Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

editing jockstraps

September 12, 2018



*no image today*



I’ve long been a trifle smug about the fact that no editor has ever corrected the grammar in the stories I’ve had published. Once an editor suggested I add a hyphen (which I did), and twice editors requested fundamental changes to the endings of two stories (which I also did), but never has an editor told me to fix the sentence fragments or lengthy sentences or my enthusiastic use of semi-colons and em dashes. All of these things have become parts of my narrative style over the years, and all of these things have survived into the published stories.

I take that as evidence against the prescriptivists who insist on “proper” grammar and punctuation and how “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” (For the record, I know the rules, but I try to forget them. Also, I’m speaking of creative writing, not term papers or legal documents or such.) I’m not really out there, but I’m not interested in being timid and writing within constraints. Nor, I have seen, are most of the writers I admire playing by those rules much either. (My big bugbear is the insistence on only using some form of “say” as a dialog tag, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few dozen times before. Who decided that? And why are so many writers so automatic and vehement in their adherence to it?)

But lately I’ve begun to wonder what editing these editors actually do with the stories they receive. I spoke the other day of my using the incorrect spelling “jock strap” in One-Match Fire. Where that occurs (three times) is in the chapter titled “Runaway” and that story was published last year in a journal devoted to the intersection of sports and literature. Yet this incorrect two-word spelling appears in the printed journal. If it is truly wrong (and I yield that it is), then shouldn’t the male editor of a sporting lit mag have caught and corrected it? Had the editor been a woman and I had used the word “brastrap” I suspect it would have been corrected. Granted jockstrap is a rarified word and usage, but in that context it wouldn’t have been.

And so this makes me question my own (aforementioned) smugness. Are editors truly respecting the brilliance of my writing, or are they just not taking much time for fine tuning the works they accept. Or is there a third path I’m not seeing?

(And this leaves out discussion of the many rejections I’ve received for submitted stories. Maybe some of those were rejected because of my cavalier approach to “the rules.”)


white on white

August 31, 2018

Spotted these two white moths on the white door of my garage in white-bread suburbia.

I received one of those rare things this week: a personalized and detailed rejection email for my story “MTWTF.” I’ve never done the math, but I’m sure my ratio of form rejections to personalized rejections is twenty to one. So it is nice to get five paragraphs of attention from an editor, even if it is ultimately bad news.

Unfortunately, the specifics of the fault they found with the story were there in the email. Sure, no story is perfect, and certainly I don’t claim that my stories are without flaws, but to have them told to me takes some of the shine off of the personalized response.

The story is meant to be comic with a serious undertone — I wrote it with a deliberately affected tone — and it is based on an event in my long-ago life. I think I wrote the story I had, so I’m not planning on revising it. Still, the editor said “the writing was rather stiff, the conflict was weak, and it lacked a good opening hook.” He went on to say that there was too much “telling.”

Fair enuf, but that’s also mostly conventional wisdom, and I don’t really want to write stories to the norm. (I wonder what he would make of one of my One-Match Fire stories with all of their sentence fragments.)

I’m sure the ratio of rejections to acceptances for my stories is even greater than the ratio I state above. Rejection is part of this game.


June 25, 2018

I find myself in that in-between place again. I have three stories I’m working on at the moment, and though some part of my brain thinks this is probably counterproductive — my creative “genius” being diluted across too many efforts — another part of me says that words are words, and if I can get them down in any fashion or location, I should call it a win.

I’m about three-fourths finished with the first draft of Finnegans Fogbound, a novel-length ambition and something I had embarked on to give myself a break from all of the fraught, literary anguishing I was doing with my One-Match Fire stories. The Finnegans novels are more light weight works, something like cozy mysteries that, while demanding in their own way, can be written without too much personal investment (if that makes sense). I don’t make literary references in them; I don’t strive for some profound, controlling metaphors or psychological insights that span Western civilization. Thus, a break.

But I may have stalled on that story. I’m not sure. I certainly know where the plot needs to go. I have all of the characters in place and developed nicely. I have all of the pieces on the table before me, but I can’t seem to bring myself to finish putting together the puzzle. I suspect it’s temporary and I’m just feeling the daunting demands of a novel-length effort. So I seem to have taken a break from the break I was taking.

And find myself back in the One-Match Fire universe after all. I’m making some decent progress on a story called “Spring Fever” which I think I’ve mentioned here before. It’s a love story, and I don’t write many of those, but I found I needed to get the points of this story worked out so I could revise a different story: “Little Gray Birds” which is part of the One-Match Fire novel and which I realized I needed to refine so I could consider that novel finished and ready to submit to scary agents. (You’re following all of this, right?) “Little Gray Birds” takes place after “Spring Fever” so what happens in the latter affects the telling of the former. Thus once I get “Spring Fever” worked out, I will go back to “Little Gray Birds” and hone/refine/enhance it and call it good.

So I’m busy with that.

