Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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The Editor's Notebook



Winter Tally: We'll Always Have Paris

Naturally enough, you’re a little depressed. A few short months ago, you didn’t even know that there was a subprime mortgage market, much less that the entire fate of the world depended on it. Back in those halcyon days of ignorance, bliss, and financial solvency, you were just happy that Paris Hilton was out of the spotlight for a change. You’d never heard of Sarah Palin, yet, this Halloween you'll be at parties where nine out of ten women will wear cutesy cropped jackets and wigs with bouffant bangs. To make matters worse, on November 4, a great number of people will vote for a Republican Party ticket that would put Palin one 72-year-old Maverick away from the presidency. Talk about scary.

I can tell you’re depressed, because I’ve recently finished reading dozens of your manuscripts, the majority of which dealt with the following: Death, and not the sweet-release kind, but the depressing, drawn out, Terms Of Endearment sort that makes you want to kill yourself.

In response, VerbSap’s in-box was declared a death-free zone, which worked for about five minutes, or until I realized that it might take months for you to move beyond grieving for your 401(k)s and we had a magazine to publish. So, there is some death in the Winter Issue, angst, and even a few relationships gone sour, mixed in with lighter fare.

Perhaps Gary Moshimer’s story Drift best captures the overall tone worked toward in the end. Moshimer’s narrator, who has spent a snowy day smoking dope with friends, learns of the sudden death of his father, and, as the wife of a friend hugs him, notices that her robe has fallen open:

I saw her whole right breast, six inches from my face. This was unbelievable. No one knew but me. Or maybe she did know, and was presenting it as a gift to comfort me. Isn't that what a breast is for, to soothe the crying child? But I would not cry. The breast was still perfectly shaped, even though she was forty. I had often fantasized about her breasts and now one stared me in the eye on the day my father died. Because I couldn't cry I started to laugh. Then I got a boner. On the day my father died I saw my friend's wife's breast and got a boner and laughed. 

Take heart: In the post-apocalyptic, stock-market-freefalling world, there still are breasts and boners. And there will be even if the Republicans win the election, which they so aren’t going to do. And there's your silver lining.

October 2008

Well, Well, Well

I'm fine with fingernails on chalkboard and low-flying bats, and I can deal with incessant foot tapping, flea infestations, and those little stickers they put on fruit. But the phrase “I’m good” drives me crazy.

“How are you?" “I’m good.” It even pains me to type it.

To annoy me when he’s mad, my son wanders around the house addressing the furniture.

“Sofa, great to see you. Are you good? I’m good. Hey, lamp. How ya doin'? Good? Good for you. It’s great to be here in the living room where it’s all good.”

William Safire wrote about "I'm good" in The New York Times at the start of 2006, tracing the evolution of its meaning from “I am without sin” to the emerging “I can handle it” or “It doesn’t trouble me.” Predicting that the new interpretation would endure, he said lexicographers would have to add “the latest informal sense to the ancient word 'good': satisfied by; untroubled with; prepared to find acceptable.”

Who am I to argue with William Safire?

No. I’m going to.

Somewhere along the line, the phrase “I’m good,” meaning “I don’t need anything more,” became an acceptable substitute for “I’m feeling peachy keen, thanks.” It's not simply that the meaning of the word "good" has evolved, but that it's being confused with another: "well.”

When my father asks my son, “How are you, kiddo?” and my son replies, “I’m good, Grandpa,” he’s not (just) saying it because he knows it makes me cringe. He uses the phrase because he thinks that’s how he's supposed to answer. In that, he would be incorrect.

“Good” is an adjective. It describes a noun or pronoun. Your dog, he’s a good dog. Your cat? Well, I don’t do cats. They don’t listen. But if your cat is doglike, then s/he’s a good cat.

“Well” is an adverb, meaning it describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. You can feel well. You can dance well. You can even write well, and I hope that you do, but you can’t write good; that’s just wrong.

We are a people who tend to abbreviate. When we say, “How are you?” what we really mean is, “How are you feeling today, Mrs. Smith? And how is that fine, doglike cat of yours?” But, being in a 21st century rush, we use lexical shorthand. “How ya doin’?” “What’s up?” “I’m good.”

You can say "you're good." William Safire expects you to. But, just for the record, I'm not good with it.

October 2008

A Few Good Words

Hemlines go up, and hemlines go down, and sometimes, instead of being straight across the way nature intended, they’re cut on a bias—not a good look for editors with muscular thighs. The point is: fashions vary, and there’s not much you can do about it besides throw on pair of your favorite stretch pants and hope that miniskirts, sheer tops, and nine-inch heels eventually go the way of George Bush Jr.: out of office.

It’s all a part of the rich pageantry of life. Nothing, science tells us, is static, including—despite what your fourth-grade English teacher told you—grammar. Sometimes it changes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The trick is to know when to hold your ground and when to be flexible.

A case in point is judging the blurring of the relatively simple rule governing use of the words “less” and “fewer.” For over 100 years, the guideline has been that “fewer” should modify plural nouns, and “less” singular nouns.

(For those of you who felt the phrase “modify plural nouns” literally suck the oxygen out of your lungs, here is a painless translation: use “fewer” when you’re talking about things that you can divide up and individually count or pat on the head, and “less” when you can’t.)

For example:

  • In 45 years, I’ve spent less money on my wardrobe than Governor Sarah Palin spent in the last three months.
  • I've also shot fewer moose.

See? If you chose to, you could pat each moose, but money is, grammatically speaking, singular. (In answer to the inevitable question: moneys.)

Admittedly, the rule does wobble when numbers are involved. Most people, even most editors, say: “I’m going on vacation in less than two weeks”—when it should be "fewer." And, given half a chance, they might whine that no vacation makes up for earning less than $25,000 a year. Strictly speaking, however, both grammatically and philosophically they'd be incorrect; a long vacation involving beaches and the occasional Margarita is invaluable.

Several major ad campaigns, not a few headline writers, and the folks who print the signs for supermarket checkout lines (“Express Lane: Less than 10 items only”) would do away with “fewer” altogether. Perhaps they think it has too many syllables. Maybe it smacks of elitism. “Less” is streamlined, direct and unadorned. It’s an earthy word of the people. Then again, maybe they just got it wrong.

But change does happen. Language evolves. In time, “fewer” could go the way of “codders” (pea gatherers) and “slisters” (to be idle), and end up a forgotten object of curiosity in The Word Museum. It’s conceivable that your children could grow up in a world where there is only one antonym (opposite) for “more.” Imagine that.

Would it be a tragedy? It would be a shame. Without depth and diversity, without shades of meaning, language becomes less interesting. Also, frankly, fewer words and arcane rules mean fewer paying jobs for editors. VerbSap is a home for minimalism, yes, but, for the editor’s sake, please remember that “less” is not always “more.”

October 2008

Rare Gem With Spectacular Views

In real estate parlance “cozy” means “small,” treetop view” means “perched on a cliff,” and “quiet” means “invest in noise-canceling headphones now, because this house fronts an Interstate.” Spin is king, kind of like in an election year, when every word is loaded, weighted, and true only in the nudge-nudge-wink-wink, it's-OK-to-tell-grandma-you-liked-the-Day-Glo-Barney-sweater-she-gave-you-for-Christmas-when-you-really-didn't sort of a way that Monica Lewinsky playing with President Clinton's willy did not constitute sexual relations.

For much of the Fall, VerbSap’s editor has been house-hunting, in forced intimacy with real estate agents—lovely people; can’t get enough of them—which makes the fact that it’s almost summer all that much sweeter. The days are lengthening, school is almost out, and the boogie board is in the back of the van with the wet suit: when all else fails, including the sub-prime mortgage market, there is still slimming neoprene and there is still the beach.

