Let It Go…

I’ve decided to lay aside my publishing work for a while so I can concentrate on my own writing, and the last interaction I had with a submitter was an unfortunate one.

This person had submitted a chapbook to our press, and we accepted it back in May, letting them know it would be published in September. We sent them our standard contract to sign, but it took more than three weeks for them to sign it even though it’s electronic – they only had to click a checkbox. But with four months until publication, it didn’t seem to be a huge issue. I asked for a bio and updated address, but what I got after another couple of weeks’ wait wasn’t really a bio. It read more like someone writing a letter to a distant relative, introducing themselves and catching them up. I deal with this all the time, and cleaned it up into an almost-presentable third-person bio, figuring that the author would likely want to make changes to it before publication.

In August, I sent out the proof copy of the book for sign off. The wording on the form letter accompanying the proof was something like “let us know if there are any changes to be made,” and for only the second time in the decades I’ve been an editor, someone decided this meant “you don’t actually have to reply.” This was to be the very last project our press would work on, and I was already working on other things, so when I didn’t hear from this person, I decided to save myself the time and aggravation of having to chase them down every time I needed something. I sent a note saying “since we didn’t hear anything from you, we’re rescinding our offer of publication.”

What did I think would happen? Well, I figured that at worst, I might get an apologetic note giving some excuse for their failure to respond. What I didn’t expect was several letters saying that it was my fault, and I should publish their work. The whole approach was so grating that I ended up feeling like I had dodged a bullet. I had to put together in my mind exactly why this person’s response offended me.

Mistake #1

Their first email said “The last email I received stated that if I had no problems with the layout that you were going to go ahead with how it looked like.” Grammar aside, that’s not what the email they referenced said. I don’t know if this person assumed I hadn’t sent the email, or that I wouldn’t be able to easily look up what they had been sent. If you use Submittable to accept submissions, it keeps track of all correspondence for each submission. Even if I weren’t the person who had sent out the email, a single click would pull it up so I could read it.

But also, that grammar.

Mistake #2

Minutes after sending the first email, they sent a second asking if we could still publish the work because “this is really upsetting for me.”

I get it. Realizing that you made a mistake that has cost you something important is upsetting. And the right response to that upset is to understand where the mistake was made, and be more diligent in the future. The way this person responded leads me to believe that they are the sort of person who has had people smooth things over for them in other areas of life and expects that to always be the case. As an adult, this is almost never the case, and sending a series of increasingly petulant emails is not professional.

I took pity on this person and responded to them to let them know the circumstances that led to the decision to pull their work, how another author that we accepted at the same time had responded on time and therefore had been published without issue, and said that while their work was good, no one’s work is so good that they can afford to ignore emails from publishers. I even suggested another venue for their work.

Which brings us to…

Mistake #3

They responded, doubling down on the fact that the wording of the email was ambiguous, and suggesting “Maybe you guys could’ve chosen your words more wisely, for example ‘please respond yes or no’ would’ve been more forward of an email if you guys were going to actually cut my pieces out if I simply didn’t respond!”

After sending the same form letter email to hundreds of authors and having them respond without an issue, I am unsympathetic to this person, and don’t look kindly on the insistence that this is my fault, not theirs. If an editor is kind enough to take time out of their schedule to point out your error, it would be great if the recipient understood that the editor is trying to be helpful, not trying to rub their nose in it. I have a whole lot of other demands on my time, and letting people down makes me feel terrible, so insisting that I’m the asshole in this situation doesn’t go down well.

Mistake #4

They weren’t happy that I mentioned the other person whose writing I accepted at the same time. “You said that you accepted my work at the same time you accepted someone else’s… I don’t mean to be rude but quite frankly if you accept people’s work it is not a competition … ”

Except that it is. Getting published is absolutely a competition where you are trying to give editors a good reason to publish your work, as opposed to anyone else’s. Years ago, I heard an editor from Graywolf Press say that each year, they cut from their lineup the authors who required the most attention and hand holding. At the time I was horrified, but now I get it. I have a “do not publish” list, and anyone who makes tons of unnecessary demands is added to that list. Putting together a journal is a time-intensive, laborious process, and I don’t need authors who make it worse. And for every great submission I get, there are about ten great submissions I don’t take. If I end up struggling with an author over time-wasting nonsense, it’s easier to just go with someone else.

Mistake #5

They didn’t care for my remark that no one’s work is so great that they can afford to ignore emails. “I also do NOT appreciate you inferring that I think my work is so amazing that I do not have to respond to you guys! How can you make those crass assumptions when you’ve never met me, nor know who I am?”

First, I imply. You infer. If you want to present yourself as an author, learn what the words mean.

