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Kirsten Reach, founder of Jonquil Editorial and former Kenyon Review fiction editor and Melville House book editor, critiques opening pages from Ohio prose writers. Her feedback surrounds the importance of starting in the right place, writing dialogue that moves the story forward, and creating a clear and immediate sense of the world from the very first page. This episode also covers literary magazine submission tips, the best time to hire a freelance editor, the joys of cake and gossip, and more. With special thanks to the three writers who shared their work: S. Elizabeth Sigler, Suzanne Ondrus, and JB Bergin.
In this episode:
- Kenyon Review
- Melville House Books
- Jonquil Editorial
- Michigan Quarterly Review
- The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato
- The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern by Rita Zoey Chin
- Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger
- Elena Sheppard
- Ilya Kaminski
- Burkina Faso
- Emerald Necklace
- Sphynx by Anne Garréta
- Poets & Writers (The article referenced is “Game Changers: Literary Magazines as the Gateway to Your Career” and will appear in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue.)
Laura Maylene Walter (00:00): I always love a party scene, so... Kirsten Reach (00:01): Me too. More cake! <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (00:03): More cake. That's our takeaway. Laura Maylene Walter (00:09): Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, book sellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. We're speaking with Kirsten Reach, who has worked as a book editor at Melville House, Grand Central Publishing, and Henry Holt & Company. She also spent six years with the Kenyon Review, first as an Associate Editor before becoming the Fiction Editor and Director of Social Media. She is the founder of Jonquil Editorial where she helps writers prepare their work for publication. She's here today to share her insight as an editor and to offer her feedback on the first pages from three Ohio writers. Kirsten, welcome to the podcast, and thanks so much for being here. Kirsten Reach (01:01): Thank you so much for having me. I'm so glad to see you. Laura Maylene Walter (01:04): Well, first things first, tell us about your Ohio connection. So where are you from and where have you ended up? Kirsten Reach (01:10): I was born in New York City, but I moved to Ohio when I was about nine years old. I went to college at Kenyon and then I moved back to New York City for about eight years and then back here to Ohio to work for the Kenyon Review. Laura Maylene Walter (01:22): Ah, the New York to Ohio to New York to Ohio pipeline. I feel like <laugh>, I've talked to several people who've been on that track. Full disclosure for our listeners, I know you through the Kenyon Review. You were my blog editor for years when I wrote for the Kenyon Review blog, which is such a fun experience, and I also had a few stories in the magazine as well. But why don't we start by talking about the Kenyon Review. It's such a fantastic publication. I'm sure many of our listeners have either read the Kenyon Review or have submitted to the Kenyon Review. It has a long history, very prestigious journal. So tell us about your time at the Kenyon Review as a fiction editor, what did you take away from that experience? Kirsten Reach (01:57): I had worked as a book editor in debut fiction and a lot of work in translation or taking a lot of risks, you know, things that are between genres or a little bit out there, which I loved about small press publishing. And when you're working at a magazine, you don't have to worry about sales numbers, you can really focus on the voice of the writer. And so it was a really fun place to a few times a year published the first story of an author had ever published, getting to nominate them for prizes and often seeing them go on to create books out of the worlds that they were creating in the pages that we first got to read. And I was thinking today that I met you through your work before I ever met you, Laura, cause I got to read the virginity selling story. Laura Maylene Walter (02:34): Oh, "The Virginity Auction"? Kirsten Reach (02:35): That we lost to Michigan Quarterly Review. Laura Maylene Walter (02:38): <laugh>. Oh, I actually don't know if I knew that story was under consideration seriously, at the Kenyon Review. Kirsten Reach (02:44): <laugh>, It's okay. I think you wrote us back right away when we tried to accept it. I mean it had just been taken, you were in demand, but you told us another story that we loved and we ended up publishing you in KRO as well. But I remember so vividly from your pitch letter that you talked about writing about literary taboos and so we knew from looking at your work that this was something you were exploring, a theme that you were really interested in and that you had really done your homework in terms of nuance and in terms of research. And I've encouraged a lot of other writers to think about that when they're pitching their work to magazines because showing that you've done your homework is so important and being able to see this as one piece of the larger picture of what you want to do, it feels significant to editors and its nice context going forward. Laura Maylene Walter (03:24): Well thank you so much for those kind words. I really appreciate it. Kenyon Review published one of my stories in the print journal and one online. I think they were both taboo stories. I appreciate that about the Kenyon Review, that the Kenyon Review does take risks and you can appreciate writers who might be working in a certain vein, a certain following, a certain passion. I've noticed that by reading the Kenyon Review over the years, so I think that's fantastic. For writers who do submit to the Kenyon Review because this for so many writers is a dream journal to get published in, I can attest to that. But if you had to offer maybe top two or three pieces of advice to writers who are sending their work into the Kenyon Review, what would that advice be? Kirsten Reach (04:03): Our most common edits are at the end of the story. So give us a really great starting place. You can start us in the middle of the action or introduce the conflict as early as possible so we feel really invested. And it's okay if this turns out to be a piece of a larger project or that the ending changes in revision are working with the editor. A lot of us like to give that kind of feedback of the last sentence appearing in the second to last paragraph or something like that. I'd also say, if you've never been published before, tell