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February 25, 2004
A novel attack on the First Amendment
Posted by Teresa at 02:56 PM *

I hear from David Wilford that the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes, including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Cuba. Treasury says that although publishing the work is legal, editing is a “service,” and it’s illegal to perform services for embargoed nations. It can be punishable by fines of up to a half-million dollars or jail terms as long as 10 years.

My first reaction was to wonder whether they’re so ignorant that they think editing is a service, but copy editing, typesetting, proofreading, designing, shooting, printing, publicizing, distributing, and selling are not. If you did no more than xerox off loose facsimile manuscripts from the writer’s original, you’d be performing a service.

But on second thought, I think they’re aware that editing is not distinguishable from publishing. I think this is meant to keep us from publishing works written in those nations, whether or not the Constitution says that we may do so.

Pygmy mammoths!
Posted by Teresa at 12:08 PM *

Making Light only recently learned of the existence of pygmy mammoths, Mammuthus exilis, which stood about four feet tall but were in all other respects just like their larger kin. They lived on the Channel Islands, just off the California coast. At the time, the Pleistocene’s lower sea level made what are now four islands into a single larger island (dubbed Santarosae by paleontologists) only fifty miles or so from the mainland; and mammoths, like all the elephant species, were good swimmers.

Once mammoths were on the island, Foster’s Rule kicked in. This is a rule of island adaptation, first proposed by some guy named Foster in 1964, that says that on islands, large continental mammals become smaller and small continental animals become larger. True to form, Pleistocene Santarosae had gigantic deer mice and pygmy mammoths. As L. D. Agenbroad said in a paper on dwarf mammoths:

In the island survey, a ratio of approximately 1:10 large mammoth remains/small mammoth remains was encountered. All of the Columbian mammoth remains, thus far, have been located in elevated marine terrace remnants. Pygmy mammoth remains have been located in marine terraces, alluvial stream terraces, and stream channels near the island uplands. Approximately 50% of the island of Santa Rosa consists of uplands, with slopes exceeding thirty degrees. Using Columbian mammoths of Hot Springs, South Dakota as a representative continental population (Agenbroad 1994), various metric and morphological comparisons were made with the island mammoths. Calculations based on the center of gravity of large and small mammoths revealed that the pygmy mammoths were able to negotiate slopes that were as much as 10 degrees steeper than Columbian mammoths could travel. This suggests one of the reasons that the diminutive forms became the dominant island mammoth population. It should be noted that pygmy mammoths have not been discovered on the continental coast.

In 1977, Paul Sondaar, studying stegodons in Indonesia, concluded there was a shortening of lower limb bones, to allow “low gear locomotion” (akin to 4 wheel drive in modern vehicles) needed in ascending and descending steep slopes. This gave smaller animals access to upland pasturage which may have been crucial to survival in periods of climatic or dietary stress. Bone metric analyses confirm Sondaar’s conclusions for M. exilis, the island adapted mammoth. Analyses of the femora, humerii and dentition reveal additional characteristics. … The humerus takes on the added use, as a braking mechanism for a quadruped descending steep slopes.

Pygmy mammoths: ATVs of the Channel Islands.

They survived there far longer than mammoth mammoths did on the mainland, lasting into the Holocene, when the islands were colonized by the Chumash tribes.

It doesn’t end there. Apparently this business of island-dwelling pygmy mammoth populations surviving long after the disappearance of the continental mammoths is something that happened in several places around the world. For instance, Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Siberia, had a population of pygmy mammoths as late as 2000 BCE. These were woollier and a bit bigger than Mammuthus exilis. The question of whether they were fluorescent has not yet been addressed.

Then there’s the matter of a certain wall painting in Thebes, in the 18th Dynasty tomb of Rekh-mi-Re, advisor to Thutmosis III. It shows a procession of Syrian tributaries bringing gifts to the pharaoh. One of them looks like a very small mammoth. Whatever its species, it can’t be a juvenile specimen, because it has long tusks. This is discussed here, in a paper that’s unfortunately available only as a PDF file, if you want to be able to see the illustrations.

This disputed Syrian proboscid is part of the larger phenomenon known as The endemic dwarf elephants of the ancient Mediterranean. They were, too. Here’s a nifty little skeleton from Sicily.

Miniature elephants of the ancient Mediterranean! I don’t know about you , but they certainly change my imagination of the ancient world. They make it funnier. One cannot but regret their disappearance.

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February 24, 2004
Elmore Leonard’s ten rules
Posted by Teresa at 12:20 AM *

If there’s a better set of rules for writers, I don’t know it. Read this, it’s good for you.

February 23, 2004
U.S. Secretary of Education calls NEA a “terrorist organization”
Posted by Teresa at 07:57 PM *

That’s “NEA” as in “the national teachers’ union” as in “my mother’s been a member for as long as I can remember.” Here’s the story from the Detroit Free Press. More to come. Watch this space.

Education Secretary Rod Paige called the nation’s largest teachers union a “terrorist organization” during a private White House meeting with governors on Monday.

Democratic and Republican governors confirmed Paige’s remarks about the 2.7-million-member National Education Association. “These were the words, ‘The NEA is a terrorist organization,”’ said Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin.

“He was making a joke, probably not a very good one,” said Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. “Of course he immediately divorced the NEA from ordinary teachers, who he said he supports.”
Malarkey. It’s the main teachers’ union. You can’t simultaneously attack the NEA and claim you support teachers. And in the current legal climate, “terrorist organization” isn’t just an unpleasant label; it’s a threat.
“I don’t think the NEA is a terrorist organization,” said Rendell, who has butted heads with the group as well. “They’re not a terrorist organization any more than the National Business Organization is a terrorist organization.

Neither the Education Department nor NEA had an immediate comment on Paige’s comments. Both indicated that statements were forthcoming.

Education has been a top issue for governors, who have sought more flexibility from the administration on President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, which seeks to improve school performance in part by allowing parents to move their children from poorly performing schools.

Democrats have said Bush has failed to fully fund the law, giving the states greater burdens but not the resources to handle them.
Not just Democrats. Teachers and educational organizations of all stripes have been saying the same thing. “No Child Left Behind” supports education like the U.S. has supported the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

More on this shortly.

Ashcroft profiled
Posted by Teresa at 06:55 PM *

It was improper of Mike Harris to post the entire text of the new Vanity Fair profile of John Ashcroft on his weblog. Perhaps he will have to take it down. But until then, it makes fascinating reading:

And Ashcroft’s obsessions: these too were a puzzle. When, in 1985, a young man named Paul Offner applied for the job of head of Missouri’s social services, Offner tells me, Ashcroft said, without preamble, “Mr. Offner, let me start by asking you if you have the same sexual preference as most men.” Offner considered replying, “I haven’t done a survey,” before settling on a restrained affirmative. Still, he didn’t get the job. (Through a spokeswoman Ashcroft claimed he couldn’t remember the meeting.) Some years later Missouri state troopers were deployed to prevent Pete Busalacchi from ending the life of his comatose daughter, who had no hope for recovery. “It was a matter of one person in a high position inflicting his religious beliefs onto a family,” Busalacchi said. “Is John Ashcroft’s religion better than mine?”