But I didn’t imply they thought their work was so great they could be rude about it. I said that no one‘s work was so great they could afford to be rude about it. And while it’s true I never met them, their emails tell me everything I need to know. I also know that this is a person who spelled their own name wrong on their Submittable account.

They closed with “This would’ve been the first time I was ever published, I graduated college and the writing world is harsh and cold at times, and I thought something good was finally coming out of my writing.” My heart is broken at the fact that their work was decent enough to be chosen, but a lack of professionalism undermined them.

You’re Making Me Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable.

It’s a word that went from private and innocuous to a public excuse for bad behavior almost overnight. When I was a kid, if you felt uncomfortable, you either fixed whatever it was, or you shut up about it. Discomfort wasn’t seen as a thing so awful that no one should be made to endure it for more than a millisecond – people were uncomfortable with all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.

But around the time that self esteem policing (the impulse to ensure that no one is ever unhappy for any reason, and brought about such idiocy as participation trophies, third grade graduation ceremonies, and the kind of apps that take away your wrinkles and put makeup on your selfies) really got going, someone decided that the worst damage one can inflict on a human being is to make them feel “uncomfortable.”

The problem I have with other people’s expressions of discomfort is that the word “uncomfortable” is a vague, unhelpful word, and when placed in the sentence “You’re making me uncomfortable,” it asks the listener not only to decode what this particular person means by it, but also puts the burden of relieving that discomfort on the listener. Sometimes that’s absolutely appropriate, but not always.

What does “You are making me uncomfortable” mean? The answer to that varies greatly, and can give insight into who should be changing their behavior or attitudes.

You are making me…

Experience Physical Discomfort

Sometimes “uncomfortable” can be literal. Someone’s standing on your foot. Someone is invading your personal space, forcing you to stand or sit in an awkward position. Someone is touching you in a way that hurts. In that case, it’s absolutely okay to use the word “uncomfortable,” and to specifically call out what’s happening. “Can you back up? You’re pushing me against the wall and it’s uncomfortable.”

Feel Threatened

This one is trickier, and one that causes no end of argument between men and women. A man will say something personal to a woman – “You look really nice in that dress.” “Nice ass.” “Smile.” The woman responds with “You’re making me uncomfortable,” and the man comes back with “I’m just trying to pay you a compliment! I’m being nice and you’re being rude!” (Or worse.)

What men don’t take into account is that most women have had this experience before, and the way it plays out is almost never good. A man makes an observation about a woman’s body, she fails to respond with warm enthusiasm, and the man turns abusive – sometimes physically. And if the woman were to say to the man “you’re making me feel threatened,” the man would scoff at the idea.

It doesn’t even have to be as overt as an inappropriately personal comment. It can be someone staring at you the way they would stare at a product in a store window, or someone obviously talking about you to someone they’re with. Anytime someone is treated like they are not a human being with thoughts and feelings, but instead an object that exists for others’ amusement or approval, it’s easy to wonder where that objectification stops. It’s hard to call someone’s attention to the fact that they aren’t acknowledging your humanity without making that person feel defensive.

Using the word “uncomfortable” allows the speaker to introduce an element of ambiguity that lets the speaker off the hook – “I may have misinterpreted this, I understand that you had the best intentions,” rather than “We do not have the kind of relationship where your behavior is appropriate, and you should know that.” Because they should know.

Confront My Inherent Biases

This is the one that makes us all crazy. White people calling the police on Black people without provocation. Trans people abused and humiliated because some people freak out when they don’t know how to classify someone based on their appearance. Asylum seekers being detained and tortured while people debate whether they’ve broken any laws. Sometimes people are uncomfortable because they have opinions about entire groups of people that have no basis in fact. It’s easy to exist in the echo chamber of social media and formulate opinions about groups of people you have no direct experience of. If your only exposure to cultures other than your own is on television or social media, you can’t say you know anything. Media consumption is self-selected – you watch things you enjoy. If you’re a KKK member, you’re way more likely to be watching Fox and Friends, which reinforces your racist views, than Dear White People, which does not.

It’s human to be afraid of what we don’t understand, and when confronted with a set of social cues and conventions we don’t understand, it’s natural to feel awkward. But it’s only recently that people have gone from “I don’t exactly understand what’s expected of me in this interaction” to “I’m angry that I’m being confronted by my own ignorance.” And it seems that it’s increasingly true that just the presence of an Other whose culture might be different from one’s own is enough to make a person uncomfortable. It’s a vicious cycle: see an Other whose culture you’re not sure of, demand that Other explain their presence, be (rightfully) denied that explanation, get angry that the person Other isn’t conforming to your expectation of their behavior, demand validation from an authority that your mistrust of the Other is justified. But just because the systems of power in our country support narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes doesn’t make those attitudes correct. It just means that we have to work harder to confront our own narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes, rather than ask those we’re hurting to do the work for us.

