Monday, August 16, 2010

Omigod What an Awful Sentence

It is said, "Those who can't do, teach." At times I think one could just as well replace the word "do" with "write" and the word "teach" with "edit." Which is fine. After all, we writers need editors so that we can get our work perfected and published. That's the theory, at least. The reality is more like, we writers need editors to send us rejections containing foolish remarks or cryptic "advice." I got a particularly disturbing rejection letter yesterday, which I may make fun of later. But not right now. Right now, I'm making fun of something else, because I need to find another place to send this rejected story, a need that sent me to the Internet, which in turn led me to an article entitled, "A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had."

Just the thing for a writer who's been rejected, right? Well, you would think. But there's the problem mentioned above: editors often can't write. This fellow admits as much, calling himself "a tolerably mediocre author who has seen more form-letter rejections than penis-enlargement spams." Having gotten just short of halfway through his article, I agree with all of that statement except the "tolerable" part. Now, it's great that he has found a way around his unfortunate handicap--by becoming an editor--and kind of him to share his hard-earned knowledge with us writers so we can improve ourselves... I guess. I confess, I'm always a little suspicious of constructive criticism, especially the unsolicited kind. What portion of the motive is sincere helpfulness, and what portion is smug superiority? Even putting that aside, good intentions and frank admission of shortcomings are nice but not enough in themselves. If you know you don't write very well and you still want to get your wisdom out to the world, you need to get yourself--now, this is ironic--an editor. Or perhaps a ghost writer. If you don't, you're liable to end up embarrassing yourself in front of the world with sentences like this:

Point of view failures are usually some kind of loss of containment, such as when the narrative voice is first person but the narrative perception starts slipping off to places where the narrative character could not carry the reader or a third person POV that usually stays outside on the shoulder of characters but sometimes jumps inside the head for a first-person peek.

No joke, I read this sentence five or six times and I'm still not sure what he's trying to say. The latter half of the sentence is particularly scary: a mess of interlocking, ambiguous subordinate clauses. Sentences like this happen when a "writer" gets more involved in showing how clever and imaginative he thinks he is than in conveying his meaning to the reader. That this particular "writer" was absorbed with his cleverness and imagination, or imagined cleverness, is shown earlier in the article. Unnecessary zombie and condom metaphors abounded, but the thing was still readable. It is this one sentence, the sentence from the eleventh layer of hell (also mentioned in the article) that stops a reader dead, like the sight of two shattered cars by the side of the road. And when said reader stops reading altogether in order to make fun of the sentence on her blog, then clearly the article has failed. Which is a shame, because the world can indeed use a comprehensive listing of things that can go wrong in a piece of writing. I can't help but notice, however, that this one isn't completely comprehensive. After all, it makes no mention of long, convoluted, horrible sentences. Hmm. Maybe that's a blind spot.

Mockery aside, the article does make some good points. Read it, if you can.


Vivian said...

By the way, I sat on this for a month and a half before publishing it. So when I say "yesterday," I mean "July 2."

Harry Fox said...

In my experience most editors lack editing skills - really! They seem to believe they are re-writers and if they disagree with an idea or point of view in your story then it is "wrong".

Seriously, you have to be your own editor now with regards to the story and sentence structure. If an editor comments on anything else then he/she doesn't know what the hell they're doing.

Vivian said...

I think--indeed I fervently hope--that the situation is different with pro mags, such as Asimov's or Esquire, to name a couple at random. Surely editors for such magazines know what they're doing when they touch someone's story. When it comes to obscure little publishers and homemade mags, on the other hand, anybody who thinks he's an editor can be one, and then you get some sad shit going on. I think about a certain alleged editor who Shall Not Be Named (like Voldemort) who shreds stories for the satisfaction of his ego and actually leaves them worse than before. He doesn't even know how to pick a good story. My story is in there with at least one other that didn't deserve to be published at all, and it's embarassing. The ironic part is, he's actually a better writer than an editor. Not that that's saying so very much.

Ah, the pleasure of publishing.

Vivian said...

Just want to add, I may whine about editors, but I'm not really complaining. I am so happy that I am now in a position to bitch about my editors, after getting nowhere with my work, nowhere at all, for twenty years. It's great to be published at last.

I read somewhere that it's no easier to get your second story published than your first, but that has not been my experience at all. It feels like I finally managed to scratch a hole in an almost impenetrable wall (with my shiv, after twenty years of scraping) and now I just have to feed my stories through the hole and they're getting taken, one after the other.

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