us cause we're excited to discover new writers. That's something that you can put in your cover letter but don't feel embarrassed about it. That's okay. And third, yeah, if it's part of something that you're doing a deep dive in, I just want to know that in the cover letter as well. If this is a small piece of bunch of linked stories that you've been shopping around or if this is the beginning of something that maybe is based on family letters or is based on an experience that you had, I'd love to hear what that publicity hook could look like if we were doing an interview with you in the future. So I think this would be my three pieces of advice. Laura Maylene Walter (04:59): No, that's really great advice and I hope any aspiring writers listening to this who maybe haven't published yet, I hope you take encouragement from this listeners because it is true. Editors love to discover new voices. So even if you don't have prior publications, that doesn't mean a journal like the Kenyon Review is out of your reach. This is on my mind right now because I interviewed some editors for a Poets and Writers article that will come out this winter about literary magazine publishing and really that was a theme of editors saying, we love to discover new writers. It's the joy of being an editor. So there's a lot of hope out there for writers who maybe haven't published yet even. So definitely I agree, tell the editor, if you haven't been published before. Onto book editing, so you have worked as a book editor. What can you share from your time, say, at Melville House where you were acquiring books and editing books? Can you maybe walk us through your day as a book editor? What was that like for you? How did projects come to you and how did you work with writers? Kirsten Reach (05:56): I did a lot, lot of soliciting writers who are publishing in small magazines overlap here in my career. But I'd read a great short story online or in a magazine and I would reach out to that author to see if they had anything else they were working on right now or if this might be a piece of something larger. And in many cases we were in touch for a year or three years before there was a book. I started those relationships early. I also met with agents, especially those who were interested in working with small publishers, obviously we're offering on a lower level than at the big houses, great space to start out, or if you're doing experimental writing, which I published a lot of. So just hearing what is coming up, what's coming down the pipeline, what we can be considering. We'd probably get maybe eight books a day in my inbox to read and discuss. Kirsten Reach (06:37): And once a week we met for editorial meetings where we would pitch the highlights from our reading selections to the rest of the company. I also got to work with all the different branches of the publishers. So I would meet with the Art Director so we could start talking about cover ideas. I would meet with the publicist so I could say this originated as an idea based on a public transit system in this specific city and here are some points that the author would really love to talk about. Maybe we could pitch in that specific city where maybe we could do a campaign with marketing. In some cases we printed fanzines based on the pop star in Catie Disabato's novel, and we printed them on bright orange paper and distributed them at record stores around the city. We also worked with the Random House sales team at Melville House. Kirsten Reach (07:19): So I would go up to Random House and I would pitch a room full of sales people on the books that we were putting out. So in some cases I was buying rights from the UK. I did a book called Ada's Algorithm by James Essinger where it was on the original formula that Ada Lovelace had come up with. And she's sometimes called the first female programmer and she's not technically the first female programmer, but she is a really important foundation. So I would tell them how the campaign had gone in the UK and what ideas we could pluck from there and pitch them on the idea. And for instance, I reached out to Girls Who Code, the founder of that, and she blurbed the book. But we also were able to do events tied in with Girls Who Code around that book. So just thinking of the book holistically in terms of where it can land in many different sites of the market. You know, 10% of the nation by most of our books. So that is our market for the most part. If there is overlap with another interest or another field, it's a really good time to capitalize on that. It's a nice thing to emphasize. And of course I'm working with authors on the books, so I was doing about 14 books a year, so I was having regular phone conversations and email conversations with them as we went through a few stages of revisions before the book was published. Laura Maylene Walter (08:26): Yeah, the business side of publishing is so extensive and goes so far beyond the editorial side, which is what most writers are understandably focused on. And it is just a business where the people who work there like you are just so passionate about books. I have so much respect for editors. I know they are worked so hard and they have so much to read and writers who end up with an editor with a good eye like you are really, really lucky for sure. So now you are a freelance editor. Can you talk about that work a bit? What kind of writers and what kind of projects tend to come your way and what are you generally helping people with? Kirsten Reach (09:03): I've been pleasantly surprised by how creative this has been, feels like doing publishing without going to so many meetings <laugh>. So I get to do the creative side of helping them to improve their project often before they're pitching it to agents. But in some cases I'm working with publishers directly to improve the project when they need a very present person to talk things through with the author and improve the manuscript before publication. I have done a mix of fiction and nonfiction. I would say there are a lot of strong female voices on the list that I'm building right now. Zoey Rita Chen's novel. I know you and I have talked about The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern is coming out with Melville House. That's a work of fiction about an outsider, a real weirdo who connects with her downstairs neighbor who has left her ashes to spread all around the country and leaves her messages at post offices around the country. So she travels and learns more and more about her mother who has disappeared ,through the stranger's letters and learned a lot about herself along the journey. It's a really weird