And I’m still riding the creative wave of that story “MTWTF” about an incident in my distant and murky past (highly fictionalized in the story) and find myself making notes — even writing bits of story — about one of the characters in “MTWTF.” Clearly I have more to say about this person and need to write another story to do it. (“MTWTF” is not yet published, and it’s being read by a trusted friend now.) Thoughts intrude, and I don’t mind making notes about future work while they occur to me. I can see the structure of the story — it’s really just a character sketch using a day-in-the-life structure to hang it on — and I know the character, so the ideas are coming fast and frenzied. It’s not a bad state to be in if you’re a writer, I suppose.

So if I’m not too diluted and dissipated by my creative ferment, a few good things should result in the coming days. Fingers crossed.


Blogspot hates me

June 7, 2018

From the first days of my blogging life, back in those wild, heady days of Roundrock Journal more than a decade ago, I always had periods where any comments I made on blogs hosted by Blogspot (sometimes known as Blogger) would have trouble posting and/or disappear altogether. It didn’t help when spam became so pervasive and Blogspot added steps to commenting to prove I was an actual human and not a spambot.

Then the troublesome period would pass, until for whatever reason I began having trouble getting my wise and witty comments to post on Blogspot blogs.

I’m in one of those periods again, it seems. So for those of you out there who haven’t seen a snarky comment from me on your blog in recent weeks, I suspect this is the reason why. I’ve lost the means of expression but not the depth of my love for you.

Philip Roth

May 24, 2018

I’m sure most of you know that I have been a reader of Philip Roth’s books for nearly four decades. I’ve read his entire fiction output (except some of his very early short stories that are not in print any longer), some works several times, and one (The Ghost Writer) more than thirty times I’ve estimated. He died on Tuesday at the age of 85, and I think it’s appropriate I make some mention of him on this humble blog.

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. (I consider Iris Murdoch to be my favorite novelist. There is a difference, I think.) With Roth’s fiction, especially the novels of his middle period, I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is exactly right. There are some sentences that I will pause after reading, reading them again because they strike with such power. He was not my introduction to Jewish literature in the U.S. (that would be Chaim Potok) but Roth did show me how the U.S. Jewish identity could be looked at in a different way. I always found his characters credible, with realistic motivations as well as self-destructive tendencies. (Even when his characters were often thinly veiled versions of himself, sometimes named Philip Roth!)

But I was never a fan of the man himself. It was always all about the work for me. I know he’d been defined as a misogynist and a self-hating Jew, but I won’t pause on those judgments. In fact, when I read the biography of him called Roth Unbound, I found myself not wanting to know about his personal life and how it informed his fiction.

You may know that he stopped writing fiction some years back. (Many people did not believe it when he announced this and are expecting posthumous novels now. I doubt it.) As with many of his statements about his works, I’ve heard him say various things about his cessation. Most recently it seems that he acknowledged that he had written himself out and that he was past his best years. That aligns with what I’d found in reading his later works. He seemed to have lost his subject, or rather, was stuck with his subject — his past — and couldn’t stay contemporary. (His last novel was about the polio epidemic of the 1950s.) And I think he tipped his hand with his late novel The Humbling. It is the story of a renown actor who has lost his talent. I think Roth was acknowledging in his fiction that he was slipping as well. (The critics were not kind to the novel, not regarding the story but regarding its execution. It was derided as “thinly imagined” for Roth.)

I will continue to re-read his novels but all things must pass.

uncomfortable myths

May 15, 2018

Long-time readers (both of you) know that I’ve been devouring the fiction of Rabih Alameddine in recent months and must even pace myself to spread it out over time.

He recently had an article in Harper’s* about comforting myths and how literature can be complicit with it. He takes several writers (including himself) to task for fostering (or being read as fostering) cultural myths about “others” that allow us to feel better about ourselves. (Yes, we were wrong, and we feel really bad about it. Yes, we’re not perfect, but look how bad it is over there.)

Near the end of the article he even takes on writing guidance, invoking that holiest of holies, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (which I’d read decades ago and felt smug about at the time). The iconoclastic part of me especially enjoyed this passage from Alameddine’s article:

When I started writing my first novel, a friend suggested I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which allegedly explained the principles of good writing. I hated it, not because it was bad advice but because it felt so limiting. Writers are supposed to show, not tell? I wrote a novel where the protagonist does nothing but tell. A short story should lead to an epiphany? Who needs that? When I’m told I should write a certain way, I bristle. I even attempt to write in opposition to the most recent book I finished. If my previous novel was expansive, I begin to write microscopically; if quiet, I write loudly. It is my nature.

*I hope that link works. Harper’s requires a paid subscription, but apparently they’re letting this one loose in the world.

grocer’s apostrophe

April 25, 2018

I never knew there was a name for it, but I’ve seen this usage of apostrophes all over the place. When you place an apostrophe before an S to pluralize a word, and you shouldn’t, it’s called a grocer’s apostrophe. I did not know that.





and so on

That site I link to above calls the apostrophe a “suspended comma.” I’ve not heard that term before either.

I’m not a grammar fanatic by any means, but when I see “mistakes” like these I wonder if the person was trying hard to be “correct” and missed the mark.


Also, Nilou was born yesterday. My sixth (!) grandchild and third granddaughter.

And so the grandbabies are thus: