of a literary journal with a unique humanistic mission. [EDITOR’S NOTE: While Our Stories appears to have been on hiatus for several years, Santi is a practicing mental health therapist and coach in the Ithaca, NY, area.
By Priyatam Mudivarti
Is it true that you started Our Stories while you were still in your MFA? Tell us how your story became Our Stories.
After reading for two semesters at Phoebe, the big dawg literary journal at George Mason I’d had enough. For the most part, reading for a graduate journal is devoid of humanity, probably at most other journals as well. You are no better than a machine saying "maybe" or "no" to manuscripts. The undergraduate journals at least are looking to publish friends and such, which show compassion. So I was good at reading, could spot easily if the story was an early draft or it wasn’t going anywhere and they gave me more and more to read. You know, how can you not be good at finding a few big mistakes in a manuscript in the first few pages and then saying, “that’s all I need to reject." Reading and saying nothing is easy, it’s reading and articulating ways to improve a story that takes skill.
Then the other journal on campus, So To Speak asked me to read for them too, so I said yes, thinking it might feel different. It didn’t. I felt the same and I was pretty dissatisfied. It didn’t seem to matter how much I read or if I found one story that got close to being perfect, every single story I read was either rejected by me or rejected in the next round of reading. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts.
I also noticed that lots and lots of the writers were not MFA-smarty-pants like I was. Many were lawyers, teachers and the like and I knew that what their worlds most likely did not include the sort of story analysis that I'd encountered in the MFA. The cover letters that they wrote were so kind, so wonderfully quaint that it struck me as such a divide between what I had been experiencing as the cutthroat world of sending out stories. I had seen the calculating and cold aspect of getting your material out and it felt wrong. Those writers were doing so for the pure love of it and I was doing it for the career of it. So that struck me deeply though I still didn't connect that professionally as to what was wrong about the field itself.
Then one day I came across what I call the cat story. I wrote an entire essay about it a few years ago, but in brief: I read a story that had a dead cat in it and I loved it. It was funny, had great voice and started with this amazing scene of this guy burying his girlfriend's dead cat in a field north of Chicago. The trouble is, it was flawed. The ending was botched. I begged the editor to let us communicate with the author, to do anything. In the end, I don't know what happened to that story; I think he probably just rejected it. I wish we could've communicated or something. At that point what was wrong was beginning to crystalize in my mind: to find “the” perfect story was a sort of needle in a haystack Quijote quest that left everyone who participated in the system devoid of humanity.
It’s my dream that the writer of the cat story finds our journal and sends me the story so I can publish it. Really.
I should also add that somewhere in this time frame I had made the mistake of sending $20 to Narrative Magazine for their “reading fee” and months and months had passed by and finally I queried them and they wrote back immediately and said the piece was rejected. It was that easy for them—take the money and send an email in return with a big middle finger. Devoid of humanity.
Well, a few days after the cat story incident, coming home from class I went to my mailbox and saw that some of my own manila envelopes had come back. I went to my desk, opened up one of the letters and saw I was rejected, all the while on the other side of the desk sat all the stories I was about to read. The whole thing looked pointless. No comments or smiley faces or nuttin’ on my SASES, just cold rejections. That was the final straw, the system was flawed and I saw no point in believing that it made sense or participating in continuing to support it. I remember rushing around the house really excited and sort of ranting that I’d do something about it. I knew that I had to found a journal based around feedback. If I could match up readers who knew how to articulate what was wrong with a story with those who needed at minimum some paragraphs of feedback, I’d be creating a more humane system.
I bought a website address, taught myself how to use Dreamweaver and that was that. Our Stories was born more or less in the Summer of 2006.
On your website, you say, Don’t just submit. Learn to receive. Is this true for all your submissions or only contest entries?
We give feedback to 100% of the submissions that we receive, we always have and we always will. We have two different types of feedback, general one to two paragraph feedback and page-by-page feedback and thus two price points. We have year-round contests, the Gordon Award (flash fiction contest), the Emerging Writer Award, Generation XYZ Contest and the Richard Bausch contest.
