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Editor's note: Here's the text of the interview I did with Rejectioncollection.com in May of 2001. FYI: this website is quite sympathetic to writers who've had their work "rejected" and need a shoulder to cry on, a few laughs, and the site offers some useful advice to boot.

FromRejection Collection's Read 'em and Weep files:

Category: Tales from the Other Side

Submitted by: Interview with Diannek, editor of Clever Magazine

In May (2001), rejectioncollection.com e-interviewed Dianne Kochenburg, editor and creator of Clever Magazine (www.clevermag.com), which she calls "the not-so-serious online ezine for the neglected demographic." Launched in 1998 and based in San Jose, California, Clever is a general interest magazine featuring travel essays, short stories, humor, the environment, poetry, recipes, book and film reviews and a bookstore.

Q: What is your background as an editor?

A: Most of my professional writing experience has been "in-house" working as a contract education program developer. We wrote proposals, course designs and marketing materials, usually under a great deal of pressure. The writing was collaborative, which is a terrific learning experience. One person would draft the piece and the rest of us would polish it. It was then that I learned how much easier it is to edit somebody else's work than to come up with the original draft.

Since Clever's been wired (since August of 1998), most of my creative energy has gone to writing and editing the magazine. I've always been interested in the Internet as a way to circumvent obstacles. That's why I created Clever. I knew there were lots of writers working out there without a way to get into publication. I wanted to create a place for writers, both amateurs and professionals, where we could just have some fun, write some stories, and not have such strict rules. It worked out better than I thought it would.

Q: Have you ever been a rejected writer yourself? How did that experience effect the way you handle rejections as an editor?

A: Yes, I've received lots of rejections over the years. I've written a couple of novels, both unpublished. I sent them out to a number of publishing houses and agents. No publishing house was interested. One agent wanted me to turn what I thought was a mystery into a romance novel, so I backed out of that relationship.

At first I had a hard time with the rejections. I kept losing them in my files and then finding them again in the strangest places. Finally I decided to put them all into a Rejection Notebook. That way I could refer to them again once I got over the shock. That turned out to be a growth spurt for me as a writer.
As a result of that experience, I'm a more sympathetic editor, I hope. I've used that notebook to figure out how to write rejections that aren't cold-hearted.

Q: Do editors get rejected, too?

A: I can only think of one time that I've been rejected as an editor. I pitched a piece written by one of Clever's contributors to another magazine. I thought it was worthy of print publication. No luck.

I haven't done much professional writing outside of Clever in the past few years. But I don't think that calling myself an editor would carry all that much weight in getting something published. The writing would still have to fit somebody else's need, so I'd be prepared to be rejected if I sent something out.

Q: As editor of Clever Magazine, do you reject many writers?

A: Unfortunately, I've had to reject quite a bit of stuff.

I do remember the first piece I ever got that I couldn't use. I fretted over it for a couple of days before I actually sent off the rejection. When Clever was first in business, it was harder to find content, so I wasn't as picky about what we published. But lots of drivel comes my way. I was shocked at first. I have a big file of them. But I don't keep an actual count of the rejections. Email doesn't lend itself to keeping track of the numbers. But I do know that we publish way more than we reject.

Q: What are the main reasons you reject proposals?

A: The proposals we reject usually come from professionals who haven't read our guidelines. We are happy to pitch their projects if they are willing to accept our guidelines. But we rarely pitch a new book or product unless it's from a contributor that we have a relationship with. We'll run a canned interview with an author who's trying to sell a new book if the interview is professional and the book is worthy.

Q: What are the main reasons you reject manuscripts?

A: Clever uses about six contributor-written articles per issue (we're a monthly publication). Because we publish mostly short pieces (3,500 words or less), we don't usually get queries or proposals. Every once in a while we do express interest in a piece based on a query, and we still end up rejecting the piece. The query is well written, but the product is a letdown. The writer doesn't live up to his or her marketing piece. Usually one of the Clever staff members will read the entire article. If I'm working with a contributor that I know and has published with Clever before, that person gets more latitude.

The first reason for rejecting work is because it doesn't fit our style - that's my shorthand for the rants, the porno pieces, the tributes to dead parents (it's easier to publish a piece about a dead pet than it is a dead parent), the dreadful poetry, the right or left wing political pieces, and the stuff the author thinks is humorous but isn't. If the writing is good and the subject is interesting, I might save a piece for a future issue. I might even build an issue around it if I like it but can't place it at the moment.

The second reason is because it's still a rough draft. Some new writers think that the very rough first draft is good enough to send off -- and email makes this practice easier than ever. These writers are under the impression that it's the editor's job to "fix it up." When Clever was younger I did accept some stuff that needed lots of work, but fortunately we don't have to do that any longer. We have many freelance professionals who work with us and the difference between their submissions and the amateur submissions is amazing. So, a piece of advice: the basics are still important. Spell check the manuscript, work on the grammar and punctuation, and fix all the technical problems. The professionals always do this.

The third reason we reject work is if we suspect that it might be plagiarized. The Internet is a sort of lawless place, but we try to be very careful regarding copyrights -- with both written work and the images and graphics we use as well. I have rejected work whenever I'm the least bit suspicious. I'm a photographer and I have several other photographers working with me. We supply most of the graphics. And I work with an artist who lives in Spain and works for El Faro, who has generously offered his services free of charge to Clever. These are the measures we take to insure that we're not violating intellectual property rights.