There is also the mailbag, which was particularly entertaining this time around. If the (five years long and still counting) war in Iraq was depressing you, then soaring gas prices, watching the Democrats self-destruct (again), floods, and famine have pushed you over the edge into an oxymoronic state I can only call morbidly humorous. It's bitingly honest writing, which is what makes it so funny, and so refreshing after weeks of touring "stunning" luxury homes complete with termite friends and mold spores the size of greyhounds.

In the new issue, a troubled 14-year-old begs the maternally acquisitive Angelina Jolie to adopt her, a woman weighs seeking custody of the dog and leaving the kids to her philandering ex-husband, a family man mourns the loss of macho literary genius Norman Mailer over a metrosexual breakfast of soy milk and organic eggs, and a writer dumps his girlfriend for poor sentence structure. I haven't even mentioned the Spam suit.

Also notable in the in-box:

Adultery – A good quarter of the submissions we received this reading period were about extramarital affairs: wanting to have them, having them, looking back on them and not regretting them as much as you might think. Married folk, you’ve been warned. Buy your spouse something pretty.

Superheroes, sorcerers, and witches – Cool! Neat-o! Wow! You certainly have your fingers on the pulse. According to The New York Times, two of the books being pushed hardest by publishers at the recent Book Expo America were about “witches, of a sort” and a third was written by a shaman-in-training.

My theory is that people fantasize about the supernatural when they're feeling impotent. “Global climate change is coming (global climate change is here), but Enviroman will save us!” On occasion, although relatively sane, I too consult the I Ching, not because I believe in divination, but because it gets me off the hook when I make a wrong decision.

Alternatively, if you're feeling powerless, you could join Codepink. No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, you have to admire their chutzpa.

Dogs. Many, many dogs. And scat, which makes sense, given all the dogs.

An inordinate number of stories about bad blind dates. You need to get out more. Here’s an idea: join a club for people with dogs.

Then grab your laptop and enjoy our summer issue. Read, write, and submit. And if you have a quiet, cozy house with treetop views for sell, talk to my agent. I’ll be at the beach. Honestly.

June 2, 2008

The Tension Is Killing Me

If the present tense was a sentient being it would be Angelina Jolie: ubiquitous celebrity, U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, and mother of four. If it was a candy it would be chocolate—not those waxy Hershey’s Kisses but boutique Tuscan chocolate. And, if it was a car it would be a Prius, or maybe a Porsche, a Turbo 911, capable of zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds. Roughly two thirds of the submissions we received in August were written in the present tense and that’s how we know: the present tense is “hot.”

Which is funny, because it can also be terribly, terribly annoying.

Authors use the present tense to give their work a sense of immediacy, but it can have the opposite effect. When I read a story that says everything is happening in the moment, my brain metaphorically elbows me in the side to let me know it knows we're being conned.

“Hey,” my brain says, “I hope you realize this isn’t happening right now. Right now the author is in Cannes necking with Brad Pitt and you're in your sweatpants reading a book.”

So, I read, my brain pokes, and I never get to Reader Nirvana, the literary dream-state.

It might be counterintuitive, but the past tense can do a better job of thrusting readers into the center of action. Think of a great novel that engrossed you and it was probably written in simple past.

  • “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” (Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” (To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
  • “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head,” (A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole)

There are exceptions, brilliant ones. But read your work with a jaundiced eye. Make sure your choice of tense is working. Please. My brain has sharp elbows and I need all the rest I can get.

September 2007

Vive La France

If I’ve learned anything editing VerbSap over the past three years, it’s this: the inbox is never wrong.

Our digital manuscript repository is the secret-spilling map to your writerly souls, and this is what it says at the moment: you yearn, at least the North Americans among you do, for a holiday in Paris. You want to stroll along the Seine, sympathetic lover by your side, strains of Gershwin playing in the background. You want to sit in a café, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, and discuss philosophy. You want to wile away the day with Ernest Hemingway—with Papa! Imagine that! —and his buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald, and found a whole new Lost Generation. In short, you want a time machine, and you’d like to swap the now for the then, for the 1920s, or maybe the Fifties, when Americans were heroes—baby-faced and overeager, yes, but basically a bunch of half-decent folks you wouldn’t mind dating your sister.

Also, the inbox says the Republicans are screwed and quotation marks are passé, but that's hardly new information (see Double Trouble).

Regarding the rampant francophilia in your submissions, I couldn’t be happier. Sell the furniture, move to Paris, and write the next A Moveable Feast. If it’s half as good as the original, VerbSap will print it, even if it is over 3,000 words. Or you could wear a beret to your local Starbucks and just pretend. Either way, if you’re writing, we're reading, and everyone comes out ahead.

Regarding the use of quotation marks, or lack thereof, I believe it was Lost Generation member Ezra Pound who said, “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.” Who am I to argue with Pound? I like quotation marks. I like to be sure who’s speaking. Also, I like the way their curves give plain text a Rococo air. But Spartan is good. Spartan is wonderful. VerbSap is a home for minimalist prose and we approve of Spartan. So, If you can make yourself clear without punctuation, go for it. If you can't, I'll be putting it back in toute suite.*

Regarding the Republicans and their future, what can I say? C’est la guerre.**

May 15, 2007
**It's the war

The earth is blue like an orange

This morning, as I was sipping Earl Grey from the casual porcelain, enjoying the delicate ping of Sterling silver against Bone china and looking forward to an afternoon of croquet and burning money on the great lawn, I opened an email from a writer condemning the pretension of journals that eschew so-called “genre” fiction in favor of “literature.”

“The cad,” I thought. “The rotter.” I dabbed at a tear of frustration with a monogrammed silk handkerchief. “How could he confuse literary with pretentious? How?”

I rang for the butler. I would have the groom saddle my favorite horse. A long, hard ride across the acreage I’d purchased with the royalties from my short stories would soothe me, and if that failed I could flog one of the servants. A public flogging always made me feel better, and it gave the servants a sense of purpose.


The word “literary” can mean, in a pejorative sense, “bookish” or “pedantic,” but, at its heart, it means having to do with literature, that is, with writing that lasts. If your writing is well crafted and deals with universal ideas it’s literature, whether there are cowboys and detectives in it or not.

I understand what people mean by genre fiction, but I don’t particularly care for the term. I think it’s come to imply stock characters and situations, and ultimately that makes for lazy writers and lazy readers. It’s like using tired metaphors. The first person to compare the earth to a blue marble is an innovator; his or her followers are employing a kind of lexical shorthand. What makes a reader’s head spin is when a writer turns symbolic language on its head, for instance when Paul Éluard wrote, “The earth is blue like an orange.” Now that’s innovation.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing that falls into a category—mystery, western, science fiction. Some of it’s fantastic. Read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It’s an 846-page first novel about magic and it’s utterly brilliant.

At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with being “literary.” Being literary rocks. Being literary means spending hours at a keyboard trying to fix a failing sentence when the weather is fine and everyone else is at the beach. Literary does not equal pretentious. Literary means hard working.


The other day, as I was sitting in the 500-square-foot book-lined home of a poet, eating pasta and discussing where you can see a good baseball game for $5 and how to find bargains on Craigslist, I was thinking about how one of my friends from school is an investment banker with a 5,000 square-foot Tudor mansion and another, an author, admits to owning a single spoon.

