This week I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Jerri Bell, who was kind enough to share some thoughts with us on the process of editing and how she got to this point. Jerri Bell served in the Navy from 1988-2008. Her fiction has been published in Stone Canoe; her nonfiction has been published in The Little Patuxent Review and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Quivering Pen and Maryland Humanities Council blogs; and both her fiction and nonfiction have won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual contests. She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.
JS: First off, I would like to say that I greatly enjoyed My First Cinderella Writing Moment published in The Quivering Pen blog, and would love to hear about what you are working on lately. Are you full time writing and editing? Does the editing ever leave you too exhausted to write your own material?
JB: Thanks for reading that essay! I hope you enjoyed The Quivering Pen, too. The reviews that David Abrams writes are responsible for more than a third of the books I’ve bought in the last year. I highly recommend subscribing!Right now I’m writing and editing, but both are part-time occupations. I’m retired with a military pension and my husband, who is supportive of my writing goals, still works full time; but I’m also the stay-home mom of two teenage boys, and I’m helping my mother, who is disabled, manage several serious health issues. Like most writers, I have to work writing and editing in around other, real-world time commitments.
Editing took my writing in a new direction, a direction that Mark Farrington suggested in the first workshop I took with him, but one that I wasn’t ready to pursue at that time. I was still on active duty when I started at Johns Hopkins in 2005, and I went into graduate school thinking that I could write the Great Navy Novel [cue hysterical laughter].
The protagonist in the chapters that I workshopped with Mark was a young enlisted man. Mark said that I needed to write from the perspective of a female sailor instead. At first I was offended – a writer should be able to write protagonists of either gender. But after some discussion with Mark, I understood that he meant something different. The themes that were coming out in my writing would be more immediate and emotionally resonant with a female protagonist. “I can’t write that,” I told Mark. “Women in the military don’t tell it like it is. If I do, it will just make things worse for other women in the service.” I got my commission two years before Tailhook, and we all watched Lieutenant Paula Coughlin get crucified in public and in private for speaking up. So I honestly believed that silence would prevent setbacks in gender integration in the military.
Fast-forward into the summer of 2013. Veterans Writing Program founder Ron Capps (also a JHU grad) and I were discussing the reasons that women veterans in our seminars don’t speak up or share their work like the men do. We see it all the time. Ron asked me why I thought it was happening, and challenged me to think about what I might do to make a difference in a seminar specifically for women veterans. I knew exactly why women weren’t speaking up, and I started noodling around with a seminar unit on risk-taking, women, and writing. About the same time, the press renewed coverage of military sexual trauma (MST) and I realized that women’s silence about discrimination and harassment translates to a kind of voluntary complicity. Keeping our mouths shut was professionally necessary when I was serving, but in the end we didn’t stop the behavior with our silence. We drove it further underground.
I also realized that I couldn’t teach women veterans about taking risks with their writing if I wasn’t willing to take risks with my own. In response to a contest sponsored by Words After War, I wrote an essay on having survived a violent sexual assault before I joined the Navy, and on what it was like to deal with the aftereffects when I was working with pilots in the pre-Tailhook era. The essay won the competition, and was later picked up for publication in the Summer 2014 issue of Little Patuxent Review. Now I’m going back to short fiction to revisit some of the themes I was afraid to explore through the eyes of a female protagonist. The first story should be ready for submission in a couple of weeks.
Editing energizes my writing in other ways. I didn’t graduate from Hopkins into an established community of writers: my classmates were all adult professionals, spread out all over Metro DC and the Baltimore area, and after grad school we melted back into our professional communities and established lives. Editing has brought me back into a writing community whose members share a common background and similar interests, and it keeps me focused on the importance of storytelling and the need to speak and to be heard. It also reminds me to slow down and make everything I submit as good as I possibly can, and to follow good submission etiquette (professional cover letters, matching the work to the publication, and proofreading to the best of my ability before I hit “send”).
Sometimes when we’re copyediting our quarterly print journal, I wish I could spend less time checking punctuation and usage and more time working on my stories! – but reading and writing are the warp and weft in the fabric of the writing life. None of the effort is wasted.
JS: I am glad the path has led you here – it sounds like a challenging one! Many of us fiction writers would love to become involved in literary journals in an editorial capacity. How did you find yourself involved with O-Dark-Thirty? Have you edited for other journals or fiction of any sort in the past?
