Woodlawn Miscellany

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart

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Revelations of 2013: “At any rate”

I always find myself running across this problem where I glance back over an email and notice that I’ve used the word “Anyway” three or four times as a way to gracefully shift from one topic to another. I hate the repetition, yet it sounds even weirder if I don’t have a transition word there at all. 

A couple months ago it hit me: “At any rate” is the perfect “Anyway” substitute. It means basically the same thing and manages to sound both different and even a touch more sophisticated. I’ve given it a test run in a few conversations and it’s started to make its way into more and more emails, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. By the time this thing has run its course, it’s likely to be as game-changing as the time I started using “as well” in place of its more pedestrian cousins “also” and “too.”

Join the revolution with me!

Filed under At any rate As well Too Anyway Linguistics email language grammer usage writing

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Bad Writing: Sex Scene Edition

I picked up a copy of James Ellroy’s Because the Night last week at Powell’s. Much to my embarrassment, I’d never read Ellroy before and was excited to roll up my sleeves, pour a tumbler of rye and see what he was all about. After all, as a devotee of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it seemed like this book should be right in my wheelhouse. 

I was wrong.

I had a hard time pushing my way through it, and even considered abandoning it a few times. Now that I’ve finally put it to rest, I’ve done a little research and found that Because the Night is one of his earliest novels and most of the reviews on Goodreads seem to indicate it’s not just me who didn’t enjoy the ride.

There are a lot of quibbles I have with the book, but my main one — the one that nearly made me put the book down for good — happened on page 157, during a sex scene between the cop Lloyd Hopkins and the prostitute Linda Wilhite. Here it is:

"Yes." Lost in the word’s repetition, he let his lips move lower, until "yes" crescendoed into "Now, please, now!"

Lloyd obeyed, joining their two halves in a single abrupt motion, then pulling back to a sustaining movement as Linda coiled herself around him and pushed upward. He moved slowly; she with the unrestrained fervor of a graceful animal exploding with gracelessness, forming a point-counterpoint give and take that battered awareness of technique to death. Then he began to move with her fury, and the cop/whore entity pushed itself into a wordless, gasping trance.

Now, as a writer, I’ll be the first to admit that sex scenes are hard — so hard that I’m sometimes tempted to write around them rather than risk coming up with something embarrassing. 

And that’s the problem with the above excerpt. It seems like Ellroy was so concerned with not writing something embarrassing that he dropped any specific description of what’s actually happening. Instead of describing the actual moment of congress, he goes with the oddly clinical “joining their two halves in a single abrupt motion, then pulling back in a sustaining movement.” He could be describing anything there. And if you didn’t have the surrounding context, you’d never even guess he’s writing about sex. 

A little later, he ventures into the realm of specificity a bit more, but the results are equally unsatisfying. “[W]ith the unrestrained fervor of a graceful animal exploding with gracelessness, forming a point-counterpoint give and take that battered awareness of technique to death.” I’m not sure if he’s trying to use a metaphor to artfully dodge description, but if he is it’s mixed at best. Exploding, point-counterpoint, battered — none of those add up to a cohesive metaphorical image. When I read the passage closely, I think I can understand what’s happening, but it seems to me the point of a sex scene shouldn’t be to put the burden of understanding on the reader. Either tell me what’s going on or don’t. 

And then the scene rounds out with that goddawful phrase “the cop/whore entity pushed itself into a wordless, gasping trance.” I mean, seriously, what the hell is a cop/whore entity? It sounds like some kind of Dr. Moreau experiment. Which is pretty much the polar opposite of sexy.

I’m not trying to bag on Ellroy (though I just did, I guess). I haven’t read enough of his work to make any kind of serious judgment call. But I really do hope that Because the Night turns out to be one of his weaker novels. Hopefully, the next one won’t have a clunker sex scene like that one.

Filed under James Ellroy Detective fiction Writing Sex scenes Novels Because the night Crime fiction

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My Arrested Development Essay: Behind the Scenes

This past week, I was pleased to announce that an essay I’d written appeared on one of my favorite sites, The Bygone Bureau. All they do there is publish really smart, enjoyable nonfiction, so the fact that they thought my piece was BB material, had me thrilled. Since you can check the piece out at the site, I just thought I’d take this space to add two quick notes that might help flesh out what you see in the final product.