Janet Ashcroft somehow acquired the same high-handed reputation. “It was Mother’s Day, a Sunday, 1990, when I was called by my staff; who told me Mrs. Ashcroft wanted the Missouri State Library opened,” recalls Monteria Hightower, who was then state librarian. Assuming the governor’s wife wanted to show visitors around (“and that I could make a pitch for new computers,” she adds, chuckling), Hightower left her family at home and hurried to unlock the darkened library. She found Janet, outside in a car with a driver, accompanied only by a boy of 12. With astonishment, she heard Janet’s reason for her Sunday appearance at the library: “I want to find something on the Elizabethan era for my son’s homework assignment.”

Visitors to the governor’s mansion often found themselves expected to join in prayer, and on one such occasion — it was a dinner gathering of lawyers, waited on (as is customary in the Missouri governor’s mansion) by local prisoners who had earned the privilege — Ashcroft gave a family values speech. “In the course of this he said, ‘Women in the workforce have become so prevalent that a man’s role has been reduced to a sperm donor,’” reports one of the guests.

No one could believe it, says this lawyer. Everyone knew Janet Ashcroft had written a textbook on business law with her husband indeed, she would later teach law at Washington, D.C.’s traditionally black Howard University. Even their daughter, Martha, was attending law school. And yet, says the dinner guest, “he was serious. He didn’t mean to be amusing.”

Only the governor’s wife appeared unfazed. Perhaps she was used to such opinions. (Last year, she declared in Missouri, “I have to behave myself, and I have to spoil him rotten, and that makes my life unbelievably stressful.”) The night of the dinner, she was dressed girlishly, in a floral summer dress, with matching flowery sandals. Her earrings were roses modeled out of pink clay. The young lawyer complimented her on a particularly decorative artifact. “It’s bolted down,” Janet Ashcroft said meaningfully.

“Bolted down — I’m sure you know who the waiters are,” echoed the governor, giving a swift glance at the prisoners, all within earshot, who served them. “You know how they are.”

And the waiters? I wonder. What was their reaction?

“Stone-blank,” replies the lawyer. “Stone, stone, stone. The waiters, who were all African-American, had to have heard. I love to pray, but what business did we have praying in the governor’s mansion? That night I thought, We started this out with a prayer to God, and this is the way you end the evening? It makes me sick to think I prayed with him.”

Posted by Teresa at 06:00 AM *

My sister, Erica Barber, forwarded me a pass-along she’d gotten in her e-mail, adding, “I’m sure you can do a better (and faster) job of responding to this than I can. The generalizations are appalling.”

I wrote back: “These are not honest errors. Anyone who knows enough history to write this letter in the first place necessarily knows that the claims it’s making are false. This is deliberate deception. … What’s equally disturbing is that it’s a piece of professional copywriting.”

And so it is: slick, confident, focused, and impersonal, as anonymous as a doorknob that’s been wiped clean of fingerprints. There are no hesitations, no intrusions of personal voice, no traces of specific issues or locations or circumstances. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent staring at high-priced ad copy (less than I have, if you’re lucky), but the stuff is surprisingly hard to write. It’s not a natural style. It has to convey emotion without evidencing the kinds of distortion in the text that strong emotions produce.

Obviously, then, I’d love to know who wrote this and sent it out into the world. I don’t believe for a moment that it started life as a letter to the editor. What I do know about it is that it’s cynical. As I said to my sister, if you know enough history to write the thing, you know its claims are false. What I infer is that its creators view their target audience, not as fellow citizens, nor as brothers in arms, but as a bunch of suckers.

No matter what political views you hold, a person who’d write such a letter is not on your side. Want to give me a hand annotating this? I’ll start. Forgive me if I run a bit long on its rhetorical construction.
Bush Stacks Up Well The following appeared in the local paper as a letter to the editor.
Which local paper, in response to what?
Please forward to all on your list as this will put things in perspective:
I believe that’s meant to give you the idea that the piece is merely a corrective response to some unspecified attack on the truth that’s taken place Out There Somewhere. It isn’t, of course.
Liberals …
A heavily-funded years-long nationwide campaign has been devoted to poisoning the word “liberal”. The result is that “liberal” can now be used to condemn something without requiring that the writer spell out what these evil liberals’ position is, or why they’ve taken it. And why is this necessary? Because when you (that’s all of you: greetings, readers!) are polled on the the actual issues and policies involved, you frequently agree with them, or at least can see the sense in them.

This has worked so well that they now use “liberal” to denounce centrist policies and traditional practices. Once you’ve gone to that much work to wire a button, you might as well keep pressing it.

But I digress.

To speak more directly to the pass-along itself, liberals are hardly the only ones who think Bush shouldn’t have started the war. People all over the U.S. political spectrum hold that opinion. So do the majority of what used to be our overseas allies, friends, and well-wishers. The administration has squandered a century or more of global good will, accumulated via innumerable good deeds and good examples.
… claim President Bush shouldn’t have started this war. They complain about his prosecution of it. One liberal recently claimed Bush was the worst president in U.S. history.
Again, which liberal, where? It would be very odd for a normal citizen to write an entire piece in response to something, but never identify the thing it’s in response to. That goes double for letters to the editor, which are presumed to be responses to stuff that’s appeared in that publication.

Also, note that while only the initial statement, “Bush was the worst president in U.S. history,” is specifically attributed to A. Liberal, it’s followed by a laundry list of loose claims about the Bush administration.

Finally, while I have seen Bush described that way, his conduct of the war was hardly the only malfeasance mentioned.
Let’s clear up one point: We didn’t start the war on terror. Try to remember, it was started by terrorists on 9/11.
We were not attacked by Saddam Hussein or his minions on 9/11. We were attacked by al Qaeda guys, a group of Saudis (mostly) based in Afghanistan. Bush & Co.’s response on that day was to start trying to figure out how to pin it on Saddam Hussein, whom they already wanted to have a war with.
Let’s look at the “worst” president and mismanagement claims. FDR led us into World War II. Germany never attacked us: Japan did. From 1941-1945, 450,000 lives were lost, an average of 112,500 per year.
Germany declared war on us shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

As for direct attacks, on 31 October 1941 a German sub attacked and sank the Reuben James in the North Atlantic. You can look it up. There’s even a song.

But here now, I’ll stop. I’m hogging on all the fun.
Truman finished that war and started one in Korea, North Korea never attacked us. From 1950-1953, 55,000 lives were lost,an average of 18,333 per year.

John F. Kennedy started the Vietnam conflict in 1962. Vietnam never attacked us. Johnson turned Vietnam into a quagmire. From 1965-1975, 58,000 lives were lost, an average of 5,800 per year.

Clinton went to war in Bosnia without UN or French consent. Bosnia never attacked us. He was offered Osama bin Laden’s head on a platter three times by Sudan and did nothing. Osama has attacked us on multiple occasions.

In the two years since terrorists attacked us, President Bush has liberated two countries, crushed the Taliban, crippled al-Qaida. Put nuclear inspectors in Libya, Iran and North Korea without firing a shot, and captured a terrorist who slaughtered 300,000 of his own people.

We lost 600 soldiers, an average of 300 a year. Bush did all this abroad while not allowing another terrorist attack at home. Worst president in history? Come on!
Have at it, guys.

