The members of MIR's editorial team set themselves seven questions as a way of describing and evaluating the experience of working on The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 7 (MIR7). Here are their answers.
- What do you think you got out of it?
- What did you enjoy most or least about the editing experience?
- What makes an editorial team great?
- How does MIR7 compare to previous issues?
- How do you think MIR7 compares with other anthologies of its nature?
- What did you like most/least about the outcome?
What do you think you got out of it?
What did I get out of it? I had no idea what was involved in the publishing process when I began work on The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 7 (MIR7), so the elucidation of that process was a very important aspect for me, from inviting contributions to reading all 80 or so submissions; drawing up longlists, then shortlists, and arguing for personal favourites to arrive at a consensus within the editorial team on the final selections; and then taking responsibility for closer editing of stories with “my” authors. I very much enjoyed the editing relationship with my authors and felt quite possessive of them.
There is a lot of mundane administrative work too: maintaining the contacts database, getting quotes, budgeting, drafting letters, replying to emails, stuffing envelopes and so on. There are designers, artists and printers to deal with. Publicity materials. Are we supplying the pdf? Yes we are. Matt or gloss? Matt, please. Courier companies. What’s the postcode? I’ve told them twice, will they deliver to the correct address? Wine merchants and caterers. How much fizz? Should we have pies?
Teamwork is crucial. Different members of the team had different strengths; roles were undertaken to suit individuals and delegated accordingly. A high degree of motivation and energy are needed. As pressure builds there are emotional incidents and tempers can fray.
There is a huge release of breath when the books arrive just in time. Looking great!
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What did you enjoy most or least about the editing experience?
We read through more than 80 short-story submissions for the seventh issue of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. It was a colourful team effort as we sifted, then long- and shortlisted the stories. Based on a collectively defined vision statement (plus seven assorted literary sensibilities), we conversed and deliberated our way towards the final selections. It was a relief to reach that point in the process.
Waving bye-bye to a character, setting or “killer line” in a favoured story, or having to oblige by a piece for which there was less affinity or fondness, was only half the discomfort. The quality of submissions was excellent overall, but if the piece did not match the vision, if it could not sit in sequence, or it was pipped at the post by a slightly stronger story with a similar subject, then it was rejected. Part of the publishing process is letting go of good writing. It is give and take, with the best interests of the publication at heart.
Having won the war, the team divided into groups to begin editing the stories with individual authors, which was a great experience. It was an opportunity to partake in the creative practice of producing short fiction. It had me at paragraph one, enlivened and absorbed.
On meeting with the first of my authors, behind the smiles and hello greetings, there was a hint of pensiveness. I silently wondered how much I would be permitted to contribute to the work. After all, we can all be precious over our creative efforts. And, who knew? My author may have been weighing up how much of a hatchet job was about to take place! Consequently, we were at the South Bank Centre in Central London, a public place with plenty of people around, thus reducing the odds of any unfavourable outburst on either side. Thankfully, the meeting seemed to flow in the right direction.
Prior to publication, the story “belongs” to the author, the seed of an idea that has blossomed in their imagination. Who better to select the best changes and edits to enhance the work?
It was my job as an editor to get the author swiftly to the crux of an issue, which seemed to open the door to a genuine creative partnership. I asked leading questions, and shared my overall and detailed impressions of the narrative. I enjoyed the intelligent creative to-ing and fro-ing on syntax, on diction, on structure, etc. until the point at which editor and author were down to the minutiae, the place of finer tuning, prior to copy-editing. The author developed creative solutions, crafted new sentences, devised clearer plot transitions. The author maintained a sense of ownership, the ideal situation for the work. The author’s commitment remained intact, if not strengthened.
Storytelling is truth in fiction – a contradiction in terms. However, creative partnership between editor and author can allow truth to be told, which can in turn allow for great fiction writing.
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What makes an editorial team great?
One thing that helps to make an editorial team great is a range of approaches and personalities. For example, when selecting which stories we wanted to include in MIR7 we had lots of passionate and interesting debates, and “fought” for certain stories and to enable other members of the team to see why we felt strongly about them. The ability to compromise was also important and I think that our team showed this. We all had quite strong preferences and opinions when it came to making decisions, but were able to come to a group consensus when needed and make necessary choices for MIR.
