When one door closes, another opens.

Last week was my last official week at Autumn House Press. It occurred to me just a few days ago that wrapping up my internship is the beginning of the end of my final semester here at Duquesne. Working at Autumn House has been a great way to put into practice all the things I have learned at Duquesne.

It’s been a great way for me to flex my muscles as an editor, and to learn more about my own strengths and flaws as a writer. My perspective as an English graduate student has given me an analytical perspective through which to review fiction in more depth, but through my work at AH, I have also learned to review fiction from a more multifaceted stance— one that takes into account the creative, conceptual and technical components of any given piece.

I spent my last week at Autumn House Press working primarily with manuscripts— editing for little flaws and looking over submissions for AH’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction contests. I also tied up edits on my book review for John Fried’s “The Martin Chronicles.” (To be published in AH’s Fall edition of Coal Hill Review!)

Working on the book review was an interesting, rather enlightening experience. It’s no surprise that, as an English student, I can talk for days about why I like a book, but to write an official book review is very different from what I expected. What I initially anticipated was that my book review would look similar to a GoodReads review, only with more formal language.   

What I have learned, however, is that writing a good book review is not just a matter of explaining why the book is enjoyable. The greater goal is to provide reasons for the reader to read the book, explain what makes it unique and what the author does well. Pointing out quotes that highlight the author’s originality and their skill at the craft. It’s selling a book from various angles.

Writing a book review was only one of many new ways I learned to review literature this semester. In general, my most valuable takeaway from this experience was my thorough, multi-tiered experience of editorial work. The fact that the internship focused on editing was productive for me because, after I finish up at Duquesne, I plan on looking for a job in publishing editorial.

While I do think other components of publishing— advertising, graphic design, book production, etc.— would be exciting to delve into, I have always been most interested in editorial. For me, the work has always had a sort of cathartic effect. Also, because I am a writer myself, I take great satisfaction in helping other writers polish their work. I sympathize with the struggle, and now, more than ever, know the importance of editing! 

My experiences at Autumn House Press have made this path seem not only more feasible, but also more enticing. One of the most exciting things will be seeing the work I’ve put into editing in tangible form, when AH sends me copies of the soon-to-be-finished manuscripts I’ve been working with! (Free books are only one of the many perks of working in publishing…)

Working at Autumn House Press this semester has felt like both a beginning and ending—an introduction to the next chapter of my life and a culmination of everything I’ve learned as a graduate student. Given my career initiatives, it is the perfect way to tie up my semester here in Pittsburgh. 

I am grateful that Duquesne’s English MA program gave me the opportunity to venture down this track, and to apply my education outside of the realm of academia. While I appreciate and am in awe of the scholarly research my peers have done for their expanded papers and theses, my research has always focused on creative work. Duquesne’s alternative track allowed me to personalize my finale in a way that was more productive for my future.

Soon, my time here in Pittsburgh will come to an end. Leaving it behind will be like closing a door. But every time a door closes, a new one opens, and my Pittsburgh memories will remain with me forever.

— Chelsea Abdullah

Edit, Revise, Write.

Write, edit, revise.

This is the student mantra. As far as academic advice goes, it’s pretty universal. Since becoming a graduate student at Duquesne, however, my perspective on the process has changed; my priorities are different. 

As an undergraduate student, I believed the most important part of the writing process was writing the actual draft. Since becoming more aware of my own writing process (Thank you, Dr. Purdy, for all your in-class reflections!) during my graduate career, my focus has changed.

Now, I allow myself to write terrible first drafts because I realize I write better with low expectations. After writing the first draft, I then go back and spend the majority of my time making sense of and revising the nonsense that somehow made it onto the page. I have learned the value and the necessity of editing. This is probably why I have come to enjoy editing so much. 

It’s no surprise then, that editing manuscripts is one of my favorite parts of interning at Autumn House Press. I love offering suggestions to writers because I know the editing process is what truly transforms the manuscript into something memorable.   

There is a great satisfaction that comes from helping writers. One of the most enjoyable parts of editing, however, is that its positive effects are reciprocal. Some people say that editing other writers’ work drains their creative energy. I’m the exact opposite. Duquesne has prepared me to read as an editor and because I go into any given piece looking for ways to improve the draft, I am also simultaneously hyperaware of improving my own writing. 