February 21, 2004
Sorry about that. Try hitting F11 twice.
Posted by Teresa at 03:36 PM *

Ads are turning out to be more complicated than we’d anticipated. With any luck, we’ll get the problems ironed out RSN. Until then, if you keep hitting “reload” every few minutes, the effect should be at least as interesting as watching traffic lights change.

Meanwhile: I know it’s a little startling at first, but on reflection I think “My opponent’s breath is so bad it kills the shrubbery” sends a clear message to the voters of Texas’ 6th Congressional District.

If you click through to Morris Meyer’s website, you can see a much clearer version of that image. I don’t know what happened to it on its way to becoming a blog ad. For them and for anyone else who needs to ensmall a detailed image, here’s my amateur recipe for generating good thumbnails via PhotoShop:
1. Start with the largest, highest-resolution version of your image that you can lay hands on, and set its resolution level as high as possible. Never scrootch your resolution any earlier in the process than you have to.

If your initial image is equal to or greater than ten times your target size, you can skip step #4 .

2. If the image needs any cleanup or enhancement, now’s the time to do it. Go easy on “increase contrast” and “sharpen”.

3. Select Filter, then Unsharp Mask. When the dialogue box comes up, set the amount at 50%, with a radius of 0.5 pixels and a threshold of 5 levels. Note: this is not the only round of sharpening that image is going to get, so don’t overdo the amount this time around.

4. Go to Image, then Image Size, and blow your image up to 500% or more of its original size.

(This may be a superstition left over from my bitmap days, but I like having the blown-up version be both a simple multiple of the original, and evenly divisible by the target size. That is, if I’m working with an original that’s 253 pixels on a side and I’m shooting for a 100-pixel thumbnail, I’ll probably trim the original by three pixels so I can go up 600% and come down at 15:1. I expect someone will tell me in the comments thread whether this is a useless holdover.)

5. Select Filter, then Artistic, then Dry Brush. When the dialogue box comes up, set the brush size at 0, the brush detail at 10, and the texture at 1. Click “okay”, then wait. This may take a while.

6. When the image is finished filtering, use Image Size to reduce it, not to its original size, but to its target size.

7. Use Unsharp Mask again at the same settings you used before. Or, if you want it sharper, now’s the time to increase the amount to 75%, or 100%, or whatever works for you. Make sure you’re working with your view set at 100% of the image’s size. You can’t judge whether it’s at its proper degree of sharpness if you have it set at any other level of magnification.
You’re done. Hit Save, or Save As, and file it according to your usual procedures.

February 20, 2004
On the getting of agents
Posted by Teresa at 08:54 AM *

(Note: In its previous version, this piece was a comment posted to Slushkiller, but I’ve gotten a surprising number of requests (surprising to me, that is) to break it out as a separate post.)

Getting an agent. Here we open an institutional-size can of worms.

A bad agent is worse than no agent at all. A really bad agent is worse than not being a writer. Getting past the “no unagented submissions” barrier is not sufficient justification for hooking up with a bad agent.

The easiest time to get an agent is when you’ve just gotten an offer on a book. The editor phones you and says, “I want to buy your book.”

“Wow! Gosh! Gee Whiz!” you say coherently. Then you thank the editor, make sure you have their correct phone number, and tell them you’ll get right back to them. Call the agent who’s your first choice. Politely explain that you’ve just gotten an offer, and would they be interested in having you as a client? If they say they’re not interested, call your second choice. It’s hard to imagine your having to call a third choice. You’re offering them a commission on a book you sold.

It’s harder if you haven’t sold a book. Selling short stories helps. Having a really good novel in hand also helps.

(If you’ve never sold anything, and one of the top agents in the genre not only takes you on as a client, but gives you his Saturday-night dinner timeslot at the next Worldcon, please believe that he’s taking your prospects very seriously indeed. You know who you are.)

Least appreciated fact about agents: There are very few real ones. Of the gormless, the not very helpful, and the confirmed scammers, there are a great many.

Real agents learn how to be agents by working for other real agents. It’s like a medieval apprenticeship, except the authorities don’t bring back the ones that run away. After a while the young assistant becomes a sort of junior agent (I’m a little vague on this part) and starts taking on authors. Eventually they decide to set up on their own, taking some fraction of their former employer’s client list with them. This is not always accomplished without friction, but as far as we can tell, that’s part of the natural life cycle of the agent.

Gormless agents aren’t consciously dishonest. They just think it would be a swell thing to be a literary agent, and they don’t see why they shouldn’t be one. Trouble is, they don’t know how agenting and publishing work. They trade ignorance with others of their kind. Many of them have gotten their ideas about how the industry works by reading websites maintained by scammers. They may have the best intentions in the world, but they can’t figure out a standard contract, much less negotiate an advantageous one, and they don’t know who’s who and who’s doing what.

Note: Sometimes benign-but-gormless agents metamorphose into scam agents, kickback bookdoctors, or vanity publishers. There may be one or two who’ve metamorphosed into real agents, but if so I’ve never heard of them.

Not very helpful agents have some knowledge of and connection with the industry, but what they know isn’t current, and the people who were their best connections at various houses no longer hold those positions. They tend to have one or two notable clients plus a bunch of small fry and marginal types. These agents have two virtues: they won’t deliberately cheat you, and they can get you past the “agented mss. only” barriers. It’s still a bit like marrying someone you don’t care for because at least that way you’ll get laid: the imagined benefits will rapidly pall, while the underlying discontents will only become more irritating.

Scam agents are legion. The wiliest ones are constantly refining their approach, and the merely sneaky ones steal riffs from them, so I won’t even try to describe their current cabana acts. For that, see Writer Beware and the Preditors & Editors mirrored sites. Meanwhile, observe the following rules:
1. Never pay them. The real ones make their money by collecting a percentage of what the publisher pays you, and they collect it after the publisher pays it out.

2. Ask to see their client list. If for any reason they refuse to show it to you, run away. If you don’t recognize their authors, be suspicious. If their authors turn out to be published by vanity or subsidy outfits, run away even faster.

3. If they try to refer you to a book doctor or freelance editor, start edging away. If they tell you that “No publisher will look at your book unless it’s been professionally edited,” see earlier remarks regarding fast getaways. (Note: It’s okay for them to do some editing—it’s a normal, if not an invariable practice—as long as they don’t charge anything and it’s a competent edit.)

4. If they try to place your book via a deal that has you paying anything (that includes PublishAmerica’s deal), vide supra.

5. The internet may have given scam agents a vast new playground for their operations, but Google is on your side, not theirs. Use it.

6. In a pinch, Victoria Strauss and Yog Sysop (a.k.a. Jim Macdonald) will always give you the straight dope. If they’re not available, ask at The Rumor Mill, specifically the “Caveat Scrivener” section. They may not know the answers right off, and you sometimes get scammers posting bad information there, but the board has a good track record for collectively muddling through to the truth.

And now I’m off to work. I have books to make.