The fact is, only a few people make a decent living writing fiction. And getting rich by writing short stories? Forget about it. To live a literary life you need to be crazy in love with language and crazy in love with writing. You need to have another job and write on the side, or you have to be happy with only one spoon.

May 15, 2007

The Joy of Semicolons

A friend recently told me that he never reads short stories with semicolons in their opening paragraphs. He comes across a semicolon and halts in his mental tracks, closes the book or magazine, and moves on with his life. Semicolons, he says, are affected, and their presence indicates that hollow, conceited writing will follow.

It’s a frequent misconception. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s popular online writing center offers that, “By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated,” which is pretty funny considering how hard it is to hear the difference between a semicolon and a comma.

In fact, the semicolon is the nice guy of the punctuation world, the level-headed strong and silent type who gets things done without making a fuss about it, the 300-pound first-string football player who volunteers at a homeless shelter and reads to the blind. If the semicolon was a man I would marry it, instantly and without hesitation, were it not for the quiet fellow with the dark good looks who rubs my feet at night and calls himself my husband. Yes, I am that fond of the semicolon.

Think about it. The full-strength colon is effective, but basically a self-important bully. The colon says, “stop everything, listen up, I’m about to say something important.” The semicolon, in contrast, clears its throat and politely hints that you might find the following information germane. The colon has to be at the front of the line, at the head of a weighty list of items separated by tiny, overworked commas. The self-effacing semicolon jumps right in and lends the overburdened commas a hand.

To my mind, the reason most people don’t like semicolons is that they don’t understand how to use them. The explanations always mention independent clauses and conjunctions, and sometimes the pundits even throw in a conjunctive adverb. Frankly, there’s nothing like the mention of a conjunctive adverb to put a damper on a party. If grammarians would say, “hey, dude, use a semicolon to link simple sentences,” people might not be so standoffish.

So, the next time you see a semicolon, take a moment to reflect on its finer qualities, on its essentially shy and retiring nature. Then invite it out for a beer. It’ll have some great stories to tell you.

May 15, 2007

Many Fun Afternoons (MFA)

You’ve heard the issues surrounding MFA programs. Why pay for time to write when writing time is free? Can you teach a person to write creatively? Don’t workshops produce bland writing-by-committee?

The answers are, respectively: Because you get what you pay for—excellent instruction; yes, until the Pulitzer Prize committee says your work is the apotheosis of prose you can learn something from other writers; and, frankly, if your work is bland it’s your own fault.

Trust me. I’m an MFA student. Yes, at the age of 40-something, with years of being paid to edit and report behind me, I’ve gone back to school, and my fiction is stronger, better structured, and more engaging as a result.

What’s too often left out of the “to MFA or not to MFA” equation is how much fun a writing program can be. Imagine two years in which it’s OK to say, “sorry, I can’t take out the garbage/go to a PTA meeting/make dinner, I have to write. I can’t put it off. I have to do it right now.” Imagine having to read great books and hang out with other people who are crazy about reading. Seriously, add in a good dog and the occasional day at the beach and you’ve got yourself the perfect lifestyle.

So, if I’m a little slower than usual to get back to you when you submit, that’s what’s going on. It’s not because I don’t care. I’m just doing my homework.

I know you'll understand. You’re writers.

Nov. 1, 2006

Fall Down, Stand Up

You are obsessed with sex and death—I can’t emphasize this point enough. You like to cross-dress. You are consumed with guilt for cheating on your wife and driving a gas-guzzling car. Cancer sucks and you don’t understand the meaning of life. You wish your girlfriend would just stop talking for once.

These, in a nutshell, are the conclusions to be drawn from the contents of the VerbSap in-box this summer. Seriously, parents, send your kids to college with condoms because—hoo boy—you can’t believe what they’re getting up to. And the ones who aren’t getting up to it are planning how to.

Amidst the many tributes to physical pleasure we received, there was as well a profusion of dazzling prose, pages given such close attention that there was nothing left for the editor to do but tip her metaphorical hat, raise her metaphorical glass, and toast the author with a sincere, “job well done.” Dang, but you can write when you put your mind to it.

Careful readers will observe that despite our clearly articulated edict against the torturing of small animals (see Editorial Idiosyncrasies) there is one dead kitten in the Fall Issue. So sue us, the story was worth it. Do not take this as a softening of our distaste for gore. Also, a fable of sorts crept in, because we fell madly in love with it. And, in one of the short stories, there is a paragraph dealing with bodily functions. It was edited out, then put back in. Sometimes, even the most fastidious of us have to admit, shit happens.

The editor extends a resounding thank you to the talented Randall Osborne and Paul Schweer for their contribution to the magazine. Your insight is invaluable, your time and effort wildly appreciated.

Enjoy the new issue. Submissions reopen November 1. Send us a little something. As always, we love to read.

September 2006

The Times They Are A-Changin’

For the past year and half, VerbSap has responded to most manuscript submissions within a week and posted stories within days of accepting them. And, thanks to the overwhelming support and generosity of authors from all over the globe—you rock, each and every one of you—the quality of the writing that the magazine has been able to publish has been exceptional.

Now, we’re making some changes. Instead of updating daily we’ll be publishing regular issues. The first will be out this fall. We’re adding staff—all talented writers and the recipients of the Editor’s undying gratitude, if not a corporate credit card. Check out our new submission guidelines, and, while you’re waiting for the new magazine to hit the digital stand, visit our archives or sample our recent highlights.

Above all, don’t forget to write. Because one thing will never change: we love to read.

June 28, 2006

I Reject Your Reality

Contrary to popular opinion editors don’t like writing rejection letters. OK, some of them do, but then again some people voluntarily eat cottage cheese, pierce their nipples, and vote Republican. I don’t.

Which has made this a challenging month. It’s only the 21st and already I’ve written more rejections in June than in any other three-month period since the magazine’s inception.

It’s getting me down.

Sitting at a keyboard sweating over a blank page isn’t coal mining, but it is work, and I think anyone who chooses to do it deserves encouragement, respect, and admiration. Also help, since they’ve picked such a ludicrously low-paying if personally rewarding profession that they're likely to find themselves, at 40, showing serious interest in Starbucks recruiting events and shopping at Wal-Mart.

With that in mind, I take pains to make every rejection letter I write as positive as possible. I want to be forthright but not disheartening, instructive but not doctrinaire. The problem is, it takes me about 30 minutes a letter to strike that balance. If I have to write ten rejection letters a day—well, you do the math. It adds up to too much angst for one softhearted, unpaid editor to endure.

So, here’s the deal. Don’t send VerbSap the nifty 250-word work of “quicktion” that, amazingly, you managed to finish before your roommate could chug an entire brewski. Don’t send us “micro fiction.” If you’re a pre-med college student on summer vacation, don’t send us anything unless you’ve run it through a spell checker, had your mother review it for grammatical errors, and seriously considered that you're pre-med because writing isn't your vocation. Count yourself lucky.

Let’s let the rule of thumb be: your submission should take you longer to write—preferably a lot longer—than it will for me to reject. And, with a little luck, the next sentence I type will read: “We’d be pleased to publish your work.”

June 21, 2006

Greetings, Earthlings

The Japanese bow ‘hello,’ the Taiwanese nod, and in Zimbabwe it’s polite to clap when you ask after someone’s health. The French kiss both cheeks, or the air in their vicinity, and nobody—I mean nobody—hugs like my friend Helen, who smells like fresh bread and has surprisingly strong forearms for a tiny woman.

My point being that there are many pleasant ways to kick off an encounter, not one of which is to launch uninvited into a discussion about your appendectomy or the time your cat coughed up a hairball. Yet, in recent weeks, 80 percent of the manuscripts I’ve read have started in just that fashion—without preamble, without context, in the midst of a mundane conversation.

