Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musings on the place I have to live...

The following is an essay I wrote awhile back and is part of a collection of essays and short stories that I'm getting ready for submission. It probably won't sell well in Ft. Wayne...

WE'RE NUMBER ONE (With a bullet)!
Some Idle Musings on Food and Sports and the Weather in Ft. Wayne, Indiana

            I'm darned proud to be a Hoosier.
            Especially lately.
            In the last year alone, we were declared by a national magazine to rank near the top, nationally, in obesity.
            Just as we were getting over basking in the glow of that singular honor, Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry announced the results of a highly-scientific poll he'd recently conducted... that Indiana had clearly won the title of the "Silliest State Nickname."
            Yep. Thas' the one. Not to be confused with "Hoseheads." Them's the folks from Canada, I think.
            No other state was even close in the balloting. Of course, this was a vote taken in Miami, Florida, so who knows if hanging chads were counted and if not, how accurate the poll actually was.
            No matter. We'll take it, by cracky. (Famous Hoosier euphemism.)
            With the twofer honor we nailed this year, it may be a good opportunity to update our glorious nickname. Something like, "Hoosier Tubbies." Now, that's got a ring to it, by golly (another interesting Hoosier euphemism), and if we could get the state legislature to act on it (or act on anything), it's not inconceivable that we could end up with an unprecedented "two-peat" next year as winners of Barry's poll.
            The next year we go for Hoosier Starchbabies and score an unprecedented "three-peat!"
            Although, I don't understand how our great state ends up skinny-challenged. Have you checked out the grub we eat? I moved here after living in Texas, California and New Orleans and other environs and immediately noticed a difference in the cuisine.
            Mondo difference.
            The first entrée I was introduced to upon entering "Hoosierland" (another adorable Hoosier euphemism) was a delightful little number called... well, I don't know what it was called. I named it "white stuff." Mashed potatoes dumped on top of noodles.
            Or maybe it was the other way around. Hard to tell. They're both white. Upon reflection, I think it was noodles on top of mashed potatoes. Noodles are the slimy things, right? And potatoes are the lumpy objects? Then, I stand corrected. It was noodles on top of potatoes. Usually served with white bread slathered with oleo. Washed down with milk.
            I can still remember the one-of-a-kind flavor. Kind of like what I imagine a dish made up of pulverized flakes from the box your Amana refrigerator came in, mixed in with lead-based white paint (glossy) might taste like. And the servings! Hoosier chefs don't serve those little sissy portions like you might get in a four-star French restaurant. Nosiree! (Yet another of those catchy Hoosier euphemisms) Nope—you get a mound of white stuff plopped on your plate, high enough that you have to kind of raise up in your seat to see your dining partner across from you.
            Actually, to make eye contact, you'd both have to raise up.
            Folks were asking for seconds.
            As Dave Barry might say: "I'm not making this up."
            I quickly discovered a Hoosier's idea of a spice rack. That would consist of a pair of salt and pepper shakers.
            I've learned it's best to pray after you eat in Indiana.
            And turn the smoke alarm off until after the dishes (Hoosiers pronounce this word "deeshes") are done. Only... we don't say, "after the dishes deeshes are done. We say, "We're fixin' to rid up the table and warsh the deeshes."
            I'm not making this up, either.
            I wish I was.
            And, speaking of religion, that allows me to lead smoothly and seamlessly into... you guessed it...
            Specifically, sports as reported by Fort Wayne sportswriters.
            Now, I lived in South Bend for quite a while and the sports reporting there is actually quite good. On a par with any newspapers in the country. But, then, they've got an advantage. They have an actual team close by. Notre Dame. A team that people farther than twenty miles away from town have heard of.
            Ft. Wayne's a bit different.
            The main sports "team" in town is a group of dentally-challenged guys who play something called "hockey." Before 7,633 "Hoosier Tubbies" wandering around Memorial Coliseum, crabbing about the long lines at the Ice Cream Dots stand. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has ten thousand people waiting to use the restrooms at an average football game at any given moment. There're 20,000 people who couldn't get a ticket tailgating in the N.D. parking lot during games.
            Which gives Ft. Wayne sportswriters an inferiority complex. Most of 'em didn't start out to cover a sport drawing a crowd that would be comfortable in a phone booth. They had grand visions of writing Red Smith-like stories about real sports and recognizable teams and individuals. Instead, they found themselves in... Ft. Wayne.
            You gotta feel for 'em.
            I have to stop here and explain why I picked Ft. Wayne for this discourse. Reason is, this is where I currently live. It's not my first choice (to be honest, it isn't in my list of the first 1200 places I'd pick to live either), but it's where my stuff is and I have to be here to watch it.
            If you want to experience what life was like in this country 211 years ago, just come to Ft. Wayne and wander around. BTW, that used to be the official Indiana slogan, displayed on license plates. Wander Indiana. I’m not making this up.I always got images of travelers, lost in cornfields, looking for a way out… There's no other town like Ft. Wayne in Indiana. Or the country. It was settled by German burghers and has managed to retain the mindset of the original settlers. Picture a giant croissant roll, smothered with real butter. That's the official symbol for the Ft. Wayne mindset. That's because of the geography. It's miles and miles from anything. South Bend, a similarly-sized city, is a cosmopolitan environment for a couple-three reasons. There's Notre Dame with a sophisticated student body and professors from all over the world. Smart people. Hip people. It's also in close proximity to Chicago and that helps South Benders keep up with the current century somewhat. It was also settled by more diverse cultures than these Germans here in the Fort. Italians, Poles, Belgians, just for starters.
            They've even got the Mafia in South Bend. Even though Ft. Wayne's got three rivers, which you'd imagine would come in handy for dumping unreasonable business associates, the Mafia would never consider setting up a branch office here. The reason? That white stuff people make you eat. Can you picture that guy on The Sopranos wading through a pile of noodles and mashed potatoes? He'd be laughed out of the Cosa Nostra. Plus the fact that they wouldn't be able to film him without going to wide screen technology.