witchy novel that I loved to pieces. Laura Maylene Walter (10:00): It sounds amazing. Kirsten Reach (10:01): I've worked with some other, for instance, non-fiction. Elena Sheppard just sold to St. Martin's Press and she's writing about several generations in her family moving from Cuba to the states. And so we worked on the different women in her family and strengthening each section to center around one of them and one of their experiences. It's a really, really beautiful book and I'm excited that she found a good home for it. I worked with Ilya Kaminsky last year on his book about the Ukraine, which I know will find a good home. I think it's a hard time to revise that one because so much is happening over there, but very much about the loss of his parents and the reading that he does afterward. But in many stages I'm helping with fact checking. I remembered catching the post office hours in part of Zoey's manuscript. You know, it was like Alaska's post office wasn't open at the time that it was in the novel. You know, they're just funny details that you helped to work out, but also just thinking big picture about where the focus is lying, where the conflict is, what sections can be trimmed so that the manuscript can really shine. Laura Maylene Walter (10:59): In the past I, not to the extent that you have worked as an editor, but I have done freelance manuscript consultations. So I've worked with a lot of writers who might have a book length the manuscript and they need someone with a good eye to read it and offer feedback. And a question I get more generally when I teach writing is a writer who does not have a book deal or anything like that, they want to know when or if they should hire an editor to work with them on their book. So I'm curious your take on that, when do you think it's beneficial for a writer, maybe they're not agented either, to hire someone to look at their work? Kirsten Reach (11:32): It's a really good question and it's different for everybody. I remember listening to conversation on this podcast with Devon where you talked about publishing as a puzzle. And I think when you're stuck in the puzzle and you haven't figured your way out, that is the time to consider a freelance editor. So for instance, I'm working with someone on an environmentalist book right now where he has a whole manuscript and I said, let's just concentrate on creating the proposal because you could sell this to different markets depending on where you want this book to land. So let's figure out what the proposal looks like and which editor feels right to you in which direction you're most excited to go with it. If you want it to be a business book, if you want it to be just for the environmental market, if you want it to be this very general interest book for people trying to make smarter choices in their daily lives. Kirsten Reach (12:11): So in that case, I'm helping him come up with his favorite pages that are the best reflection of the manuscript. And then starting to talk about comparison titles and a little background on his professional history and how it feeds into the book for another writer. She's been working for 10 years in her manuscript and she's gotten a lot of feedback at different writing retreats and groups, but she felt like she needed to get it to the next level and wasn't ready to send it to a publisher until she felt like the manuscript was right. And I think that's a good time to work with a freelance editor. In some cases, writers are tempted to hire a freelance editor because they feel like they're gonna sell the book if they hire a freelance editor. And I don't think that's always true, and I'll be upfront about that if I don't have a creative idea to contribute or a deeper understanding of where they can go with the manuscript at that stage. In some cases, they're just looking for a yes from an agent at that moment. And I can't give them a yes from an agent, but I can help them make it the best book that they know how to make it and I can give them fresh eyes when they've revised so many times they don't know which direction to turn. Laura Maylene Walter (13:09): Yeah, I think that is so useful and I see your cat in the background, by the way, which is nice. <laugh>. Yeah, I think publishing, trying to get an agent or get a traditional book deal is not a problem you can throw money at. And so I've definitely had conversations with writers saying, you know, my advice is try to take it as far as you can on your own or through critique partners. There's so much you can do without paying, but for certain writers in certain situations it is incredibly helpful at a certain point to say, Okay, I want to hire someone who is a professional, who knows the industry, who knows my genre, who can really dig in there and help me take it to the next level. I've had friends who have worked on books for years and then after paying for one freelance edit went on to get book deals with that manuscript. So that's, that is really encouraging. But it is, yeah, there's no shortcuts in publishing, I guess is what we should make sure we stress to everyone. And then what about pitches? I saw on your website it looks like you might help writers with pitches. Is that right? Can you talk about that a bit? Is that about working with writers to help make sure they're framing their book appropriately? So yeah, how do you work with pitches? Kirsten Reach (14:14): Absolutely. I have found that in many cases what the writer needs most is to have a really tight cover letter to approach agents at that stage. They don't need the line edit or the developmental edit that I can offer at other stages. They just need to think about the market and comparison titles, especially with literary fiction, it's hard. It's hard to prove that you see a great track ahead based on comp titles and in the industry it's usually in the last two years what books have been successful. And so I read a lot of contemporary work that we can point to in some cases, but also I can help them do some research on other titles that feel relevant and that can also help us winnow down who they want to approach, which agents are representing that kind of work, or which publishers have been having the most success in the genre that they're writing so that we can come up with a tight list of people they want to approach right at that moment. But I would say having really winning lines at the beginning that grab the attention and then strong comp titles are usually the things that everybody needs a little extra output. Laura Maylene Walter (15:08): <laugh> definitely. Well, speaking of help, we have some first pages from manuscripts from Ohio