It’s already been established that the Editor is rife with idiosyncrasies: a bias against stories that begin with dialogue is one of them. I can’t help it; I’m just that way. I like to know the players. I like to know what’s going on. If I want to hear chatter that I can’t understand I’ll watch Telemundo or Fox News.

To my way of thinking, beginning a story with speech is the literary equivalent of meeting a blind date stark naked. You might want to finish the evening in your birthday suit, but what’s your hurry? What happened to getting to know a person? What happened to anticipation and longing? Why is foreplay perpetually undervalued?

I’m not saying you can’t start a story with a character speaking. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it works brilliantly.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White).

Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." (The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay).

But these examples are a far cry from the bland conversation I’m seeing at the start of stories.

A good first line of any kind should give the reader the sensation you get when you step into an unfamiliar house. You know what I mean. The air smells different. The art on the walls is exotic. You can’t resist looking in the cupboards. You run a finger along the piano keys, and while the notes fade you check your fingertip for dust. Everything around you is a clue. Everything propels you forward. You want to read the next sentence, and the next. You want to turn the pages, out of curiosity or sheer appreciation for the beauty of the prose.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984, George Orwell).

Thirteen? They were striking 13? How is that possible?

The first sentence is the muscle shirt you put on to impress your date. It’s the short skirt and the perfume. It’s not the closer—that’s your personality. That’s the body of the text. But it does set the stage for the main event.

So, dazzle me. Intrigue me. Make me sigh with contentment at the realization that I’m only one line into your story and already I'm loving it. You're meeting me for the very first time; make an impression.

The heck with shaking hands: let's rub noses.

May 16, 2006

The Weekly Tally, And Absolutely The Final Word On Kenneth

Many inquiries and jokes about Kenneth/Dick, and several prose submissions clinically identifying male members as penises*, but not one Kenneth himself in the in-box. Thank you for listening.

*At this juncture I'd like to drop the subject altogether, but the grammarian in me insists on noting that “penes” actually is the preferred plural form of the noun. Sadly, even at the advanced age of 43, I find myself unable to say this word without laughing hysterically.

Generally speaking, a dizzying amount of sex, gender issues, and—this is in retribution for the Kenneth thing, isn't it—female body parts. Once again, it’s spring. Those of you who aren’t intentionally trying to get my goat—you know who you are—are feeling certain stirrings and the apparently irresistible urge to write about them.

If the in-box could speak it would be moaning. If your manuscripts weren’t digital they'd be bursting into flames. The sap is running and you have, each and every one of you, been reborn as hormone-fueled teenagers, greening, budding, and thrusting yourselves upon the literary scene with abandon.

Oy. Only a month to go until summer.

Still, it must be said, an abundance of exquisite prose. Read the magazine: you do wonderful work.

April 24, 2006

The Weekly Tally

An unaccountable surge in submissions devoted to recreational drug-use. Going by my in-box, you are all stoned, all the time, or were in high school, and you firmly believe that the world wants to read about it.

You could be right. A Million Little Pieces is still selling like crazy.

All the same, let this serve as a gentle reminder that this particular sedate corner of the Internet is vetted by a squeamish, fussy, and, yes, idiosyncratic editor who can only read so many stories a day about people placing things in their nasal cavities.

Even typing the phrase“nasal cavity” makes me shiver, and not in a good way.

Seriously. You’re giving me the creeps. Get out of your parents’ basement and get some fresh air.

An unaccountable surge in wordiness . Also in prolixity, pleonasm, circumlocution, and verbosity. See? I have a thesaurus too.

At the top of the page you’ll find the catchy tagline: “Concise prose. Enough said.” To be concise is to be clear and succinct (I also have a dictionary). Or, in the immortal words of William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, “Omit needless words.”*

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences...This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I get teary when I read that. Really, I do. Conversely, sloppy, bloated writing gets me depressed.

So, before you hit send, give your manuscript one last read. Make sure you’ve used the active voice, culled weak words like “very,” and eliminated every ponderous “the fact that.”

Just send me the good stuff: That I want to read.

March 1, 2006.

*The Elements of Style (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959). You should have this memorized by now.

Call Me Dick

It’s fashion week in the Big Apple, the pulse-thumping seven days in which top names in high-end attire unveil their latest designs. Aubergine is in, and ruffles. Also, skinny trousers and metallic fabric, so short, flat-chested women like the Editor will have no trouble at all drawing attention to the fact that they’re short and flat-chested.

Honestly, it’s been a bad enough couple of weeks for women, losing Wendy Wasserstein and Betty Friedan; the least the fashion industry could have done is bring back baggy pants.

But trends will be trends: unfathomable and hard to buck. One year skirts are supposed to graze your knee, the next they’re barely covering your undies. Language is no different. Word favorites come and go. On TV and in print, Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is everywhere these days. And my inbox, deluged of late by science fiction submissions, is now awash in penises.

They’re not called penises anymore, by the way. No, that would be too clinical. And “Dick” is passé as well, which I think a shame. I liked “Dick.” “Dick” was collegial. “Dick” was a nice guy. “Dick” would give you a back-rub to get you in the mood, and bring you flowers on your birthday.

The new favorite—I can’t even type it without blushing so I’m substituting “Kenneth”—is entirely less likeable. “Kenneth” is arrogant and angry. He doesn’t care whether you like him. You’re not even sure he remembers your name. He shows up at your place at two in the morning, drunk and disheveled, and wanting only one thing.

Why, suddenly, has “Kenneth” taken over my mail?

Times are troubled. Perhaps short-story writers are trying to soothe themselves by portraying the rise of powerful male members. Or, energized by a brash U.S. foreign policy, writers might be, figuratively speaking, thumbing their own genital Terminators at the world.

Either way, please, people, try to remember that there’s a repressed, middle-aged, mother at the other end of the Enter key, reading your submissions and blushing furiously. She’s happy to sit down with “Dick” every once in a while—who wouldn’t be—but “Kenneth,” well, let’s just say a little bit of “Kenneth” goes a long way.

Feb. 6, 2006

Sing Me Muskrat Love

My husband can’t carry a tune. He can listen to a song a hundred times and still be unable to reproduce it in a remotely recognizable form. I love him desperately, but it’s almost creepy watching him try. What’s even stranger is that our son popped out of the womb with perfect pitch. No kidding—that kid is spooky in a whole other way.

I was reminded of my husband’s idiosyncrasy this week when I tried to explain to him what it was like hearing visiting author Julie Otsuka read from her book When The Emperor Was Divine. Her prose is so finely crafted that there’s no place in which she, or any other reader, could stumble over a single word. Not one is out of place.

My husband didn’t get it.

“You mean it’s grammatically correct?”

“I mean the words are in the right place,” I said. “They flow. You know, like water.”

Really, it was like talking to a wall. As well as being tone deaf he’s a computer geek and they tend to operate in a binary world: on or off, functional or not functional. Functional things are beautiful. Dysfunctional things need to be repaired. Good writing communicates and expresses, end of story.

And then it hit me. Instructors are always telling students to read their writing out loud to hear whether it works. Yet, I receive manuscripts that read unevenly every day. Either the authors don't take the read-it-aloud rule literally or they’re the literary equivalent of tone deaf. They don't hear when the words are wrong.

To those of you simply avoiding the step, here’s the scoop: it’s not optional. Seriously, in Starbucks, with your laptop, you need to talk to yourself. The people at the next table might think you’re a lunatic, but that’s a small price to pay for writing better. Words look good on a page, but they don’t all sound right in a reader’s head, and that's where it counts.