            Ft. Wayne gives itself two titles. "The City of Churches" is one. That's basically in homage to the entertainment value of the place. Gobs of folks all over the country are packing their Bibles up right now so they can move to a place with hundreds of churches. On every corner. Believe it!
            The second title Ft. Wayner's give themselves is... are you ready? "The City of Restaurants."
            Go ahead. I'll wait a minute while you get that last little fit of giggling out and compose yourself.
            There're restaurants, all right. Tons of them. Drive down the street and you'll see: Church, restaurant, church, restaurant, church... well, you get the picture. Problem is, they all have the same menu, which looks like this:
*                                                          *                                                          *
Today's Special:
"White stuff."
Manager's guarantee:
Absolutely guaranteed to not have a scintilla of flavor or double your money back. Second and even third helpings encouraged. Our doggie bags are the Great Danes of doggy bags. They're the Shetland ponies of doggie bags! Enjoy!
*                                                          *                                                          *
            One of the local rags used to have a "Food Critic" (I use the term loosely), whose idea of great restaurant was a joint that "served all the fish (pronounced "feesh"—another of those colorful Hoosier euphemisms) you can eat for 99¢." She'd rave about all the bread they served and the desserts. If she'd ever opened her own café, an appropriate name might have been, "Starch and Sugar By The Forklift." She got the gig as food critic because of an important talent she possessed. She liked to eat. A lot. Often. She even wrote reviews of fast-food outlets, those places she liked to visit between main meals to keep her typing strength up. Very entertaining and informative. James Beard perhaps she wasn't, but if you wanted to know who served "all the feesh you can eat for 99¢" she was your critic. She once wrote a column the main focus of which was the management didn't have crackers on the table to munch on while you were waiting for the main spread and between courses. Another time, she wrote about a dish she'd ordered that had a French name, which literally described the dish. "Piscé a tete" or something like that. Translation: "Fish with the head still attached to the main body and with a sprig of parsley in the mouth orifice." Her entire column was a complaint that they served her a fish with the fish noggin still on it and she should have had the option of having it removed.
            My favorite was the time she reviewed this restaurant and rattled off 10-11 main entrées she'd partaken of, and then, immediately following her rave of all she'd ingested, she wrote this sentence: "And you wouldn't think we'd have room for dessert!" No, you wouldn't, unless you weighed six hundred pounds or were a small country in the Balkans.
            Turns out she found some room, somewhere. Enough for a couple of different pies and cobblers and a random scoop of ice cream or seven, if I disremember right...
            Go figure.
            Since cooking with the head attached results in a more flavorful fish, I can see her point. Her taste buds weren't accustomed to... taste.
            I wrote a somewhat critical "Letter to the Editor" about one of her columns once and was amazed when collecting my mail one day to discover a personal letter from her, a scathing indictment in which she took me to task for daring to question her food judgment. That blasted away whatever naïve assumptions I had about journalistic integrity and ethics in "The City of Churches/Restaurants." Which works differently here, it seems, than in say, Chicago or Goober Falls, Idaho. Ever since then, I've been sweating out a possible visit from the First Amendment Police to give me the rubber hose treatment for daring to... criticize a restaurant critic. (Statute B-11231-d, Indiana State Blue Laws)
            As both Dave Barry and I say, and quite often: "I'm not making this up."
            When I'm not enjoying the local delectable cuisine and chuckling over another sport page article, counting the misspelled words and misquotes, I'm usually sitting outside soaking up the amazing weather. Most often, wearing three sweaters, a parka and long underwear. In August. To completely appreciate the seasons here (in order, there's winter, then sleet, then cold rain, then cloudy weather, then some late snow, then two days of summer during which there's a 62% chance of rain and maybe a tornado), it helps to have a historical perspective of how "The City of Churches" came to be. General Anthony Wayne was ordered to build a military fort here and he couldn't wait to leave. When he got here and stepped off the Amtrak Silver Wayward Bullet, the place was essentially The Dismal Swamp. (I'm not making this up.) General Tony hated the place and couldn't wait to get killed by an Indian or transferred to a more civilized place, like say, Beirut or Hades.
            In conclusion (French word, meaning "I'm wrapping this baby up so I can catch the "Man Show"), I'm sure this highly-accurate, nonpartisan, nonbiased piece will bring a letter or two (written in crayon), providing me with clever, trés-original advice to, "love it or leave it," or, "if you don't like it here, why don't you move?—we like our city and state and there's no room for Commies like you here!"
            I can't wait.
            Just to set the record straight, it's only "The City of Churches" I'm not overly-enthusiastic about. I prefer cities and Ft. Wayne just doesn't fit the definition of a city. Feels more like a spread-out collection of housing additions and developments. Maybe it's the "Caution! Deer Crossing!” signs I see on the "city" streets... On the other hand, South Bend and a number of other places do have the wonderful atmosphere "real" cities do and I really dig getting to go there when I can.
            To balance this op-piece and in the interests of fairness, Ft. Wayne does have some good things going for it.
            Ft. Wayne is proud to be the home of the famous Potato Chip Lady who appeared on the "Tonight Show." I think I can speak for most Ft. Wayner's when I say how chagrined we were when Johnny Carson, during the interview, reached over and ate one of her prized chips. The one that looked like Dick Nixon, I believe.
            Talk about a state of mourning for an entire city! I know of several neighbors who switched to the Letterman Show immediately following that horrifying incident.
            And Johnny Appleseed had the bad luck to die here before he could get out of town and you can visit his grave any time you want to. Talk about your goosebumps and high entertainment value! Looking down on that lump of grass does something to a person.
            That counts for something.
            And, things are changing. We're getting slimmer in these parts. Lots of us are jogging to Mickey D's these days and the pounds are melting off, not piling up as fast. And we're not fat. We're merely "pleasantly-plump."
            Pass the white stuff, willya? Where're the crackers?