What are the top three things you look for in a story? Is it a great voice? A great beginning? A great story? Economy? Author bio?
That’s a hard thing to pinpoint but I’m always looking for great stories, period. There’s no formula. I don’t really have a particular aesthetic that I’m looking for. Ana Menendez taught me in a workshop years ago that every short story must be critiqued by the aesthetic that it comes from. I believe I’ve read to such an extent that I “get” what authors are doing—so that’s important. I’ve heard feedback from individuals trying to turn a PoMo story into something gothic or whatever. That’s not cool and pretty useless.
In general, I’m always looking for Meaning, Sense and Clarity in every story. This is Frank Conroy’s advice from his book Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls. I sort of take this another way or expand on Conroy’s brilliant essay. In brief, the story has to stand for something, it needs to have “meaning” to it, it has to redefine my world in some sort of way. Further, the language must have meaning, the words must point us towards an understanding.
Second, it needs to have “sense” or senses, smells, touch, taste, sound—these are the universal qualities that allow one human being to connect to another human being through communication. Some also take this farther and call this the elements of crafting a scene, because how can you create an imagery of a man standing in the middle of a field in the spring and really nail it unless you give us the senses all around him. I believe it is also what Gardner was getting at when he discussed the waking dream on a more dogmatic level. This is deftly important for a short story writer to understand.
Finally, I’m looking for clarity, is the story presented not only grammatically correct or in some sort of standardized English format but is the story coherent and easy to follow.
What are the three common reasons you and your staff reject a story?
The first reason a story is rejected and I’d say this is the problem with 60-70% of the stories we receive is that it doesn’t go anywhere fast enough. Part of the difficulty of being an emerging writer is that we don’t quite understand how to write for an audience. The most obvious way of creating this effect in the reader is tension, a short story needs to jar the reader's senses. If this is the first line of your story, “Oh yeah, well I told you that last week, Lorraine!” compare that with, “Michael picked up his coffee cup and then sat it back down. He wiped the crumbs away from the breakfast table and then looked out the window. He thought that Tuesday would be different...." Blah blah blah, get what I’m saying?
The story has to move. Who cares about the crumbs and such, I mean those are all nice sentences (thank you very much) but what are they aiming at? The first line doesn’t have to drop any bombs on the reader but by the second page the war is lost if you’re not pushing hard.
I believe some are granted a sort of understanding of this from an early age, maybe they were the youngest child in their family and they were good at getting the attention of all their brother’s and sisters or something at the dinner table. “Mommy, I have a story that I want to tell!” you betcha after getting smacked by your brothers and sisters 10 times that the kid was going to tell the story a bit better the 11th time around. Get to the point. An emerging writer needs to think about the fact that we have hundreds of manuscripts to get through, what is going to make your story stand out? Show me.
Second, I believe there’s at least 10-20 percent of the stories that are flawed somehow logically. Either the author does not seem to grasp the concept of what a short story should “do” or the material isn’t fleshed out to an extent that anything pops out, or there’s no tension in the story or it is actually, well, logically flawed, period. What I mean by this latter point is an example I used a few months ago in a class: you have a character that is suicidal but you decided to tell the story in the past tense. You would have to write to such a level that every detail of this period of their depression/suicide days would be fascinating. For 95% of the population that is going to be next to impossible.
Third, I think we reject another chunk of people because their material doesn’t really “mean” anything. Personally, I need something more than just a story, but referring back to question earlier. I want the piece to stand for something, anything. This doesn’t mean it has to be political and such but it needs to grab me somehow. Richard Bausch always used to say, “You’re never going to get rejected because someone says, ‘damn this is too interesting to accept’.”
If you look at all those reasons they are all aberrations of the number one reason though, that’s what is so important to consider: don’t waste time, people. Every paragraph of your story has to be doing something. The short story is a damn war, period. You have no time to waste, do not dally around, pick daises and such and let us follow along with you. We are brutal readers, every journal is.