If music teachers can "train the ear" of someone like my husband, tone-deaf writers can learn the difference between halting and flowing prose. I’d start by picking up a copy of When The Emperor Was Divine and parsing it like there’s no tomorrow. Read all the well-honed, reductive writing you can, if for no other reason than it’s a great way to pass the time.

My husband, by the way, read this Notebook entry and was miffed. In fairness and in penance, I offer the following unrelated but equally embarrassing facts about myself: the last time I wrote a computer program APL was the hot new language; I am incapable of fitting three suitcases into the trunk of a mid-size car; and I am inordinately fond of the song Muskrat Love.

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love*

Jingin' the jango: now that's great writing. And to truly appreciate its greatness, it's best to sing it out loud. Maybe not with my husband, though.


Feb. 5, 2006

*Lyrics by Willis Alan Ramsay

American Idol

You’ve had a couple of espressos or maybe a latte, heck maybe even a Jolt, and you are stoked, you are in the groove, you are filled with unimaginable energy and boundless enthusiasm and you are in the mood to CREATE, baby. So you sit down at the computer and you write, you write like a person possessed. And the stuff you produce! It makes Dostoevsky look puerile. It makes Mailer seem like a sissy. And Roth, Philip Roth—winner National Book Award (1960, 1995), National Book Critics Circle award (1988, 1992), PEN/Faulkner Award (1993, 2000), National Medal of Arts (1998), American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in fiction (2001)—your writing makes freakin’ Philip Roth look jejune (look it up).

Yes, you are channeling your inner muse, and in record time, BOOM, you have finished a masterpiece, an honest to God masterpiece. It’s so good that you have to submit it somewhere, now, right now, because the world must know of your brilliance. Fame and fortune are just a touch-of-the-keyboard away, you reckon. There’s a book deal on the horizon, and maybe a movie in which Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise will vie to play your central character. Men with beards and serious expressions will interview you on national TV and radio, and your high school English teacher, the one who said you would never amount to anything, will break down in tears and fall over herself apologizing. You will be the toast of the town, you are that good.

Have you been watching American Idol? You know those people Simon Cowell derides, the ones who can’t hit a single, correct note? The ones who believe that they were born talented and didn't need to bother with music lessons? Are you familiar with the word “deluded?”

I'm not saying you're American Idol bad. I'm saying that before you press “send,” before you shoot that masterful literary progeny of yours into hyperspace, there is one important point you should consider: Editors are not stupid.

If you spent only 15 minutes on your submission, I can tell. If you know nothing about your subject and didn't bother to do any research—that word again was “research” and nothing you see on television counts—I can tell.

When writers say they devoted years to a manuscript, they’re not kidding. The "delete" key is there to help you save yourself the embarrassment of getting up in front of Simon, Paula, and Randy and singing off key. It's there to help you be a better writer, and to help you help me be a happier, healthier person one who doesn't need to vent like this when she should be editing the enormous pile of manuscripts currently in her mailbox.

Please, people. Delete is your friend. And you should visit your friends often.

Note: After posting this diatribe, doubtless I will be filled with remorse. In my defense, I offer an excerpt from Robert Mentzer’s review of David Foster Wallace’s Consider The Lobster for Stop Smiling.

As an undergraduate, my friend took a creative writing course from David Foster Wallace at Illinois State University. On the first assignment he turned in, Wallace wrote, “I swear to God if you ever turn in a piece of shit like this to me again I will flunk your ass. I shit you not.”

See. It’s not just me.

Feb. 3, 2006

We Interrupt This Program

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but when you turn your back it’s liable to eat the hardback that you foolishly left unguarded on the sofa and poop expensive mangled prosody in your best slippers out of wounded pride. I know this from personal experience.

Similarly, you can, as an observant contributor did this week, gently and respectfully suggest that a 42-year-old editor might have confused a function of the ellipsis with that of the em dash, but not without repercussions. Friends, I eviscerated his work. Then I put it back the way I found it, because, really, it was fine as it stood—better than fine, excellent really—even if it did contain a few too many sentence fragments for my liking.

As young and old dogs alike will remember, the ellipsis is a punctuation mark comprised of three periods and intended to indicate that material is missing from a quote:

“The total page count of disputed events is . . . less than 5% of the total book. You know, that falls comfortably within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir." (James Frey)

Ellipses are used when text is missing from the middle of a quote, not when it’s missing from both ends. Thus, while someone somewhere in the world will no doubt insist on:

Nan Talese said that she “. . . almost collapsed . . .” when she heard Frey say Doubleday received the manuscript as a novel but suggested publishing it as memoir. (The New York Observer)

This is how it’s done:

Nan Talese said that she “almost collapsed” when she heard Frey blame everything on her. "It's a good thing he made me rich or this would really hurt." (She didn't really say that last bit.)

When the final part of a quoted sentence is missing, the ellipsis is used, traditionally with a period or other appropriate punctuation:

“Don’t get me started. . . .”
“Creative what? . . .”

Dialogue-writers, however, have taken to using the ellipsis to express that a character’s words are trailing off. And they generally do so without putting in the fourth dot, the period.

“I guess, maybe, I should have told someone I was making this stuff up . . ."

What I've been debating is whether the ellipsis is appropriate when a character doesn’t complete a thought because s/he has been interrupted. And, after serious soul-searching, I've concluded that the alert VerbSap contributor was correct: the job of expressing an abrupt break in speech falls to my nemesis, the em dash.

I reached this conclusion first, because The University of Chicago Press A Manual of Style says so, and, second, because it's hard to see a slinky, snake-like em dash without being startled. It brings you up short, which is nearer the intended emotion than the sedate ". . ."

A Manual of Style says em dashes “indicate interruptions or breaks in faltering speech,” and one or a pair should be used to “denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure.” Thus:

"I'm the Editor, and I say it should be an ellipsis."
"But—," the writer said.
"Listen, the editor is always right. You should—hey!—what are you doing? Put down that axe!"

Of course, by quoting A Manual of Style I've firmly established myself as an old dog. The publication is now called The Chicago Manual of Style. Its 15th edition came out in 2003. My copy was published in 1969, although I didn’t get it until years later.

Back in January 1969, Richard Nixon was being inaugurated, the Beatles were performing live together for the last time, and I was looking forward to turning six, blissfully unaware of the existence of either ellipses or em dashes. I was aware, however, that it was important to tell the truth and admit your mistakes.

So, astute reader, I was wrong about the ellipsis. But, since they account for less than 5% of the punctuation in the average short story, apparently it doesn't really matter. . .

January 19, 2006

The Weekly Tally

Four stories in which pets did not, shall we say, benefit from human contact. Listen up: No more whack-the-kitty tales. No more stories about puppies anywhere in the vicinity of shovels. We have filled our quota for the year. Really. I mean it.

OK. Good boy. Shake hands.

Three works of fiction set in mental institutions. Various others about unrequited love and miserable childhoods. I get the message. You're depressed. What with hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and wars who could blame you?

You're not alone. We're talking a year in which the National Book Award for nonfiction went to Joan Didion For The Year of Magical Thinking, "an unflinching journey into intimacy and grief," in the words of the judges who selected it. They gave the award for fiction to William T. Vollmann for Europe Central, a "writer’s courageous immersion in totalitarian ugliness."

These are not happy books occasioned by happy events. We are not, as a people, in a jolly mood.