 A bustling downtown!

Friday, July 16, 2010



Thought I’d post some thoughts on the subject of rejection from agents and publishers. Lately, I’ve been corresponding with several writers about this subject and it seems as if many of today’s writers don’t really know how to deal with their work being turned down. Not that it’s ever been easy, but it seems as if more people give up on their work earlier than in years past. I thought perhaps it might be helpful to give my own experience with rejection, which is similar to what many other writers in the past have gone through.

Actually, this post was triggered by a client of mine, whom I won’t name, but I don’t think she’d mind my using her as an example. I’ll call her “Ruth.”

A bit of background. I was hired by Ruth to coach her in the final rewrite of her novel—an amazing book, by the way. After she wrote “The End” I recommended her and her novel to five leading literary agencies. From four of them, she received invitations to submit her entire novel and the fifth requested the first fifty pages. This, in itself, is fairly remarkable. Not a single pass among the bunch! As this was Ruth’s first experience in submitting to professionals, she assumed this was the norm.

As it transpired, almost immediately she received an offer of representation from one of the agencies. She emailed me and asked what she should do. I suggested she email the remaining four to let them know she had an offer and would give them a few days to respond before she made a decision. Two of them wrote back with lengthy emails to her telling her how remarkable her novel was (and it is!), but they both passed for legitimate reasons, none of which were because of the quality of the work, but more because of the state of the market. She’s still waiting on the other two who are feverishly reading it before the weekend. She has a scheduled phonecon with the agent who offered representation. We’ll know by Monday probably who she’ll sign with. This is all happening within two weeks of her finishing her novel.

Anyway, what prompted me to consider writing this was a question Ruth posed in an email to me during all of this, when she asked: “Is it common to get two rejections?”

Here was my reply:

Hi Ruth,
I had to laugh at your question, "Is it common to get two rejections?" Why? Because my first novel got 86 rejections... and that's closer to “normal”... And, it was purely an accident it was taken by the 87th. So, two rejections is... not anything at all. What's really abnormal is to get 4-5 top agents to even look at a manuscript, especially today. To even get an agent to look at it--the odds are that if a writer sent out 20 queries, she'd probably get a request for a partial would be one or two at most. Probably none for a full mss. And, chances are slim that the one or two who asked for a partial would ask for more. It's really a jungle out there. It is much easier these days with email from before when we only had snail mail and had to provide postage for a return and wait for the mails both ways, but it's still difficult. Getting four of five agents to look at a full mss and the other to ask for the first fifty pages is really incredible.

