My Color, Your Color: On Editing and Writing Fiction


by Lisa Marie Basile

Selecting Submissions

My experience in literary journal editing is always changing. I am always learning something new, and I am in love with the ever-changing nature of the literary world. What I’ve learned is a work in progress.

My love for literary editing started when I was an editor for my high school’s literary journal, Folio. I was also associate editor for Pace University’s annual literary magazine, Aphros. From the beginning, I saw a myriad of flaws in the literary editing process. In high school, the students employed the anonymous reading method. All the while, the students knew whose work belonged to whom and the collection seemed to be largely dictated by popularity.

In college, the editors -- though superbly intelligent, passionate and dedicated --seemed to have no definitive criteria upon which they selected work. At the end of the day, most of the work chosen was solid. However, I couldn’t help but notice the poorly written work that slipped in and the excellent submissions that were passed upon.

As a writer, I’ve been at the receiving end of rejections and acceptances. I’ve had one magazine tell me my work was “formulaic, under-developed” and “un-American.” The same pieces were later called “unpredictable, deeply intoxicating” and “culturally rich.”

Of course each journal and each editor has their own preference (me being one of them) but when editing, I believe it is of utmost importance to edit work consistently. That means two things: 1) the author’s bio shouldn’t matter—selection isn’t based on a popularity contest, and 2) works both accepted and rejected should have a reason that relates to the specific journal’s needs.

When rejecting a submission I sometimes ask for more work to read. I won’t provide general reasons for rejection (too this or too that or not enough this). If it doesn’t work for Caper, it may work beautifully for another journal.

One of the best things about editing a small literary journal is that I’m able to select stories with a fresh sound and a new narrator. I get a lot of work from writers who write perfect prose with safe, easy, rounded-out plots and characters. Sometimes academic writing works. Other times, I prefer a messier story with some blood. Being neat and clean makes a good surgeon, but being a compassionate, sincere person makes a good doctor. The same is true for writers. I’ll take a split infinitive and a beautiful character over a perfectly written, contrived Mersault any day.

Editing Fiction

I have a great deal of respect for editors who have a hand in shaping their writers’ work. One editor I’ve worked with helped me eliminate some passive sentence structures that made the piece much better in the end. On the other hand, some writers I know have had their work altogether changed—verbs, descriptions, adjectives, plot points.

When I edit fiction for Caper, I tend to leave most of the work unedited, save for major errors or other unclear points. If I select a work for publication, I do so based on its unedited strength. I try to take the writer hat off when editing. Of course there are words or sentences I think would work better. But I’m not filling my journal with my own work.

At the end of the day, every writer’s work is its own color. I adore a sad maroon, but I also respect brick red, the color of a rose and the hue of dried blood. My vision may be the color of marigolds, but if yours isn’t, what right do I have to paint it in my own way? I make a point not to drastically edit work or change its original voice and tone. I can edit work for errors, but not for lifeblood. While some work just isn’t good, the work I reject generally is passed upon because it doesn’t fit Caper’s needs. People should always read a journal before submitting to it.

Good Fiction

When writing and editing my own work, particularly literary fiction—I keep in mind one factor: Are my characters honest? Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” says that your characters are who you should be listening to—not your plot, not your heart, not your own perspective. When writing, I start with the who. I then thread the world around that character. What are they seeing, feeling, wanting? What makes them hurt, love, hate, fear? People are my ribbons, and they tie the story together by the first and last words.

I see many stories whose characters aren’t sincere. They’re built around bits and pieces of this character and that character and they talk like they are being prompted by someone whispering in their ear. If your character wouldn’t say something, don’t use the sentence just because you think it sounds great. What did the character tell you to write?

Knowing good fiction is different for everyone, but I believe one of the most powerful aspects of fiction is its ability to influence, intrigue, move and inspire the reader. I’m always being inspired by good fiction, and it makes me feel I could explode.

