December 2, 2016
Remember the good old days when strict gatekeepers had total control over what got published? It wasn’t all that long ago, when you think about it. Some of us still have scars from trying to crash those gates. Getting slapped down by relentless rejection was bad enough, but what about all the rules that these guardians of literature enforced? If we were fortunate enough to get replies from them at all, we’d receive a dressing down about all the strictures we had violated in our pitiful attempts to write. We would not merit a second glance, much less true consideration, until we mastered the various commandments they had set up to keep the barriers in place.
There were various telltale signs, the gatekeepers said, that pegged you as an amateur. One of these was overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Well, maybe the occasional odd adjective could be allowed, they conceded, but adverbs were strictly verboten. Likewise, if a character said something, he or she could only say it. No declaring or exclaiming or expostulating. And no exclamation points, ever! Above all, we must avoid overwriting and exposition, two deadly sins that went hand in hand. But even the masters do that, I might protest. What about John Updike with his multiple metaphors, and Pat Conroy with his lush descriptions? But those are famous guys, I was told. They get to play by their own rules, or none at all. Someone without a name had to grab the reader’s attention on the first page, if not the first sentence, since even in those pre-social media days, there were distractions at every turn to keep people from reading. In fact, the average attention span was so minuscule that if a prospective reader didn’t get instantly hooked, he couldn’t be blamed for turning on the TV rather than proceeding to page two.
Prior to the advent of self-publishing, when it seemed next to impossible for a beginner to publish a novel, I tried my hand at a few short stories. It proved equally difficult to penetrate any but the most amateur story markets, the type that paid in copies of the magazine. I decided the only way to get beyond the endless “not suitable for us, but good luck” responses was to pay for advice from a reputable source. I sent several stories to a critique service run by the editor of a well-regarded literary magazine. She tore them to shreds, although not without offering tidbits of encouragement here and there. She offered to go on working with me, since I showed a hint of promise. I didn’t take her up on that offer, since I soon gave up trying to write stories and instead decided to work on novels, which would at least offer a greater reward if successful. My critique contact likewise gave up criticizing stories, saying she was inundated with too many bad ones. She, too, decided to concentrate on longer manuscripts.
I recently reread one of the stories I submitted to this service. It was called “Cheryl’s Lunch Hour,” and was based on what I thought was a clever, if somewhat implausible plot twist. It centers on a Federal government secretary in her mid-twenties, who is mentoring her sister, twenty-year-old Rosie, a gifted dancer. Both girls live with their parents, who are fairly unimaginative about the sisters’ goals. Cheryl frequently uses her lunch hour to take an arduous trip from her Washington office to the Maryland suburbs to watch Rosie rehearse for an upcoming small theater production. She believes in her sister, although she is embittered by her comparatively boring job and a jealous streak she can’t quite suppress, since she once had theatrical aspirations herself.
One day, Cheryl runs into a talent scout outside the theater who mistakes her for her sister. For a fleeting minute or two, Cheryl wonders if she can utilize this instance of mistaken identity for her benefit. Maybe if she dieted and practiced, she could dance again herself, with perhaps less skill but with a depth of maturity that her sister does not yet possess. Her head explodes with dreams. Could she possibly carry off this deception? By the time she gets back to her job (which she had had dreams of quitting on the spot), she’s shaken off the fantasy and resumes her main chore of typing spreadsheets.
No doubt I put both the story and the critique aside for many years because the criticism was harsh. Was my critic too enamored with little rules? Perhaps, as she jumped on every instance of sentences close together that repeated common words and phrases such as “she,” “the,” “it is,” and “there was.” She pointed out the redundancy of sentences such as “She scolded loudly.” She denounced as a cliche the opening device I used of the main character waking up in the morning with yesterday’s problems swirling through her head.
I violated plenty of bigger rules as well. I was scolded for having no hint of the central story problem on page one. In my critic’s judgment, the story lacked a sympathetic viewpoint character, since “Cheryl is jealous of her sister, yet wants to use her to feel good about herself.” But she’s not a total bitch, I protested, just discontent with her life and understandably envious of her talented, younger sister. Is she any less sympathetic than the pedestrian parents or the arrogant, oblivious Rosie? It seemed the critic found all of them pretty despicable, except perhaps the superior at Cheryl’s office who has agreed numerous times to cover for her during her prolonged lunch hours. Even he has an ulterior motive … to start a relationship with her. “Central characters and villains shouldn’t be all good or all bad,” my critic lectured, rather obviously. Additionally, what I considered the clever trick of the tale, the case of mistaken identity, was judged to be unrealistic. Maybe so, I thought, but for crying out loud, it’s fiction.
It got worse. Most painful of all was the critic’s judgment that the prose tended to be “unnatural in both narration and dialogue.” My heroine was in the habit of delivering long monologues. For example, she sarcastically describes her State Department job to her father, a higher-up in the department: “You may think all I do is type operating budgets for the Weapons Evaluation Division. But I have the secret knowledge that keeps the operation going. Nobody else in that office knows how to set up charts on the computer. You think it’s easy getting those huge numbers to fall into neat columns? If I were to quit today, I don’t know what you administrators at Main State would do without your nifty charts. And if you didn’t have those numbers always at hand to feed to the negotiators, what would they bargain with? That might be the end of any hopes for world peace in our time!”
Have I gotten better at this stuff over the years? I knew even then that my critic made excellent points. It was kind of her, after all that, to find a shred of hope for me as a writer. Nowadays, I choose to look on the bright side. If I cringe at my earlier efforts, it must mean I’ve improved, at least a little.
August 12, 2015
Like most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.
I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.
Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.
Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”
How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.