Ruth’s question was perfectly legitimate considering this was her first novel and her first foray into obtaining an agent. It also seems to reflect the mindset of many writers these days. It’s just not realistic, as she’ll find out as time goes on and she begins to see the experience of other authors. Although, she’s going to end up with an agent fairly readily and I anticipate publication of her novel and even high sales. It’s that good and it’s a timely novel for a lot of reasons. I think it will be one of those rare first novels that garners awards and enjoys handsome sales.

But, her experience is not the norm. Not even close. I might add that what I worked on with her wasn’t a first draft. She’s taken over twenty classes in writing, written innumerable drafts, and had her work edited by a great number of people. I was just the last. She’d spent three years writing it. It was a polished version that she ended up with. She’d absolutely gone the distance and done everything she should have with her novel. In other words, she was prepared for the opportunity that came along.

But, even so, it was remarkable to get these responses from these agents, all of whom are considered the tops in the business.

Here was my own experience a long time ago. Markedly different as you’ll see.

I sent my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, out 86 times to editors. Eighty-six times! My wife Mary describes me as “bullheaded,” while I prefer the much more accurate, “stubborn.”

Sending out a novel in those days (eighties and nineties) was vastly different than today. For one thing, we didn’t have email. Al Gore was inventing other stuff then, I imagine. How to find the perfect massage, possibly… We did have email, but very few, if any, publishers were accepting submissions or queries via the Internet. Everyone insisted on snail mail. The following was the procedure in those days for you younger writers who’ve only known the Internet.

1. Send via snail mail, a query letter, with SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelop). A one-page letter, created especially for the particular publisher. Took some research to individualize each letter. Pay for stamps and envelops and paper.

2. Wait anywhere from a week to six months for a response from the publisher. An average wait would be six to eight weeks. A yea or nay. Sometimes, the next step would be for the publisher to request a partial. Rare to ask for the full mss. Again, this had to be sent via snail mail and had to include return postage and a mailer to return your work in.

3. Wait anywhere for a week to six months for a response. Most of the time that was a “Not for us.” Occasionally, a request for the full mss. Again, sent with postage both ways and a mailer for them to return your mss in. These were all hard copy requests. You either printed the copies yourself (no dot matrix allowed, even though most of us couldn’t afford anything else) which represented significant printer ink cartridge and paper costs) or you took it to a Kinkos or other copy shop and paid for it. You could usually resend the same returned mss a couple of times at best. After that, if it looked the slightest shopworn you couldn’t send it, but had to print up a new copy. I remember searching for places that had “specials” at ten cents a page, and rarely, even five cents a page. When you’re talking about a 400-page manuscript at say the bargain rate of five cents a page, plus postage both ways, plus the cost of two envelops, and/or stationary boxes to send a complete manuscript in, you’re talking about a significant outlay of money. Not to mention the time and energy required to print off copies yourself if you chose that route, or even to drive to and from Kinkos. To send a mss in those days represented a true commitment to their work on the part of the writer! The same situation existed for any kind of submissions, including poetry, short stories and nonfiction book proposals.

Repeat this 86 times. (Actually, 87, as it was the 87th who finally bought it.) That was my experience. That’s a bit on the high side for most writers who ended up published, but in talking to many of my peers at the time who sold their work, I’d say the average was close to fifty submissions.

This was at a time when we didn’t have much money (kind of the same thing these days, actually…) and my wife, bless her, never begrudged a dime of the literally thousands of dollars I spent in pursuit of publication.

And, the publisher who did end up taking it did so only by accident. If not for her, I might still be sending it out.

What happened was I’d set myself a limit of 100 submissions. Actually, I was almost out of places to send it to.

Let me back up a bit…

On my third submission, a regional publisher in Houston, called me and was really excited about
the book and offered me $10,000 for an advance, a fairly large advance in those days for a first novel. Was I thrilled? You bet. However, I ended up refusing his offer, a decision I second-guess just about every day since then. First, he asked me how autobiographical the book was. About 90-95% I told him. Well, this was the answer he was waiting for, as he got real excited then and said he wanted to bring it out not as a novel, but as an autobiography or memoir. I couldn’t do that, I said, as five to ten percent is fictionalized, and I didn’t think to label it autobiography would be ethical. Okay, he said, visibly disappointed. We still had a deal until he told me the other things he wanted to do with it. One, he said, he wanted to cut certain scenes. A prime example is that in one scene my protagonist’s father whips him with a lived king snake. We’ll have to cut that, he said, so as not to offend the “snake lovers.” That would be what? I asked. Ten-fifteen people? Mostly California residents? I couldn’t do that, I said. For one thing, it was one of the most powerful scenes in the book, and for another, it was one of those “true things” he was gaga about. Our relationship was getting distinctly cool at that point, but we still had a handshake deal until he came out with the thing that broke this camel’s back. I’d named it Spatterdashers and he insisted we rename it, A Boy and His Dog. I distinctly remember beginning to retch when he said that.