So, here's what I think: If your stories are honest, if they're based on experience and contemplation, send them to me. I'll read them and they'll ring true. But if they're a substitute for an hour with a trained mental-health professional, then set them aside. Email your representative instead, donate to a good cause—heck, have a jog and long bath. Do something positive. And for goodness sake—we've discussed this before—stop watching CSI and Law & Order. No good can come of it.

Found: Beauty in unexpected places. It was a great week for this. It’s been a great month for this. Email that reads like poetry, firefighters who write like Hemingway, a review copy of Billy Collins’s The Trouble With Poetry in the letter box. Have you read The Trouble With Poetry? You really should.

Enjoy Thanksgiving. And, remember, if you experience holiday-related stress over the coming weeks, step away from the dog.

November 21, 2005

Missing Nancy Drew

There are many unsolved mysteries in our world:

  • How the ancient Easter Islanders could drag 14-ton, giant heads around, when it takes my son days, weeks even, to put the freshly laundered clothes I leave on his bed into a bureau three steps away;
  • How the Piri Reis map drawn in 1513 could accurately depict a coastline encased in ice since 4000 BC, when my husband is incapable of finding a foot-high, bright-red milk carton in an empty refrigerator;
  • And how scientists could decode the three billion chemical components of the human genome, when I am physically incapable of reading a document containing the words “deductible,” “herein,” or “compliance” without getting a tension headache.

But the big question, the one that has experts completely flummoxed, is this: Why would an author submit work to a literary magazine and then disappear?

Over the past nine months VerbSap has accepted stories from six different authors who, after excitedly thanking us, have subsequently vanished. We edited their work, formatted it, and returned it to them for final proofreading, as arranged when it was accepted, and…well…and then nothing.

Poof! All gone! Never to be heard of again.

Did they get an acceptance from a bigger-name venue and ditch us? Their stories haven’t been published online. Did they change email addresses? Their mail doesn’t bounce, it goes unanswered. Did they lose their laptops? Once a month we send a reminder and, still, nothing.

Maybe it slipped their minds that they were being published? Writers don’t forget that. They hang around bookstores, kiosks, and their computers trembling with anticipation, waiting for that adrenalin-pumping first sight of their name in print. They count the days, the hours, the very seconds until their stories have been launched into the ether for the reading public—their parents, college roommates, total strangers—to admire. They check their watches. They drive themselves crazy.

Let's be direct: Are these six writers dead? If they are, I apologize to their loved ones from the bottom of my heart, but, statistically speaking, it's highly unlikely. I've crunched the numbers. The annual death rate in the U.S., where the majority of our authors reside, is roughly 840 per 100,000 people. However, given the average age of a VerbSap contributor, our rate should be closer to 400 out of 100,000. I wish we could accept 100,000 stories a year, but it’s more like 300. Which means, according to my shaky math, we could lose 1.2 new authors a year, but six would be pushing it.

So, if the missing authors didn't have heart attacks from hearing that we'd accepted their work, where are they?

Perhaps they’ve been wrongfully accused of terrible crimes and they’re wasting away in prison. Or rocks fell on them and they’re wandering the streets with amnesia.

My best guess, however, is that they’ve removed themselves from the distractions of the modern world to improve their writing. All six of them are now living in a secluded cabin in the woods, where there’s no electricity and no phone, and it’s so cold they had to burn their last pencils and postage stamps for the warmth and companionship of a single, small, flickering flame.

If they’re not in seclusion they should be. Because if I find out that they’re O.K., that I’ve been worrying about them for nothing, I’m going to hunt them down and do what any sensible person in my position would do: Publish their stories.

Because they’re good these lost writers, they’re very, very good.

October 18, 2005

Lie Down, Old Dog

You learn something new every day. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the same thing over and over. For instance, no matter how many times I look it up, I can’t remember when to use lay—to put or to place—and when to use lie —to recline, rest or stay. Having read countless manuscripts, it's safe to say I'm not alone.

Grammatically speaking—only for one paragraph, you have my word—lay is a transitive verb, which means it’s incomplete without a direct object, the thing it acts on. If you’re tired, you should lay your burden down. Lie is an intransitive verb and doesn’t take a direct object. So, if reading the last few sentences has given you a headache, you could close the blinds, throw on some Kenny G, and lie down.

Readers of a certain age might find it helpful to remember that Bob Dylan, while arguably a musical genius, is not a grammarian. Although "Lay, lady, lay" might be more appealing, technically he should tell the lady to lie across his big brass bed.

To confuse matters, though, if Dylan had been talking about an earlier encounter, lay would have been correct. The past tense of lay is laid, while the past tense of lie is lay.

To help me remember this, I have a table from Jack Lynch's indispensable Guide to Grammar and Style taped to my wall, along with a reminder that "practice=noun, practise= verb," and a cartoon of a kid in a parka and scarf saying "every time I wear this stuff it snows." Lynch, an associate professor at Rutgers University, kindly allowed VerbSap to reproduce the table here.




Present Tense

He lays the bag down.

He lies down.

Past Tense

He laid the bag down.

He lay down.

In the Guide, Lynch calls himself "the sort of hyper-educated dweeb who actually uses whom in conversation,” and points out that using lay and lie correctly is a shibboleth, a telling mannerism.

If you memorize his table, you too could be perceived as a dweeb. Remember: Practise makes perfect.

September 15, 2005

Double Trouble

You are artists, each and every one of you, and, if your talent isn’t recognized while you’re alive, that's merely proof that you are way, way ahead of the cultural curve. You are innovators. You are lingual movers and shakers. You are the harbingers of prose styles to come.

As such, you are able to cast aside common usage and antediluvian grammatical guidelines and forge new rules for the new order.

First on the list, I gather from the state of recent submissions, will be to do away with the unnecessarily frilly and antiquated double quotation mark: So fusty, so passé. Instead, I take it, we’re all shifting to the British model, or some version thereof, because—and this is what really counts—it looks pretty.

To be honest, it doesn't matter if you use single or double quote marks to denote direct speech. Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to. But somebody has to impose order around here and, gratifyingly, that somebody is me.

So, if those of you raised with U.S. punctuation would use it in your submissions I would be much obliged. To review, direct speech is placed in double quotation marks. Quotations within quotations go in the single version. And commas and periods sit inside double quotes, while the colons and semicolons wait patiently in the open air. Like so:

  • According to Hugo Award-winning author C.J. Cherryh: “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
  • “If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday,” Hawkeye (Alan Alda) said in an episode of M*A*S*H.
  • “What's another word for ‘thesaurus’?” wondered the comedian Stephen Wright.

Of course, when in doubt, punctuate however you like; we’ll make do. Better a good story with poor punctuation, than a bad one with any kind of punctuation at all.

And you can quote me on that.

July 29, 2005

The Party's Over

All good things must come to an end. VerbSap's staff is back at work after an entertaining if soggy month-long vacation in Western Australia (home of Author Tim Winton) and Queensland (home of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin).

While we were away, VerbSap’s readership reached record levels.

Just to clarify, we left town and more people than ever read the magazine. This is the publishing equivalent of getting pregnant after you've stopped trying.

Rather than take offense, the editor chooses to believe that the surge was due to the numerous recent mentions of Australian Author Tim WintonTim Winton, Tim Winton, Tim Winton—and to the great stories that the magazine has been fortunate enough to publish.

Thank you to all of our contributors and readers. Eventually we’ll host a big party and you’ll all be invited.

We can't guaranty that Tim Winton will be there but we'll give it our best shot.

Tim Winton, Tim Winton, Tim Winton.

