Monday, November 3, 2008

In Defense of Lee Klein's Rejections

Here's a note from an anonymous writer, who wishes to defend our friend, editor Lee Klein.

"I sent a story that wasn't very good [to Eyeshot] and got this [rejection from Lee Klein]:

Hey there, [name removed] - I think that for what you're doing to be considered "legitimate" by editors, you really need to master things like the hyphenation of compound adverbs and also copyedit your stuff till it's totally perfect. for example: "self induce myself into a comma"? That's the first battle, without which you'll never proceed to much more difficult battles, like imprinting an image in a reader's brain, then modulating that image, dragging it from their head to their loins to their guts to (very importantly) their heart. My semi-professional editorial opinion of your writing is this: you have a wonderfully unpredictable, nonconformist instinct, something that can't really be taught, but you're maybe a bit too confident right now that a reader is going to follow you, is going to keep reading after the fifth sentence about 37 erections, right? I think you need to be more anxious about the appearance of your text and also about losing a reader almost right away. Maybe always picture that, on the other side of the page, is an impatient person who's read and lived way more than you have. Let a little bit of old-fashioned standard editorial work serve your instinct and thereby improve the language you're apparently sort of maybe a little too easily excreting right now. Essentially, I'm saying there's more to writing than having fun composing -- there's also a super-serious aspect to it called "editing" -- I'd suggest, as a exercise in disciplining your instinct, you try to devote 90% more time to editing than to composing right now -- that is, if you give a shit about this. If not, don't bother. If you're half-assed about it, consider whether your time could be better put to use or if you want to devote a little more of your ass to it (meaning: read as much as possible)? Anyway - sorry to rant - Just trying to help.

Then I sent him another story [and received this rejection]:

Hey [name removed] - Things are a bit cleaner with this one, if "fleas" is spelled wrong! So, in general, it's a hard thing to do, writing stories like this, and writing stories in general. How old are you, by the way?

I think there's something going on here, something that went on with my own stuff when I was really getting into writing, just sort of totally open and amazed that I could write cool-looking sentences and stack them atop one another and they'd build up to pages!

I think there are different instincts when you write something, the descriptive and the narrative. The first can be external detail or psychological loop-de-loops/impressions, right? The second is the story, what's going on. The first is sort of like the water and the second is the river, or more mechanically, the piping.

You seem to sort of get off on the first more than the second, but without more of the second the first won't flow as easily. The thing is, if you focus on offering more of a compelling story than a letter to mama about a brother, it'll let you use/play with the language more without losing readers as easily.

When you have descriptive writing without a story, you have stream of consciousness, impressionistic writing, which is awesome if you have absolute control of the language (see the last 30 pages of Ulysses) but otherwise we mortals need to send our language down the stream of a story?

And then there's the language: I just took the part about the cigs and the ant hills and the regret and cut out a bunch of unnecessary words:

"I count the cigarette butts I step on. Little clumps, like ant hills. No sympathy for tobacco mountains. My brother and I destroyed entire ant colonies. Even the cigarette butts leave me regretting what's lost"

I'm not saying that quick edit is infinitely better, but it's tighter and the sentences vary more, some are fragments etc -- each sentence is like a shot in a music video, some jump-cutty, some held longer, all of it working to keep the viewer's eyes on the page (writing is actually a visual art, right?) - so you want varying textures, different syntax etc - long and short - don't always start sentences with "I" or "The" or He" (go back and look at how many sentences do that, then go read a page of your fave writer person.)

Anyway - just keep at it, keep working it, delete all unnecessary words etc, and send more whenever.


Either way you look at it, Lee has gone out of his way to help me. He's almost written more than I wrote to him, well not quite, I tend to ramble and could use more cutting down. Anyway, I thought Lee deserved some good publicity even though I'm sure your anonymous comments will end up not understanding things and then say stupid words and not feel good about themselves or something."

Look like Lee has made some fans while still rejecting people, which is no easy feat.  I think that's nice.  What do the rest of you think? (Try not to say stupid words.)


Joe said...

I wrote a 400-page memoir about my relationship with my father and gave it to him and the first thing he had to say was similar to the first line of Lee's rejection letter:

"I think you really could use a lot of line-editing. It would help readers to take the writing more seriously."

That said, I tend to see criticism of grammar and spelling as a red flag; it means your critic is trying to distract the discussion from the content of the story, for whatever reason. If you're my Dad, it's painful subject matter that's pushing you to avoid the content. It might be that you don't know how to help and don't want to admit it. Or it might be that you don't want to help, and you want an opportunity to mock and ridicule someone vulnerable. But one thing is certain: criticizing grammar is lazy and unhelpful and usually cowardly or malicious in some way.

Of course, I do need a lot of line-editing, and there are professional line-editors in the world to help me. (or readers who say "there's grammar trouble...let me line-edit you! Here are suggestions regarding your most egregious errors!") Luckily, writers aren't required to line-edit themselves. Agents and editors work with books that contain typographical errors. People sell and publish books with grammar and spelling problems all the time. And professional copy-editors and line-editors are awesome.