JB: I’d heard before I graduated in 2009 that a fellow student veteran was planning to found a program for veteran writers, and I squirreled that information away somewhere in the back of my mind. One night almost four years later I found a short profile of the Veterans Writing Project, Ron Capps, and O-Dark-Thirty in Poets and Writers. I jumped out of bed, read the entire VWP web site, and then e-mailed Ron my writing bio and asked how I could get involved. He made me the managing editor for our online journal.
The only thing I’d edited before that was the local elementary school newsletter. I hope the teachers were sending nonfiction inputs! That editing job felt useful, but it didn’t invoke the same joy that I feel every time I hit the “accept” button in Submittable and tell another fellow veteran that we’re going to make him or her a published author. I’ve been lucky to work with three other editors, all military veterans and JHU graduates (Jim Mathews, fiction; Dario DiBattista, nonfiction; and Fred Foote, poetry) who have been generous with their time and patient with the million questions I’ve had to ask about O-Dark-Thirty’s standards and working with authors to learn the editing job.
JS: How would you advise other writers seek out such opportunities? Is there anything they should do to prepare themselves, such as study editing techniques, or is studying the craft of writing enough?
Studying the craft of writing is essential. Craft is the toolbox for both writers and editors. Before I got involved with O-Dark-Thirty, I’d been blogging about short stories as a way of studying craft and teaching myself to articulate what worked and didn’t work for me as a reader. Being able to articulate areas for improvement, especially in a constructive way, is an important skill for an editor to have. And an editor has to be a giver. An editor has to want to publish other people’s work, and be willing to help other writers do their best. It’s important to see oneself as part of a community of collaborators, not as another predator in the Sea of Publishing whose job is to keep the gate against one’s writing competitors. Sending rejections is unavoidable, but I find it helpful to focus on saying “yes” to as many writers as possible and encouraging the rest to keep working and submitting. I don’t want to be the kind of editor who grooves on voting other writers off the literary island, so to speak.
I’d advise other writers to read as many publications as they can in their area of interest – especially regional and small journals – and to network at writing conferences whenever possible. And keep writing and submitting! Getting something published or winning a contest tells a senior editor that you at least have some clue about the basics of submission and publication. Then, when you find a journal that publishes work you love, write to the senior editor and ask if they’d consider taking you on as a reader. Be willing to work for little or no money at first.
JS: Great! Let’s move on to how this all affects the writer. What would you say an editor looks for in the initial stages of submission, when searching for focus or content?
As managing editor, my first job is to screen for conformity with our submission guidelines. O-Dark-Thirty publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry only from a certain segment of the writing population. If the submitter hasn’t made their affiliation with the armed forces clear in the cover letter, I have to send an e-mail requesting clarification. At O-Dark-Thirty we aren’t going to reject out of hand a submission that’s a couple of hundred words over our limit, is not in Times New Roman 12, or is not perfectly punctuated. But the editors of many publications are going to make their first cut based on exactly those kinds of things.
I tend to be a “second reader” at ODT. If the title, the writer’s bio, or the first couple of lines catch my attention – or if we’ve already seen work from that writer before – I will probably give the submission a quick initial read. But I forward it on to the appropriate “adjudicating” editor without comment unless something in the cover letter needs clarification, the submitter has a history with us, or something in that quick scan has me excited as a reader. If a second opinion is needed, I’m happy to re-read and collaborate with the fiction and nonfiction editors. (I would be the last person to offer an opinion on a poem, though I’m getting better at understanding what Fred sees in the poems that he chooses for publication.)
When I’m reading to provide that second opinion, the first thing I’m looking for is an authentic voice. There’s a joke that all sea stories start with the phrase, “This is a no-shitter.” I want to hear that confidence, that tone that the writer first and foremost has a story worth telling, that the authorial voice has…authority. In our August issue, both Sylvia Bowersox (“This War Can’t Be All Bad”) and Greg White (“The Lead Weight”) nailed that tone, in my “reading ear.”
I’m open to almost any content. O-Dark-Thirty isn’t just a publication for military-themed work, though the majority of submissions we receive are in some way related to military service.
JS: How would you say this work in the initial stage differs from the final steps for publication? Does it differ? How much do you look at changing actual content in either stage, and how do you relate to a writer at the different stages?