February 17, 2004
Honor where due
Posted by Teresa at 12:59 AM *

A transcript of Stephen King’s acceptance speech, from the National Book Awards banquet where he was named the winner of the 2003 Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award. I’ve been an admirer of his work ever since I read Carrie in its entirety while standing up at my then-local drugstore. The speech is all good. Here’s some:

This isn’t in my speech so don’t take it out of my allotted time. There are some people who have spoken out passionately about giving me this medal. There are some people who think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea. There have been some people who have spoken out who think it’s an extraordinarily good idea. You know who you are and where you stand and most of you who are here tonight are on my side. I’m glad for that. But I want to say it doesn’t matter in a sense which side you were on. The people who speak out, speak out because they are passionate about the book, about the word, about the page and, in that sense, we’re all brothers and sisters. Give yourself a hand. …

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Of course, I only have my own senses, experiences and reading to draw on but that usually - not always but usually - usually it’s enough. It gets the job done. For instance, if an elevator full of people, one of the ones in this very building - I want you to think about this later, I want you to think about it - if it starts to vibrate and you hear those clanks - this probably won’t happen but we all know it has happened, it could happen. It could happen to me or it could happen to you. Someone always wins the lottery. Just put it away for now until you go up to your rooms later. Anyway, if an elevator full of people starts free-falling from the 35th floor of the skyscraper all the way to the bottom, one of those view elevators, perhaps, where you can watch it happening, in my opinion, no one is going to say, “Goodbye, Neil, I will see you in heaven.” In my book or my short story, they’re far more apt to bellow, “Oh shit” at the top of their lungs because what I’ve read and heard tends to confirm the “Oh shit” choice. If that makes me a cynic, so be it.

I remember a story on the nightly news about an airliner that crashed killing all aboard. The so-called black box was recovered and we have the pilot’s immortal last four words: “Son of a bitch”. Of course, there was another plane that crashed and the black box recorder said, “Goodbye, Mother,” which is a nicer way to go out, I think.

Folks are far more apt to go out with a surprised ejaculation, however, then an expiring abjuration like, “Marry her, Jake. Bible says it ain’t good for a man to be alone.” If I happen to be the writer of such a death bed scene, I’d choose “Son of a bitch” over “Marry her, Jake” every time. We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one’s own work in particular.

I’m sure I’ve made the wrong choices from time to time. Doesn’t the Bible say something like, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of Chaucer?” But every time I did it, I was sorry. Sorry is cheap, though. I have revised the lie out if I could and that’s far more important. When readers are deeply entranced by a story, they forget the storyteller completely. The tale is all they care about.

But the storyteller cannot afford to forget and must always be ready to hold himself or herself to account. He or she needs to remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it. If you tell your reader, “Sometimes chickens will pick out the weakest one in the flock and peck it to death,” the truth, the reader is much more likely to go along with you than if you then add something like, “Such chickens often meld into the earth after their deaths.”
Almost all the best writing advice is simple. The trick is to learn to take it.

East Valley roadkill
Posted by Teresa at 12:06 AM *

Janet Kagan writes:

I’ve got some kind of browser or ISP problem or I’d stick this up on the Short Creek page as some sort of … accident on the highway. Uh, you can’t not look. (At least, I couldn’t not look.)
What she said.

February 11, 2004
Painful announcement
Posted by Teresa at 09:42 AM *

There’s probably a more graceful way to say this, but someone else will have to come up with it, because I’m the author, and the whole subject makes all the gears in my head freeze up at once.

NESFA Press, publisher of my essay collection Making Book, has given it a third printing. That’s very nice. I’m appropriately pleased and grateful. The bad news is that they accidentally shot it from the wrong copy. They used the first edition, the one with all the typos, including the really bad one in the eighth line of page 150 that I correct and initial every time I autograph a copy of that edition. There are lots of other typos, but that’s the one you can’t read past.

Some day, it will seem funnier to me that this happened to a book that’s partly about copy editing. An errata sheet is in the works. It would go through the works faster if the aforementioned gears stopped freezing up. Any day now. Really.

I was at work when I first got wind of this. I don’t know what I looked like for a while there, but people kept stopping in my doorway to ask if I were all right. “I’m being very auctorial,” I told them; meaning, approximately, I am in shock, and I observe that at the moment I have zero sense of perspective about this, and This hurts like hell. In short: I’m taking this like an author. I couldn’t think of any other way to say it. Fortunately, they understood what I meant.

I recall thinking that if I were some other author, I’d at least have that little period where you still think something might be done about the problem, and then the distraction of trying to figure out how this happened, and then the cathartic rant about how no other author in the history of the universe has ever had this abominable thing happen to them.

I’ve watched authors get over this. My turn now.

Anyway. If you buy a copy of the third printing and I’m not around, please turn to page 150, eighth line, and replace the word Silence with Silkience. Thank you.

“Thou too mayst be as hung as thys horse…”
Posted by Teresa at 01:04 AM *

Continuing today’s theme of irresponsible glee, here, via Neil Gaiman, is the gang at Something Awful doing awful things to the Bayeux Tapestry. A lot of the jokes are lame, but the cognitive dissonance is something else again.

February 10, 2004
Nominally meeting the press
Posted by Teresa at 11:48 PM *

More jollification in this gloomy stretch of year (though the weather did improve today): The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart doing a lovely send-up of Bush’s appearance on Meet the Press.

If you missed the actual appearance, be assured that Stewart’s take on it is funny because it’s accurate, not because it’s amusingly distorted. Bush’s unprecedented hour-long interview on Meet the Press—taped in advance, presumably with considerable advance preparation because he’d never agree to anything else, and consisting of an hour of softball questions with no real follow-up on the answers—was nevertheless so bad that it has Andrew Sullivan and Bill O’Reilly publicly reconsidering their support for the administration and the war.


Addendum: Avram Grumer points out that the thing is available on Comedy Central’s site in Real Video format.

February 09, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 03:10 PM *

Late winter. Dreariest time of the year. Bleah. Here, watch these commercials from Turnpike Films, they’ll make your head explode. Okay, not all of them. The Starbucks ad would have worked better at half the length, the three Raisin Bran Crunch ads are one-punch jokes, and the Nintendo ad needed to get moving and develop its conceit earlier than it did. I don’t guarantee those will make you wake up. But the Nutrigrain ad is like the Coen brothers on serious stimulants trying to squeeze a movie into a one-minute ad, and the Budweiser ad is the most remarkable beer ad I’ve ever seen.

I got those from Patrick. I think he got them from Oliver Willis.

While we’re in this psychic neighborhood, here’s the NYPress review of Lords of Chaos, a book about “the bloody rise of of the Satanic Metal underground” in Norway. Who knew?
Lords of Chaos chronicles the rise of Black Metal, Norway’s extremist contribution to the underground metal scene in the late 80s and early 90s. What made Black Metal so exceptional wasn’t just the speed and thrash of the music, the violence of the lyrics or the amount of corpse-paint that its death-obsessed members wore, but rather the number of real corpses and smoldering churches that the movement left behind.

The rise of the Black Metal movement in Norway is a case of humorless dirtheads taking a joke way too seriously. The joke was Satanic rock, which Lords of Chaos skillfully traces from its early origins in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Coven (who transformed from performing black masses on stage to perpetrating the weepy hippie hit “One Tin Soldier”) to metal’s second big wave in the early 80s and the rise of kitsch Satan-rockers Venom. To our modern eyes, Venom looks the spitting image of Spinal Tap during their Smell the Glove phase, but to dirtheads who didn’t know any better, Venom was the long-sought embodiment of evil. It was from the Venom branch of evil-metal that all of metal’s more violent, “evil” forms descended, including Black Metal.