We also played to our strengths in selecting what roles people should take on, for example we made sure that the job of budgeting went to someone with experience in that area. Co-operation is also important, and the willingness to help out when any member of the team is feeling over-burdened. Similarly an eagerness to volunteer for jobs and spread the workload evenly helped us to get along and meet deadlines.
Another thing that helped us as a team was a shared sense of pride in being able to create the vision for MIR7 and make the decisions that would shape this year’s magazine. I think that we all felt proud of what we were trying to achieve and thus tried to make it the best it could be. This attitude helped to keep us motivated in the face of the work that needed to be done. We also had a united set of goals that came from our vision statement, which helped to remind us what we were trying to accomplish with MIR7.
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How does MIR7 compare to previous issues?
When I first contemplated joining the editorial team of The Mechanics’ Institute Review it was hard to ignore the gigantic footsteps of previous editors and their renowned successes. Just take a glance at the numerous quotations that adorn the covers of former issues and the impressive list of guest contributors – Ali Smith, Sarah Waters and T. C. Boyle to mention but a few.
MIR was established in 2004 and its first issue sold out in no time. Many MIR editors have gone on to publish that notorious first novel or are instrumental authorities in the field of professional writing – publishers, editors &/or lecturers.
It is therefore needless to say that on starting out as a MIR editor the legacy of excellence was a bit intimidating. But as time went on and the vision and aims that we defined as a team started to manifest, the group trusted in the subscribed process which had worked for other editorial teams before ours. We could draw upon previous experience and marry this experience with our own aesthetic values. This was made possible by the fact that there was a robust support system in place – superb supervision, admin support, typesetting and other professional contacts. So instead of worrying about the product we simply adapted documents and schedules until it seemed as straightforward as painting – or rather publishing – by numbers. Principles and standards that had at first seemed limiting allowed us to focus on creative aspects of the task, i.e. the choosing and editing of stories. Saying that, there were a few moments of suspense and doubt but due to hard work and patience we pulled through. In time we gained the confidence to challenge and expand previous standards and in terms of quality this year’s issue is one of the seven best.
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How do you think MIR7 compares with other anthologies of its nature?
The Mechanics’ Institute Review showcases fresh new writing produced with the help of a fresh new editorial outlook.
The main difference between The Mechanics’ Institute Review (MIR) and other anthologies of work produced by students on creative writing Masters degrees must lie in the fact that MIR is the only such anthology to be produced by an editorial team of current students. This gives the anthology a freshness that informs the entire process of creation, from the development of the initial concept, to the final marketing events and readings.
MIR is also the only such anthology with a rigorous selection process. It’s not enough to have been selected to study at Birkbeck. The 22 student stories in this year’s Review were chosen from over 80 submissions. The work we chose was not only of an extremely high quality, but also fitted with the vision statement we had produced in our first meetings.
The student editors produce MIR as part of their coursework, but also with a much wider audience in mind. In the UK, the short story often takes a back seat compared to other literary forms. It was a conscious decision by the editors this year to make the short story something accessible to more people. Diversity was our goal.
As students working as editors on MIR we got the opportunity to learn about the editing process from the perspective of editors as well as the perspective of authors. The student authors also gained from a more hands-on experience of being edited. MIR forms a bridge for students to the world of professional editing that may sometimes seem so far away and so impenetrable to the inexperienced writer.
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What did you like most/least about the outcome?
I guess in terms of most it has to simply be the fact that it happened. It’s been a long old 9 months, and there were dark nights when I think all of us had that fear that it just was never going to get itself physically in print. When I finally held it, I had to do a little dance, I was just ecstatic. The other thing I personally am so proud of is the illustrations. At times I fear I may have pushed a little too hard on that one – the focus is the short stories – but I love them. We talked a lot about the paper (e.g. what colour, weight and finish to have) and they work so well with it, I think they look amazing and were worth pushing for. (I would say that).
The multimedia aspect has been a bit of a mixed bag. I’m really glad it was all up and running, bringing a new angle (not very new, but a little newer) to MIR, but I wish we could have capitalised on it all. I feel this last part is when we are actually the tightest for time, and fitting in all the little bits of things to do is the hardest now rather than at the beginning. So, nice basis, just needs refining I think. And that’s now for next year’s team I reckon, on to MIR8!