Has there been a time when one of your staff members rooted for a story but you had to let go? If yes, why?
You know, I really don’t think so. If one of my staff members tells me that they feel strongly about a story then I basically don’t question that. I think the world of my staff, they are some of the most incredible editors and writers that I’ve met so far in this life.
What is the best advice you ever gave to a writer in your contest entries who probably missed by -- say, a minor craft issue?
That is hard to say because I feel that the feedback I send to others lands in a vacuum to a certain extent. For the most part I have no idea how my feedback is received by a writer. I can tell you I am always aiming for the question: what would you do in another draft to improve this story? And that there has only been one time that someone has complained about our feedback and that’s because I felt a little squeamish about giving feedback to a highly erotic short story about a guy who was filming a gonzo porn and the story started off shaving his scrotum. Seriously. The guy got sort of pissed off at me because I didn’t want to review it. He said we weren’t living up to our code. He was right in a way and I was embarrassed. I’ve felt bad about that for a while as this happened four years ago. When he complained, I apologized and I gave him a page-by-page review of the story for free. I never heard back from him. Damn, I hope he has a whole collection of stories published somewhere; I could tell he was good.
There is one time that sticks out though because it happened recently. A writer who had been runner up at a lot of contests and such, honorable mentions and the lot, sent us three stories. All of her stories were very long and yet they were all extremely well done. I even remember what two of them were about: one was a road trip after the protagonist's best friend died, another about the Internet boom.
Anyway, all of her stories just seemed to go about 7 pages too long. Without fail. It was like she didn’t know when to stop-- some of the coolest places to stop she decided she’d write another 2-4000 words. So when I told her this she wrote back immediately and profusely thanked me we had a great exchange. She’d never heard this feedback from anyone and she totally got it. She was excited, I know it made a difference.
One of the very cool things about OS is that we are actually often “thanked” when we reject someone. Many also let us know that based on our suggestions they’ve published in other journals after taking our advice. It’s a different level of communication and it’s a healthy humanistic process. Our writers (and I consider anyone who submits to OS one of “our writers”) continue to submit their stories to us over and over again. We’re a sticky literary journal because people know we give a damn about their work.
On an average, what is the length of a story you publish? 2000, 4000, or 6000 words? Do you have a preference of one over the other?
I have no real clue, again there’s no formula. I love stories of all lengths. We’ve only published one story that was over 6000 words, that was Lyn LeJeune’s masterful short story. I believe it takes a special sort of skill to keep the tension and beauty of story past say 6,000 words. It can be done, it’s just rare. Most of my own work tends to get into the 6-8K range and I have to be brutal cutting things back. Right now our guidelines say under 6K is okay, I can live with that.
One more thing though-- many journals tend to want to keep their pieces shorter because they claim that online people don’t stick around long enough to read a whole story. This is sort of bunk. If you study your site analytics on a website like ours (and I have) you’ll see no one is staying long enough to read an entire short story. Not a 1,000 word story, not a 9,000 word short story. I believe the literary journal online or otherwise exist for the most part for the writer of the story, period. To create a virtual space where the work can be hosted and appreciated, their picture should look good, their bio professional and their story in an easy to read format—the online journal, the literary journal is a billboard for their talent. It is my hope that the story will have an impact to an extent on the population that reads stories but, to me, it is a secondary goal.
You started one-one online workshops in 2007. Today, you offer a plethora of standard and customized online and regional workshops. Tell us about the feedback you’ve received so far and your plans for your unique offering.
We started offering workshops because we noticed people kept sending us the same story to multiple contests. They knew that they would get a review and wanted us to see another draft. Some writers were even specifically requesting a staff member to read the next draft, which I knew we couldn’t let start happening. The idea that someone would request a staff member seemed to run contrary to contest world where you’re sending everything blind. So the natural extension was to give writers access to our editors to work on multiple drafts of their pieces. So our bread and butter is the “standard workshop” you get three drafts of three stories. We then send back a track-changed copy of your story with overall comments.