The fourth reason is personality conflicts. One writer submitted lots of stuff and I only accepted a of his few pieces. But even before they were published this writer started browbeating me about the pieces I had previously rejected. Much of his work was distasteful, and in my humble opinion, sexually explicit and sort of demeaning to women. I wouldn't publish it and he got angry. I had to cut him loose before he published anything with us because he was so annoying.

The fifth reason has to do with the writer's willingness to edit. I might accept a piece with certain conditions. Sometimes a word or a phrase will seem offensive or in bad taste. Other times we'll fact check a piece and want to make certain changes. If the author doesn't agree with the suggested changes, we'll reject the piece.

Q: How do you reject writers? Do you use a standard form letter? Do you write personal letters or personalize form letters in any way?

A: Email is much more casual than printed letters. All of our submissions are electronic, therefore, all of my rejections are electronic, too. I always write them personally and I have a couple of pat sentences that I usually use.

If the piece is being rejected because we simply don't want to hear from that person again, I'll say something like "it doesn't fit any of the upcoming themes" or "try another ezine". Then I close with a "good-bye and good luck" statement.

If I think the writer might have some potential for Clever, I will ask him or her to submit again. I never say anything negative about the writing, even if it deserves it.

Q: What are the main messages that you are trying to convey in a rejection?

A: The main message that I try to convey is that this is a business decision, not a personal insult. Even though we're an Internet magazine, we still have parameters. We can't publish everything. We want our readers to stay with us long enough to read everything, or at least want to visit our site again. If the stuff we put up isn't very good, or isn't in keeping with our style, we take the chance of losing readership.

Q: What do you find to be challenging about writing rejections?

A: It's challenging to say something negative to a complete stranger. I always remember how hurt I was when I got my first rejection. That feeling never leaves me.

Q: What do you wish prospective writers knew about your work as an editor?

A: I hope that they realize that I work hard at my job and that I created Clever for writers as well as for readers.

Q: What do you think writers need to know about how to handle rejection?

A: As much as I hate the phrase "don't take it personally", the rejection letters are meant just that way. It's about the product, not the person. Once writers get to the point where they can separate their egos from the criticism, then that's when they'll begin to mature as writers.

Q: What are the worst mistakes a rejected writer can make? Do you ever any horror stories about writers responding poorly to rejection?

A: The worst mistake a writer can make is to give up, especially if that person really wants to write. Also, the writer probably shouldn't throw the piece out, kick the dog or destroy a new computer. It's better to put the piece away for a little while and then get it out after some time has passed and try to figure out what was wrong with it. Maybe the next editor will love it, especially if it's been shined up a little before the next go.

I don't have horror stories, but I have accidentally hurt people's feelings when I didn't mean to. It's especially difficult to critique work that you know you're eventually going to reject anyhow. It seems better to make it simple and businesslike than to go into much detail about it.

Q: Have you ever had a positive author experience that involves rejection? For example, did a writer handle rejection so well that you decided to give him/her a second chance?

A: I can't think of one. Several times writers have written back and asked for feedback. I'm usually reluctant to give it because that means I'll have to re-read the piece and offer written criticism. The times that I have done it have not been fruitful. I only do it if there would be a chance that the piece would be reworked and resubmitted. I don't remember any times when I've offered suggestions or feedback that resulted in the piece getting that second chance.

Q: What do you think writers need to do to improve their chances of success when they send a query letter or submit a manuscript?

A: In order to get published, the first thing writers should do is read the publication and get a good idea about the kind of content that is needed. The same goes for publishing houses. Different houses publish different kinds of work. So do your homework first. Aim for the right market. Don't just send stuff off willy-nilly. You're wasting everybody's time that way.

Second thing: Don't send it until it's ready to go. Read some of the books about getting published. There are dozens of them just brimming with good advice for new writers. In my experience, very few of the new writers I've worked with are doing this. They could save us all some grief if they were better prepared, perhaps subscribe to Writers Digest, and work on improving, editing, and crafting their writing.

New writers are making the same old mistakes that writing teachers have been harping about for years. Here's an example that I've read too many times: A story is written in first person and the main character, "I", dies at the end of the story. This story, technically, cannot be told in the first person. This type of thing typically occurs with amateur writers. And they don't seem to get it when I try to explain it. Stephen King is the latest advice-giver to enter the market. His book, On Writing, a Memoir is brilliant and is easy to read. If new writers just followed King's advice, they would become better writers.

Q: It seems to me that editors/publishers and writers have a lot more in common than writers may realize. Do you agree? What do you think ought to be done (if anything) to improve communication and relationships between these different groups?

A: I'm not sure that I entirely agree with the first statement. Writers focus on their own creative process, while editors must work with many different aspects of writing. I would like to think that most editors are writers first (I don't know that this is actually true, but it seems reasonable). However, writers usually don't know too much about editing as a job. It's more than just "correcting" the spelling and grammar of somebody else's work. The creative aspects of magazine editing go far beyond this. The creative "look and feel" of the magazine is only part of an editor's responsibility. The business of producing a magazine, or working for a publishing house, is much different than the act of producing a single piece of writing.

Both editors and writers play powerful roles. Editors wouldn't have jobs if writers didn't submit their work. Editors are the decision-makers, but writers command respect when they produce good material. The two need each other, but I'm not sure what can be done to improve relationships. Perhaps forums like www.rejectioncollection.com will help the two groups get to know each other a little better.
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