And that was the end of that. I thanked him and pulled the book from him. At the time, I remember thinking that only the third publisher I’d sent it to had wanted it and had offered a decent advance—therefore, this was going to be a breeze selling it.

I had no idea it was going to take over eighty submissions later to do that. If I’d known that, I might have taken his offer.

As it happened, the 87th place I sent it to was the University of North Texas Press. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize they had never published any fiction at the time. As the story was told to me later, my opus was sitting on the desk of the publisher, Fran Vick, and she was getting ready to slip a form rejection into it and send it back. Her secretary was a bit late in getting her morning coffee to her, so just to kill a minute or two, she decided to read the first page. A purely by chance moment. In the first page, she happened on the words, “Freeport, Texas.” Which was where the novel was set. The town I grew up in. And… coincidentally, the town Ms Vick was from. Seeing her hometown on the first page, prompted her to keep reading. And, once she started, she said she couldn’t put it down. Result: she loved it and phoned me to see if she could buy it.

When it came out, it was nominated for the Violet Crown Book Award and received a Special Citation from the Violet Crown folks. It completely sold out. And, it was the University of North Texas Press’s first fiction offering. They subsequently published a collection of my stories, another “first” for them.

And now… to back it up even further (ala a Pulp Fiction plot structure)…

A scant two weeks before I sent it to UNT, the same manuscript had been selected for a small workshop led by uber-agent Mary Evans in Indianapolis. During a break in the workshop, Mary asked me to go outside with her and while I was toking on a Camel regular, she said, “This is a truly brilliant novel, but you’re having trouble selling this, aren’t you, Les?” Well, yes I was, kind of… Eighty plus rejections would make it fit that assessment… She said she’d had the same problem with her own client, Michael Chabron, with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Mary said, that what was happening with my novel was the same thing that had happened with Michael’s. Because my protagonist was a 14-year-old boy, publishers were viewing it as a YA. And, she explained, “teenaged boys are the single-worst demographic in publishing.” As a group, they simply don’t read. I protested that I’d never viewed it as a YA and offered up John Knowles A Separate Peace as an example. “That’s about a teenaged boy and nobody thinks of it as a YA,” I said.

Mary agreed, but said that publishers tend to pigeon-hole books and the simple fact that my book began with him at age 14 was dooming it to be considered as a YA. She suggested I do the same thing she’d had Michael do, and that was to write two additional chapters, and transform it into a frame story. Begin, she said, with Cory as an old man looking back on his childhood and make that the new chapter one, and add a chapter at the end, coming back to him in his old age. She said that’s exactly what she’d had Michael do and once he’d done that, it sold to the very next publisher she’d submitted it to.

Well, I took her advice. Added the two chapters, transformed it into a frame story, and the first house I sent it to was… you guessed it. The University of North Texas Press. Also, in the original version, the words “Freeport, Texas” didn’t appear on the first page and Fran would have undoubtedly not kept on reading when her hometown didn’t appear at that first glance.

This is all to illustrate several things. One, that getting published was a whole lot harder back then, not to mention far more expensive and time-consuming… and also, that like then, luck plays a huge part in getting published. It’s often not enough to just be talented and write even a brilliant book. It’s almost as important sometimes to just be lucky. And, also that listening to people who know what they’re talking about is kind of a good thing to do.

The thing is, things have changed and, believe it or not, for the better! Today, with the Internet and most agents and editors accepting email queries and submissions, it’s a whole new world and much, much easier to submit. Of course, that also leads to more people submitting than ever before. I don’t imagine that nearly as many people would send out submissions if it cost them twenty to thirty bucks per submission these days! (I seem to remember the figure $9.20 being the average postage cost, one-way, for a novel submission.) That means that to submit a complete mss, would require $18.40 for postage, a couple of bucks for the mailers and stationary boxes to send it in, printing costs of $15-$20 at five cents a page.

So, to answer Ruth’s question: Yes, it’s pretty common to get two rejections…

Story about short stories and publishing. Years ago, when I was a student at Vermont College getting my MFA, I was a bit discouraged. I had my novel out before going there and UNT was publishing my collection of short stories, and I was writing a lot of short stories then, but somewhat discouraged at the rate of rejection. I asked my then-advisor, Diane Lefer, what the average ratio of acceptance/rejection was for a “good” writer. Diane said that for an established writer, the ratio was roughly about one acceptance for every thirty submissions. Made me feel lots better as I was averaging an acceptance for every 18 submissions. Again, sometimes it just helps to know other writer’s experiences to gauge where you’re at yourself.

Now, for the good news.

