Roundtable: The Silliest Thing…

Andy Duncan

I spent a big chunk of the past month, mostly on weekends, in e-mail conversation with Jim Goddard about his line-edits of my new collection, and I honestly can say that not one of his 204 notes was stupid. On the contrary, one of the last changes I made was to add a thank-you “to Jim Goddard, whose meticulous line-edits made this a better book.”

On the other hand, I find in hindsight that some of my own replies to his edits were pretty stupid, including, “Let’s leave the alliteration alone” — which I thought a boffo laff at the time.

I have been lucky throughout my fiction career in having some of the best editors in the business.  (Hi, Gardner!).  My undergraduate fiction-writing teacher, William Price Fox, was not so lucky.  He told us once that during the line-edits of a train story that began, “Brother, have you ever rode the Southern from Atlanta to Columbia?”, his editor, convinced that no reader would recognize such exotic place names, changed the sentence to read, “Brother, have you ever rode the Southern from Atlanta, Georgia, to Columbia, South Carolina?”  Reading the two sentences aloud after class, listening to their different sounds and their different shapes in my mouth, helped teach me rhythm.

I have to add that Fox returned one of my stories with nothing written on it but three words atop the first page:  “Try a story.”  That wasn’t stupid, though; he was right.

Since Liz mentioned Weird Tales, I might as well tell my own story of Weird Tales confusion.  When I was just starting out, and George Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer were co-editing the magazine, one of my manuscripts got lost in their slush.  When I queried, I got a quick apology and was asked to re-submit.  So I did, and promptly got a form rejection slip from George.  I shrugged and sent the story somewhere else.  A few weeks later, I received a happy acceptance letter from Darrell — as the first copy had been on his desk the whole time, and he was unaware that George had rejected it.  I didn’t tell him, either.

More to the point, one of my Clarion West classmates probably won’t mind me retelling this story.  Late that summer, doubtless fed up by my incessant nattering about characterization, he announced to the room: “After I’m finished with a novel, as my last act, I spend a day going in and sprinkling around some character stuff.”  I think he said it just to see me levitate and hang there in midair, sputtering.

One of my creative-writing professors in graduate school, though always very supportive of my manias, read one of my alternate-history stories and confessed:  “I gotta tell you, I just don’t see the point in alternate histories. ‘What if it had happened this way?’ Well, who cares? It didn’t.”  (Full disclosure:  This was not John Kessel.)

One of my creative-writing classmates read the first draft of my medieval Vatican story “From Alfano’s Reliquary,” which was full of words such as “reliquary,” and told the class, “I just can’t see an editor taking a chance on an unknown writer’s manuscript that’s this hard to read.”

Another classmate, having read the same story, demanded to know what I had against Christianity.  Did I actually reply, “You, mainly,” or did I only think it?

Another of my creative-writing classmates waylaid me in the hallway one day, seething.  He leaned in close to my face and said:  “I’m wise to your Southern act.”

But the only thing said in my graduate school workshops that truly rankled me, and continues to rankle me in workshop settings, is this routine preface to comments: “I don’t normally read this sort of thing, but.”  I always wanted to say, “Well, you’re reading it now, so deal with it.”

In my newspaper days, I once tried in vain to convince an editor that “dachshund” was a common word for a breed of dog.  I pronounced the word aloud a dozen times, and added, “You know, a wiener dog!” while inscribing its shape with my hands, to no avail:  She’d never heard of such an obscure term, nor of such a specialty breed, and was convinced our readers wouldn’t recognize them either.  I believe she changed it to “dog.”

Yet another newspaper editor (this will date me), when she had wire duty, kept putting crop-circle stories in the paper, in the heyday of that flap, with any note of skepticism edited away, because she was convinced this was our best evidence yet for extraterrestrials on Earth.  Tired of my protests, she thrust at me a wire photo of one circle and said, “No human agency could have created that.”

I replied, “Oh, I don’t know.  We managed the moon landing and the polio vaccine; I imagine that if we tried, we could mash down cornstalks in a circle!”

What finally drove me away from newspaper reporting was being handed monumentally dumb story ideas and forced to report and write them, simply because I was outranked by the people whose monumentally dumb ideas they were.  One example always comes to mind this time of year:  “Here’s a fun idea for a Thanksgiving feature.  Let’s write about what the factories do with the parts of the turkey that aren’t eaten.”  Guess what the answer to that question is.  Guess how much fun it is.

I seldom pass along any dumb things my students say, as I say at least as many dumb things to them.  I will offer this, for what it’s worth:  A colleague informed me the other day that she just had read, in a student essay, her favorite first sentence of the semester.  The paper began:  “Imagine going to the bathroom.”

Rachel Swirsky

I feel bad picking on this because I’ve quoted it before, but I can’t think of much else to contribute. When I was first applying to grad schools, I had an interview with the head of an MFA program. I asked what their policy was on science fiction and he said, “Well, we’re probably not the place to come if you want help with that. We don’t know much about it.”

I said, “OK, but what about more literary science fiction. Like feminist science fiction–Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy.”

He said, “Oh, well feminist science fiction isn’t really science fiction.”

I should note that it was just a moment of silliness in an otherwise good interview, and that he was smart and the program was cool. But it does make me laugh.

Andy Duncan

Rachel’s story reminds me that an acquaintance was in an African-American fiction class with a Big Name Writer at a Major Public University.  My acquaintance said she wanted to do her project on Octavia Butler.  The BNW said no: “Butler doesn’t count as an African-American writer. She’s a science fiction writer.”

Cecelia Holland

Maybe the mark of a conforming mind is they keep the edges neat.

N. K. Jemisin

I’ve never heard anything stupid.  No one ever says stupid things to me. I’m fortunate in that I seem to solely attract… people who… impeccable
judgment… ::snork:: no one would ever… ::BWAHAHAHAHA:: OK, sorry, I tried.


4 thoughts on “Roundtable: The Silliest Thing…

  • December 21, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I once wrote to a famous author and offered to bring several of his early books back into print. Since I proposed to reset rather than photo-reproduce the texts, I indicated this would give him the chance to make any changes he felt desirable. He wrote back outraged I should think any of his work would need changes. All his books were perfect as they stood and he would rather not allow a philistine like me to publish any of them.

  • December 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I once had a physics student argue that gravity on Venus had to be stronger than Earth’s because it was closer to the sun.

  • December 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    As a neophyte writer I am at the mercy of editors. I recently submitted a story in which the subtext dealt with college level math and included an alien name with a superscript number in it. The editor suggested that it just looked sloppy and that words should only contain letters. When I provided several examples of similar words by some giants in the field he replied that he had dozens of stories to edit and didn’t have time to argue over a single word that really wasn’t that important anyway.

  • December 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    If you’re discussing teachers…when I was in grade school, the teacher wrote “PENISULA” on the blackboard and we took turns mispronouncing it. It was over twenty years before I realized is was supposed to be “PENINSULA” with another “N”…

    As for editors…well, probably the silliest thing an editor told me is that I have talent.


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