The point of Satanic rock was to scare the Normals while fucking with the minds of its pimple-faced, predominantly male (nerdoid) audience, who needed to create a counter-world, with counter-morals and counter-aesthetics, to empower the nerdoids against the cooler, more successful jocks. But metal had its rivals for the hopelessly angry nerdoid: punk, hardcore and metal’s own competing mutations. The competition forced metal’s leading edge to metamorphose into harder, faster and more violent forms, reaching its apex with the rise of Death Metal in the mid-80s. Death Metal was as violent, Satanic and musically inaccessible as metal could go, or so it seemed.

And here is where Norway, the comic straight-man character in this dumb, bloody saga, comes in. Norway is not only a completely humorless society (it banned Monty Python’s The Life of Brian for being too offensive, leading to ads in rival Sweden boasting that the movie was “so funny it was banned in Norway!”), but worse, a deeply oppressive society, in a recognizably bland, caring, pious, Social Democratic way. Which raises an interesting question: Do boredom and blandness “count” as real suffering, and if so, do they justify murder the way other forms of oppression make murder seem a likely, even understandable response? The Black Metalists of Norway think so.
Near the end, the article also reviews David Frum and Richard Perle’s An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. The reviewer, makes some afterthoughtish comparisons of Frum and Perle with the Black Metalists. Conclusion: F&P’s worldview’s just as unrealistic, but they’re much less interesting.

February 05, 2004
Toward the true knowledge
Posted by Teresa at 10:41 PM *

There are paragraphs you know could only have been written by Ken MacLeod. His political expositions are clear, civilized, and illuminating, but they always make me feel like someday, in the midst of one of them, I’m going to look down and realize that I’ve walked over the edge of a cliff, and am now accelerating toward his entirely logical conclusion at a rate of 32 feet per second per second. I’m sure it’ll be an educational experience on the day. In the meantime:

The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling class there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power. This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their compassion for their enemies’ victims is absolutely genuine. So is their outrage at their enemies’ moral failings and blind spots. In the 1980s I found it very difficult to regard supporters of the Chinese Communists’ consistently anti-Soviet international policies as anything but scoundrels and scabs; but they were merely applying the same criteria as I was, to a different analysis of the world; and their indignation at my callous calculations and selective sympathies was just as real. I had the same sort of arguments with Trotskyists who supported the muj.

‘How can you …?’ ‘How can you …?’

Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a given act is dreadful, but it can’t tell us whether to say, ‘This is dreadful, therefore …’ or ‘This is dreadful, but …’ We still often believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support our allies despite their crimes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Margaret Thatcher was quite sincere in condemning ZAPU as a terrorist organization because it shot down a civilian airliner, and in supporting one of the mujahedin factions, despite the fact that it had deliberately blown up a civilian airliner. Sometimes our moral justifications can blunt our moral sense. Think of the incendiary bombings of Germany and Japan. Suppose they were a military necessity. If so, better to accept that what ‘our side’ is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause.

(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)

Morality is real. Morality is ideology. It is the heat given off by the workings of quite different machinery. In measuring the heat while ignoring the mechanism - in making a moral case for or against a particular war, for example - the moral philosopher reasons ‘consciously indeed, but with a false consciousness’. The screams of those caught in the machinery continue unabated. They cry to heaven. It is only in what Locke called the ‘appeal to heaven’ - the clash of arms - that anyone (apart from, of course, ‘pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools’ as someone said, who indulge in ‘pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life’, as someone else said) sees a hope that some day the machinery can be made to stop, and the screams to cease. That hope itself is the machines’ fuel.
I’m not sure I agree with that, but if I disagree with it, I’m not sure it’s not because I don’t want to have to agree with it.

Nudge note
Posted by Teresa at 11:16 AM *

Received today from Sandra Macdonald, written inside a “Happy Anniversary” greeting card:

Dear Manuscript,

Just a brief not to say I think of you often and hope you are enjoying your sojourn in Manhattan (or perhaps Brooklyn, or some unknown borough…)

Bright lights! Big city! All those other manuscripts waiting so hopefully in piles, on shelves, on chairs, in corners—be patient, dear manuscript. A year is not too long to be apart. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again, or I’ll see
(Here the preprinted words “…and many, many more!” have been carefully crossed out, and a small annotation written in saying “well no, not really!”)
your SASE, or hear a whisper of your fate at Boskone. Until then I’ll think of you fondly and continue to wish you well— Yours,
Your author,
It’s been handed round, and admired, and put up on the wall. We’ve dug out the manuscript, too.

February 03, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 08:14 PM *

This is kind of dumb, but fun. While sitting in your chair, lift your right foot slightly off the ground and move it in clockwise circles. Now draw the numeral “6” in the air with your right hand. Your foot will involuntarily reverse direction. (via

Chant Wars
Posted by Teresa at 02:53 PM *

Have you ever looked at something and simultaneously thought “Hey! That’s cool! I’d really like that!” and “I am a complete and utter geek” ? Lise Eisenberg just dropped me a note about this upcoming performance:

In February 04, the men of Sequentia will be joined by the men of Dialogos in a fascinating program co directed by Katarina Livljanic titled “Chant Wars”. Performances will be in Boston, New York Montreal and Los Angeles. The theme of CHANT WARS is nothing less than the first known ‘globalization’ of European music. Specifically, the men of Sequentia/Dialogos will perform music which illuminates the legendary 9th-century confrontation between the Frankish cantors of the Carolingian emperors (including their attempts to learn ‘historically-informed’ Roman singing styles from the wily, virtuoso cantors of the Papal court) and the European chant traditions the emperor sought to replace with these ‘new’ musical repertoires and vocal styles. The merging of two separate male vocal ensembles will make it possible for today’s listeners to hear the astonishing diversity of chant styles of medieval Europe, at a time when chant traditions were competing for ascendancy in the vigorous young empire of Pepin, Charlemagne and their successors.
When I become Empress of the Universe, documentary makers will get heaps of funding.

Open thread 18
Posted by Teresa at 12:00 AM *

“Things were stirring. Strange metallic things; things that were alien to the soft green grass of Earth. Terrifying things, steel things; metal things; things with cylindrical bodies and multitudinous jointed limbs. Things without flesh and blood. Things that were made of metal and plastic and transistors and valves and relays, and wires. Metal things. Metal things that could think. Thinking metal things…”

February 02, 2004
Shameless rights grab by Marvel and DC
Posted by Teresa at 02:25 PM *

According to this story (which I found in Boing Boing), Marvel and DC are now trying to push the idea that they’re joint owners of the term super hero:

Dan Taylor, creator of the critically acclaimed Super Hero Happy Hour comic published by GeekPunk, has announced that the name of his series has had to change, due to Marvel and DC co-owning the term “Super Hero.” It’s just Hero Happy Hour from here on out. …

GeekPunk’s press release reads:

GeekPunk is announcing that their flagship comic book title featuring superheroes patronizing their favorite bar & grill during their off-hours will now be entitled Hero Happy Hour beginning with the fifth issue of the ongoing series. According to creator Dan Taylor, “The decision to change the title was brought upon by the fact that we received a letter from the trademark counsel to ‘the two big comic book companies’ claiming that they are the joint owners of the trademark ‘SUPER HEROES’ and variations thereof.”
I can’t see it. The term super hero, a.k.a. super-hero or superhero, has been around for a long time. If DC ever owned it, you’d think we’d have heard about it before now. Marvel came along after DC. If they had a claim on the word, surely they’d have said something about DC’s use of it; and vice-versa. Also, it’s my impression that for a long time there, DC barely acknowledged Marvel’s existence. How could they have come into joint possession of such a basic term?