writers. So you and I can offer some on the spot feedback to these writers who submitted to a call for submissions from the Ohio Center for the Book. So we put out a call and writers sent us their pages so we have their permission, they are eager for a professional eye on their work. And so that's what we have here today. Kirsten Reach (15:34): Thank you, writers. Laura Maylene Walter (15:35): Yeah, I do want to say thank you writers. We're grateful. I am so grateful that you are willing to share your work with us and with the podcast I won't be reading every page out loud in its entirety. Instead we'll have a broader discussion about the pages, what we're seeing, and we'll highlight a few examples by reading a few sentences out loud. It takes a lot of courage to put your work out there and this will ideally help not just the writers who submitted, but other writers listening who can make use of this feedback with their own projects. Okay, well before we dive into the first one, we only have one page, the first page from each manuscript, which I know does not sound like a lot and it's true that there's a lot of context and a lot of things that we just won't know because we've only read one page. But what is the value of just reading these first pages and talking about them? What can you tell from just one page of a manuscript? As an editor, Kirsten Reach (16:29): I want to know what moment we're jumping into, how you're going to interest us in this character, who's telling this story and why. I also think the more you can give us the more emotional depth you can give us in a short period of time or the more context you can give us about the character in that first moment <laugh>, will set a strong tone for the rest of the manuscript. Laura Maylene Walter (16:49): Yeah, I do think you can tell a lot just from one page, even if one page is incredibly stunning and just a perfect page, that doesn't mean it will be an automatic yes for the whole manuscript, but that can say so much. So we'll, we'll get into it with the few of these pages. So the first submission is from S. Elizabeth Sigler and the author's note in part reads, my novella takes place in a near futuristic world where people can travel between planets the same way people living in the present can travel between states and countries. Earth is so polluted that most humans find a way to move to another planet by their mid twenties. Our protagonist is a restricted, meaning she's unable to leave earth." So that's a general premise of a world where people can leave to go to different planets, but our narrator cannot. And I will read just the first paragraph: "The sun is scorching hot on the day of Faye's going away party, just the way she likes it. She'll soon be on Sunnanscima, where the weather is always like this. She'll be fine, better than fine; she'll fit in well. She'll flourish." Laura Maylene Walter (17:56): So that's the first paragraph. And then briefly as this page goes on, we learned that the narrator is Leila. She is at Faye's going away party. Faye is going to go off to a different planet and Faye is a person of means with a very fancy cake, a fancy party, and the narrator is not and clearly thinks this is wasteful. So that is the tension going on right here in the first page. So Kirsten, I'll turn it over to you. Where would you like to start in discussing this first page? Kirsten Reach (18:27): It's interesting to me that you started by reading the author's note because the first note I made on this first page was that I'd like to see that author's note right at the top of the story. We learned so much about the way that they can move between planets and what a restricted is. And those things are really intriguing to me and I I would love to know them right off the bat. I also was surprised by the opening paragraph. It sounds like we're in a third person omniscient narration and in the second paragraph we find out that it's a first person narration. So there's a little bit of a switch. It's not a story about Faye, even though we're starting off with Faye. It's about Leila, who's attending Faye's party. I'm a little surprised by the focus on the cake, although we don't know what the cake looks like or tastes like. I love cake. <laugh> Kirsten Reach (19:07): I'm happy to be interested in it, but it seems like there's a lot more going on here in terms of the planets and the potential friction between the two characters that we're not getting from that opening moment that I'd like to see there. So this is a manuscript where I would potentially talk to the author about starting on page two or three or rearranging some of these paragraphs so that we jump in with the protagonist right from the get-go and we get a stronger understanding of her relationship with Faye and why this moment is significant, this going away party. Laura Maylene Walter (19:33): Yes, and I would love to slow down that point of view issue just to make sure our listeners can catch what is happening. So the first line is "The sun is scorching hot on the day of Faye's going away party, just the way she likes it." So from that first line and the paragraph, I think we're in phase third person close point of view, and we're with her at her party and she likes that it's hot. It is in the second sentence, in the second paragraph that the cake is described: "...would probably be among the best foods I could hope to eat in my life, if I could only make myself take a slice." So now we're in first person and then I realize, oh, we were never in Faye's point of view. We're actually in a first person narrator's point of view observing Faye. The narrator knows Faye likes it hot, but that's not coming directly from Faye. This can seem like a subtle thing, but especially in the opening pages and those first two paragraphs, if we have to pause as a reader and readjust our whole understanding of the world and whose point of view we're in, it can be a little disorienting. Kirsten Reach (20:34): Absolutely. Laura Maylene Walter (20:35): And I also agree with you about the cake. The cake is mentioned a few times as being decadent. The baker is described, so it's a really in-demand baker that Faye is connected and well-off enough to manage to secure this baker for the party. The cake is later described as being outrageous. The narrator can't stop looking at it. And I actually don't know what the cake looks like, and I'm with you. I would love to hear all about the cake <laugh>. I'm sure it is elaborate and I just wrote on my paper, I wrote more cake. If there's going to be a point of saying this cake is something special and it's out of the narrator's means, I think it would be