Buy Me a River

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear me say “Lange & Söhne Grande Lange 1”?  How about “Keith Lloyd”?  “Flora Danica”?  Or “Kallista Archeo Copper?”

If you are a normal person, you don’t think anything. These things have no meaning to you. And why should they? If you wear a watch, you likely wear something that was either a gift to you, or something you bought for less than a year’s wages, a brand that you’ve heard of – Timex, Swatch – something like that.

You also would have no reason to know that Keith Lloyd makes bespoke suits for men, that Flora Danica is the world’s most expensive china, or that if you want a Kallista Archeo Copper tub, you’ll be shelling out $70k for it.

I had to look these names up. I don’t have any of these things, and I don’t know anyone who does. When writers put details like these into a work, they may think that they’re adhering to “show don’t tell,” but if what you’ve shown me is something I can’t comprehend, you’ve just failed.

I’ve railed about the laziness of using brand names as description before, but in the wake of the news that another Dan Brown potboiler is coming down the colon, I felt it time to mention it again.

The High Cost of Writing

I know lots of people who can write anywhere. They go to coffee shops, libraries, they get up at four in the morning and write at their kitchen tables. I know other people who have some theoretical set of conditions under which they can write, but they can’t articulate what they are and can only point out what they are not. As in “I can’t write in my apartment. It’s not the right space.”

I don’t really have either problem. There’s writing I can do anywhere, and I do. I’ve had days where I’ve cranked out 10,000 words and still had time to do fun stuff afterward. Lately, though, getting time and space to write has been hard.

When I wrote a piece about a musician, I sang all the time. When I wrote about a woman who leaves her parents’ home to have an affair with a married man, I fought with my parents. I’m not the sort of person who has to go out and do something before she can write about it, but I do tend to take on the emotions of my characters.

It’s taken the occasional toll on my marriage. You see, my husband loves me. He loves me in that “can’t watch me suffering without trying to make me feel better” way. He also works from home, just like I do, and occasionally, he needs to ask me something or tell me something or show me something. Knowing that he could come walking in any second makes it difficult to really lose myself in writing scenes that require some extremes of emotion. If I’m writing anger, I’ll yell at him. If I’m writing a sex scene, I probably won’t get much more writing done.

The piece I’m writing now is full of self-doubt, loneliness, longing and fear. On Monday, I took advantage of being alone in the house for five hours to get some work done. I put on the playlist that I reserve for the project I’m working on, I re-read the stuff I had already written, and I thought about what had to happen next. And then, I began to cry. I kept blowing my nose and wiping my face with my handkerchief, but within fifteen minutes, it was soaked. So I got another. And another. My shoulders were shaking, my breath hitching in my chest, my lips were getting chapped from the hanky. Every once in a while, I had to stop typing because I had to put my head down on my desk and howl. Then, back to typing.

After a couple of hours, I had finished three thousand words. I had a whacking headache, my face was red and swollen, I had run out of clean handkerchiefs and I was exhausted. My family came home, but it was hard to enjoy their company. For all my exhaustion, I couldn’t fall asleep, though. Being over-emotional does that to me.

It wasn’t until the next day, after a wasted morning of trying to work but not being able to concentrate on much, that I gave in an napped. And when I say “gave in and napped,” I mean “passed out on the couch in my office.”

I admonish myself for not writing as often as I should, but if every couple of hours of productivity costs me a day of down time, I think I should be a little easier on myself.

No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

Just Be Nice. Is That So Hard?

In the last seven days, I’ve been talking about the submission process whereby writers submit their writing to publications. I’ve had a couple of Facebook discussions with literary journals about our acceptance/rejection process, and then I’ve had a couple of experiences of my own, one as the submitting writer, one as the editor. And they’ve brought home to me the fact that everyone in this process treats each other badly more often than not.

First, both Facebook discussions centered around how editors treat submissions. How do we feel about the use of form letters for either acceptance or rejection? How do we handle work that needs some polish to be publication-worthy? These questions were posed by other literary journals who were obviously feeling torn between trying to get through the crazy number of submissions journals typically receive in a publishing cycle, and feeling like they’ve treated each of those submissions with care and respect.

In that discussion, other editors weighed in saying that given the demands on an editor’s time, accepting work that was less than finished wasn’t a great idea. We get such a lot of work that is already finished, and the most I’m willing to correct would be a typo or some punctuation. In addition to reading submissions, I have to take care of the business end of the publication, as well as layout, etc. And I’m a writer myself. With a family.

The writers, however, all seemed sad that editors couldn’t take the time to give line edits to every story, or to go back and forth with them re-working things until they’re perfect. From a writer standpoint, I understand the feeling that submission is an arbitrary process. That, while most publications say “read a copy of our journal to see what we publish,” it’s hard to know whether a certain story caught the editors’ eyes because of its style, or because the writer was a friend of the staff, or because the editor had a dog like that when she was a kid and it struck a chord. It’d be really nice to hear from an editor exactly where you’ve gone wrong.

In looking at the comments left by editors in the journal I edit, the most common comments are things like “too much passive voice,” “chronology of events is unclear,” “there’s no conflict in this story.” These are things that would take far too much work to fix. Some of them are things that indicate the writer needs to get some basic education in the craft of writing. There’s no way I have the time to teach someone how to write in the context of being an editor.

I am grateful that the rejection letter our journal sends out is thoughtful and respectful. So much so, that we routinely receive thank-you notes telling us that the submitter felt encouraged by our rejection and would submit again. I’ve also been known to put in personal notes to authors whose work I really liked, asking them to let me know if it gets placed elsewhere so that I can tell people. I think it’s important to be encouraging as well as honest.

Today I received an email from a potential submitter to my journal. This person had emailed before, telling us that we didn’t know how to do our jobs, that we were making his life difficult, that if our journal doesn’t pay, he was going to put us on his list of markets that didn’t pay and tell all his friends. The email was peppered with words in all caps and multiple exclamation points per sentence. I ignored it. When I received a second email from him stating again that we were incompetent, I had to wonder what he thought he was going to accomplish. If I told him that my journal paid a hundred dollars per word, did he really think that I would see a submission with his name on it and think “Oh, great!”? I would never retaliate against someone for sending me a rude letter; it’s more about the fact that if you’re using your caps key and exclamation point to carry the force of your words, I don’t hold out much hope for your writing.

Then this morning, I received a reply regarding a story I submitted on Friday to an anthology publication. The reply was perfunctory, not what we were looking for, etc., but it was also at the end of what was obviously an email string relating to that story. The other commenter had written “boring to me.” Nothing else. I wrote back to the woman who had sent the original email to tell her that it might be wise to double-check before sending responses containing comments from other editors, and that, while feedback is often helpful, that the word “boring” was neither instructive nor professional. The woman was mortified. She wrote back apologizing, even offering to help me re-work the piece, but I passed on her offer. She did tell me that I had taught her an “eye-opening lesson.”

You know what it was? Be nice. As an editor, be nice and respectful when you handle the submissions of writers. Give them honest feedback if they ask for it and you have the time. Send rejection letters that acknowledge that writing is subjective and that you appreciate the writer’s efforts. Don’t be rude or dismissive. And writers – the same goes for you. You’re asking editors to put their own reputations and the reputations of their publication on the line by publishing your work. Maybe what you wrote is stellar, maybe it was terrible, maybe it was somewhere in between but just didn’t strike the fancy of the editor who read it. But if you’re going to interact with publishers, don’t be a jerk about it.

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.