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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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ready to slap you awake
april 1, 2005

This past month, I've been doing something I've never done before in my life.

I've been a submissions editor for a literary magazine.

Lullaby Hearse.

If you read many literary magazines, you soon see a sameness to their fiction.

The stories tend to be safe. Great sentences, sometimes, but no great scenes. People keep their clothes on, rarely swear, never go to the bathroom, and the main character is usually someone who's sensitive. The prose is as poetic as five dollar perfume. Ten pages of double columns leads the reader to the most modest of all possible conclusions.

Lullaby Hearse, on the other hand, under editor-publisher Sarah Ruth Jacobs, has always welcomed risks. As the magazine's guidelines state, "Unique images, unusual story structure, and flawed characters are greedily sought."

All in all, there are four of us, in addition to Sarah Ruth, reviewing stories. We've all met over e-mail, and we're a fairly diverse lot (although three of us, surprisingly, are from Texas).

After so many years of submitting stories to magazines as a writer, it's eye-opening to be on the other side of the equation, receiving stories from writers, trying to decide if they'd be appropriate for the magazine.

Lullaby Hearse receives about 200 submissions a month. 97% of submissions are rejected. It's very discriminating.

All the stories and poems I review are e-mail submissions (life would be so much easier for writers if all editors accepted e-mail submissions) (And as a side note, to other authors, I don't know if you've had the same experience, but I have a much higher acceptance rate from e-mail submissions than I do from snail mail submissions).

When I opened my first e-mail submission, I wasn't sure what I would find.

In fact, the story was worth reading. It just wasn't the type of story in which the magazine is interested.

Nearly all the stories I've read this past month, and I've read quite a few, have merit. Which surprised me (and made my job more difficult). I had thought magazines probably receive mostly amateurish efforts, given all the derogatory talk by editors about the slush pile, but that wasn't the case with the stories I reviewed.

I was keenly aware, particularly since I'm a writer myself, that I had a responsibility to seriously consider everything that had been submitted, to spend enough time with each piece, reading it more than once, to give it a fair review.

So what do I look for?

What everyone else does. Original ideas, well-developed plots, fully-realized characters, realistic details.

Although typos and misspellings should always be avoided by writers, to be honest, they didn't affect my judgement of a story one way or the other, since they're easily fixed.

The hard part of my job is writing rejection notices. What do you say? I try to point out what I liked about a story, while at the same time explaining why it wasn't right for the magazine. In some cases, the writer had a great style, but the story itself was mundane. In other cases, there was a potential for a great story, but the writer had chosen an easy plot line rather than really developing the characters' dynamics to the degree needed.

If I review a story and it just isn't right, for whatever reason, I write a rejection note (I sign my name to all of my own rejections). If I feel a story has merit, I forward it to Sarah Ruth, along with my comments, for her final decision.

If I see a lot of talent, I suggest the writer consider submitting something else.

Here are the most common reasons why I reject a submission, in no particular order:

The story wasn't something the magazine publishes. It may be a great story on its own, but it's just not the right type of story for the magazine. Like sending a Western to a Science-Fiction magazine, or vice-versa.

The story didn't have a plot. It was essentially a thumb-nail sketch of an individual. Although some of these character studies were enjoyable to read, the writer didn't take the next, crucial step of then showing that character interacting with other people, in a plot which set up a conflict the main character had to resolve.

The plot had already been done so many times that this new iteration added nothing of value. (In my experience so far, these were the most over-written stories).

The story existed only for its surprise ending, with everything subordinated to that surprise, and very little thought given to character development or logic.

The story simply wasn't interesting. I didn't care about the characters, or what happened to them.

The story was well-written, with great dialogue, etc., but it was essentially fake. (Most of these were erotica.) Although each word was carefully selected, not a single word was honest. (Material that contains graphic sexual or violent elements is welcome at Lullaby Hearse, more so, I would say, than at most magazines, but it must be done in an interesting way.)

I said the magazine rejects 97% of submissions, so imagine me going through all these stories, then opening an e-mail, reading the first few paragraphs of an attachment, and coming across something that has real talent, that's honest, has technical skills, with original turns of phrase. Can you imagine how great that two-by-four slap to the forehead feels?

That's what really makes the job worthwhile, to discover a new or underpublished writer and be able to contribute towards giving him or her an audience.

I'm having a lot of fun. It's a real joy to open an e-mail, read what a writer has to say about himself or herself, then click on the attachment link to open the story itself.

Because anything can happen at that point. I might even forget to finish my cigarette, leaving it to smolder, while I'm scrolling down text, lost in someone else's world.

I mentioned a couple of Latelys ago Mary was approved for Social Security disability benefits because of her stroke in April of 2002.

This past month we received Mary's lump sum catch-up payment from Social Security, $39,000.

Most of that, of course, goes to her long term disability carrier, to reimburse them for all the benefits they paid before Social Security's determination of disability (Mary's agreement with her long term disability carrier, which is standard, requires her to reimburse the carrier for benefits Social Security provides, in a typical coordination of benefits).

However, during the conversations I had with Mary's carrier, the carrier's representative realized the carrier had been reimbursing Mary at a lower amount than the contract called for. Mary was supposed to receive a benefit from the carrier based on 70% of her salary immediately prior to her stroke. Instead, the carrier all these years had been reimbursing her at 60%.