helpful to have more either visual, maybe taste. If the narrator does decide to eat it, that would be really helpful. Kirsten Reach (21:17): And is there a shortage of ingredients? Why? Why is this cake so expensive? I was curious about the world that this is in and I'd love to see a little more world building in that early scene. Laura Maylene Walter (21:26): Yeah, which comes down to the basic premise of the book, which based on the author's note I think sounds fantastic by the way. I love the premise and it's interesting that you said you would like the note right up top. And of course writers have query letters and they have, if their agent is pitching them, there's a pitch letter. So there are ways of describing the world before page one lands in someone's inbox. But as you said, finding a way to work some of that world building in directly in the first page could also be really helpful. The last thing I wanted to ask about with this page is the dialogue. Did you have any thoughts or comments on the dialogue? Kirsten Reach (22:02): You know, we have a sense that Faye and Leila are maybe family friends since we know that it's Faye's father who secured this cake, but Leila seems detached from the scene and it makes it harder for us as readers jumping into this first moment to feel as engaged as we might when she's feeling so distant from Faye who seems to be leaving the important detail that we can't get. Of course, it's just a page. This is an impossible exercise, so, but it's a great point of conversation. <laugh> The real tension here is that Leila is not able to leave, right? There's a reason that she can't also move away from this planet. So I'd love to see a little bit more of that tension between them and the dialogue instead of there being a hug when we don't really understand the depth of their relationship or whether this is a tense hug, whether she begrudges Faye for her different position socially or in terms of moving. I also wondered how far apart they would be. Again, this is all <laugh> questions about the world, but the author's note gives us such an interesting premise that we can't get quite from this dialogue that I would, I would jump into a little more description before letting the two characters talk. What was your feeling, Laura? Laura Maylene Walter (23:03): Again, I want to say I do like the hints of the tension that I'm getting here, which is that Leila does not have financial means and we know from the author's note, cannot go to another planet for whatever reason. Faye is clearly a lot more financially secure, to put it mildly, a lot more privileged and is about to leave. So there is that tension of, they come from, I want to say from different worlds, but that would be confusing with the premise. But they are in different places and now they're about to separate. So the dialogue, I think, especially for being on the first page, but really for anywhere Faye is asking Leila, what are you looking at? You know, why are you distracted? Basically Leila's first line of dialogue and response is to say, um...within ellipses later she says, Oh, nothing, I'm just lost in thought. Laura Maylene Walter (23:48): So this is dialogue that I consider. It's a little empty, I suppose I would say, and I know we really talk like that in real life all the time, but in fiction, tightening that up and making the line of dialogue really count. Not that it has to be explaining information, but it should have more content I think. And then at the end, Faye just gives her a hug and says, I know what's going on, I guess implying you're gonna miss me so much. And Faye hugs her and says, oh, I promise I'll visit. And I can make the connections and assume she's reading the situation incorrectly, but it's still, it's leaving me to do a lot of the work. I think. Kirsten Reach (24:22): I agree. And I think we both have the same reaction to her feeling a little detached here on the page. And I like what you said about the um, and ellipses. I'm willing to go with that kind of dialogue for a little while, but we need to hear a little more from Leila in this moment. Laura Maylene Walter (24:34): Yeah, definitely. And the party, by the way, I mean I assume it goes on after this page and we just don't have the benefit of reading it, but there's a DJ, there's the extravagant cake. I do feel like this could be a great setting for the opening of the novel of the party. I always love a party scene, so. Kirsten Reach (24:49): Me too. More cake, Laura Maylene Walter (24:51): <laugh> More cake. That's our takeaway. Anything else on this one you'd like to add? Kirsten Reach (24:56): I wanted to add that I love work about outsiders. You know, I think there's a lot to work with here and I'm interested in the fact that future generations are punished for the actions of their ancestors, the way that they can move between the planets in their twenties. It's really easy to imagine a parallel between the way people move around or around their twenties. And the author has a note to say that they're writing a bi or pansexual character and feels like the identity is rarely in the adult fiction market, which I think is true. It's an interesting publicity hook. So that's why I suggested that the author move this note to the top of the page if we weren't working in a world where we had already seen the pitch or the premise in another context. Laura Maylene Walter (25:31): Thank you for pointing out the final part of the note saying, "My character is bi/pan. Even now bisexual protagonists are rare and you see them more often in young adult than adult fiction." So I did think that was a good note to include. What do you think about that final line? And again, I know this is not a formal pitch necessarily, but the final line is: "Myself and many of my close friends are bi, so this representation matters to me." It is often important for perhaps editors to know about a personal connection to the work, but how important do you think that is? Kirsten Reach (26:00): What I'm learning from that moment is that the author's willing to talk about that aspect, uh, interesting of the manuscript. And so that would make me wonder if they want to pitch an essay around publication on the topic or whether they want to write reviews of other, say, pansexual narrators around the time of publication. And so that would be a conversation point to me in the first dialogue with the author. Laura Maylene Walter (26:20): Yeah, and that's really helpful to know. So I suppose that lets you know as an editor right away that it's not off limits where you're, you're maybe not overreaching if you do ask the writer about it. So that's a great point. Okay, the