Just recently I read the winning manuscript from Autumn House’s previous Fiction contest. I fell in love with it immediately; the writer has an astounding handle on voice and is able to write characters that are both extremely quirky and extremely relatable. And her prose! I was so lost in her words that I didn’t even realize my time at the office was up until the Editor-in-Chief called me over.

What I want to emphasize is this: being a graduate student at Duquesne has inspired me to read critically and reflectively. Reading is no longer just a matter of asking what do I like about this story? but also, why do I like it? What can I learn from it?

In the graduate classroom, I read critically because I am constantly seeking new ways to dissect a text. As an editor at Autumn House, I read critically because I want to improve the author’s manuscript, sure, but also because I want to improvemywriting.

I constantly note the flaws other writers make— their unconscious reliance on passive voice, their overuse of commas, their abrupt tense shifts, and overdramatic dialogue tags (this is one of my biggest pet peeves as an editor!)— and I now realize when and where those same mistakes occur in my writing.

It’s as they say: you learn from doing. In this case though, there’s a lot to be gained from reading with writing in mind. Since becoming a graduate student at Duquesne, I’ve become a lot more aware of this in general. Now, even if I read a story I really dislike, I ask myself: why? And then: What could I do better?

I have my education at Duquesne to thank for this more hyperaware approach to editing, but my experiences at Autumn House have taught me how to use that hyperawareness as a framework for my creative writing. 

As a writer, I think write, edit, revise

As an editor, I think edit, revise, write.

Because at the end of the day, editing is just as much an act of self-discovery as writing is, even when those edits are being made on a different manuscript!

— Chelsea Abdullah

To Edit or Not to Edit, that is the question…

I am beginning to realize that it is alwaysa question.

I have since learned that I am not the only person experiencing this uncertainty. Every day I come into Autumn House, I overhear some manuscript-related conversation between the editors and their authors. Originally, I had thought editors had the final, decisive say in edits.

As it turns out, this is not the case. A writer’s relationship with their editor is not like a student-professor relationship. Whereas a professor is an authority a student must necessarily listen to in order to become a better writer (and to get a good grade), an author does not need to take advice from an editor.

I have noticed the awareness of this situation in the editor commentary provided on drafts. Rather than reorganizing the text themselves, editors write suggestions. I have learned that not even grammar and structure are objective. I have suggested many edits on poetry manuscripts, only to be told that these elements do not need to be changed because they are part of the writer’s unique style.  

It turns out that though editors can decide a writer’s fate, they cannot decide the fate of a manuscript. Sometimes as I edit, I have to stop and ask myself: Is this a part of the writer’s style? Am I unintentionally asserting my opinion over theirs? And then, will the author want to take my advice if I offer it?

I had this experience just recently with a second draft of a unique, absurdist-like manuscript. The writing is intriguing and dream-like, the content equal parts provocative and elusive. Because of the nature of the writing, I had to resist the urge to markup everything that seemed off-key. 

My academically-inclined mind kept thinking there are too many fragments! I had to stop and tell myself that the writer’s style was the writer’s style, and that the manuscript was chosen for that uniqueness. So I did what the other editors did: I wrote my comments as suggestions rather than commentary, often finishing the thought with a question mark.  

Undoubtedly, I have learned to be a better editor through my work at Duquesne. My handle on grammar and voice has increased exponentially since I started grad school. I have realized, however, that The Editor in the academic world has a lot more power than The Editor in the publishing world, at least were changes are concerned. In the end, creative editors cater to their writers. 

To edit or not to edit? Is this my opinion or a necessary change? These are the questions that fill my mind on a daily basis as I work at Autumn House. 

Thankfully, my experiences these past few weeks have not been limited to this existential drama. Just yesterday I did a photoshoot with the office pup, Rosie, for a #Worldpoetryday post. We stacked up every single Autumn House poetry collection and spent a good portion of time trying to get Rosie to pose for a photo to combine with the post. After 30+ photos, we decided on this one:

I don’t fancy myself a photographer, but I’m rather proud of this one. If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s this: every office should have an office animal– for the photo ops! 

In general, I have been working more frequently with Autumn House’s social media accounts and learning to master the professional voice required for each. Outside of social media and editorial work, I have also been working on a review for Autumn House’s Coal Hill Review. 

