How the Sausage Is Made – Part Three of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

In my last post I wrote about getting your work from submission to publication in O-Dark-Thirty/The Report. Now I’d like to share what happens to your work when it’s accepted for The Review, our quarterly print journal. It’s a bit more complicated than publishing your work online.

Because we read submissions (except for themed issues) year-round, we don’t have a particular period in which we’re looking for work that will be published in our regular print issues. As submissions come in, from time to time one will catch the eye of an editor: a distinct voice, a different or unique take on one of the typical themes of war literature, a story or poem that’s interesting but not about war, a piece that packs more than the average emotional punch without slipping into simplistic sentimentality, or something that otherwise surprises us in some way.

For fiction and poetry, the editors will give that one a “thumbs-up” in Submittable and reassign it to me with a note that says, “Accept for Review.” For nonfiction, Dario often prefers to work directly with a contributor on revisions to an essay; he sends me the final version when they’ve finished with it.

I track all the acceptances for The Review separately from those accepted for The Report. If one of the editors sends me a note to accept a piece that’s too similar to something else we’ve already accepted, or if we have enough material in that genre for the next issue, I’ll send a note back to him asking if he prefers to hold it for a future issue, publish it in The Report instead, or make a case for lengthening the number of pages of the print issue. (We have some flexibility with this, but generally we’re able to publish three or four short stories and essays and three to six poems in each issue.)

Our basic acceptance letter template for The Review says that we’ll publish it in “an upcoming” issue – without a commitment to a specific issue – because we don’t always know at the time we accept work which issue it will end up in. When the first deadline on our production calendar for the next print issue is coming up, about five or six weeks prior to the date we’d like to have the books in hand, I’ll send all the editors back a list of accepted work. That’s when we consider which pieces work well together and will go in the next issue, and which we’ll let the author know we plan to hold.

Some journals offer contributors a contract that must be signed before the acceptance is final. We don’t do that. We don’t have a lawyer on staff. We like to think that if you send us something you want us to publish it. And if we say we’re going to publish it, our word is our bond. As it says on our submissions page, we take first North American serial rights, which means that once it appears in print the rights revert back to the contributor.

Once I’ve sent the acceptance letter and logged the submission into my logbook – Submittable doesn’t allow me to separate work accepted for publication online from work accepted for print, so I list every submission we receive in a notebook – I copy the submission into a MS Word file and send it to our contributing editor, Carmelinda Blagg, for a first round of copyediting.

Carmelinda and I don’t argue much; I usually take her suggested changes with a cheery “Aye-aye, ma’am.” I suspect that she has large sections of the Chicago Manual of Style committed to memory. Sometimes we go back and forth over military terminology a few times, and occasionally we have to reach out to a soldier or Marine for help with land warfare terminology that we’re unfamiliar with. We both enjoy kibitzing over the finer points of grammar and style, and if we can’t agree, senior editor Jim Mathews makes the final decision.

When Carmelinda and I have both gone through all the accepted work for spelling, punctuation, and minor style/usage errors, I start building a master file. I add in the author bios to each piece and tack the interview onto the end. Jim and I take turns writing the Editor’s Note. When it’s his turn, I can always build it right into the master draft. If I’m writing it? I snivel to the production manager, Janis Albuquerque, and beg her to let me put it in last. I don’t feel comfortable writing an Editor’s Note until I’ve assembled the entire file and read through it at least once, but sometimes we run so close to our deadline that I want to get the master file to Janis so she can start the layout before I’m ready to write.

Janis takes our master draft and drops it into a template she built in InDesign, a layout program. She converts it to our preferred font and enlarges initial capitals after each section break; she adds a Table of Contents, the masthead, and the end pages that usually remain the same for each issue; and then she adjusts, page by page and line by line, to remove widows/orphans (single lines at the beginning or end of a page), excess hyphenation, and the bizarre things that InDesign sometimes does to paragraph indentations and em-dashes. She also suggests copyedits if she sees potential typos that we overlooked in the first two rounds of copyediting. To get the work looking exactly right on the page, she adjusts margins, the font size of a line, the “leading” (space between lines), or the “kerning” (space between letters) – sometimes just by a tenth of a point (a “point” in standard typeface is 0.353 millimeters). Those changes are invisible to the naked eye, but professional layout makes the business of reading more pleasurable for the reader. This is why, if you catch a typo that we missed in our copyediting after an issue has gone to print, we will almost never consider “fixing” it. It’s seldom a simple fix. Inserting a single character can change all these adjustments on every page that follows it – hours of work for Janis.

