Editr: Interview with Mike Ingram


So, as you know, I’ve been trying to figure out how editing can be taught and learned. As part of that project, I reached out to Mike Ingram, one of the founding editors, and current fiction editor, for Barrelhouse, one of my favorite lit mags. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Mike lives in Philadelphia, where he’s a lecturer at Temple University. His stories have appeared, most recently, in Epoch, The Southeast Review, and Eyeshot. We talked over email last week.

Like all great editors, Mike only drinks unicorn plasma. From a wine glass. Through a coffee stirrer.

BF: Tell me about your start in editing. What was your first experience?

MI: My first editorial experience was outside the realm of fiction. Prior to graduate school in creative writing I worked for several years as an editor and reporter for a couple different publications in Washington, D.C. While journalism is obviously different from fiction in some important ways, that editing experience taught me a lot about concision–figuring out how to say something in five words instead of ten, cutting the fluff, often by necessity. Writers and editors often talk about the need to “kill your darlings”–passages you might love but which ultimately aren’t necessary for a story–and there’s no better way to learn that skill than knowing you’ve got to turn ten column-inches into seven and you can’t leave for happy hour until you’ve done it.

In terms of fiction, I think I began learning to edit by taking workshop classes, both as an undergraduate and, later, as a grad student. I didn’t really think of that critique process as “editing,” per se, but it seems clear to me now that by participating in those workshops–being forced to articulate my gut-level responses to stories in a way that went beyond personal, emotional reaction–I was learning a lot about how stories worked, or didn’t.

In my second year of grad school, I took a class with Charles D’Ambrosio,  who turned out to be a pretty brilliant editor. He had a real knack for figuring out what was wrong with a story and tying it back to specific, seemingly small narrative choices. He’d pick up on these patterns in your writing, ways you tended to undercut a story’s tension, or places where the point of view went wonky, these little moments that ended up having monster effects on the story as a whole. He’d say things like, “What if that character didn’t answer his friend’s question here, but instead dodged it?” And we’d all go, “Whoa!” because it was suddenly obvious that was such a better choice.

So that’s a skill I’ve tried to develop as an editor. Instead of saying things like, “I think there could be more tension between these guys,” or “Maybe the conflict could be deepened,” actually trying to find the places in the text where that stuff’s happening, to make those suggestions as concrete as possible.

BF: I like what you’re saying about locating the right pressure point in a text. How do you locate those points? How do you know them when you see them?

MI: As an editor, you can see someone’s story more objectively than they can see it, so you can recognize patterns the writer might not be aware of. It’s hard to generalize, because every story’s different. But here’s an example of a story that came up in my workshop class (at Temple).
The story was about a late-adolescent narrator who was flying cross-country to see his father, who he hadn’t seen in several years and with whom he’d always had a rocky relationship. The first part of the story takes place on the plane, and is mostly setting things up–we get to see some of his past interactions with his dad, learn a bit of family history, etc. Then the plane lands, and there’s a space break. The first line after the break is something like, “The next few days were terribly awkward.”

That, to me, was an obvious pressure point. While the story circles back, in the next few sentences, to show us a little of that awkwardness–including the first moment of meeting in the airport–it does so from the remove of past action, and it’s all summarized. And I said to the writer, “Look, this is a potentially powerful moment, when he steps off the plane and sees his dad, and whatever happens in those first moments, we really need to see it. Not just see it but really feel it, be IN it.” The story had invented this strategy to basically let him avoid having to write that difficult, but important scene. I’m sure it was subconscious on the writer’s part. It’s not like he literally sat down and thought, “Oh, shit, this is going to be hard. How do I get out of it?” But on some level I think that’s what was going on. I’ve done the same thing in my own writing, plenty of times.

When I’m working with a writer we’re going to publish in Barrelhouse, obviously the story’s already good, and I really like it. We get so many submissions that if the story makes it to the editing stage, it’s doing a lot of things right. So then it’s just fine-tuning, or maybe challenging the writer to push him/herself a little more, to make a good story even stronger. Though there have been cases where I liked a lot of things about a story but didn’t think it was quite there, and I’ve gone back to the writer and said, “Hey, here are some revision suggestions, if you might like to take another crack at this and then resubmit.” Those can be tricky, because we’re not guaranteeing that we’ll take the revised version. But often we do, and it always makes me happy.

BF: What does your editing process look like?

MI: Do you mean the actual method of editing? Since it tends to be long-distance, it’s all electronic. If I’m at the point of making line edits, I’ll mark up a story in Word with the track changes function on, and insert some comments to differentiate between copyedits and suggestions (that can be a tricky area–sometimes I’ll have an idea for a word change or a cut or a little reorganization, but want to make clear I’m totally fine with the writer vetoing it). In other cases, if the suggestions are broader, I’ll try to sum them up in an email, and insert some comments into the document itself to connect those more general comments with specific moments in the story.

And sometimes I’ll make a first suggestion that’s pretty hands off, which is just to cut a certain number of words. A lot of really good stories can benefit from a general tightening. My feeling is that giving the writer a word-count goal forces him or her to be really hard on his/her own prose, to be an unmerciful self-editor.

I once heard George Saunders talk about his first New Yorker acceptance. Evidently the fiction editor came back to him and said something like, “Hey, we really love this story, but do you think you could cut 1,500 words?” Which he did, as painful as he found the experience, and when he sent the story back the editor asked him to cut another 1,000, then another 500 after that. Saunders said the final story was much better than the original, since the process forced him to do more with less, to slice out all the unnecessary stuff, even if it was stuff he liked. Apparently his process with the New Yorker has kept that dynamic through nearly all the stories he’s published there.

So that stuck with me, and became something I’ll do with my own writing, giving myself an arbitrary goal to cut X number of words from a draft (it’s kind of fun, actually … writing as a vocation offers very few math-related tasks). I don’t suggest that for all the stories we accept for Barrelhouse, but if a story feels a little saggy or too meandering, I might ask the writer if he/she could try cutting, say, 500 words.

BF: Last question: what are the keys to being a good editor?

MI: Well, I can only speak for myself, though I’ve been on both sides of the writer-editor equation. To me, a good editor is willing to fully engage with the story, to read it as generously as possible and try to take it on its own terms. I think that’s especially true with fiction, where writers have distinct styles and there are fewer hard-and-fast rules than in, say, journalism.

I was thinking about this just the other day as I was suggesting some final edits for a story that will be in Issue 11 of Barrelhouse. I was staring at a comma and trying to decide whether it should be a semicolon. Grammatically, it probably should have been a semicolon. But was this the kind of story that wanted to use semicolons? Had the writer used them elsewhere? What would a semicolon do to the rhythm of the sentence, and would that be a good or a bad thing?

Ultimately, I put in a note that led to a little back and forth with the writer, the kind of thing a lot of people might find pedantic. When I sent the initial email, a part of me expected the writer to make fun of me. I was prepared to be made fun of. But in the end, the writer seemed excited that I’d given it so much thought, and we had this pseudo-philosophical conversation about semicolons, and in the end we both geekily admitted this was the kind of thing that got us excited, because we’re writer-nerds.

Anyway, I like having those kinds of conversations, both as an editor and as a writer. There’s an investment there. A sense that language matters, and that stories themselves matter.

I also feel a constant tug between wanting to be prescriptive and wanting to be more hands-off. It’s hard for me sometimes to not just rewrite sentences, to not be a kind of Gordon Lish. But I’d rather make suggestions, or raise questions, so the writer’s story remains their own. I like it to be a dialogue.