So we got a check from the carrier for $14,000, and Mary's monthly benefits were increased by $440.

Which is good news. More nuts to put inside the tree trunk, Travis McGee secreting rubber-banded wads of cash in the space between the teak walls of The Busted Flush and its wave-lapped outer hull.

For St. Patrick's Day we had corned beef and cabbage, like everyone else.

As someone who's of Irish descent (Irish-German), it always struck me as a bit embarrassing the Irish only have one famous dish, and on top of that, it isn't that good.

Would anyone on death row, for example, wave away a pizza or cheeseburger and ask instead for corned beef and cabbage?

Who the fuck wants to die with cabbage in their mouth?

Wouldn't that be the ultimate humiliation, to be strapped in the electric chair, that little teapot on your head, and have uncontrollable gas?

Your victim's family is there to witness your execution, the minister is bent over his prayer book, nailed forefinger on an enlarged black gothic capital letter, and there you are, farting away? And because you're isolated up there in the electric chair, you can't pretend like maybe it's someone else? What do you do? "Really, my farting isn't meant as a comment on the truly sincere grief I know my victim's family is feeling. It's just that I ate a lot of cabbage, more than I really should have, andů"

I got to thinking, If not corned beef and cabbage, what do most death row inmates have as a last meal?

I live in Texas.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, on their website, used to post menus for most of the 313 killers executed in Texas since 1982.

However, some people fluttered paper fans in front of their faces and complained that page on the site was "tasteless and demeaning" to criminals who raped, stabbed, shot, strangled, burnt alive, and beat to death innocent people, so the feature was dropped.

Fortunately, The Memory Hole, a site that preserves posted Internet information, archived the meals before Texas Criminal Justice got wavy in the knees, so you can still view the details of the meals on their site.

Here's a typical selection, for Bobby Cook, executed March 11, 2003 for his participation in the murder of a camper who was shot six times in the head:

Double meat cheeseburger (with jalapenos and trimmings on the side), vanilla malt, French fries, onion rings, ketchup, hot picante sauce, vanilla ice cream, two Cokes, two Dr. Peppers, and a chicken fried steak sandwich with cheese pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and salad dressing.

Yum. I wonder if his victim, a 42 year old man fishing on the Trinity River, trying to catch dinner for his family, got jalapenos and trimmings on the side before six loud bullets were fired into his head.

But let me mark March 13, 2005, for that was the date Mary and I, for the first time in our long lives, had perfect cheeseburgers.

It started out, as almost all momentous days do, as ordinary. When we wake on such days, we never, ever see the smiling lightening bolt zagging towards us.

A Sunday.

I got out of bed, fed the cats, made coffee, went upstairs to print out the e-mails I received overnight. (I usually read e-mails in the morning, reply at night.)

Around mid-morning, In a Fix on The Learning Channel, we went out to our kitchen to make a couple of cheeseburgers, like we've done hundreds of times.

We used regular supermarket hamburger buns, the type that come eight to a package, melting butter in a skillet, circling a half of each bun cut-side down around the skillet to soak up the bubbling butter, then putting them back in, face down, to get that browned, crispy effect.

Fried the two maroon hamburger patties, and while they were sizzling, steam rising, I thinly sliced a lip-red tomato on a white hard plastic cutting board, sawed through the pretty purple slices of a red onion, pulled apart a few pale green convex leaves of iceberg lettuce. As my fork fished down inside a jar of dill hamburger pickle slices, lifting out the pickles, Mary placed squares of American cheese on the dark burgers in the skillet.

I created our "secret sauce", mayonnaise and ketchup swirled together until it was orange.

Once the burgers were heated through, mahogany and done, we assembled our sandwiches, stacking meat, cheese, crisp vegetables, wet pickles, putting on the top bun, carrying the burgers into the bedroom, bit into them.

And they were perfect.

I mean really, they were perfect.

We made so many burgers over the years, and they were all good, but it makes sense that eventually, after so many burgers, by chance you'd make the perfect one, and that morning, lying in bed watching In a Fix, March 13, 2005, we happened upon the perfect cheeseburger.

Mary and I looked at each other, lying side by side as we chewed, cheeks full, mouths closed.

And of course, although we would have loved to linger over this perfection, to make it last forever, it was fleeting, because if we slowed our bites, the warmness of the buns between the clamping fingers of our right hands, a wonderful breast warmness, would have waned, and what we ate then would no longer be perfect.

So we ate at our usual speed.

Once the burgers were gone, just brown eyes of grease on our plates, we looked at each other, wiping our mouths.

On this otherwise ordinary Sunday morning, not expecting to, we had, after so many years, tasted perfection.

Beauty is always lurking out there, ready to slap you awake.

In publishing notes, editor Michael Heffernan contacted me to see if I had a story I could contribute to his upcoming anthology, tentatively titled, Aim for the Head. As it turns out, I did. "Fleeing, on a Bicycle with your Father, from the Living Dead", which I wrote late last year, will be included in the anthology, scheduled to be published in early 2006.

This past month I've been particularly productive, writing three stories: "Welcome to the World of Men and Women", 15,000 words long, "Damp", and "After Here." I'm currently working on my next story, "Rocketship Apartment."