What do you mean when you tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable? I would suggest that it’s time to remove “uncomfortable” from your vocabulary. Not permanently, but maybe let it go on an extended vacation. Do the work of drilling down on why you feel uneasy around certain people or situations, and then do the work of figuring out the right way of expressing it. It could be by saying “I’m not looking for your approval” to someone who makes personal remarks about you. Or it could be by introducing yourself to someone you don’t know and getting to know them better. Or it could be by shutting your mouth and walking away.

Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide

I have a tendency to spin off first drafts like nobody’s business. I’m never at a loss for ideas, and every time I come up with something interesting that I could expand into a story, I write it down somewhere.

The hard part in turning a first draft into a finished product is knowing exactly what belongs in a story. I have a couple of specific faults as a writer that I’m constantly fighting against.

The first is that I have had the lesson “show, don’t tell” ingrained in me so much so that I forget that sometimes, you have to just say a thing outright, and then back up that telling with showing. Too many times, I’ve left important information in my mind, because as I write, my brain is filling in all the necessary information. It takes another reader to tell me that they don’t understand part of my story for me to know what I’ve left out.

The second is that I don’t always know where to place the POV. I’m a big fan of historical fiction where the POV is a character on the periphery of major events – a servant or underling in a position to see events unfold. But that’s not right for every story. It means that I have spent a lot of time re-writing work to change the POV.

Now I spend a lot of time thinking about the math that I, as a stereotypical English major, have done my level best to ignore.

ADD:

Go back and make sure that you’ve included all the information the reader needs to get a complete picture of the action. Does your character have magical powers? Make sure they’re stated somewhere obvious! You can show them in action later, but you don’t want your readers to say “How did that tree spring up out of nowhere?” because you forgot to mention that your main character is a dryad.

SUBTRACT:

I’ve now written this post about four times, because I have a tendency to put in a lot of stuff that’s not necessary, and distracts from my main point. When you add too much unnecessary detail, you distract from your story and drag down the pace. Especially when writing short fiction, it’s really important that every word pulls its weight. If you’re taking the time to point out that Aunt Harriet always wore an eight-inch hatpin with a ruby on it, she had better stab someone with it at some point, otherwise you’ve added a detail we don’t need and distracted us from more important things, like the pistol in Aunt Harriet’s apron pocket.

MULTIPLY:

I’m an opera fan. One of the features of opera is that each character tends to have a recognizable theme (if you’re unfamiliar with this convention, listen to Peter and the Wolf, a great introduction). Thematic images work the same way in literature. Perhaps one character is associated with the color blue, or roses, or sadness – go back over your manuscript and look for opportunities to add that to your piece, giving your reader one more way to fix that character in their mind.

DIVIDE:

The last thing is knowing how to break up your story. In a shorter work, it’s easy to represent changes in scenery or time with a few words, but in a much longer work, it can blur the passage of time or scenery. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one chapter should end and the next one begin, so I like to apply the Treasure Island Rule. When my children were small, I read them Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a perfect book for smaller kids, because the chapters are short and always end on a cliffhanger, keeping the children engaged until the next night. We’d get to the end of a chapter, and I would give a dramatic “Da da DAAAAAAAAAAAA” like the music just before a commercial in a 70s detective show. Find those dramatic cliffhanger moments and make them the end of your chapters.

Now I’m back to polishing up this book, which I plan to pitch at a conference next month. Wish me luck!

Yes to Everything

When I was 17, my boyfriend and I were at his brother’s house. The brother was 10-ish years older than us, and my boyfriend idolized him: everything he did was cool, everything he liked was cool, everything he was was cool. He had long hair and the biggest nose I’d ever seen, and I thought he seemed a nice guy. As we left his house, he said to me “You don’t like anything, do you? You haven’t said one nice thing about anything all day. It makes me sad that you don’t feel pleasure at anything.”

It stung because, while it wasn’t true, I didn’t know how to correct that perception. When I was a kid I didn’t admit to liking anything or anyone, because that knowledge was power my family routinely used against me. My best friends were mocked as dorks for wearing the wrong sneakers or having the wrong haircuts. The boys I liked were not only told that I liked them (which I, of course, could never do myself), but that telling came with laughter at what a joke it was for me to like someone who would never like me back because I was ugly, I was fat, I was a loser. My defense was to deny liking anything.

After I graduated college, I got a job in an accounting department. My boss was a woman about my mother’s age, and I don’t think I ever saw her sad. Even when she pulled out her wallet and showed me the clipping she always carried of her 2-year-old daughter’s obituary, she never seemed sad about it. And she liked everything. She liked lutefisk and country music, and she was willing to be friends with anyone, no matter how grouchy or antisocial (my main evidence being her friendship with me).