second submission is from Suzanne Ondrus. This is non-fiction and the title of this piece is I Claim Quiet and Trees as My Religion. And I'll read just the first few lines. "I am from the land of the Emerald Necklace where green is queen. This Emerald Necklace, an extensive park system around Cleveland, Ohio was created in 1917 and just as prize jewel, our parks have been cherished and passed down through the generations." So from there, there's a few more lines about the park system in Northeast Ohio. Then it is the seventh sentence down in the first paragraph, I did count. Laura Maylene Walter (27:12): So in the seventh sentence it's revealed that the narrator has been in Burkina Faso, and there's a contrast now between the landscape there that is not very green and the rich greenness of Ohio where the narrator is from. And it kind of proceeds describing that contrast. And then we learn there's a "culminating bad housing situation" toward the end of the narrator's time in Africa. So we're sort of getting these two different worlds contrasted and following that a date of February 20th. So now it feels a bit like a journal talking about where the narrator moved and another date to indicate the movement of time and more of the diary format. So I hope I did my best describing it. So where would you like to start with this piece? Kirsten Reach (27:59): I want to start with the intro. I hear the "green is queen." I hear a little poetic influence in the voice from the jumping point, which is great. I'm also into the writing about the parks and about Cleveland specifically. This is one of those moments as an editor where I'm aware there are good park systems around Cleveland, but I don't know a lot of the details and I'm really interested in learning more from this author, especially if they grew up there or if their description of it is particularly standout. So I'm interested. What I am hoping for, and this might be jumping ahead just a little bit too much, so stop me if it is, but I'd love to see a little more of the landscape in Burkina Faso because we know that there's a contrast, but it's not a place that I have ever traveled. So I'd like to know a little more from the narrator about it. And I also fixated on this culminating bad housing situation where it sounds like there's a lot of conflict that the author will get into later. And I appreciate the foreshadowing, but I'm, I'm curious what that is. Laura Maylene Walter (28:53): Yeah, I highlighted that part, "a culminating bad housing situation," and I wrote three question marks because there seems to be a whole world packed into those few words and that line comes right after some ruminations about how green is so important. So it felt a little abrupt to me. If that is the heart of the tension, how does that fit in? And I wondered within that same line again, we're coming back to nature: "how essential nature is for my well-being." And then the next line, which I really love: "When tough times come, I go to the trees to become still and right." Kirsten Reach (29:28): I highlighted that too. Laura Maylene Walter (29:29): <laugh>. Yeah, I love it. I put two stars around it. So I love that line. I love what I'm starting to see here about a writer writing about what trees mean and nature and how that affects her well-being, her inner self. I think that is all really, really fantastic. I'm less sure about the organization of the piece. I live in Cleveland and I love the Metroparks here, so I am definitely on board as well to read about the Emerald Necklace, to read about the parks. I did wonder though, it felt like two pieces kind of in one paragraph. So we start with the park system and it feels like I'm going to read an informational essay about, you know, the history of the park system in Cleveland and then it kind of transitions into this is actually a travel story of the writer being in Burkina Faso and what that was like in contrast. So I don't know, what do you think about that? Of course it can be a good technique sometimes to have a contrast and subverted expectations, but where's the line between that and feeling that maybe it might not be the right place to open. I don't know. Kirsten Reach (30:30): I also think some of this would be solved with a paragraph break. Not to get too nitty gritty here, <laugh>, but ending the sentence about vital trees and green. I didn't know how vital trees and green were for my own very functioning until I didn't have them. I would add a paragraph break and then jump into describing Burkina Faso in detail so that we can be introduced to both spaces so that we can start to learn from the author about the differences between these two places. And we can get a hint of why this is missing from the narrator's life, why they're missing it, and what conflict this is going to introduce for them based on these two different places. Laura Maylene Walter (31:05): You know, as a writer, it's my favorite thing when an edit can be addressed by hitting the enter key and starting a new paragraph <laugh>, that's my favorite kind of edit to make. About halfway down the page we start having the sections dated and then we run out of the page before we can really see where that is going. Again, only one page, so this is really hard for us to talk about because we would need to see more, but what are your thoughts on that? Just in this opening page? What expectations does that set up for you? Kirsten Reach (31:32): I am excited about both places. I'm with you on the organization. I think there might be some shifting around that would need to happen, but I like that the author has already established themselves as an authority in describing both places having lived in each. I like the emphasis on green. I like the sense of it as a sacred place or a sacred text. I'm interested in doing environmental books, so it's not surprising that I would glom onto that, but I'm excited by it. And the last thing I'll say is that after the second date, they write the word gossip. Laura Maylene Walter (31:58): I know! And then it cuts off. Kirsten Reach (31:59): We've got to read the gossip. It did make me want to keep reading. Laura Maylene Walter (32:02): I know, I noticed that too. I was like, what is the gossip? But of course we had only asked for one page only, so they weren't allowed to send more. But I agree and I thought, what a great way to end the first page. They definitely leave us wanting more. I think the only other thing, and again, I know this is hard to all put into one page, but I feel in that first larger paragraph we're being told in a few different ways. You know, I didn't know how vital trees and green were