I’ve painted kind of a “gloom and doom” picture of submissions/acceptances, but here’s the good news. Once you get your first novel or nonfiction book published; once you get your first few short stories published… the doors begin to swing wide open. I’ve since published nine books with more to shortly become published. I haven’t written short stories in years—to be honest, there’s no money in short stories, so I don’t spend the time on them, but on nonfiction books and novels instead these days—but now I get requests from magazines for stories. And, contrary to popular wisdom, when you achieve a certain status, they actually pay decent money for them. (Don’t expect much money to be offered unless you’re somewhat of a “name,” however—you have to earn your chops before that happens.) So what I do these days is I usually “cannibalize” unsold novels in my “only available in my room” dead novel trunk and send those to the requesting magazine. The point is, once you’re published, it gets infinitely easier from then on.

Just expect rejection when you first begin. It’s something virtually all of us who are now published went through. It’s not fun at all, but it seems pretty du rigueur for those of us who write. Just part of the deal. If you get published easier and quicker, then my hat’s off to you. If you don’t, then don’t give up. If you believe in your work, chances are that one person you need to say yes, will do so at some point. And it only takes one such yes. If you get a hundred no’s and one yes, you’re a success. And, each no you receive is just one step closer to that yes.

Keep writing and keep sending your work out. You may not end up getting it published, but at least there’s the chance you will. If you don’t send it out, there’s no chance at all.

Plus, it’s downright cheap to send stuff out these days! Unbelievably cheap! Take advantage of that.
One way to handle rejection... Maybe not Politically Correct, but then nothing fun (or honest) is...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Short story rejections/acceptances from a litmag

Hi folks,
I thought perhaps you might find some "real-life" rejections and acceptances of short stories from a real litmag interesting. These are from when I was an associate editor with The Crescent Review over ten years ago. This was a very well-respected magazine--the NY Times dubbed it "the most democratic literary magazine" in the world. The reason was, almost all publications don't require their editors to read entire manuscript submissions. Tim Holland, the editor of CR did. In fact, each editor was required to submit a brief plot synopsis of each story along with our recommendations to "prove" we'd read the entire story. He felt (as did his editors) that if a person spent the time, effort and money to write and send us a short story, we owed it to that writer to read the entire thing. I can't think of any other publication that does this. At times, we held in our grubby little hands some really putrid stories and it seemed the really bad ones were always the longest ones(!), but we read 'em, every single word.

We were asked to provide one of three recommendations for each story. A "No" a "Yes" or, an even more democratic thing, a "Another reader" in the event that we happened on a story we didn't like for personal reasons but saw literary merit it in. The "Another reader" manuscripts went to another editor for their take on it.

I've taken off the names of the writers as well as the titles of their stories, as it isn't my aim to embarrass anyone. What's left is simply the story description and my recommendation. I thought this might give some writers an "inside look" at how editors look at submissions. It might be helpful to see what at least one editor (moi) looks for in a story and what gains a yes and what gains a no. If you ever get a chance to edit a magazine, I highly recommend the experience. You very quickly learn that what you thought were original ideas... aren't. At any moment, ten thousand other writers are probably writing the same story you thought you'd dreamed up by your lonesome...

If you folks like, I have about 50 pages of these and would be glad to print some more.

Beginning with...

Conflict in the English department between repulsive Ursula Krinsky and the narrator-professor over pedagogy. Comes across as a diatribe for the narrator’s pov and reads more like a polemic than a story. Well-written in parts, but too much “back-story” for my taste and too much use of the past perfect tense, which renders it tensionless./No

Begins with a ten-year-old boy witnessing the murder of his teacher by his (implied) homosexual lover Ambrose and keeping his silence about it and then goes into a flashback where his father emotionally abuses him. From that, we get a glimpse of some neighbors who are even more brutish and then see the father in an even more violent scene with the boy, at the end of which he has an opportunity to save his father’s life but doesn’t. Neighbor Ambrose witnesses this and doesn’t tell on him, which is why he returns the favor when Ambrose kills his teacher. Some good moments, but overall, too stereotypical. Also violates Crescent’s cachets against a first-person pov and a victim theme. What is good about it is that it’s actually a “story” and with some work could be fairly good.

Set in 1959 and from the pov of 16-year-old Butch whose Aunt Rose has just died. Butch tries to deal with death and his new awareness of life and is in the midst of working all that out. A coming-of-age story that's different from most. The writing style is lively and provides lots of nice little moments and insights. Really delightful./Yes

A story of nine-year-old Lydia during WWII right after she's just spent the last three years in a Japanese internment camp in East Java. A couple of stories going on here which dillutes the effect. Lots of back story and "history" that tend to stall the story. With some work, and focus on the real story here, this could be a good piece./No

Relationship story between son and his mother, written in stream-of-consciousness, lots of resentment, lots of "literary" language that seems to try too hard, but this "take" is probably only because it's not my cup of tea./Another reader

Another stream of consciousness piece, that I liked much better. (Second of two stories this writer sent.) This reads "cinematically" and is quite interesting as well as very effective poetical images. Kind of a take on death and AIDs and fragmentation of modern society-stuff. Style is engaging - fragmented and stacatto./Another reader

