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.

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.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

A Dream Where I Am Both Naked and Flying

Last night, I dreamed that I was corresponding with two different people, both of whom were slightly odd. One was a man I knew who liked to have long, rambling conversations about fantastical, nonsensical things. He would drink bottle after bottle of cheap beer, smoke the occasional cigarette (just to see if he still thought it was gross) and hold forth. His letters, therefore, were long, written with at least four different pens, usually contained at least one beer-bottle-bottom ring and smelled of cigarette ash that I’m sure he flecked in there on purpose.

Each time I received a letter from him, I would read it all the way through and laugh and think and feel privileged that he wrote to me. I would sit down to compose a reply, but I could never reply all in a single sitting, so I carried both letter and reply around with me for days until I had worked my way through the whole thing, then posted it back to him.

The other correspondent was also a man, but his letters were even stranger. They referred to current events, to minor local celebrities, to world politics and arts and literature. They made wild suppositions and fantastical claims and sly jokes. I had only written back once, and the reply asked me to come and visit him.

I came right from visiting the rambling beer drinker, who was in sort of a funk. He was a teacher at a private high school, and now that the school year was over needed a job for the next few months. He’d been doing this kind of work for years, but he always seemed taken by surprise when summer came. I invited him to come with me to meet the other person, but he seemed hurt by the prospect that I was corresponding with someone else, as though letter writing were our love affair and I should never have done it with anyone else. I left wondering if I would ever get another letter from him.

The address was in a small open-air mall in an expensive part of town, making me think that my mystery correspondent was a shop owner. As I came around a corner, I saw about twenty chairs arranged under some potted plants, most occupied by men and women holding sheets of paper that they were reading, writing on and showing each other. As I walked among them, I heard snatches of the contents of the letters I had received, sometimes verbatim, sometimes slightly altered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that what I had taken to be an anonymous, delightful correspondence with a smart, interesting individual was, in fact, a delightful experiment with literature and the magazine form. It was a new kind of magazine, hand-written by its authors and mailed out in letter form. It was like a chatty letter from home. When I wrote back, they decided to ask me to come and write for them. I was intrigued by the idea, and immediately sad that my friend, whom I considered to be a much better letter-writer than myself, had decided not to come.

 

When I woke up, I thought for a long time about what magazines are, and what we want them to be. We use social media to feel connected with people, but I believe that the reason it doesn’t work is because we know that the person sending out a missive on social messaging took about 30 seconds to do it, and that the same message is available to everyone. The feeling of holding a letter that had taken someone hours to hand-write was so intimate and thoughtful that the revelation that one of my correspondents was actually a magazine felt even more delightful. What are the possibilities of an epistolary periodical? It seems like it would be the most fun thing in the world, both to create and to receive.

Tell Me About Your Novel…

For many, many reasons (not the least of which was Alistair McCartney‘s lecture this morning on the subject), I’ve been thinking about genre.

When I applied to grad programs, everyone wanted to know the same things: what genre are you writing in. At Antioch, the genres are fairly broad: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and writing for young people. And yet, even within that space, there are always those people whose writing is hard to define. What do you say about a story where two historical characters, say, Winston Churchill and Viscountess Astor meet and exchange words? What if we had the scene take place in the Parliament buildings themselves? So far, we’re solidly in nonfiction, but the second we start putting actual words into their mouths, we’ve drifted into fiction. If we describe a scene which might have happened, such as Churchill and Astor exchanging friendly insults, we might call it creative nonfiction. However, if we say that the both of them hated each other because she was secretly in love with The Doctor and was jealous that Churchill got to go up in the TARDIS and she didn’t, we’ve crossed over into fictional territory. And if we present the whole scene in Ogden Nash-style verse, that’s something else entirely.

Part of the problem with these genres is that two of them, fiction and poetry, are descended from Aristotle’s divisions of literature – “epic” became fiction and “lyric” became poetry. But all the others are offshoots of fiction that have to do with subject matter and how it’s presented. I myself am not entirely sure what separates regular fiction from writing for young people, whether it be subject matter or method of presentation.

Even after we’ve figured out that we’re dealing in fiction, one can slice “fiction” so thinly that a new genre is presented for every single book that’s published. Urban fantasy, memoir, historical fiction, prose poem – at this point in history, writers have more freedom than ever before to define themselves as they see fit: to create their own genres and carve out their own niches. Who knew that the first job you’d have as a novelist was to make up a term for your own genre?