for my very functioning until I didn't have them. And then how essential nature is for my wellbeing. So this is all being stated to us, but I would love to experience it more viscerally with the narrator. So could there be a memory from those times in the Cleveland parks or a more direct experience in Africa of what is happening with that landscape or that troubling housing situation? Really putting us in there with the narrator and feeling it and experiencing it would drive it home for me more. How much the trees and the green mean to the narrator. Kirsten Reach (33:00): I love that note. I think that's really helpful. Laura Maylene Walter (33:02): Do you have anything else on this piece you'd like to mention? Kirsten Reach (33:06): I think I'm with you that it sounds like this author has a rich in her life and we just want to see a little bit more of it in the early pages, but there's a lot of great stuff introduced here that makes me want to keep reading. Laura Maylene Walter (33:15): Our third and final piece is from JB Bergin. So this is a first page from a fantasy novel, and I'll read just a bit from an author's note that was included with the submission. "A key component in my writing is in the story's innate queerness expressed, among other things, by the lack of defined pronouns for each character. Through this journey, I am attempting to explore myself, my relationship to my past, what I want to remember, what I'm sad to have forgotten, and explore how my identity now has always been right in front of me on the other side of the mirror. I just never got the chance to fall through it like Alex does." So Alex is the narrator of this piece, and I'll read just the first few sentences of the submission: Laura Maylene Walter (34:00): "Alex was falling. One second, looking closely into a mirror in Ammah’s room. Something seemed funny about it. The colors not quite right in the reflection, the bedspread a different pattern than the bedspread ruffling against Alex’s leg." Laura Maylene Walter (34:13): From there we learned that Alex seems to be falling into a mirror, which is really interesting. The second paragraph starts to slow things down and describe whether Alex is panicking. There's a discussion of the word panic as defined by the Merriam-Webster, and then panic as relating to the god Pan. So we are, you know, getting a discussion of how Alex might be responding to this falling through the mirror, which is so interesting, and Alex is thinking about it as it's happening. Alex is thinking about mirrors are supposed to be reflective definitions of what already exists, which is really interesting and descriptions of Alex being a curious person and trying to, I just suppose, grapple with this very unreal thing that's happening to Alex, which is falling into a mirror. So Kirsten, what do you have to say about this submission? Kirsten Reach (35:06): I was excited by these first couple of sentences. We're in the middle of the action right away. Alex is falling is a very concise sentence. The author quickly orients us into this particular room and what's a little bit twisted about it, what's a little bit off about the scene. So we have a sense of being oriented and then completely disoriented along with Alex in this opening section. The notes that I would give that sound a little more critical are that Alex thinks "like falling in love" as he falls. And I think that's a little too much for me. And I also would cut the panic as defined by Merriam-Webster. I think that's totally fine to have in your first draft. It's great jumping off point. I've certainly used it in a first draft if I'm speaking at a wedding or in an academic article, but I want the author to go in a different direction. This idea of defining reflective definitions of what already exists is much stronger. That's in the third paragraph. So it would be an easy thing to move up. And again, giving us the distance of Alex thinking about panic being defined in the dictionary takes us out of the moment. And what is so compelling about this opening scene to me is how in the moment we are with this character, Laura Maylene Walter (36:09): I completely agree with that. And I was thinking about it and I was wondering maybe I don't know the writer's intentions, but maybe trying to show how Alex's brain is almost slowing down and trying to catalog everything that might be happening as this strange, surreal falling into the mirror incident is happening, which I like that impulse. But I do agree that third paragraph that starts with, "Mirrors are supposed to be reflective definitions of what already exists" feels a little more immediate, especially since after that we get a description of Alex gently rolling downward or sideways. It was hard to tell what direction the fall was going. That puts us back into the fall, which is already such a strange thing for us to picture. So I agree. I would cut the Merriam-Webster definition and get back to the action a bit faster. Laura Maylene Walter (36:57): So I think a big thing we really need to talk about is this piece is ambitious use of pronouns. In the author's note, the author said the characters don't have defined pronouns. But what I do need to point out that I didn't read in those examples was Alex's pronouns appear to be described in different ways. So in paragraph one, Alex is they, and also he, and in the final paragraph, a first person narrator appears: "I suppose it's important to say that in place of panic, Alex was curious," so I'm not sure if that's an omniscient first person narrator, but then I believe Alex is described as she as well near the end. So the pronouns are changing. I'm really curious what you think about that because of course I'm really interested in a work that a character is gender fluid or the conception of gender might not be entirely binary. I think that's really great, but how can that be expressed on the page? What are your thoughts? Kirsten Reach (37:56): I think it's too early in the manuscript for me to know if it's working yet. Yeah, I like the ambition of it and I'm glad that the author chooses to lay that out. If it is that Alex is falling from one gender to another to another, I'd love to have a sense of that in the details. Maybe it's the bedspread, maybe it's the background, maybe there's something else going on, or there might be a way to use different pronouns in different chapters. It feels like a very ambitious move on this opening page to use so many. But I'm open to the idea. How did you feel about it? Laura Maylene Walter (38:25): I love what you just described of Alex changing genders as Alex is falling. I think that's really fascinating. It's a