Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Sunday, 09 December 2001

I spent some time working on my story this morning. I may have gone down a wrong path, because the story sort of came apart as I was writing it. We've got a small climax and a possible denouement, but it doesn't tie back into how I started the story. I'll have to think for a bit. Maybe I could rework the beginning to tie back into what I've written. Maybe I need to toss out the last two pages and do something more like what I'd been planning.

Since I was stuck on that one, though, I dashed off a short-short, aimed at the "Why I hate aliens" anthology. It's out to first readers this evening.

We had the first meeting of our new local writers group! (Working name for the group: Chambana Speculations. For those who don't know, Champaign-Urbana is sometimes called Chambana. It's also sometimes called "Shampoo-banana," so things could be worse.) It seems like a good group of people. I'm pleased and hopeful.

In my first job in college, my boss asked me to review resumes when we were looking to hire someone. This was extremely educational. After that, I completely understood things like what a difference a few typos in a resume can make and why people get rejected for being over-qualified. Best of all, I learned my story about the Dutch wife.

See, I wasn't looking at the actual resumes--I was looking at photocopies. For most resumes this was fine. But one resume was actually a hand-written letter in pencil on yellow legal paper. The photocopy was completely illegible, so I didn't read it. And yet, that's the guy we hired.

He wasn't a bad choice--he had experience with the same kinds of computer that we had, and he was from Richmond (Indiana, where the college was) and was moving back after having lived in Holland for several years. But that wasn't why he got called in for an interview. He got called in for an interview because he had a Dutch wife. For some reason this intrigued my boss--he thought the guy sounded interesting. Of course I didn't know if he was interesting or not, because his resume had been a grey blur on the pages I saw, but that's neither here nor there.

Whenever friends are looking for jobs I always tell them the Dutch wife story. For one thing, I think it takes a little of the sting out of those rejection letters. (The ones that say, "We'll keep your resume on file for one year" that mean, "Don't bother sending us your resume again for at least a year.") All it means is that you don't have a Dutch wife--or whatever the equivalent thing would be for whoever is deciding to bring people in for an interview. For another, it's valuable to keep in mind that little quirks like that can make a positive difference. Go ahead and make yourself sound interesting when applying for a job. There were other people just as qualified as the guy with a Dutch wife, yet he was the only one called in for an interview.

In kind of the way that looking at resumes was valuable to me in learning how to hunt for a job, I've always thought that reading slush might help me in submitting stories. (Note: I'm too busy to actually take a job reading slush these days. This is not a solicitation of offers for a slush-reader position.) Getting more into the writer community has put me in touch with several people now who read slush. It's been interesting to talk to these people about the kinds of errors that they see. (Tip: Do not try to make your manuscript stand out. It's the story that needs to stand out.)

One of my slush-reading friends mentioned recently that authors whose stories are rejected sometimes write back. That seems really odd to me. What kind of response can you have to a rejection notice? When I get rejection notices I sometimes rave for a minute or two and say things like, "What can [editor's name] be thinking of?! Only an idiot would reject this story! It's wonderful! Compared to [name of story in recent issue of editor's publication] it's positively brilliant!" But that doesn't mean I'd write back to the editor who rejected my story--except to submit another story.

What's the point? Usually, I think the editor is wrong (my story is exactly the right length, just the right amount happens, and the characters are vivid and multifaceted) in which case I just send it out to some other market. Even if I decide the editor is right, I probably won't try to fix the story--I've got a bunch of new stories that have never been rejected by anybody that I need to get out. In any case, what good can come of writing the editor?

I can almost imagine writing back if there were a factual error in the rejection. (For example, if my 5500 word story was rejected as "longer than stated in the guidelines," when the guidelines actually say up to 6000 words is okay.) I wouldn't do it, though. The best that could happen would be for the editor to write back and say, "Oops, sorry, those were the old guidelines." (And what if the editor would write back and say, "Gee, your story sure seemed long while I was slogging my way through it"?)

I can't imagine a useful dialog resulting from a response to a rejection notice, unless the editor was looking for someone to mentor. The odds of that happening just at the moment I decided to respond to a rejection seem pretty slim.

I'm reading Dracula. I've actually never read it before, which is just silly, but there you go. The reason I'm reading it, though, is that I want to write a paper about vampires, which I figured I shouldn't do without reading Dracula first. Since I'm counting this as research, I went ahead and got the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula, which is extensively annotated. It's very interesting to read it with the notes, and they're not really going to give anything away.

So, I was already thinking about footnotes when Marissa posted her little rant about footnotes. I generally agree with her, except that the thing that gets me about footnotes is that they nearly disappeared just at the point that technology had finally made them easy.

From the time the typewriter became common until the word processor became ubiquitous, footnotes were a bad idea. They were okay in printing, where they were relatively easy to slip into the bottom of each page when you went from the galley proof stage to the page proof stage. But for things like student papers, footnotes were just stupid.

So, okay, I had to type my papers in high school with footnotes. I'm over being bitter about that. (Really--I am.) But, based on that experience, I was all for going with endnotes, because endnotes are so much easier. Except that now there's no need to, because with a word processor, footnotes are easy. The reason for endnotes was never that endnotes were better; it's just that footnotes were more trouble than they were worth. Now that footnotes are trivially easy, the only reason for endnotes is (as Marissa says) for citing sources.

One book that bugged me a lot in that regard was William Greider's One World, Ready or Not. It had many great notes with useful detail or trenchant observation or wry comment--but they were endnotes, and they were mixed in with three or four times as many notes that just said Op. Cit. I was constantly turning back to the end notes hoping for the former and ended up with the latter. Then, when I had finished the book, I skimmed through the end notes and found several that I wished I'd read where they'd been marked in the text.

One of the folks on the Clarion list got to go to the press screening for the "Lord of the Rings" movie. She gave it a rave review.


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