Lisa Marie Basile is a poet, writer and journalist living in New York City. Her book, A Decent Voodoo, will be published by Cervena Barva Press, and she has had work featured in Poets & Artists Magazine, The Moon Milk Review, Feile-Festa, Dew on the Kudzu, CommonLine Journal, Vox Poetica, Melusine, Medulla Review and many others. She has won six writing awards from Pace University, and is a Creative Writing MFA candidate at The New School University in NYC. She is editor-in-chief of Caper Literary Journal and of the anthology Vwa: Poems for Haiti. She wishes she lived in the deserts of New Mexico. Visit her at

Photo credit: Constantin Barbu


Princess Ida said...

I wonder though, if you shouldn't be more proactive in your editing?

"I can edit work for errors, but not for lifeblood". Sure. But lifeblood can also be drained by lack of focus in a piece.

Andrew Motion, announcing the Booker shortlist recently, said that some of those put forward were "quite shockingly in want of a decent edit". If they had been given that treatment maybe they would have got further than the longlist?

"I’ll take a split infinitive and a beautiful character over a perfectly written, contrived Mersault any day."

I don't think it has to be that polarised. The beautiful character could be so much more vivid if the readers aren't distracted by the writing. A knowledge of the workings of grammar does matter to many people and it doesn't make them sterile.

(I concede that no-one cares about split infinitives any more.)

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

I wonder though, if you shouldn't be more proactive in your editing?

At the end of the day, Lisa does indeed edit for her literary journal for errors; and The Caper Literary Journal is one of the finest I've read:Link text. Her writing is magical, and her mind creative. That is why her work appears in this magazine.

Princess Ida said...

Hmmm...Where did I imply Lisa was not a good writer?

I was hoping for more of a debate on the role of the editor, not a closedown because I dared to question.

I'll get my coat then.

Lisa Marie Basile said...

Dear Ida,

Thanks for the comment.

I understand you completely. It should be said that I'm not taking on work that has a need to be seriously edited.

There is a fine line between not being proactive and not playing writer when I should be editing.

I've not encountered or published a gorgeous story with great potential that is simply riddled with errors. So to that extent I agree with you — I'd either be very focused on editing it (if I believed it worth it) or I'd simply decline the piece.

My point wasn't to discuss my lack of attention as an editor. I agree, good grammar is not only necessary but yes — essential — when conveying the points of a good story.

But I wasn't talking specifically about grammar. I was using a generalization. I was talking about the author taking creative liberties, maybe not being as clean and "correct" as one could be — in order to convey such the "lifeblood" of that story.

Sometimes it works surprisingly well. And sometimes, it absolutely does not, I agree.

Lisa Marie Basile said...

Ida, it should also be said that I have seen stories in want of a decent edit. I agree with Motion.

Thanks for the discussion! It's definitely welcome.

Princess Ida said...

Hello Calamity Jane - thanks for coming back!

No I wasn't trying to imply to you were "lacking attention" as an editor, more that I was interested in how far the editor should intervene in the material. (I'm not all that hung up on grammar, except when it's really jarring. And I kind of think people need to know the rules in order to break them effectively, as and when.)

You favour the more hands-off approach, worrying that you are "playing writer". I wonder if the fact that you ARE an experienced writer means you can play writer a bit more as an editor, without necessarily changing the essence or thrust of someone else's work? Maybe, maybe not.

I know what you mean about people writing "correctly" at the expense of the storytelling though. I work in radio and it's a constant battle to get people to speak conversationally, as they would in everyday life, rather than sounding as if they are reading out an essay. We have to forcibly remove notes that people have written for themselves sometimes to stop it all sounding scripted. And even when it IS scripted, it still has to sound as if it isn't!

Lisa Marie Basile said...

Hi Ida,

I understand that. That's got to be hard! Everyone wants something that sounds fresh. I usually just ask the writer if they feel comfortable with me snipping, tightening or working around something that I think is preventing the piece from being its strongest. Writing is a creative, subjective universe! I love it, but steering through it can be tricky. I'm not sure if I'm hands-off entirely, but I do trust my writers. Time will tell. We all grow and change. Thanks so much for reading!