little difficult to tell from the first page if that's exactly what's happening, but I don't know. I mean, I read this first page before I read the author's note, and to be perfectly frank, I was just very confused by the pronouns. And then I read the author's note and that put it into some perspective. And I of course don't want to imply that for the sake of clarity, for an average reader who might not be open to this innovative use of pronouns, I'm not suggesting that at all. But there is a line to walk with, how can you be creative with the pronouns? How can you convey Alex is falling in, in whatever way, maybe through the gender binary, in a way that is still clear? So I don't know. I agree with you. If there's a way, aside from pronouns to indicate Alex is either fluidity or whatever is happening in the story, I think that would be helpful. Maybe not to rely so heavily on the first page on the pronoun switching, doing the work. Kirsten Reach (39:24): I'm thinking of Anne Garréta who does this really beautifully in Sphinx by leaving all pronouns out. Laura Maylene Walter (39:28): Yeah. Kirsten Reach (39:29): So we're never aware. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in this tradition. And one note, if I can jump ahead, that I really liked about this author's, I guess it's in the author note, but toward the end they start to describe the literary tradition that they're writing into Madeleine L'Engle, C.S. Lewis, Suzanne Collins, Philip Pullman. And I think it's really helpful whenever an author can start to place themselves in a tradition. If I were giving this author another note, I'd suggest coming up with some contemporary writers in the market that they're aiming for, whether it's YA or adult fiction, to show us who else is writing right now, trying out some of the things that they want to try out. Laura Maylene Walter (40:03): I think that's an excellent note and much like our other pieces today, again, I just love this premise and it definitely has me curious of how Alex is falling into a mirror and what that might entail. I mean, I'm just imagining kaleidoscopic alternate worlds that are in the mirror. I think that is really fascinating. Did you have any other notes or other thoughts on this one? Kirsten Reach (40:26): Just that I love when an author can experiment with time and this feels like such a flexible amount of time to be falling into space. We're not really sure how long it takes to move into the next world. And so I'm admiring that the author has taken this on and excited to see what they do with it. Laura Maylene Walter (40:39): I am too. I feel like this work is taking a lot of big leaps, which is exciting as a reader to realize you're in the hands of a writer who is not afraid to push boundaries and not afraid to just go for it and put us in a whole new world. So I really appreciate that. Kirsten Reach (40:55): This is a fun way to read. I rarely get to read just the first page <laugh>, but it raises so many questions and it makes us think about what is most compelling to us and what we're looking for, what we're feeling curious about on the second page. Laura Maylene Walter (41:05): Well, we really appreciate your feedback on these pages, so thank you so much. And thank you again to the writers for submitting their work to us. It's an honor to be able to discuss their work, so we really appreciate it. And whenever I see submissions like these or other ways through either my job here or my work as a writing teacher, I'm just always so impressed by the depth of talent in Ohio. You know, there are just so many writers here doing such exciting work, so it's fantastic to get to slow down and look at some of them on this podcast. Kirsten Reach (41:35): Yes and it's so brave. Thank you so much for sharing your work, Laura Maylene Walter (41:38): Everyone. Yes. Thank you writers. So before we go, I wondered would you say some of what we talked about with these first pages, which again, I know is not how you usually read, you usually read more than one page. But what we talked about with these pages, were any of those questions or issues representative of other things that you work with writers on? What are some common points of feedback that you might have for writers when you're discussing their work? Kirsten Reach (42:03): Sure. We talked about starting in the right place, and so I think you and I were both trying to figure out where the emphasis could fall in some of these cases, even if it's not the first sentence that's on the page, but in so many cases it's there and we just need to talk about where to pluck that first sentence. Another is dialogue. I think in many cases, and I admire this, I love when an author has an ear for how people really talk, but sometimes we do in fiction, have to move the story forward in a way that won't be reflective of the way that someone would actually speak. They won't have as many ums as they would really use or take as long to get to the point as we all do when we're speaking everyday and making those choices. So that's one thing to clean up. Trying to juggle the number of characters that you've chosen to keep in the story. You know, we're still figuring out who these first people are in the first section or trying to differentiate the sense of place that we saw in the second section. So I think all of those things are come up very commonly, mainly because the author is trying to establish those things from the first moment. And so we get to see a little hint of what each of these authors are trying to do. Laura Maylene Walter (42:58): Definitely. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been so helpful and I was glad to get to hear your insight on these pages. Can you tell our listeners how they can get in touch with you? Kirsten Reach (43:10): Absolutely. My website is jonquileditorial.com. You can follow me on Twitter @KirstenReach, and I'd be delighted to hear from you. You can send me an email: it's firstname.lastname@example.org. Laura Maylene Walter (43:22): Well, Kirsten, thank you so much. It's so lovely to see you and to hear your voice and your advice on these pages. So thanks for joining us today. Kirsten Reach (43:30): It's so good to hear your feedback on any piece. Laura, I always love hearing your perspective. Thank you for taking this time. Laura Maylene Walter (43:37): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at www.ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @CPLOCFB or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email email@example.com and put podcasts in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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