My book review will feature The Martin Chronicles, a book written by Duquesne’s very own John Fried. You’ll get to read more of my opinions on it when the review comes out, but I highly recommend it! It’s such a charming, melancholy piece of work. 

— Chelsea Abdullah

Small Press, Big Joys.

With graduation just around the corner, one question hangs ominously above my head: What next?

Will I be getting a PhD? A job? When I confirm to people that it is likely I will begin looking for a job in publishing, I inevitably get this follow-up question: so, will you be moving to New York?

Most publishing professionals will tell you the heart of publishing is in New York. I attended the Denver Publishing Institute last summer, and I’d estimate that about 97% of the editors there told me that if I wanted to get into trade publication, my best bet would be to go to New York. Most trade publication (that is, publication for a general rather than academic audience) is located there. 

Before I began working at Autumn House Press, I had my heart set on going to New York. Since becoming an intern here, however, I have begun to appreciate the perks of working at an independent press. The most notable perk? The simple fact that even the smallest successes are celebrated with such excitement. 

Three Autumn House Press books were released on Thursday, some of which I’d even had the privilege of skimming over before publication. Conveniently, the Spring 2019 releases happened to fall on World Book Day. When I suggested we do a joint release advertisement + #WorldBookDay social media post, the head editor was immediately for it.

This was my first time working with the press’ social media accounts. What I loved most about the experience was seeing just how excited everyone in the office was when I posted them. 

While bigger presses inevitably have to prioritize advertisement for certain releases, Autumn House puts equal effort into advertising all of their books. Since working at the press, I have seen firsthand how much care goes into every project. Every little step forward is celebrated, even if it’s just a small social media campaign. 

In addition, the office itself is extremely laidback, and this makes the work feel less like WORK. (Bolded and capitalized here for the sake of appearing ominous)

When I markup edits, I use official Chicago Style but am still allowed to be informal. “Maybe this?” I write in the margins. “How about we consider moving this paragraph over here?” Recently, I was allowed the privilege of looking at an upcoming fiction release and was able to recommend substantial developmental edits in this informal voice. 

I take my work–– both editorial and creative–– quite seriously, but the relaxed atmosphere of the office makes even the serious work enjoyable. I cannot help but come into the office with a smile.

(You would smile too if, every time you entered the office, the assistant editor’s small dog greeted you at the front door! Even better: she’s so excitable she hops. The best: she immediately sits on my lap when I get settled at my desk and nuzzles her head into my shoulder when begging for attention. It goes without saying that I always cave to her demands…)

What I’m getting at is this: Autumn House Press is small, but the joys are not. As someone who appreciates showcasing and highlighting unique narratives, the press’s goal really resonates with me. I think, had I not become an English graduate student at Duquesne, I would not have the same kind of appreciation for this goal. 

The Duquesne faculty, after all, have encouraged me to experiment with and bring unique narratives to the foreground. So much of my graduate work here has inspired the way I view literature and it has, I think, given me an appreciation for literature that is more obscure.  

Having come to appreciate this type of literature more, and after having worked on showcasing more unique and personal voices at Autumn House, I cannot help but feel more inclined to go job searching for a smaller, more intimate workspace. 

It’s the little things in life that bring me joy, and I’m beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, a smaller press might be where I find myself in the future. (Bonus points if they have an adorable dog!)  

—Chelsea Abdullah

How “good” is “good enough?”

What does it mean for a piece of writing to be “good?”

In school, there are rubrics, criteria a student can refer to in order to make sure they will do well on their paper. Sure, the language on the rubrics can be a little vague— but ultimately, so long as the student puts in a certain amount of effort, aptly illustrates their point, and polishes their writing, their essay will at least be “good enough” to receive a satisfactory score. 

But what about a manuscript? A piece of writing that does not strive to meet expectations so much as exceed them? How does a writer make their work stand out to an editor? An agent? As an aspiring writer, I have been mulling over these questions for awhile.

Different writers will give you different pieces of advice, of course. But to consider this from the author’s perspective is one thing, to see it as an editor is another entirely. Though I am only the first of many readers to look over submissions at Autumn House Press, my initial yea or nay is taken into consideration by staff when they decide whether or not to give something a second read-through.

Initially, I gave lots of manuscripts the green light. “It has potential!” I would say, or “these characters seem promising!” In those early screenings, potential and promising both seemed “good enough” to merit a second read. I couldn’t help but view the manuscript through a writer’s perspective, imagining how much heart and soul had been poured into every word.

After about a month of doing this, however, I realized potential wasn’t “good enough.” As my perspective has shifted from writer to editor, I’ve come to realize that what a writer might find interesting, a reader will find distracting. What a writer might find ‘creative,’ an editor might find difficult to sell.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking more along the lines of Autumn House’s publication history. Is this similar to what Autumn House has published? Would their audience appreciate it? 

Just a few days ago I read a memoir that felt very much like metafiction. In it, the author calls out her audience and makes fun of her own writing. I immediately fell in love with it. (Anyone who knows me will know I am a metafiction fiend)

From a reader’s perspective, I loved it immensely. But as an intern at Autumn House? I realized the narrative was probably too melodramatic for the press.

Though I still expressed my profound love for the manuscript in my commentary, I also voiced those concerns. The manuscript was “good” –– better than good–– but I wasn’t entirely sure it met Autumn House’s “good enough.”

This new process of reviewing fiction is an extremely useful shift for me, especially as someone who hopes to be on the other side of this process someday. There are an insane amount of talented writers out there. “Good enough” relies not just on the value of their manuscript, but also on how it compares to other submissions.

Exceeding expectations is great but meeting them is maybe just as important. There may not be a clear-cut rubric for submissions, but there  is usually a mission statement from the press, and a publishing record. Things that highlight what the press is looking for.

Sometimes, it pays off to write something wildly innovative. But, that being said, just as in academia, research is important. The first part of impressing an editor (or in this case, a very passionate, thumbs-up-happy intern) is to submit a story that follows the press’s invisible rubric.

I’ve had both the pleasure and displeasure of seeing what comes after that process. This week, I created the “rejection” template for writers who didn’t make the cut. (My heart broke a little when I sent it in to the Editor-in-Chief) I also, however, got to see the responses from writers who did make it. I couldn’t help but smile when one writer wrote back that he referred to the acceptance when he was going through difficult times.

There’s a lot of rejection in the publishing industry. And yet, the fact that acceptance is so rare makes it so much more valuable–– for both the reader and the editor. 

Chelsea Abdullah

Taste is in the eye of the editor

A text can be read in many different ways. 

I believe this message is one of the more valuable takeaways from an English degree. So long as you make a compelling argument for the way you read a text, that argument is valid.

Personal analysis shapes an individual’s taste, which is surprisingly central to manuscript revision. If readers have different tastes, then it goes without saying that editors, who are really just readers-with-a-little-more-power, are no different. As I explained in my previous post, one of my responsibilities at Autumn House Press is screening manuscripts and deciding whether or not they merit a second read-through. 

Inevitably, taste factors into my opinion of the text. I knew this going in to my internship, but I had no idea how deeply taste impacted the editor’s decision. 

There was one manuscript, for instance, that I ultimately passed on because it was “telling more than it was showing,” had characters that were “unrealistic,” and writing that was “too wordy.” Naturally, my opinion on this manuscript was only one of many. There are two other interns at Autumn House Press who screen, and the press also hires people out-of-house. 

A few days ago, as I was screening, I couldn’t help but notice that the manuscript I’d reviewed had been looked at by another editor, and that the rating was higher. Curious to see the feedback the editor had provided, I clicked on the manuscript and read what she had written. I was startled by her appraisal.

Where I had seen an over-the-top narrative, she had seen parody. Where I had seen unrealistic characters, she had seen satire. I spent quite a while reading over that review, second-guessing my own reading of the text. Had I read it wrong? Been too critical? 

In the end, it was the wisdom I’d gained from my English education that put me at ease. It was not that I’d read the text wrong, only that I’d read it differently. It was not until I saw a notable discrepancy between reviews that I realized how important taste was in editorial decisions.

Many authors will tell you that tenacity is a necessity in the publishing industry, and that the road to success is paved with rejections from editors. As an aspiring author myself, I know from experience that this is because taste in literature is subjective. But coming at it from an editorial perspective is enlightening. “Anxious writer” and “critical editor” are two very different perspectives.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then taste in the eye of the editor. To experience this firsthand shows just how subjective the publishing industry is as a whole. Though it is the editor’s job to look for quality writing, they are, first and foremost, looking for literature they find personally engaging. I am still mastering that balance myself and, to that end, have been reading the responses of other editors to broaden my own perspective.

Other editing responsibilities from these past two weeks have included copyediting, writing out more detailed opinions on considered manuscripts and–– I am very excited about this one–– developmental edits! These edits are my favorite because they allow me to offer the author and editor feedback on how to reorganize and/or rewrite the manuscript to read more effectively. It is the type of editorial work an English major is particularly good at, as we have experience analyzing literature on a deeply conceptual level. 

Outside of editorial work, I’ve been learning more about the industry as a whole: the difference between an advance reader’s copy and a galley (one is a put-together version of a book sent out to early reviewers, and the other is a compilation of the pages in an organized, but less artful form), the construction of royalty forms, the considerations behind a strong social media platform…

The list goes on. It is impossible to write about all of my experiences concisely but, suffice it to say, I have learned a great deal already. Not just about the publishing industry, but also about myself as a reader and editor. It’s hard to believe that it hasn’t even been a month yet.

As always, I am looking forward to learning more, editing more and, voracious bookworm that I am, reading more!

-Chelsea Abdullah

Humble Beginnings

“But what’s your point?”

This question, more than any other, echoes in my mind every time I compose. It can be phrased multiple ways depending on the situation: Where’s your thesis? Or perhaps Where’s your hook? Either way, the question has become such a central part of my writing process that I cannot begin writing without theme or purpose. Most writers will know this feeling. We have been hardwired in school to be aware of our theses, to always have a point to our writing. 

But it is one thing to be told this is important and another to understand why. My recent editing experiences at Autumn House Press are one such situation where the why has become apparent to me. Though editing is not all I do at the press, it has become one of my most important (and most enjoyable) responsibilities. My specific obligations as an editor involve scanning (ascertaining whether submissions are worth reading in full) and copyediting. 

The former is not a full scan. I am tasked with skimming 80-300 pages of poetry, nonfiction or fiction and voting on whether or not it is worth a full readthrough. For efficiency’s sake, every scan takes no more than twenty minutes. When I first started scanning, I was at a loss. How could I ascertain a manuscript’s potential in twenty minutes? 

Hook, that’s how. Hook, skim, ending. The first day of my internship, the head-editor advised I read the beginning and ending of the work to form an opinion on its potential. Is the introduction strong? Is the hook promising? Does the manuscript have a consistent voice? Is the writing evocative? Has the ending been carefully crafted? These are the types of questions I ask myself when I scan. The procedure has only further solidified the so what? question in my mind.

Thankfully, this question has been so engrained into me as an English student that it is not such a difficult mindset to take on for this internship. English majors are, by their very nature, tenacious editors and careful readers. It is thus no surprise that my experiences as an English graduate student have helped finetune my editing skills. Close-reading experience has made spotting inconsistencies within any given text easier, and grammar–– well, grammar is never easy, but it’s definitely a lot less intimidating after accumulating so much writing and editing experience.

Other than the editorial work, I have been tasked with doing other in-office tasks that, while seemingly mundane, are imperative to polishing a manuscript. One such task involved carefully comparing a PDF of a finished manuscript to the designer’s printed version. I spent more than an hour staring between the printouts and the screen and, when at last a consistency error appeared–– “grey” rather than “gray” –– I struck it off the page with a grin so manic that anyone watching might have been concerned for my state of mind.

Suffice it to say, such tasks are meticulous, but they’re also extremely important. And, though many people raise an eyebrow when I confess this, it’s the kind of work I enjoy. There is something truly humbling about being one of the first people to read a writer’s work. Even more awe-inspiring is being a part of the process that transforms that work from a cloudy gem to a sparkling treasure. 

Everything I have thus far done in-office has been enlightening. Even the simple task of constructing a calendar of literary events has made me more aware of the type of planning and timing that goes into advertising creative work. The Autumn House Press staff are all extremely friendly and are always happy to answer my questions about the publishing industry. 

It’s only been one week, and yet I can already say I have gained valuable insight into the world of publishing. I am very much looking forward to diving even deeper into this world! 

– Chelsea Abdullah