Eyeshot probably doesn't have one on staff though.

vivi said...

joe, you misunderstood, misread, or maybe just didn't even read the entire post. the editor was giving the writer more than just line edits for grammar, he also gave specific suggestion on how to make the story flow and how to keep the reader interested. writers have trouble ascertaining how boring their stories actully are sometimes because they are so in love with their words. this is my experience as a grader of essays for standardized tests.

you say "criticism of grammar and spelling as a red flag; it means your critic is trying to distract the discussion from the content of the story" but i would argue that bad grammar distracts the READER from your story, and that's what editors want to fix. gosh joe! you are so brittle!

anyway, i wish i got criticism like that once in a while, all i ever get is the usual "well written but not for [name of journal]. keep us in mind in the future." i'd even welcome a mean rejection letter, at least then i'd know that my story touched someone, even if in a bad way.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don’t think criticism of sentence-level issues is a red flag at all, Joe, at least not in the way you mean. Sure, your dad may have been trying to sidestep any discussion of your memoir’s content in his remark. But when an editor sees consistent errors and badly formed sentences, what comes though is that the writer isn’t really in love with language. A writer who really cares about her writing will worry over every sentence. Sure, we all have some typos, and you’re right that those won’t stop a good story from being published, but a sloppy manuscript shows a general disregard for the building blocks of stories. They way we put our sentences together matters – that’s style and voice and everything that sets us apart from each other.

You can’t hire a line editor for that. (Well, you probably can, but I don’t want to know about it.)

LK’s response was anything but lazy. I’m pretty impressed by it actually.

noplatform said...

If people send their work out with typos, misspellings, and/or grammatical mistakes, they are shooting themselves in the foot (feet?). It should go without saying that rule number one for submissions is that they should be triple-checked for sloppiness of this sort. Any editor or agent is just looking for an excuse to count out a submission, and even a couple of typos looks careless.

That said, this editor's long, detailed comments are extraordinary and a real kindness. It shows he's taking writers seriously and trying to help them develop. We would count ourselves lucky if every editor took such care over our rejected submissions.

Anonymous said...

"...copyedit your stuff till it's totally perfect. for example:..."

That's perfect?!?

Joe said...

well, I know I'm in the minority on this site on just about every issue, but the comments never cease to shock and sadden me. I suppose I should stop commenting.

I used to take comments like this editor's at face value too. Others helped me see through it, taught me to disregard this sadism in the guise of "help" or "criticism". And that helped me to accomplish a lot more. This site reminds me so much of pain I used to put myself through, needlessly, and to my own detriment.

This editor is insecure and trying to look smart and gain power by writing long-winded sarcastic rejections. Please don't convince yourself this is actual criticism or caring about your work.

When you receive a letter about why your story sucked, the pain is not about someone criticizing your story; the root of the pain is that you know beneath the criticism that they're only saying all this to hurt you or gain power over you. This betrayal is what is breaking your hearts.

Lee said...

Not true, Joe. No one's trying to do anything other than respect the never-easy practice of writing fiction . . . When I was 24 or so, an editor at the Chicago Review responded to one of my submissions with a page of things to think about and, though I scoffed at first, I now realize how much such basic craft things really matter.

Anonymous said...


if you can't even be troubled to line edit your own writing, then what's the point? You're too good for precision? You don't care about the language enough to get it right?

Honestly-- if a writer doesn't think line edits are important, they're the ones missing the point.

Anonymous said...

I have no faith in the wisdom of most of today's editors.
Here's a suggestion: read a bit of what they publish. Well, try. It's mostly bad (such as the stuff Ted Genoways at VQR was so proud of).
But if you find a magazine that publishes work you like, tell them so and send them your story.
Times are dismal for literary fiction that has quality, relevance and is entertaining. It had its day, but that day has passed.
Maybe I'll start my own magazine -- "The Bridle-Maker's Literary Review."

Anonymous said...

If I had to choose between a crudely written novel that got the characters and plot right, and an elegantly written one that got them wrong, I'd choose the former. Unfortunately, MFA programs are turning out authors who produce the latter. The workshopping process makes sure the prose is flawless, but does anybody say, "Are all these pretty words worth anything?"
If you have values, stick by them. And, yes, take care to write well.

lee said...

Um, any MFA program worth its salt focuses on content (character/idea) as much as form (structure/plot/language). And get this! At the fancy program I attended, the famous, prize-winning professor writers rarely actually talked about language, mostly focusing instead on the complexity of human consciousness, the value of community, the mythic . . . But, yeah, you'll have real trouble getting into an POST-GRADUATE WRITING PROGRAM if you don't know how to punctuate or spell.

Joe said...

During Obama's victory speech, one guy at the election party pointed out that Obama had said "enormity" when he meant "enormousness". I thought of you guys.

Anonymous said...

I just find it kind of amazing, joe, that a person who calls himself a writer would be opposed to precision.

su said...

I have to agree with Joe on one point, that editors who write these inane, longwinded, cutesy and sarcastic rejections are not doing writers any favors. Some of these rejections can be sadistic and writers should ignore rejections that seem to be written for the sole purpose of hurting your feelings.

Other rambling rejections, such as Lee's, just indicate that the editor is more in love with his own writing than the submitter's writing. Take what practical advice you can get out of them, but don't believe that sheer length is any indicator of sincerity. The rejection letter in the post has a lot of good suggestions, but if you look at other rejection letters on eyeshot, many of them are just stream of consciousness bs.

Anonymous said...

So sad Su is so humorless

dyke said...

I stopped reading after the 37 erections. And I didn't get any feeling in either my loins or my heart. An actual editor wrote that long-ass rejection? Daaaayum! that shit need to be copy edited itself! I want to read the submission that launched that letter.