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a lot of better sentences died during those years
february 1, 2007
I always precede a writing session by surfing the Internet. It's a way, for me, of using the physical tools of writing (keyboard, monitor, mouse), without actually having to write. Of course, even then, even after this nightly reacclimation, it's still hard to switch to writing. There's always a temptation to stay on the Net, connected with the world, rather than close all the doors and windows, be alone again, just me and a thin white cigarette, that blank screen in front of you.
In one of Donald Barthelme's stories, a painter wakes up in the morning, studies a new, blank canvas for a while, finally draws a line on it, then goes off for lunch. He spends a few hours drinking with his friends at a local café, comes home, looks at the canvas, decides the line is wrong, erases it. But he feels immense relief. He's no longer working with a blank canvas. He's working with a canvas with an eraser's smudge.
As even non-writers know, that's really the hardest part of writing, facing a blank page. Or these days, a blank screen.
I always feel stress starting a new story. That this time, I won't be able to fill that indifferent blankness with my mind.
The stress comes as soon as I sit down in front of the monitor. I've been walking around, as if with a head cold, with the story I now want to put into words, for weeks, or months, or, sometimes, years. I've been looking forward to writing the story, but now that I'm actually ready, sitting in front of the monitor, I can't think of where to begin.
Starting a story is always a technical challenge, because there's so much information you have to cram into those first few paragraphs. Who are the characters? What makes them unique? What is their relationship to each other? Where are they? Why? What current action are they involved in? What is the tone of the story? Elegant? Somber? Humorous? Tense? What hook am I going to use to drag the reader past the first paragraphs, out into the green sea of the story, past the breakers? And how am I going to do all this gracefully, without dropping big, floating chunks of exposition?
It's not like a movie, where so much information can be conveyed non-verbally, right from the start. The opening images come up, after the director's credit, you see the characters with your own eyes, their gender, age, facial expressions; the physical environment they're in is obvious, whether board room, battlefield, or farmyard; the soundtrack cues what mood you're meant to feel; all of this essential information conveyed before the first line of dialog.
But having said all that, writing itself, as a profession, has never been easier.
In my lifetime, I've seen two extraordinary technological advances that have completely changed writers' lives.
The first, of course, is the invention of word processing programs.
When I was a kid, just starting to write, I'd have to compose in longhand, blue ink on yellow legal pads, then once I finished a story, I'd haul out a typewriter, hunt and peck the entire hand-written story, word for word, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. It was awful. If you made a single mistake, you'd have to either backspace and hit the wrong key again with a strip of chalky correction tape inserted over the incorrect letter, or else use White-Out, which came in a tiny black and white bottle. Unscrewing the threaded cap, there'd be a tiny brush attached, which, after rolling up the page, click by click, you'd carefully slick across the wrong letter, usually getting on too much, wait for it to dry, brush strokes drying intact, then strike the correct key.
There were no Xerox machines back then, so you'd have at least two sheets of paper rolled up into the typewriter, blue carbon copy sheet between, to create a copy for your records. If a magazine rejected your story, it'd often come back crumpled, or with coffee stains, or the embossed ghost of a paperclip, so you'd have to retype the whole thing all over again.
All that was bad enough, but what was even worse was when you finished typing up the story, uncurled the final, fifteenth page from the typewriter, started rereading the typescript before submitting it, heart in your throat anticipating a spelling error you missed, and realized there was a much better sentence that could be used on page two. A sentence just long enough, or short enough, it would throw the entire typescript pagination off, to where you had to decide if it was worth retyping the entire manuscript all over again, for the sake of one better sentence.
A lot of better sentences died during those years. Let us mourn them. I'm sure they felt resentment. I'm positive they believe it was wrong a third draft sentence ending, for example, with the word "barn" pressed against a period, was not allowed to expand, like a pregnant belly, with its white lightening of stretch marks, into its own messy after birth of after thought.
It was awful. I know a lot of writers romanticize about using typewriters, and specific machines. Fuck 'em. I was so glad to see word processing programs arrive. I suddenly, miraculously, had the ability to write as fast as my thoughts, go back, editing, and insert or delete any length of prose I wanted, without ever having to print a single page. If I decided a particular sentence or scene should appear earlier or later in the story, that no longer meant spending hours in front of a typewriter retyping the entire manuscript. All I had to do was cut and paste. What used to take several evenings, took ten seconds.
My writing improved. Often, when a writer rereads a passage they've written, new ideas occur. Before, the idea of going off on a possibly rewarding tangent, writing on that yellow legal pad, was just too cumbersome, too many words to interlope in cramped script above the original prose on a line. Now, I was able to explore any digression I wanted, because I knew if it didn't work out, I could easily highlight and delete it.
The second revolution was e-mail.
Some analysts say that at this point the Internet's most profound impact on life has been e-mail, more so than personal web pages, blogs, informational sites and the ability to buy stuff over the Web. I agree.
As a writer, e-mail completely changed the way I submit stories.
I no longer have to print a story, put it in a large manila envelope, with a slightly smaller manila envelope inside, and stand in line at a post office to get the postage for both.