JB: I’m never interested in changing content. If I ask a submitter to make changes, the changes have to be theirs and not mine. Otherwise, in my opinion, we’re asking the writer to violate the integrity of the work. I may ask him or her to focus more on some aspect of craft, to consider alternative structures, or to develop something in the writing more fully. But it’s not my job to tell the writer what to write. I hope that in reading both fiction and nonfiction, I’m able to see things in a manuscript that the writer might not have realized were there. Things that could make the story “more” of what it aims to be.
Occasionally, I ask for large changes. “The Lead Weight” was rewritten with excerpts from several chapters of Greg White’s memoir manuscript to make it publishable as a stand-alone piece. I couldn’t use any individual chapter by itself. Greg and I talked at great length about structure, conflict, image and especially theme. I didn’t want to change his wonderful voice, or his story: he’s a comedy writer for television, and he’s really funny. But the material he was dealing with carried weight well beyond his clever punch lines, and we worked together to bring that deeper meaning forward and to give it greater resonance as we developed the excerpt. I’m not sure that he fully realized the significance or potential impact of what he was writing until we started trying to decide what part of the memoir to publish.
I always reserve the right to change an author’s use of commas unless the usage is a key aspect of voice. I hate comma usage errors.
JS: Would this process differ for an editor of novels, in your opinion?
JB: Having neither edited nor published a novel or a book-length nonfiction manuscript, I’m not sure. I would think that it’s similar, but in a long work there would be so many more potential areas for enhancement. E. L. Doctorow describes writing a novel as driving across the country at night: you can only see as far as your headlights. An editor sitting down with a long manuscript would probably be reading for, among other things, the totality of the journey. So I suspect that the editor of a longer work would be very concerned with how cohesive the entire manuscript was, and would have to spend more time on pacing and continuity than an editor of short pieces.
JS: I can’t begin to understand how I would edit someone else’s novel. As a fiction writer, what do you think about editors? I ask because I still find them quite terrifying – they are the gatekeepers, in a way, or one of many gatekeepers. Do you worry about editors changing your material, or is it really more about smoothing it out.
JB: The editors of literary journals that have requested changes to my work have offered suggestions that made the manuscript better. I haven’t yet had one ask me to make a change that I couldn’t stomach. I’ll give you two examples below. The submissions were nonfiction, but I think I would feel the same way about fiction submissions if I had a good vibe from the editor.
Emily Rich at Little Patuxent Review saw immediately that when I wrote about the effect of surviving a violent sexual assault, I had barely mentioned the initial incident. She challenged me, in a kind and respectful way, to share as much as I felt comfortable sharing about it with readers. Her rationale was that knowing about the initial assault would make readers more invested in my story, give them a better understanding of the stakes, and give them more reason to care about my character and the aftermath of the assault. She was exactly right. The paragraph that I added may have been the most difficult paragraph I’ve ever written: it wasn’t easy to get naked literally and figuratively on the page, and to let readers right into my bed on a really bad night. But the impact on the story I was trying to tell was positive and immense. It was still my story after the change she suggested. It was even more my story, if that makes sense.
And the same is true for Amber Jensen, the editor I’m currently working with at The Journal of Military Experience. She knows how to make writing better without altering what’s important to a writer. We’re working together on an essay that I wasn’t happy with, but didn’t want to give up on. She saw immediately what was missing, but has given me the space to try to make the necessary changes in my own way. She isn’t dictating what I should write; she has just pointed out what I could do better and expressed confidence that I could do it. I’ve come to recognize that I can’t always see either the weaknesses or the strengths in what I’ve written, and I am deeply grateful to the editors whose vision exceeds and enhances mine.
JS: I am convinced, and will certainly look to editors for bringing my work to the next level. Well Jerri, this has been extremely helpful and I want to think you again for your time. On a last parting word, what do you see yourself doing in the near future? Any exciting projects of yours we should know about?
JB: I’m excited that the discussions Ron Capps and I had about a writing workshop just for women veterans have finally come to fruition. The Veterans Administration Medical Center in Washington, DC has a new Women’s Center that’s sponsoring the workshop, which is running from September to December. I very much enjoy helping other women veterans take risks and tell their stories – to whatever audience they please, in whatever way they please. I hope we’ll be able to continue offering the workshop, perhaps in additional locations. Our stories matter too, and it’s time for us to break the silence.
JS: I am happy to hear it and hope this interview spreads the word. Thank you again for your time and wisdom!
There you have it, readers and fellow writers. I hope Jerri has inspired you all to get into the truth of your stories and explore parts of your writing you may not have been comfortable with. I am happy to have learned more about the editing process, and look forward to future interviews.