I’ve met other people along the way who were shameless about loving whatever they loved. If I denigrated it, rather than shrink away from it, they took it upon themselves to educate me about what I’m missing. I was so excited to see that, rather than being made weak by revealing the things they liked, they drew people to them. It was fun to be around someone enthusiastic about things, and who was willing to give anything a try. The love was infectious.

I’ve tried hard to be that person. The one who loves everything unapologetically and encourages others to do the same. I feel like I’ve finally arrived. When checking into my hotel at the beginning of this residency, I spent a good 15 minutes talking to the staff behind the desk about writing and the kinds of stuff we did in getting our MFA. As I checked out, the woman behind the desk told me that she was thinking about me this week, and studied extra hard, and got her first A on an English paper.

That was it – a little chat about how great it was to learn to write well. A little encouragement. And now someone else is happy because they’ve done well. Why did I waste so much time with “no”?

You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m in the middle of putting together interview questions for Peter Riva, a literary agent with International Transactions. It’s hard to come up with inventive ways to ask the same four questions that everyone asks literary agents and publishers – What kinds of literature are popular right now? What can I say in a query letter to make an agent want to represent me? What’s the magic word? WHAT DO I DO?

I’ve also spent the last week catching up on submissions to the Diana Woods Memorial award competition. I’ve been going through upwards of 25 submissions a day, looking for those that grab my imagination and make me want to say yes. I’m up to four.

That’s what it comes down to. It’s what no agent, no publisher, no editor is going to say flat out. Chances are, your stuff just isn’t that interesting. Our award was started by the family of a woman who passed away in November of 2012, so a lot of what we’re getting is “this person close to me died.” It’s sad, but considering that every human being ever born will suffer the same fate, ultimately not newsworthy. Another big chunk is people’s childhood memories, but unless you’ve just been named Pope or you’re the person that went on to invent fire, your memories are really only precious to you and the people close to you. It’s grossly unfair, but people like Snooki Polizzi get book deals because people want to find out what single thing they did to succeed.

The problem is, not even people who get it right know what they did, or they’re embarrassed that what they did wasn’t what everyone else is being told to do. I went to a writer’s conference about twelve years ago, and the speaker was a novelist of Asian extraction whose name you would probably recognize, and she gave us the same advice as everyone else. “Only send your best work, research your agents carefully, personalize your letters…” But she had to say that it’s not how she got her agent. She was writing her first novel while she was in grad school and her professor had told an agent, and that agent had called her at home and asked to represent her. Another successful novelist had made copies of her full manuscript and handed them to everyone she met, until at last her manuscript was picked up by an agent. I have a friend who did it the old-fashioned way – querying 87 agents before he found representation, but I have tons more who gave their manuscripts to friends of friends.

Friends of friends. That’s what it comes down to. If someone knows your name, they’re more likely to give your work a chance. It becomes less about the work and more about the relationship. That’s why, if you change the name on a story published in the New Yorker, nobody wants it. Not even the New Yorker. Because the New Yorker doesn’t want really great fiction. They want New Yorker writers.

So, the final word is that the thing you should be doing is what everyone else is doing. Move to New York. Crash the parties where all the editors (and editorial assistants) are hanging out. Buy the drinks. And in the time that you’re home, recovering from all the lunches out and parties ’til dawn, hone your craft.

More Than You Can Imagine

Right now, I’m watching The Matrix. Remember The Matrix? Remember Keanu Reeves, turning in a typically obtuse performance that works because the rest of the movie just kind of spins around him? I still like this movie, regardless of whether or not it stands up, especially in light of the two sequels.

There’s a line toward the beginning that I hear in quite a few movies, and every time I hear it, it makes me flinch. Trinity is taking Neo in to see Morpheus, and she exhorts him to “Tell the truth. He knows more than you can imagine.”

Now, given the mental opacity Keanu Reeves displays (although that could just be amazing acting on his part, because I’ve also heard that he’s both very smart and a decent human being), it’s not hard to think that his imagination isn’t quite enough to come up with something as radical as, say, Oreos consisting of vanilla cookies with chocolate frosting between them. So perhaps telling Neo that something is more than he can imagine is not just true, but sort of obvious.

But there’s me. And a ton of people like me. I imagine a million things more fanciful than this every minute of every day. Granted, I haven’t been able to get my ideas the wider audience I personally think they deserve, but that does not mean that my imagination is at all lacking. Frankly, I feel that telling people that they lack imagination is the first step toward turning them into better consumers. If you can’t think for yourself, you’ll buy whatever someone else is selling you.

Don’t buy what someone else is selling you. Think of something better, then go out and make it for yourself.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.