A further problem is that Marvel and DC haven’t been the only comics publishers in existence. There’ve been lots of others. I don’t recall ever hearing it mentioned that other companies weren’t allowed to say super hero.

At this point, superhero comics have been around for quite a while. The concept of the superhero is part of the common intellectual furniture of our culture. Just now, when I googled on superhero, the first hit I got was the Washington Post using the word in a headline. Not until today have I ever heard it suggested that one corporation or another owned the term.

So, the next question is whether there’s anything Marvel and DC could have done that would legitimately give them joint ownership of an existing, commonly used piece of our vocabulary. I don’t think there is, but I think they’re pretending they’ve done it. Perhaps they’ve filed some sort of claim on it, and are now going to try to force Dark Horse and other comics publishers to stop using the single most recognizable piece of comics terminology in all of American pop culture.

If so, they’ve got their nerve.

I’m sorry to see that GeekPunk has knuckled under. Maybe they just didn’t have the resources to pursue some extended legal action. But I hope no one else takes this seriously who isn’t physically or fiscally obliged to do so, because what it looks like to me is a land grab, pure and simple, and a piece of brazen effrontery.

Posted by Teresa at 06:00 AM *

1. Basic rejection

I’ve been contemplating a site,, which is a sort of shrine to the rejection letter. A major portion of it is devoted to writers anonymously posting rejections they’ve received, and commenting on how it made them feel. I do understand their need to vent, and some of their lamentations made me feel genuinely sympathetic. Others didn’t have that effect.

What would I know about it? Simple. I’m one of those evil SOBs who rejects their manuscripts.

What I find weirdest about their take on rejection is that it’s all completely personal. I don’t just mean the rejection itself, which they’re bound to take personally, being writers and all. They take things personally which have nothing whatsoever to do with them, viz.:
The letter:
Thank you for your recent submission to Prominent Science Fiction Magazine. While your story showed some very strong writing, it just didn’t hold my interest.


What bothered you the most about this letter?
It disturbed me that the letter’s implication was that very strong writing is not of interest to them. Also particularly rankling was the implied insult that I wasn’t even worth a full sheet of paper—the rejection was printed on a half-sheet.
Right. I can just see the staff at Prominent Science Fiction Magazine doing the slush, with all their different-size rejection notes stacked up in a little row in front of them. If your story really sucks, you get a rejection note that’s mimeographed on a sheet of paper the size of a large postage stamp. If you’ve got strong writing but defective storytelling skills, you get a half sheet. Acceptances come on foolscap. And so on.

Of course, all of PSFM’s rejections will be on the same half-size sheets. It’s a standard stationery size. Rejections, being short, look less brutal on a smaller sheet, and it does save a lot of paper.

At times their unselfconscious hostility, and the malignity and the authors ascribe to the editors, can be breathtaking:
The letter:
The manuscript you gave (a mutual friend) arrived today. I read it at once and am really sorry to have to tell you that I am afraid it is not something we can add to our list. I absolutely believe that your children love it, but there is a real difference between a told story and a written one. And I am afraid that PRINCE JASON AND THE MAGIC STAR is just too slight and too sentimental to make a successful book. This is, of course, just one opinion, and I wish you every success with the project.

All the best wishes for the holiday season.



cc: (our mutual friend)
How did this letter make you feel?
Although I received many other rejection letters for this book (all from only the finest of publishing houses), this is the only one that got under my skin. My initial reaction was, “This bitch has probably never written anything in her life,” and my second reaction was “and she’ll probably never have children, either.”

I have never had any interest or desire in becoming a children’s writer. The book was just a story I made up to tell to my son. But two children’s buyers at a major bookselling chain told me to submit it, so I thought it might have some merit.

Reading this letter now, years later, still hurts. I think this editor may be right. The book may really suck. But she didn’t have to be so nasty about it!
Additional Comments from the website editor:
I love the good wishes for the holiday season! This high-ranking editor obviously felt pressured to look at the book because of the 1-degree-removed personal connection, and is eager to get brownie points for reading it right away. But in my opinion all her points get taken away for her use of the words “absolutely” and “just”. I guess she wanted to make sure to deflate the petitioner enough to keep him from coming back for more.
That’s just nuts, from the maximally nasty interpretation of, like, everything, to the bizarre belief that editors have any desire to either deflate writers, or to keep them coming back for more for its own sake.

2. Appropriate disinterest

What these guys have failed to understand about rejection is that it isn’t personal. If you’re a writer, you’re more or less constitutionally incapable of understanding that last sentence, if you think there’s any chance that it applies to you and your book; so please just imagine that I’m talking about rejections that happen to all those other writers who aren’t you.

Anyway, as I was saying, it realio trulio honestly isn’t about you the writer per se. If you got rejected, it wasn’t because we think you’re an inadequate human being. We just don’t want to buy your book. To tell you the truth, chances are we didn’t even register your existence as a unique and individual human being. You know your heart and soul are stapled to that manuscript, but what we see are the words on the paper. And that’s as it should be, because when readers buy our books, the words on the paper are what they get.

This all becomes clearer if you think about it with your reader-mind instead of your author-mind. Authors with books are like mothers with infants: theirs is the center of the universe, uniquely wonderful, and will inevitably and infallibly be loved by all who make its acquaintance. This has its good aspects; books, like infants, need someone to unconditionally love them, and champion all their causes. On the other hand, it can be a form of blindness.

Your reader-mind has a different understanding of the whole book thing. Your reader-mind knows what it’s like to walk into a bookstore, or a Costco, or a Target, and confront a wire rack the size of your living-room wall, with slot after slot filled with books. At that moment, standing there in front of that rack, you don’t much care about encouraging new writers, or helping create a more diverse literary scene, or giving some author a chance to express herself. You want a book that will please you, and suit your needs, and do it right now. Dear reader, you are many things, but “gentle” isn’t one of them.

You may be a tired middle manager who just wants some fast-moving entertainment, or a teenager who wants entertaining, non-embarrassing books that tell you how the world works, or a language-sensitive reader hoping for a book where the sentences and paragraphs don’t hurt. You could be looking for something more specific—a Regency romance, a sexy vampire novel, or the numinous landscapes and significant personal actions of genre fantasy. Your single likeliest choice, statistically speaking, is a book by an author whose other works you’ve read and enjoyed, because you know it’s a good bet that you’ll enjoy this one too. But whatever it is, it’s all about you.

Thus the reader-mind in action. If you-the-writer can catch that reader’s attention with an intriguing premise, and further seduce them with well-written prose as they go flipping through the pages, there’s some chance they’ll buy it. If they like the book, next time around you’ll be one of the author names they’ll be looking for. And if they really like the book, or if they’ve read and enjoyed two or three of your books, they may begin to wonder about you as a person. But not before.