July 6, 2005

The Weekly Tally

Selections from the editor's inbox:

Five submissions about adultery, two featuring threesomes. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this, but, to be safe, I plan to lock my spouse in the basement the next time I have a writer to tea. Really, you lot never cease to amaze me.

Four fables for our time. If you intend to write these you might want to read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and The Princess Bride by William Goldman for brilliant examples of how to breathe life into the fable/fairy tale genre. Enough said.

I will now brace for the inevitable email haranguing me for confusing fables and fairy tales. For the record, a fable edifies or tells of legendary exploits, and often involves animals acting like people. A fairy tale is a fanciful story. So there.

A whole lot of mother-centric writing. I have no problem with Mother Fiction. I’ve written Mother Fiction. And my favorite book, bar none, is the quintessential Life Among The Savages, by Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t read it and you’re a writer with small children you should immediately strap them into their car seats, drive to the nearest bookstore, and buy it. Resist the temptation to read it on the way home, because when the medics pry you out of your vehicle you will still be laughing and they will sedate you, which will keep you from finishing the rest of the book.

As I say, I like maternally-inclined fiction, I am merely curious why, this particular week, I was swamped with it. Perhaps many of you spent the recent Memorial Day break in the company of your family and mined it for ideas, those of you who weren’t busy coveting your sister’s, brother’s, or best friend’s spouse.

We used to throw a few hot dogs on the grill and call it a day.

June 7, 2005

What's In A Name

Pseudonyms are “in.”

I read an average of five submissions a week from authors using pen names. And those are just the ones who admit to it. Apparently, you’re nobody if you’re not somebody else.

Wikipedia suggests three reasons why writers might use noms des plumes: To experiment with a new genre, to avoid overexposure, and to protect themselves from persecution. The entry leaves out a few possibilities, including to avoid embarrassment. If your doppelganger’s writing is rejected, no one at work will know and your mother will still believe you’re the next Michael Chrichton (Jeffery Hudson), Julian Barnes (Dan Kavanagh), or Robert Silverberg, the latter being so prolific that he has published under more than 20 different names, including, my personal favorite, L.T. Woodward MD. We should all have Mr. Silverberg’s problems.

As well, I suspect many pseudonymous writers just enjoy a good hoax. They certainly put a lot of effort into it. A simple sobriquet like ‘George Eliot’ isn’t good enough for VerbSap's authors. No, the fictitious names I see are more along the lines of Antoinette Mafawny Higgenbotham. This takes thought.

I picture you folks chuckling to yourselves as you sit at your desks, bathed in the glow of your monitors.

“Higgenstone, Higgenburger, Higgenbong…Higgenbotham!”

Sometimes pseudonyms are the safer choice. If you’re avoiding harassment by all means, use an assumed name. If it says “Dan Brown” or “John Grisham” on your driver's license, invent away. And if you’re an A-list author anonymously testing your true mettle in the fiercely competitive world of online literary magazines, good luck to you.

But, here’s a thought for the rest of you: If you’d put the same effort into your writing as you do into creating elaborate personas, you wouldn’t need a pen name. Your work would be so darned good that you’d want to sign it.

Be brave. You're talented. Your mother says so.

Footnote: The Editor likes a good ruse herself. Her work has been published under a variety of names, but not, to date, Higgenbotham.

May 25, 2005

Kerouac Rules

This was “experimental writing” week. Everyone sent me quirky little pieces with funky formatting, cool-sounding word reversals and poetic phrases that were almost, but not quite, actual sentences.

Everyone. Really. I’ve read 10 of these things in the last two days alone.

I don’t know what brought it on. Maybe people watched the end of the Gormenghast Trilogy and were inspired. Maybe North Americans are in that heady pre-summer state when they can picture themselves frolicking at the beach, but haven’t yet had to wear a bathing suit in public.

What’s clear is this: You are The Pablo Picasso of The Writing World. You are Jack Kerouac, reincarnated, writing 24-hours-a-day on an endless roll of paper, without benefit of spell-checker or periods because, hey, they only slow you down.

First of all, anyone taking the drugs Kerouac used to stay awake should read this article in The New Yorker. Second, experimental is fine. Experimental is great. Experimental rocks my world, and could conceivably make it into the magazine if it follows the editor’s chief requirement: Tell me a story.

Tell me a story I can understand in clear, concise prose and you’re in. It’s that simple. Structure, grammar, spelling—they’re all just tools to help you get the story across. If you can tell it without them, that’s wonderful. You have my deepest admiration.

Truth be told, I’m a little jealous. I bet you even look good in a bathing suit.

May 20, 2005

Sense Appeal

Descriptions are tricky.

You like describing hair, you lot, and odors—many, many odors, of which I in my olfactory ignorance had been blissfully unaware. And, when I edit out the particularly rank ones, you say, “but so-and-so told me that my writing should appeal to the senses.” Well, so-and-so is half-right.

Writing should appeal to the senses, or, like a world without coffee and chocolate, it would be flat and unappealing. But writing that something smells isn’t enough; it has to smell for a reason.

“No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value,” writes Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide To Narrative Craft, a volume that should be in your bookcase, if not on your desk next to a well-thumbed copy of The Elements of Style.

As you, the writer, sift through the myriad potential descriptions at your disposal, “You must select the significant,” Burroway says.

For instance, "She was thin and blond, with long legs and spidery fingers,” is a list of body parts, and not a very original one at that. But, “She had the fine-boned translucence of an anorexic, and her fingers were always moving, always tapping, or scratching, or picking through her hair,” gives a sense of the person behind the figure.

There’s nothing wrong with saying "the sea air is briny" or "the swamp is sulfurous," but a few adjectives go a long way, particularly when you’re describing noxious fumes.

The scent of chocolate you can go on about, and on, and on, and I probably won’t cut a word of it.

May 10, 2005

The Weekly Tally

A selection from the editor's in-box:

Five separate references to nipples. Erect nipples, eager nipples, nipples with places to go and people to meet. To be precise, five references to sets of nipples, which makes ten nipples in all. That’s a lot of nipples.

Maybe it's nipple season. Maybe there’s a convention. I don’t know. But, if nipples are going to congregate, the grammarian in me says we’ll be needing a collective noun for them. A nimble of nipples? A nimbus?

An array of other body parts. Apparently it was porn week and nobody told me. For once in my life I was overdressed.

Seriously, people. We’re talking 2,000-word stories here. A little sex goes a long way. Try They don't blush like I do.

A string of densely-written lyrical offerings that would make Isabel Allende weep. Very, very nice.

Zero gratuitous violence. Zero. You listened. You really listened (Words To The Wise). I’m so excited…yes, there, my nipples actually are starting to dance.

And that makes twelve.

May 8, 2005

In A Flash

Lately, we’ve been inundated by stories of less than 1,000 words.

Here’s what I want to say about flash fiction: It’s not an excuse to write badly.

Odds are, if you haven’t been working on your craft; if you haven’t been thinking about form and structure, characterization and point of view; if you haven’t been writing and rewriting until your fingertips are sore and your vision blurry, then your flash fiction won’t be any better than your long work.

Years ago, short shorts were called vignettes. Hemingway wrote them, and beautifully.

"While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed o jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody." (The First Forty-Nine)

My guess is that Hemingway didn’t write vignettes because they were easier to write than longer works, although they might have made a refreshing change. My guess is he wrote them because he had a story to tell and he thought a short form best suited the telling.

So, unless your flash fiction is moving and introduces characters we care about, unless each and every word belongs, rework it.

Hemingway claimed to have rewritten a portion of A Farewell To Arms 39 times. An interviewer asked what it was that had him stumped. “Getting the words right,” he said.

