Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.

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.

Wait For It…..

I’m an enormously emotional person – I cry over something, good or bad, just about every day. There’s a non-zero chance that a lot of writers are like this, and I think it’s at the heart of a piece of advice Terry Wolverton gave during her revision lecture this morning. It wasn’t new – it’s the same advice I heard from Nanowrimo back in the day. The advice was that once the first draft is done, put the work aside until you’ve gained some perspective from it. Terry took that one step further: she said that once you’ve received criticism from your critique group, your mentor or your agent or editor, you should put that aside as well. Just let it sit.

I received my evaluation from my project period mentor. I felt the same sense of trepidation about looking at my evaluation as I did about looking at the feedback on my last packet. Which, by the way, I still haven’t seen. He told me in his email that he was less happy about my last revision than he had been about the one previous, and I was too crushed to look at his feedback. Anyway, despite my misgiving, I looked at the feedback.

He was meticulous about documenting all of my stumbling, but at the end of the review were the words I had been waiting for. My mentor believes that I can be “a fine novelist.”

Maybe I’m ready to open that last packet now.

Wait…I’m the BOSS?

There’s a certain cachet that comes with power. Just ask all those ugly rich guys who’re combing supermodels out of their badly-groomed eyebrows.

I am still a writer who struggles to submit work to literary and commercial magazines, so I was amazed when I realized that I’m not just a struggling writer. I’m the editor in chief of a respected literary journal. I had a staff of 18 people, all of whom were excited about the fact that they were real editors working on a real literary journal. This issue,there’ll be even more of them.

Until I got to the residency this time, I didn’t feel like the boss of all the editors of a literary journal. I was too busy making phone calls, correcting punctuation, sending emails, wrestling with the web interface, approving color combinations, signing contracts, etc. I got to the residency, and suddenly, everyone knows who I am. Everyone’s saying “hello” to me in the halls and wanting to sit next to me in lectures. The new kids just signing up to work for the journal wave to me and say hello with that same shy smile that people give to low-level celebrities – a local tv newscaster or a city councillor.

I’m excited about working on Lunch Ticket. I’m excited about the great literature we’re putting out, I’m excited that I’m the one who gets to make the decisions, I’m excited that I get to work with a lot of smart, dynamic people. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the room yesterday for the debriefing and orientation that I realized that I’m the boss. I’m the head of a literary journal.

Whoa.

Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.