3. The context of rejection

If you’re an author, the arrival of a rejection letter is a major event. If you’re an editor (or an associate editor, assistant editor, editorial assistant, or intern), 90% of all rejections are something you do on a quiet afternoon when you don’t have something more urgent breathing down your neck. O Yawn, you say, O Stretch, there’s that catalogue copy finished. I’ve got—hmmm, about two and a half hours left in the day. Nothing else urgent? Okay, it’s time to blight some hopes and crush some dreams. You grab a stack of slush envelopes and start going through them.

Unless you’re a senior editor with intern-like beings below you on the food chain who open and process the slush for you to look at—a splendid luxury!—a substantial fraction of your time is going to go into opening the packages, logging in the name, title, agent/no agent, genre, and date rejected, and then repackaging the rejected manuscript with a form rejection letter and a copy of the Tor Submission Guidelines.

Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:
  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
  6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
  7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
  8. (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

  9. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
  10. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
  11. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
  12. (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

  13. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
  14. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  15. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
  16. Buy this book.
Aspiring writers are forever asking what the odds are that they’ll wind up in category #14. That’s the wrong question. If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed. If not, your chances are poor. But enough with this natter of successful publication. Let’s get back to the rejections. Most days, the slush will divide up into books you reject immediately, and books you feel guilty about rejecting immediately, so you read further in them, and perhaps assign them to an intern to read, and then you reject them. Open, log, examine, repackage, shlep down to mailroom. What sees as someone getting bent out of shape
The letter:
In the future, to receive a reply from us you must enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with your submission.
Additional comments from the web site editor:
I can’t believe how bent out of shape people get over the SASE issue!
Or snootiness
The letter:
Inasmuch as no return envelope was provided we will recycle the ms. pages.
Additional comments from the website editor:
Forgive me, but why was this such a big deal? I’ve been told a million times by editors at conferences that a SASE is a must, but if the poor ignorant misinformed slob er author doesn’t include it, is this crime worthy of such a snooty response? Really?
—is the bored irritation of someone who’s processing a very large stack of rejections, and is having to deal with a submission that has ignored one of the most basic requirements in the guidelines. To render a more accurate translation of the two messages, the first one reads, “I’ve replied just this once even though you didn’t enclose a SASE. Try it again and I’ll do to that submission what I should have done to this one.” The second one reads, “No SASE, no return, and we don’t want to hear any complaints about it. That manuscript is pulp.”

If these guys are so smart, why can’t they learn to include a SASE? That takes less time than putting together multiple pages of complaints about how irritated editors sound when SASEs are left out of submissions.

4. Confusion runs deep and wide

I swear, sometimes I think the main reason agents exist is to tell authors when they’ve gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely. This poor soul, for instance:
The Letter:
Thank you for sending your publishing proposal to (publisher). After consideration I’m afraid we’re unable to make you an offer to publish as it is unsuitable for our publication program. We appreciated the opportunity to consider your work and wish you well in finding a publisher. I am returning your material with this letter.
How did this letter make you feel?
That they were going through the motions. Their list might be closed but they had fed this invite for unsolicited manuscripts out to a writing group’s newsletter to be peverse.
What bothered you the most about this letter?
The second sentence, because it inferred that an offer was available if I understood some rule that I don’t, and she (the editor) wasn’t about to explain what it was.
This is a remarkable amount of very strange theory—publishers spend their copious spare time headtripping writers’ groups for the sheer perverse joy of it?—to squeeze out of one ambiguous passage in the letter. What went wrong? Look at the word “it” in the second sentence. The writer thinks its antecedent is “mak[ing] you an offer to publish.” In fact, the intended antecedent of “it” is “your manuscript.” I’ll grant the sentence could have been clearer, but its author probably thought it was sufficiently clear as it stood. After all, what could “it” possibly refer to besides the manuscript? A writer who signs herself “Writing and living in Kansas City” also misunderstands the editor’s intent:
The Letter:
Dear (loser), I’m sorry, but I must say no. Your manuscript is too didactic, too wordy, and too lengthy to engage most young picture book readers.
How did this letter make you feel?
like crap…basically surprized she didn’t return the manuscript as confetti, along with the note!
What bothered you the most about this letter?
Her tone…I would have preferred the standard “not suitable for our needs” rejection slip, any day! This was a handwritten note from the editor.
Additional Comments:
I’ve heard it suggested that you send a THANK YOU note to publishers who reject you, for takiong the time to look at your manuscript! I thought about it, I really did…then decided, no way, with this one!! I took another critical look at the manuscript, and sent it anong to the next publisher — who, hopefully, will reject me gently, instead of flat out telling me the book sucks!
The writer has mistaken didactic, wordy, and lengthy for condemnations, when in fact they’re descriptions. The editor’s telling her how the manuscript needs to change if it’s going to have a chance of selling in the picture-book market. It’s good, simple, useful advice: keep the story, pare down the didacticism, and lose a whole lot of words along the way. On the other hand, if all you want are affirmations, go to an AA meeting. This one is just painful. In it we see an aspiring “poetry parodist from Texas” completely missing the point of what I have long thought was the coolest standard rejection note in the literary magazine constellation:
The Letter:

(On a little card with the magazine’s name[Very Prestigious University Located in Central USA Review])

This is just to say we have taken some plums
we found in our mailbox.
You were hoping they would be
yours. Forgive us,
others seemed
or colder
more bold
or whatever.
How did this letter make you feel?
Miserable. Suicidal. Wondering “What the @#!$ is that all about?” What does produce have to do with my poems? And that “whatever” part. How specific. How to the point. I think I’m going to go torture myself now.
What bothered you the most about this letter?
It’s a rejection card. How impersonal. Most places at least scribble something with a pen like “Good, but we’re out of business” or something. This was just a stupid card with some little ditty about plums.
Do I have to explain that they’re riffing on what is arguably the most famous short modern poem in American literature? (For those of you who know it pefectly well, here’s another splendid riff on the original.)

How can you be an aspiring poet and not recognize that one? Or, how can you do that much suffering over a mysterious rejection notice without running it past a high school English teacher, or googling on plums, sweet, cold?

5. Remembrance of louts past

As I said earlier, reading some of the lamentations posted by rejected authors made me feel genuinely sympathetic. Others had a different effect.

An eon or two ago, when I was a girl and occasionally went on dates, I observed that there was a species of young man who’d be perfectly pleasant right up to the point where I declined to go to bed with him. Then he’d turn nasty and angry—all bridges burnt, not even minimally polite. It was clear that the sole thing that mattered was whether I’d put out.

I haven’t thought about those boys in decades. What brought them back to memory today was reading Frustrated novelist from Calgary’s comments on a wonderfully kind, generous editorial letter:
The Letter:
Dear Novelist:

Thanks so much for sending the complete manuscript of Your Beloved Novel. It’s a wonderful novel, with a memorable central character and details of setting which are remarkably authentic, but ultimately we are unable to offer you publication. Primarily, this is because we are a small press and only publish about seven titles each year, and this year we have had an abundance of first-class submissions. I feel certain your novel will be published in the near future, and look forward to seeing it in print.