May 6, 2005

Words To The Wise

Three reasons your work hasn’t made it into the magazine:

1) It’s pointlessly violent and depressing.

Seriously, people. Up your medication. Take a walk in the park. Have a nice cup of soup. You’re killing me here.

2) Too much “telling,” too little “showing.”


Once upon a time there was a girl called Goldilocks. Her mother told her to stay out of the woods, but Goldilocks wouldn’t listen. She wandered lost through the trees until she came upon a house that that belonged to three bears who were off picking berries while their breakfast cooled. Goldilocks knew she shouldn’t go inside uninvited, but she was tired and hungry so she went in anyway. She found a chair that suited her, ate a bowl of porridge and fell asleep. When she woke up she was staring into the face of a big brown bear, which gave her quite a fright. She ran all the way home and never was naughty again.

Showing with a little bit of Telling:

The room smelled of beeswax and honey and faintly of damp earth and musk. Motes of dust hung in the air. Through the doorway she could see steam rising from bowls on a wooden table. It climbed in lithe twisting columns like bodies writhing. It would taste good, what was in that bowl. It would taste milky and sweet. She bit her lip and tentatively stroked the fabric of her dress where it stretched taut across the flat of her belly. She stepped across the threshold.

Is it hot in here or is it just me?

3) It’s too wordy.

Lush is good. There’s a place for lush. Just not here.

Think Art Deco, not Rococo.

Think drinking cool water from the tap in your bare feet after a good hard run, versus downing a Cosmopolitan while you’re squeezed into panty hose, balancing on Manolo Blahniks, and listening to some guy with an earring talk about the architectural muscularity of baroque forms.

Think fireflies and sunburn and the flat taste of popsicle sticks—which hasn’t changed since you were a kid—turn off the T.V. and write some startling prose.

Delete the redundant words. Leave only the ones that sing.


May 2, 2005

On Dasher

Flouting U.S. convention, I’ve been using a hyphen with spaces on either side ( - ) in the place of the double hyphen (--) or em dash (—) where appropriate. But this has troubled some of our writers, who, it must be said, can be a remarkably fussy lot when it comes to punctuation and layout.

To be honest, before last week I’d never used an em dash. Never. Not once. I thought they were for the rich folk up on the hill, with their fancy cars and their fancy punctuation. Down in the valley we made due with parentheses, minus signs and colons.

But, having blithely rejected pleas for greater uniformity in the use of commas, I will now bow to the crowd and formally revise The VerbSap Editorial Policy to allow for the use of em dashes.

This is a) because I respect our contributors’ opinions and b) because I finally figured out how to make them with a QWERTY keyboard. (Hit Control Alt and the minus sign or hold down Alt and type 0151.)

Also, I studied up on when to use them. To summarize for those of us who were sick or surfing the day they covered them in school, em dashes indicate a sudden break in thought, separating text more forcefully than a comma. They can also introduce text that emphasizes or explains a sentence’s main clause.

  • Madonna—yes, the singer—has yet another book coming out in June.
  • It’s called Lotsa de Casha—you can’t make this stuff up.

Don’t send me “gotcha” email; I know they have other uses. But the entry for dashes in my style manual is three and half pages long. Three and half, and in tiny type too.

I’d rather read Lotsa de Casha.

May 1, 2005

That's Nice Dear

I rejected five stories this week for being “too nice.”

That’s awful, isn’t it?

I don’t really have a problem with “nice.” Nice is good. Hallmark Greeting cards are nice; I buy them. I pet dogs and small children; that’s nice. I once purchased a copy of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the epitome of nice, and I’ve read not one, not two, but three books by Robert James Waller all the way through. I even cried.

So why did I knock back those stories?

There’s nice that makes you sigh because everything came out all right and you weren’t sure that it would. The lovers are reunited. The lost puppy is found. The bad, bad man gets his comeuppance. That kind of nice I don’t mind, in small doses and fine prose.

But there’s another shade of nice that doesn’t allow for the possibility that anything bad could happen. I won’t care if the lovers get back together if I knew from the start that they would. I need the storm before I can appreciate the quiet. And if you only have 2,000 words to tell me about it, I’d rather you just describe the storm.

A good story needs tension as much, if not more, than it needs resolution. At the top of that too-nice category are neatly resolved stories tied up in bright pink bows. Fight the urge to force a conclusion. A happy ending is O.K.—I don’t want to have to reach for the Prozac every time I read—but remember, life is messy.

Little Women is a classic because Jo doesn’t marry Laurie and Beth dies, not because Mr. March comes home in the end. And that book, that book is nice.

April 30, 2005

The Weekly Tally

Three submissions involving cat pee. Really. Three of them.

Six submissions about cheating wives or wives suspected of cheating or wives who considered cheating but changed their minds at the last minute but their husbands found out and got angry anyway and it really stresses their marriage and in the end they figure they might as well have cheated because then at least they would have gotten to have some fun before the yelling started.

One submission about a husband who cheats but his wife forgives him. That one was pretty good.

Two submissions written in Southern dialect. Regarding writing in dialect, don't write in dialect. I’m from New York. Sometimes I say “New Yawk.” Not very often though. And if I say “New Yawk,” I still spell it New York. But, you, you could be the next Stephen Crane.

Also, Elvis is making a comeback.

April 27, 2005

Comma Chameleon

It is unseemly how attached you are to commas.

I take them out, you put them back in. I take them out again, and you write saying, “Everything looks wonderful on my page, except for the missing commas in paragraphs 4, 6, 11 and 13.”

They are not missing. They have been sent to live with a nice couple on a farm in Vermont where they have streams to swim in and rabbits to chase.

When I was little I was such a goody-two-shoes that my parents would pay me $1 every time I got in trouble at school. I made $1.50 in first grade, but then I lost $0.50 for good behavior. The point is, every day I try to break one rule to make sure that I’m thinking independently and not slavishly following convention. Often, that rule is drawn from the partial list below of standard uses for the comma:

  • Before a conjunction that joins the independent clauses in a compound sentence, as in: This little pig goes to market, and this one stays home.
  • After a dependent clause that comes at the beginning of a complex sentence, as in: Even though the little pig goes to market, he forgets to bring home the milk.
  • In between three or more words or phrases in a series, as in: What the little pig did bring home was a six-pack, corn chips, and a nasty video in a brown paper bag.
  • After mild interjections and introductory words at the beginnings of sentences, as in: Oh, that pig knows how to party. No, I will not party with him.

So, you see, I know where the commas go, but, on occasion, on a whim, as an act of defiance, of rebellion even, I simply choose to ignore it.

April 20, 2005

Photo "Keyboard" (Cropped) courtesy of Lynne Lancaster, Knott End, U.K.
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Winter Tally: We'll Always Have Paris
Well, Well, Well
A Few Good Words
Rare Gem With Spectacular Views
The Tension Is Killing Me
Vive La France
The earth is blue like an orange
The Joy of Semicolons
Many Fun Afternoons
Fall Down, Stand Up
The Times They Are A-Changin'
I Reject Your Reality
Greetings, Earthlings
The Weekly Tally
The Weekly Tally
Call Me Dick
Sing Me Muskrat Love
American Idol
We Interrupt This Program
The Weekly Tally
Missing Nancy Drew
Lie Down, Old Dog
Double Trouble
The Party's Over
The Weekly Tally
What's In A Name
Kerouac Rules
Sense Appeal
The Weekly Tally
In A Flash
Words To The Wise
On Dasher
That's Nice Dear
The Weekly Tally
Comma Chameleon
About the Editor

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