The feedback has been great! People love it; it’s the sort of mentor relationship that certainly I always wanted in my MFA program. I mean, I certainly understand why my professors couldn’t track-change an entire copy of my manuscript and give me feedback this precise. But I do think that we should be asking of that much from our writing programs.
We’re now expanding the workshops, offering novel workshops, MFA prep workshops and a host of other sorts. It’s catching on and it’s a nice sustainable way for me to support the journal and the staff. Each staff member gets 75% of the net on these workshops. It’s not like I’m paying off my condo in Ibiza or anything, a number of points goes to PayPal for the transaction (>>raise your fist to those guys in frustration<<) and the rest goes towards sustaining the journal.
How do you ensure quality of your workshops? Are there any processes or guidelines that your staff adheres to?
The question could be asked of the contests as well since all the staff reads and reviews the work. So the answer is that I personally vet each staff member and make sure that they know how to review manuscripts. I “test” them using stories that I’ve reviewed, remove the author’s name and don’t tell them anything. They send me back a track-changed copy of the manuscript and we take it from there.
Key to our staff work ethic is that every staff member must give a direction as to how to approach a next draft. It’s not enough to say the bad or the good—I want my staff members to have an eye for direction. In addition, no one can harm a draft. I don’t need staff members who are out to prove how smart they are. I check the feedback regularly of staff members and ensure that the proper reviews are going out. Finally, I listen to the writers out there. In all the years running Our Stories, the feedback that we’ve gotten has been nothing but positive. People dig it, what can I say.
Having gone through thousands of submissions over the years, what are the qualities in a story that makes you believe it is “worthy of publication.”
Another good question. In truth, I don’t know and I don’t know if it matters across the board. The selection of short stories for publication is a highly subjective process and it varies from journal to journal. There have been pieces that I submitted to a journal, the same short story, the same place and on two different occasions received a rejection and then an acceptance—without editing the draft.
I could tell you things, such as, the stories need to be audacious and hungry, or they need to be powerful in language. I could go back to the meaning, sense and clarity that I mentioned earlier but in the end “worthy of publication” is sort of enigmatic to me. We know as writers that a story that is worthy of publication one place is not somewhere else—you find that out very quickly in this biz.
At Our Stories, I am sort of less interested in the publication than I am in the stories that are rejected. I mean this, while the stories that we publish are the pieces of grace that we get to celebrate I want to celebrate and honor in some personal way every story that we receive. This not only honors the writer but I believe it honors my staff by having their work in editing and communicating their insights properly to a writer.
Further, it honors my role as editor in chief because I pay my staff a fair wage for reading these stories and I am not exploiting their labor. I am more interested in creating a holistic system than trying to compete with the big money prizes and trying to purchase a TC Boyle story from him.
This to me makes sense, however, let me give you an example as to how it works somewhere else. I spoke to a friend of mine who runs a very large journal—you’ve heard of this journal and you’re going to have to trust me, it’s big. Well they told me the other day they received around 2500 stories for their fiction prize. 2500!! Can you believe it! In the end they publish three, four of those stories. That’s it. What’s the math on that… okay, 10% would mean that is 250 stories, right? And 1% would be 25 stories, so we’re talking then .1 would be 2.5 stories. So then, yeah, it’s .25% something is your shot at winning. I mean, it’s a competition though based on merit and all but it’s still a bad bet if you were gambling.
I have always been more concerned with the other 99.75% of manuscripts out there that fill the spectrum between “finalists that just missed” and “need of revision”. This is the ever-changing, hyper subjective and selective spectrum of stories that fall below the bar of quarterly grace that an editor chooses; I have been trying to get my arms around since founding OS. To me, not only does concentrating on helping others seem the much more humane system but it allows us to celebrate thousands more.
Bob has two short stories that he believes are in draft 2. Should he take a workshop with Ourstories, or wait until he writes a few revisions?