In debt, newly relocated from the Right to the Left Coast, the unnamed female narrator manages a long-distance romance while trying to make it as a musician and facing an early mid-life crisis. At odds over finances, each with a different value, a crisis point occurs when she becomes involved in a car-wreck insurance fraud and decides to keep illegally-gotten money and not tell her boyfriend. I really enjoyed the language in this one - great similes and metaphors - had a surprising twist at the end. Just a darn good yarn./Yes

This is a story that requires several readings, mostly for the density of a complicated plot and many, many images. Laurie, young female American, living in Germany and studying baroque violin, meets Christoph, an old man along the Rhine and they become friends. He takes her home to meet his wife Bethy and they break bread together, Bethy quizzing Laurie about America and telling her own life story. Over several months, Laurie and Christoph develop a grandfather-granddaughter relationship, which renews his youth and Christoph arranges for Laurie to meet his divorced son Richi and the grandson has the same qualities as Christoph. Ends with the promise of love between the two. Well-written and complex, much like baroque music with its pacing and lushness./Another reader.

Plot was a bit unclear to me. Narrator is (staying/working?) at a hotel named "Angels Flight" and is offered a job operating the dune lift. I just couldn't get into the read - didn't seem to make much sense. Sorry./No

Two girls work in a mall, one as a clerk at Men's Casuals, and the other as a floorwalker, trying to snag shoplifters...only she's a shoplifter herself. They go through adventures in a club, score some weed, get stoned, score some to sell, the floorwalker gives away or uses most of it and has to leave the state before they find her./No

Cooper has a meeting with his ex-wife Darcy (her request. Cooper has just had angioplasty, and is on vacation with his new wife Lorna. They have his two kids with him. His ex, Darcy is going to A.A. On the way, Cooper reminisces about their marriage and his recent heart problems and anticipates a blame-throwing meeting from Darcy. It turns out she's concerned about their son, Henry, about his bed-wetting. Back at the motel, with his new wife and the kids, he doesn't get anticipated grief from Lorna and they prepare to go to the airport. They go to a mall, first, and Henry and Cooper talk and Henry blames him for the divorce. Taking the kids - Henry and Cheryl - back to Darcy. They think they leave both kids, but on the way to the airport discover Henry has hidden in the trunk. His head is as wet as the morning when his father delivered him and he can think of nothing to say. I really like this story and even though it's long at 19 pages would advocate strong consideration./Yes

Kind of a metafiction, where the author talks to his wife about writing a story and in the process tells her the story he wants to write, about a girl he picked up a long time ago, who had a mole. He told the girl he was a doctor and the mole looks bad; she should have her own doctor look at it. The wife accuses him of lying to the girl - that he isn't a doctor - and that maybe he lies all the time. The author's wife is the reason he can't write - she won't let him lie. Cute story - reminds somewhat of Carver./Another reader

Milt Charwell is a mover and is over at his helper George's house, talking about moving a Mrs. Dawson in on the military base yesterday. George was home ill. Milt remembers his helper left his shirt there, so the next day he returns. She's looking at a letter he knows is from her husband who's away on duty. He recognizes it from the day before and has already made up his mind (negative) from the handwriting he'd glimpsed. He gets the shirt and leaves. He knows George is playing around with some of the moving clients and knows he has to fire him, especially when the same yearnings for Mrs. Dawson emerge in himself. Not one of those stories you can explain easily, but one that reverberates after you're done./Another reader

A short while back the narrator lived in his parents' house in a neighborhood that has deteriorated. Dreamboat, a young black man from a halfway house across the street, with an electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle, approaches him and offers to paint his house. He can't go more than 150 feet in any direction, so the narrator marks the distances for him. Dreamboat recruits another resident, Ingram, who agrees to do the work while Dreamboat supervises from the house. In conversation, Ingram tells the narrator that Rufus, the parole officer owns the halfway house and collects the government checks that are supposed to go to the inmates. The narrator agrees to rent his house to Ingram, and the next day Dreamboat appears in the front yard and takes off his clothes, all except the tether, which he's trying to remove with a paint scraper. The narrator decides to help him remove it. They get it off and he aids Dreamboat's escape. Nobody comes./Yes

Clyde Harrow, his mind affected by his stint in Vietnam, is known as "Old Man Rags". When his daughter dies, his mind finally goes and he quits his job as postmaster of a small southern town. Sam, the new postmaster, a man Harrow had befriended as a boy is nice to him. Harrow goes to his home and dreams of his dead daughter and his shack burns down. Sam finds him dead, dressed in a wig and dress and gets him out of it so he won't be ridiculed in memory. Sees a picture of Harrow's daughter - has feelings of arousal. Hasn't settled on a pov. Some good writing in parts./No

Fiction writer Anne is afraid of intimacy, preferring the anonymity of New York to the intimacy of L.A. Married to a bond salesman, Anne came to L.A. to pitch her screenplay, staying at the Four Seasons, and met Nelson, a famous script writer and they now meet every year at the hotel for a rendezvous - this is the fourth year. Emails Nelson that she's in town and he says he has something to tell her. Meets next with her agent, Guy, who's lined up pitch meetings for her. During lunch, he gets a phone call from his lover (Guy's) telling him he's positive for AIDs. As the day goes on, Anne starts to lose her bad opinion of L.A., especially when offers for her script come in. During all this, she gets loving emails from her loving husband John who doesn't have a clue. Then, Nelson emails that he's left his wife and she takes it as a sign that he wants her, so she calls her husband and tells him about her affair. He loves her, is willing to forgive her, but she tells him it's over. What she doesn't know is that Nelson hasn't left his wife for Anne...but for another woman. Somewhat offbeat and quirky. Like it./Yes

Kafkaesque in effect, the unreliable narrator of this piece proceeds from point to point to point in an escalating paranoia and misinterpretation of his environment, triggered by a disastrous "date" to the point of self-mutilation. Eventually, he bangs his own head on a regular basis with a hammer. I really like this one a lot./Yes

Two old (Scottish) maids, Mary and Martha, live in a neighborhood that has become Hispanic. They play and sing old Scottish songs to each other. One night, two house burglars break in and steal their TV. One of the men strikes Mary when she won't tell him where the money is. His accomplish chastizes him and they leave. The two women go to the police station and when they come home, Mary realizes what they've become… two spinsters. She never sings again./No

Woman has a love affair with a man (Archie) and gradually falls out of love. She breaks it off by lying about another man. Good voice to the piece, but like lots of others./No

Constantly being compared (unfavorably) to the boy next door, Pauly comes to grips with his Jewishness and his family. This is terrific writing, brilliant in places. Highly recommend./Yes

(One of three stories submitted)/Owen lives in an efficiency, is attracted to Gloria, a waitress, and takes care of his mother's finances (Mrs. Williams). Mrs. Williams is slipping into senility. His brother Robert is openly homosexual, which publically he finds okay, but privately is bothered by. Robert has AIDs. He dies before Owen can have a heart-to-heart talk with him and then his mother is hospitalized as she is dying./No

(2nd story submitted)/Uncle Koji is a typewriter repairman in Tokyo who cannot find a job because of the emergence of computers and who loves to ride trains. As his unemployment lengthens, he begins riding trains and sitting near young girls, and progressively becomes bolder with them. He gets a job as a crowd control officer in a train station whose job is to push people into crowded cars. He loses his job when he doesn't honor the request of an attractive young girl to push her into the train, since he's realized his perversion. He ends up wearing the white gloves of his former office and frequenting train stations to help protect young girls against perverts such as he'd been./Another reader

(3rd story)/le/Narrator comments on the plays of Gerald Hutch./No

Narrator's wife Laurel lies near death in a hospital bed. Receives various visitors, ponders his wife's life of alcoholism and as she dies he reconciles himself with her./No

Kelly relates his life to a bartender who seems more interested in it than most readers would be./No

Black man who commutes daily into New York considers his marriage, his life, his race. One day he discovers his train pass is missing, which becomes a metaphor for something missing in his own life. Well-written, but just not there yet./No

Clark recounts his sexual progression from a boy to manhood, culminating in screwing his brother's wife. Good writing - should be encouraged./No

A race of miniature people live invisibly amongst us and who mirror our own behavior. Swiftian in nature./Another reader.

Philosophical fable about a man who searches for knowledge and finds that things are not at all what they seem to be./Another reader.

A recent graduate of high school looks for a summer job, ignoring her father's suggestion to try Norman's Ladies Apparel in favor of a health food restaurant. Marci also refuses to work in her father's diner. During the summer, she comes to achieve an empathy with her father's generation she didn't have before. Couple of small problems, but I like this one./Recommend

"Skippy" is obsessed with his mother's obesity and he wavers between hetero- and homosexuality and finally seems to decide on homosexuality. Some really good writing here, but overall I kept feeling as if there was something missing./No

After an extramarital affair with Donna ends, the narrator has a bad experience with his wife Paula and her camcorder (this was fuzzy, as to what actually happened - too cryptic) and then Donna lets him know she's still available. Turns out there's a twist; Donna is actually in love with Vinnie who works in the same electronics store as they do. Paula gets obsessed with the camcorder, using it on every possible occasion. The narrator tries to sort out his relationships and finds out his wife has been videotaping him and Donna, but nothing seems to change. The writer doesn't seem to know what his story is here - too unfocused - although there are several good moments./No

A common fault and the reason most were rejected is that it was clear the submission was a first draft. With a good polish, more would have been publishable. 

Hope you find these somewhat interesting!

Blue skies,

Getting wired before my talk at the Writer's Institute at the University of Wisconsin last year... Had a great time!