Best wishes,

Literary editor person
How did this letter make you feel?
Frustrated. Angry. Skeptical.
What bothered you the most about this letter?
She looked forward to seeing it in print?! Yeah, well, me too, baby! And if it’s such a wonderful #!#@#! novel, then why did you reject it? Hey, I’ve been dumped before — I can handle it.
The writer had submitted her novel for consideration. What did that publishing house and that editor owe her? Exactly two things: the return of her manuscript, assuming she’d sent a SASE with it, and an answer, yes or no. Everything else was a gift.

The editor didn’t have to tell her how much she liked her book, nor why, though she obviously liked it a great deal. The editor didn’t have to tell her the cheerful and sustaining fact that the book went unbought only because the editor has a strict limit of seven books for the year, and had had a real run of luck with her submissions. (These things happen, you know. Happy the house that has cashflow enough to buy all the books it wants at the time they’re offered.) Did the author not understand this? “Someone is undoubtedly going to publish your book” and “I would publish your book if I could” are not things editors say lightly.

What she’s telling the writer is that since she can’t buy this book this year, and she’s convinced that someone will buy and publish it, it would be unfair for her to hold on to it. Consequently, she’s honorably letting it go, and wishing both book and author well.

In the author’s place I’d have written back to say “I’m undeniably disappointed, but thank you for your kind comments. If I haven’t settled in at another house by the time I finish my next manuscript, I’ll certainly think of you.” One of the better things you can say in a cover letter is, “Remember me? You said you liked my last book.” And if my rejected book still hadn’t sold a year later, I’d rewrite it, send it to that editor again, remind her that she’d liked it before, and explain that I’d rewritten it. An editor who’s had an extraordinary run of submission luck one year might look differently at a rewritten book that came back to her in a sparser year.

Or rather, she might welcome it if she hasn’t seen that writer’s comments here. I don’t know who that editor is, nor that writer. What I do know is that if the editor finds out about this site, which is not unimaginable, she can’t fail to recognize her own letter. It’s a distinctive piece of work. She’ll find that this author she was at such pains to be kind to has been sneering at her candor and fairness, and casting doubts on her character. Anyone would feel hurt, whether or not they were identified by name. This is someone the editor had reached out to personally. She may or may not continue to be this candid and open with authors in general, but she certainly isn’t going to risk it again with this one.

The “Read ‘em and weep” area is full of writers complaining that they didn’t get told why their manuscripts were rejected, and that they were treated coldly and impersonally. Here’s an editor doing everything an author could wish for, and she’s still the target of scorn and spite. Why? Because she didn’t buy the book. That’s why reading it put me in mind of those long-ago jerks whom I dated once apiece. The writer’s dropped the pretense that there were any other human values that mattered to her in this interaction. The bitch didn’t put out, and that’s that.

6. The skiffy-writing kid

The one from “Teen science-fiction writer from the West” was a goodie, though excusable on account of her age.
The Letter:

(at the top is scribbled my name and the title of my book in blue ink…actually spelled correctly, I will give them that)

Dear Writer,

Thank you for giving us the chance to read your submission. We are sorry to say that we don’t feel it is right for (Big-time New York sci-fi publisher who probably thinks that everyone that lives west of the Mississipi is a cow-poking hippie) at this time.

Due to the volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to reply individually to each author, however, please be assured that your work received a careful and fair evaluation.

We wish you the best of luck with your writing career; thank you again for thinking of (stupid publisher from New York).

The Editors
How did this letter make you feel?
Pissed off. This form letter is a blatant lie, and I can’t believe it came from such a reputable publisher, one that I trusted.
What bothered you the most about this letter?
The manuscript wasn’t even touched (except for the first few pages that got mangled as they were shoved so violently into the mailbox). How is this a sign of “careful and fair” evaluation? These guys don’t even look at anything submitted to them—their play of “fairness” is a facade.
Additional Comments.
Perhaps my age had something to do with the very casual dumping of my manuscript (erk, just the first three chapters, even!). But my age was what qualified me to write this book—it’s main character is a teenager!

The subject was also perhaps to touchy for someone living in New York, trying to please everyone (it was a sci-fi tale on another planet dealing with the overthrow of a government, and god forbid anyone even thinking about such things in a time like this :P).

F—- them. Most of their books are terrible, anyway, contrived and formulaic dribble. When I’m a famous, rich author, I’ll send them back their letter with cat feces (I promised myself I would get a cat, even if they rejected me).
If that’s the publishing house I think it is—and there aren’t many that fit that description—there’s a good chance that the person who rejected her book grew up west of the Mississippi. Also, if she’d been paying attention to the “about the author” bits in that publisher’s books, she’d have noticed that their authors are scattered all over the country and points beyond. In fact, if that is indeed the publishing house I think it is, a couple of their authors are living in the wilds of the intermountain West, getting by on subsistence hunting and royalty checks. They do write good books, though, which is the important point.

The idea that her subject—the overthrow of the government of another planet—might somehow be a touchy one for people living in New York is mysterious. Theoretical happenings on distant planets don’t meet current NYC standards for “difficult subject,” and anyway that theme’s been used scores of times over the years in SF. Speaking generally, I have yet to see a work of science fiction be rejected on the grounds that its ideas are too daring and challenging. That’s like rejecting a romance on the grounds that its characters are too engaging.

Onward to the matter of the manuscript evaluation, which raises a number of standard author frets and wails. For instance, she’s sure her submission wasn’t touched, though she doesn’t say how she knows. If she pulled one of those stunts where you turn page 27 upside-down, or put one of your own hairs in between the pages at the end of chapter two, what she needs to know is that editorial staffs know all those tricks. If I notice the author’s doing that, I always try to remember to turn page 27 upside-down again, and put the hair back in at the end of chapter two, before returning the manuscript. Scraps used to turn page 27 right-side-up, but turned two other random pages upside-down.

That’s assuming we got to page 27. I don’t, always. Nobody does who knows what they’re doing. I frequently see denunciations from writers who say an editor can’t possibly judge their novel from three chapters and an outline. Sure we can, even if the chapters are short and the first one’s atypical. In many cases, three pages are enough. You don’t have to drink the entire carton of milk in order to tell that it’s gone bad. And in any event, three chapters are certainly long enough to tell you whether you want to look at the rest of the book.

But let’s assume the author’s right, and the reader didn’t get all the way through the submitted material. Is that a fair evaluation? When we’re publishing books that readers are going to glance at, briefly browse, then either buy or put back on the shelf, you bet it’s a fair evaluation. Again, when you think about this with your reader-mind instead of your writer-mind, it all comes much clearer.

I don’t hold any of this against the kid. Good on her for writing and submitting a book. And if only she’ll skip the part about the catshit, we’ll be delighted to congratulate her on becoming a rich, famous author. We’re entirely in favor of happy endings.

February 01, 2004
All the elements we’ve heard of here at Harvard
Posted by Teresa at 02:11 AM *

Two new transuranics! Or so they think; the new elements haven’t been entirely confirmed. They’re superheavies; no surprise there. The discovery belongs jointly to Livermore Labs (which is no surprise either) and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Resesarch in Russia. By convention, until the discoveries have been confirmed, element 113 will be given the temporary name Unutrium [Uut], and 115 will be Ununpentium [Uup].


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