That’s a tough one. I think that’s really up to Bob and how he feels about the story. However, I’d say that he should sit on the story for a few drafts and then come to us if he wants to work on it intensely. I tell everyone who signs up with us to go through their stories for a workshop as many times as they can, till their eyes bleed and such so that they can let it go into the a workshop and not have a bunch of parts of the story that are like bloody limbs.
Susan is an emerging writer. She writes short stories after putting her kids to sleep at night and shares it with her friends in the neighborhood book club. She wants to be a better writer. What is your advice to her -- Workshops? Craft Talks? Writer’s conferences? MFA? Or -- read more?
I think Susan should send us her short stories to a contest first, that would be a good start; we’d give her some honest feedback.
Tell us about other literary magazines you read and admire.
I can tell you that I do not respect any literary magazine that fails to give their writers/audience anything in return to their cold hard cash. Those journals that run pure ponzi schemes—we’re watching you.
As far as the brilliant journals run by brilliant staffs—I dig what others dig and respect what others respect. The quality of putting out a beautiful journal and all is something I admire but it only takes me so far. I do not read other literary journals religiously. Here and there, and such, not only because I’m too busy reading and giving feedback on Our Stories but because Richard Bausch told me a long time ago not to pay attention to the magazines and such, we should all be looking for guidance in the past greats.
Lastly, any advice for TheReviewReview and our role in bridging the void between writers and literary journals?
The entire system could use a damn kick in the ass. If the standards of quality were allowed to be questioned for one damn moment instead of trying to determine whether one editorial board had better taste in literature than another in some sort of race to attract the best writers and ignore the most, or worse, to judge one journal versus another based on aesthetic qualities (what did we all learn about judging books by the cover?) and we stopped for a moment and questioned the system. Just stopped. Cold hard stare and looked at the whole system. Took some deep breaths. Just rationally looked at the system and said out loud, “what the hell is the point of all this?” We’d actually discover that the end goals of writers and editors are one in the same.
No, we’re not all looking to get famous. No, our own journals' power and budget isn’t all that important. Hell, how many non-writers really know what the damn Paris Review is anyway? We all should be supporting the goal of a literate and influential cultural role on the populace. That’s the damn point of all this people. We’re trying to get people to read.
When Jewel has the top-selling book of poetry and Snooki from Jersey Shore the top selling memoir, and the top selling book of Fiction is written by James Frey you’d think someone would start shouting in the damn streets who has a PhD or teaches in an MFA program. The literary journal should be the breeding grounds for the next wave. There are too many unemployed MFAs toiling away at dead end jobs trying to get their shit together to ignore the fact that literary magazines in a digital age should be hiring people in droves to do something as radically different as what we’re doing at Our Stories.
Maybe if we could critique the system accurately for a moment. Maybe even laugh about it and come up with something else to judge all of these journals by, we’d get somewhere. Maybe, just maybe some other people might also want to create a humanistic system like Our Stories that gave their writers feedback. Wouldn’t that be something? A whole slew of literary journals competing to give the best feedback to their writers? Really totally talented uber-wonderful editorial boards who support the arts, believe in the arts and believe that the written word is important in that world?
That’s what I want more than anything, more than the big name interviews and the winning short stories. I want someone to steal this idea and replicate it and I will hold them up as family. And here’s why-- when we start treating the reading public who don’t all have damn masters degrees in this stuff with some respect, then we will be bridging not only the divide between reader and journal but we might be able to effect some damn culture around here.
On behalf of TheReviewReview, thank you, Alexis.
Thanks Priyatam, I am touched that you have given Our Stories opportunity. Thank you.
Priyatam Mudivarti writes fiction at late nights, writes complex software code during the day as a freelance software engineer, and documents people's lives taking time-off as a traveling documentary photographer. He has earned his bachelors in Computer Science Engineering and is currently pursing MFA from Pacific University. He is working on a collection of interlinked short stories and a novella, Yuti, set in India. He lives in Cambridge.