My friend Alana Atwood, who edits a prestigious Seattle-based literary magazine, recently received a submission that was poorly written.
Is this unusual? Not at all. Editors get second-rate submissions all the time. Screening out the crap is just part of the job.
It's also important to note that everybody starts out writing poorly. (Look up some of Hemingway's early unpublished prose if you don't believe me.) The only real difference between good writers and bad writers is that the good ones hang in there, learn from their mistakes, and get better.
One of the pitfalls of being a beginning writer is not knowing that you can't actually write yet. So you end up sending amateurish garbage to an editor.
Will the editor zing it right back, with an honest "This sucks! The time I spent reading it is, alas, ten minutes of my life that I'll never get back again. Please learn how to write before sending me anything else!"
Of course she won't. That would be rude. Instead, she'll return it with a polite "Sorry, this doesn't work for us."
Just how bad was the essay Alana received? It began with this sentence:
"Suselah! How's my girl?" he would inevitably retort as he hoisted me into his sinewy arms, the waft of a cigar sweet as grass on his lips."
The rest of the writing was similarly not-ready-for-prime-time. So Alana rejected the piece with her usual prompt and polite form letter.
No big deal. So far, business as usual. But? Suselah pushed back. Her response to Alana's "Thanks, but it's not right for us?"
"I can't imagine a more fitting entry," she emailed Alana, "by a published author with clear Seattle connections, and topical to a tee, but hey, your call."
"If it's my call," fumed Alana to herself, "Why the hell are you giving me shit about it?" After which she logged onto Facebook to express her frustration, posting both the sentence and the writer's response to its rejection on her personal page.
Yeah... that is not my favorite sentence, a friend quickly agreed. Although it's almost great in the brazenness of the overwriting.
Alana's Facebook pals, many of whom are writers and editors, all agreed that this was, indeed, a stinker of a sentence. So much so that the Comments Thread quickly turned into an impromptu game of "What Is Wrong With This Line?"
I don't understand. How did he get grass on his lips?
Maybe the retort backfired on him?
Good writing, in this century, should not contain vocabulary you do not use in everyday conversation. Retort? Hoisted? Sinewy? Waft? Give me a break.
She needs to look up the word "retort" before ever using it again.
There's no such thing as a cigar that smells as sweet as grass.
Kittens are much sweeter than grass. How about "the waft of cigar smoke as sweet as kittens on his lips?"
Never mind the rest. I was put off by 'Suselah" from the get-go.
Alana was consoled (and amused) by our responses, and we all had fun dumping on a bad sentence.
But -- was it okay for Alana to post Suseleh's sentence on Facebook?
She didn't post it on the Facebook page of the literary magazine itself. Nor did she identify the line's author. She didn't log on to proclaim "Suselah can't write and here's the proof."
Besides, it's a dirty little publishing secret that editors routinely trade around and snicker at examples of particularly bad writing. Part of the fun of editing a litmag is laughing at bad prose.
And it's not just editors who enjoy poking fun at bad writing. There's even a yearly competition, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, in which authors compete to write the world's most awful first line. Here's one of this year's winners:
When private detective Flip Merlot spotted the statuesque brunette seated at the bar of his favorite watering hole, he was drawn to her like a yellow cat to navy blue pants, and when he sidled up next to her he felt fuzzy all over, kind of like dark blue corduroys get when they're matted with yellow cat hair.
Of course, the folks who submit their work to BLFC are trying to craft bad sentences; Suselah was able to write a genuine clunker without even trying.
What exactly does an editor like Alana owe a writer? Is she required to spell out exactly what is wrong with each submission, thus helping the would-be-writer become a better writer? Not at all. She just has to select the best from what is submitted, then work with those writers to polish and improve their work as necessary. The rest can be dismissed with a form letter.
Nobody but Alana's friends could read that Facebook post. Needless to say, Suselah isn't one of them. But if she were somehow able to read our critique, would she learn from it and thus become a better writer?
When it comes to learning to write, anything is possible. I'm a writing coach. I've worked with more than one writer who started out writing self indulgent poop and ended up being routinely published in large circulation magazines.
All it takes is perseverance and the ability to learn from constructive criticism.
And that's the problem. Suseleah didn't want to learn. She wanted to defend bad writing, which is the one thing a good editor cannot tolerate. Blasting Suselah's sentence on Face book -- rather than blasting the writer herself via email -- was, I believe, a reasonable response. It was a coping mechanism for Alana, and a bit of harmless fun for the rest of us.
How would Suselah feel about all of this if she knew?
With any luck, she never will.
(Roz Warren is a writing coach and the author of OUR BODIES, OUR SHELVES: A COLLECTION OF LIBRARY HUMOR.)