When Janis is done with the layout, which can take as much as a week for a seventy-page issue, she uploads it to Google Drive as a .pdf file – we call this the “galleys.” Carmelinda, Jim, and I each print a copy and go through it slowly, line by line. For some reason, the change in font and layout often highlights typos and other small problems that we missed the first time around. I’m not sure how long it takes Jim and Janis, but when I’m proofing the galleys I can only do about ten pages an hour at maximum – so six or seven man-hours for a typical issue.

I consolidate a list of our changes by page and line number and send it back to Janis, who makes the changes and uploads a new version of the document to Google Drive for us. At that point, we’re usually just checking the changes that we requested – hopefully we won’t see new errors that need fixed. If the original submissions were fairly clean copy, we can often stop after a second round of proofreading.

In the meantime, Janis is working with the cover art. Her husband Mike Fay, our art editor, makes the rounds of art shows that feature work by military and veteran artists, and often contacts the winners of juried competitions for permission to use their work on our covers. Janis takes a high-resolution image of the artwork and manipulates it to fit our standard 6” x 9” cover. Sometimes the image wraps onto the spine or the back cover, and sometimes it has to be cropped to fit just the front. She then chooses a color from the art that she thinks will work well as the O-Dark-Thirty banner on the cover. Sometimes she’ll send the editors two or three sample covers and ask us to choose a preferred color.

When we’re all satisfied that the issue is as good as we can possibly make it, Janis uploads it to a print-on-demand company. We’ve tried several, and have settled on Lulu as the easiest to work with. I review our list of subscribers, add it to twice the number of contributors, and then place an order for that number of copies plus a couple of dozen extras which we use to fill orders for extra copies and to sell at readings. Now that the books are delivered to my house instead of Ron’s, the FedEx guy and I are on a first-name basis! My husband rolls his eyes at the boxes, but dutifully breaks down the empties and hauls them to the recycling station. Ron orders some books separately for use at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence and our seminars.

I then run the mail-metering program, print out postage and labels, and sit in the living room floor with stacks of books and envelopes and enough adult beverages and old movies to get me through stuffing and sealing all the envelopes. The next day, after the hangover clears, I drop the boxes of filled orders at the post office and they’re on their way to readers.

In the final step, Janis creates a .pdf file of the issue that Ron mounts on the “The Review” page of the O-Dark-Thirty web site. Mounting the latest issue takes about thirty minutes.

Somehow, within a week or two of getting all the copies in the mail, we’re starting to discuss acceptances and artwork for the next issue. I can’t imagine producing a journal more frequently than once a quarter! But for every single member of our team, bringing your work to the public in print is a labor of love.

How the Sausage is Made, Part Two of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

So one of our editors has accepted your work for The Report. What does that mean, and why does it take so long for your accepted piece to appear there?

The Report is our online edition. It gives us more flexibility in accepting work – for example, let’s say that we’ve already accepted a personal essay on PTS or a humorous boot camp story for our next print issue, and someone else submits another well-written essay on the same theme that we would also like to publish. The two works are too similar to run together in the print issue, but having the online journal gives us the flexibility to publish both pieces. With the online journal, readers see each work individually: we could run two poems on aviation consecutively, or two sonnets on the sands of Helmand Province, but because the pieces are read individually instead of side-by-side, readers aren’t overwhelmed by an abundance of work with similar themes. They’re more likely to appreciate work posted in the online journal for itself, not for the way that it works with other contributions. Finally, I can post two or three times a week in the online journal (I like to let each contribution stand for at least 48 hours before posting new work). In one quarter, I can post almost four times the number of contributions that I can publish in print. The Report lets us get more of your work out to the reading public.

Once a submission is accepted for publication in The Report and I’ve sent your acceptance letter, I copy the submission into WordPress as a draft and then archive the submission in Submittable. If you included your third-person bio in your cover letter, I copy that in as well.

Unfortunately, depending on how your work is formatted (and I haven’t yet figured out what makes the difference but I suspect it has something to do with how you set up your paragraph indentation), the transfer from your word processing program to WordPress can scramble the format. I often have to put up the original submission side-by-side with the version in WordPress and manually insert paragraph breaks, delete extra lines that appear mysteriously out of nowhere, or re-italicize what you emphasized or your characters thought – and don’t even get me started on what the computer gremlins do to your em-dashes.

If you’re a poet, I have to put your submission up beside the WordPress draft and go through it line by line to make sure your original line breaks are intact. Be warned: WordPress is going to chew up your indentations, and then left-justify everything. So if you send me a poem about Swiss cheese that’s intended to look like a wedge with clever little holes you made using tab stops and missing words? When WordPress is done cooking it, it’s going to look like a bland, square slice of Velveeta. And it doesn’t give me much capability to put indentations back in. I try to let poets know about this when we accept work with indentations in it for The Report – with poetry, I assume (correctly or otherwise) that the poet has indented deliberately, for effect, even if I’m too ignorant about poetry to figure out what that effect is.

While I’m working through all the formatting issues after a transfer, I’m also lightly copyediting. We use the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam Webster dictionary, and we’ve also started our own style guide for issues unique to military writing that CMS doesn’t cover, or where we feel a deliberate violation of their guidelines is in order. If I catch a misspelling, a typo, or something you’ve written that doesn’t conform to our style guidelines – this happens most frequently with dialogue tags – I’ll change it. In poems, I only correct blatant typographical errors and misspellings; if something else seems to need a tweak, I contact the contributor for permission to make the change. If I can’t find the guidance I need in our style manuals, I’ll bounce questions off our associate editor Carmelinda Blagg (the goddess of hyphenation!) or our senior editor Jim Mathews – the only person in the entire world I allow to correct me about comma placement. Yes, I have comma issues.

Our editorial policy is that we will not make significant revisions that alter the meaning of your work, or your voice – we’re not going to clean up grammar errors in your characters’ dialogue, for example – but we will make minor copyedits to tidy up spelling and punctuation without discussion with the contributor. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do otherwise.

While we aim for accuracy, we’re human and don’t always catch every typo or format change. Another great aspect of an online journal is that if I post something and you see a typo that we missed in your published work, I can make a correction in under five minutes. Hint: the cleaner the copy you submit, the less likely it is that your work will be published with errors.

Prepping a contribution for posting in The Report can take me anywhere from ten minutes for a short poem, to two or three hours for a five thousand-word short story with lots of dialogue. If a contributor didn’t include a short, third-person bio, and doesn’t send one despite my e-mailed requests, I will sometimes try to write one myself from information submitted in the cover letter. So please include your third-person bio in the cover letter! It will make life easier for both of us. Take a look at work we’ve published if you’ve never written one before.

We publish accepted work in the order in which it was received, except in special cases involving a themed issue or holidays. So if I have a lot of already-accepted work in the posting queue at the time your work is accepted, it may be several weeks more before I can hit the “Publish” button on your story or poem.

Once we’ve published your contribution, we’ll always send you a short e-mail letting you know that your work is live on line. I then post the link on Facebook and on our Twitter feed. We love it when you share our Facebook posts with your friends and re-tweet our news about your work! So be sure to “Like” and “Follow” the Veterans Writing Project on Facebook – and don’t be shy about sharing your work when it’s published!

How the Sausage Is Made, Part One of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

I get a lot of questions from submitters about what’s happening to their manuscripts, especially if we’ve been backlogged and haven’t been able to respond in our ideal ninety-day window. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to your manuscript after you hit “Send” in Submittable.

Submittable takes the first step for us. It sends you a form e-mail to confirm that the submission is sitting in our queue, and you’ll see the status “Received” in your Submittable account.

Then, Plink! I get a notice in my e-mail inbox that there’s a new submission. I open Submittable and check the cover letter to make sure that the submitter is a veteran, is on active duty/in the Reserve or Guard, or is a family member. I also give the submission a quick scan to make sure that it meets our other guidelines – word length, maximum number of poems, not previously published, that sort of thing. If the contributor’s military affiliation is not clear from the cover letter, I send a quick e-mail requesting more information.

If the submission fails to meet other guidelines, I may send an e-mail requesting a change to the submission (please choose only three poems and withdraw the other six!) or, in the case of previously published work, declining the piece – that one’s not negotiable. In my experience, this is unique to O-Dark-Thirty: most literary journals simply reject submissions that don’t clearly meet guidelines – it helps keep the “slush pile” to a manageable level.

I only go into the Submittable queue once or twice a week, so the status of your submission may remain “Received” for a few days. As soon as I’ve opened it, you’ll see its status in Submittable change from “Received” to “In Progress.”

This is all you’ll see in Submittable until we’ve made an editorial decision, but things are happening to your work behind the scenes. When the submission clearly meets our guidelines, I assign it to one of our editors: fiction (Jim Mathews), nonfiction (Dario DiBattista), poetry (Fred Foote), or drama (Bryon Reiger). I may note that the writer has confirmed in a separate e-mail that his grandfather served in WWII, or that the writer has submitted work to us before. Although I usually read at least a page or two of the submission when it comes in – the whole thing, if the first page gets my attention and if I have time – I don’t offer the other editors an opinion on its suitability. It’s best if they come to your work fresh, with no preconceived notions about it.

Each of our editors has his own style for reviewing work. They all have day jobs, and they read your work at night, on their lunch hour, or on weekends and holidays. Fred Foote likes to look at poems in groups of ten or fifteen every few weeks (I always picture him spreading them out side-by-side along the back of a sofa for some reason, though he probably uses a desk or his kitchen table). Jim Mathews prefers to read smaller batches of submissions on weekends – I often get three or four responses from him on Sunday evenings. Dario has so many irons in so many fires that I have no idea how he finds time to read at all, but he not only reads – he likes to work with our contributors. When he accepts a submission, he often initiates a dialogue with the writer to fine-tune the essay; he’s one of those editors who seems to have a gift for understanding what a writer is trying to do, and for somehow making the work more of what it originally intended.

If Jim or Dario wants a second opinion on whether we can use a submission, or whether it’s a better fit for The Report or The Review, I’ll re-read it carefully and weigh in. (Fred knows better than to ask me what I think about poetry! Any discussion between us is me asking an elementary question and Fred making time to explain and teach. I don’t know much about poetry, but most of what I do know, I learned from Fred.) More often, I’ll get a notice from Submittable that one of the editors has reviewed a submission and reassigned it to me for further action. Editors can “vote” on a piece with a little thumbs-up/thumbs-down button: if we can use the submission, I’ll see the vote as a little green rectangle with a note attached indicating whether the editor thinks it would work best in a future print issue or in the online journal. If the editor has declined to publish a submission, the rectangle is red.

If the piece is a no-go, I send the dreaded rejection letter. Although it starts with a basic template we created in Submittable, and often that’s all we have time to send, the editors sometimes add personal comments that I can include. Often, if a piece isn’t right for us but the writing is good, we’ll ask for a different submission later. Very occasionally an editor will send specific feedback on the submission.

I always feel a little sad pushing the button to send rejection letters. They’re never personal, and they’re just a part of the business for everyone who writes and submits. But I’ve received dozens and dozens of them myself, and I know exactly what it feels like to open that e-mail. I always hope that the potential contributor won’t lose heart, and will keep honing his or her craft and submitting, so that one day I can send an acceptance.

Sending acceptance letters is much more enjoyable. I’ll talk about how we process accepted work in my next post.