Before e-mail, overseas markets were, as a practical matter, unavailable, because it was too much trouble buying foreign postage, trying to make your package as lightweight as possible.
Now, if I want to submit to an overseas market, I just send an e-mail, with my story attached as a Word document.
E-mail is so convenient, about a year ago I stopped submitting to snail mail markets altogether. I now only submit to those magazines that accept e-mail submissions.
Why? Partly because of the convenience, but partly because magazines that accept e-mail submissions tend to more often accept my stories. My experience has been that magazines that accept e-mail submissions are more receptive to something different.
The older literary magazines express their aversion to e-mail submissions in a variety of Mesozoic ways.
Some just flat out say they don't accept e-mail submissions.
Which to me sounds a bit harsh. If you submit something by e-mail, you're punished by having it "deleted unread". Kind of like, if we see you at a party, we'll turn our backs on you, fake-laughing at something Geoffrey just said. Interesting also is the mixture of two different technologies, fax and e-mail.
Chicago Review, of course, is not alone in banning any form of submission other than the old-fashioned snail mail type:
Massachusetts Review, after waxing poetic about what they seek, toes the same "no fax or e-mail/no shirt, no service" line:
Despite what they say, their commitment is, in fact, "provincial", in that they don't accept a technology as universally embraced as e-mail.
New England Review, another of the older literary magazines, says, "We do not accept electronic submissions." On their site, they prominently display a quote from Literary Magazine Review:
But what risks are they willing to take-how truly adventurous are they-- if they won't even consider e-mails?
The Threepenny Review has a celebratory quote from Robert Hass, followed by an admonishing note in capital letters:
"Culturally alert"? But they aren't comfortable with e-mail submissions?
Probably the worse case is The Missouri Review:
So, let me get this straight. Editors of magazines who aren't affiliated with a major university are able to accept e-mail submissions without charge, but the Missouri Review has to charge writers, many of whom are living at poverty level, for the privilege of submitting to their magazine? And this "hiring of additional staff"? How many additional staff members has Missouri Review actually hired to handle e-mail submissions? Aren't most of the people who work at Missouri Review unpaid interns?
The truth is, many of the most respected literary magazines do, in fact, accept e-mail submissions. Many of them, in fact, only accept e-mail submissions.
If these two highly-regarded literary magazines accept e-mail submissions, why can't others?
I was curious, so I contacted a number of literary magazines, asking them why they don't accept e-mail submissions.
Here are some of their replies (I sincerely respect all the editors who wrote me back. They're busy people. I appreciate they took the time to elaborate on their no e-mails policy to me. This is not about trying to find villains. It's about trying to understand why, in the twenty-first century, some of the most important literary reviews still refuse to accept the easiest form of communication ever invented.)
From C.L. Elerson, Managing Editor of American Literary Review:
From Eleanor Lee, Co-Editor of Crab Creek Review:
Tessa Joseph, the editor of Carolina Quarterly, one of the more respected literary magazines, offers some interesting insights:
An unnamed editor at The Fiddlecreek, a Canadian journal, expresses the same idea as the other editors, but then adds another consideration:
So we wind up with two objections to e-mails.
One, that they increase a journal's expenses. If the author doesn't print out their story (if the author sends the story by e-mail), the journal has to print the story. A practical point, but what that objection is really saying is that many traditional magazine editors are uncomfortable reading a story on their monitor (if they read stories on their monitor, the printing expense issue is moot). As a submissions editor myself, I read all the submissions I review on a monitor. It's fairly easy to tell, after a page or two, if a story has merit. If a story does appear to be appropriate for publication, I don't need to print it to know that. It's obvious. A great poem, a great story, is going to be great no matter what medium in which you read it.
You're reading these lines on a monitor yourself. Do you really need to print them to realize how great they are?
It also perplexes me that journals like The Kenyon Review and Glimmer Train are able to cope with a large influx of e-mail submissions, but other journals cannot.
The second objection, expressed by The Fiddlecreek's editor ("And perhaps -- well, it's very easy to whip off emails -- perhaps we get better submissions if more thought & effort goes into the process."), is interesting. The idea here is that the more trouble and expense a writer has to go through to submit a story, the greater the likelihood the story has merit. Is that true? I honestly don't know. The e-mailed stories I receive as a submissions editor are nearly all of them of professional quality. They may not be accepted for a number of reasons, but they aren't junk. Virtually all of them have merit. If indeed The Fiddlehead sees its snail mail only policy as a pre-screening, why not filter further, and only accept stories from agents?
We're in the midst of a technology revolution. Journals that don't accept e-mail submissions are a contentious issue among writers, as witness all the heated discussions on different bulletin boards. Editors who do not currently accept e-mail submissions should not be vilified, they're good people, trying to find the best fiction they can for their magazines, but it would be helpful if they were to reconsider their policies. E-mail submissions are the future, much like typed submissions, rather than handwritten ones, became the future once the technology of the typewriter became established.
And, thank God, we're a long way from the typewriter.
My piece, Pornography and Martial Arts Movies, will appear in the next issue of the U.K. magazine, Sein und Werden.