1. While my essay is about the strange power Arrested Development had in my wife’s and my lives, I think most couples have — or should have — something like that, a talisman that serves as a gentle us-against-the-world reminder. For some, that role is most likely filled by children. For us, at that point in our lives, it was a TV show. 

2. I come to realize one of the reasons why BB publishes such great writing is they’re very good editors. I was working with Kevin Nguyen, who gave my piece a thorough going-over. One of the main points he raised was that the framing device I’d used to start and finish the piece wasn’t working. Fortunately, he was able to see the merits of the piece despite the shaky intro, which is something not a lot of editors would be able to do. So a big thanks to Kevin for helping make the piece a lot better than it was when it started out.

Anyway, if you haven’t yet read it, I hope you’ll check it out. I’m quite proud of it and pleased to see it’s found such a good home at The Bygone Bureau.

Filed under Arrested Development Bygone Bureau Nonfiction How Arrested Development Saved My Relationship Kevin Nguyen Writing Essay Writing writing process

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Thank you, Chinua Achebe

Not much to say here, other than Things Fall Apart is one of those rare books that sticks with me years (decades?!) after I first read it. In honor of the passing of a great writer, I pass along here my favorite quote from TFA, the words of which are terrifying, mysterious and true all at once:

"I am Evil Forest. I kill a man on the day that his life is sweetest to him."

Filed under Chinua Achebe Evil Forest Things Fall Apart Writing Writers Fiction Novel

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Worst Rejection Letter Ever

It’s indulgent and unseemly for writers to talk about rejection — perhaps even bad luck in some circles. Listening to someone prattle on about it is like watching someone give a wedding toast where they only talk about themselves. And the fact is, 99.9% of the time, rejection is totally boring.

But every once in a while, a rejection letter comes along that’s noteworthy. Here’s one I got last month (with identifying information redacted):

Dear Giano,
Thanks for letting me read W******. Lately, I’ve been submitting a lot of work myself and have found that personalized and flattering rejection notes tend to be paradoxically more discouraging and invite the sort of neurotic over-analysis that is generally not in any way healthy or productive, and so I hope you’ll accept this 100% neutral and non-encouraging (but also non-discouraging!) note as an indication that we will not be running your submission in B*****, but this choice of mine doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a person or as a writer, and is instead the result of a totally fucked up and subjective system which we all, for some reason, agree to perpetuate. Thanks for thinking of us.
It’s clearly a form letter, as are most rejections. And yet, it’s clear the editor put a lot of thought and effort into crafting it.
Since receiving it, I’ve been trying to decide if this is a genuine effort on the part of the editor to avoid the anodyne one-liner that most lit magazines spit out. If so, it somehow manages to be both annoying in its studied neutrality and oddly condescending. 
The other possibility I’ve begun to kick around is that this is a calculated effort to mess with me. Not me in particular, but any writer who happens to be unlucky enough to submit to this publication. How else to explain the editor’s reminder that this “choice of mine doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a person”? I didn’t think it reflected negatively on me as a person until you said it didn’t. It’s like whenever someone says “No offense but” or “With all due respect,” you can be sure you probably don’t want to hear what follows.
Plus, there has to be some kind of literary distinction for a line like: “I hope you’ll accept this 100% neutral and non-encouraging (but also not discouraging!) note as an indication that we will not be running your submission.” Maybe the Most-Self-Obvious-Sentence Award. Or perhaps Distinguished-Merit-in-the-Field-of-Saying-Something-Simple-with-as-Many-Words-as-Possible. 
I’ve been submitting my writing for nearly twenty years. For the first ten years, I never even knew what it was like to get an acceptance letter. By this point in my travels, I’m immune to the formulaic rejections that usually entail one line, “Thanks, but no thanks and good luck.” There’s a certain numbing comfort in that type of anonymous rejection. Maybe that’s why this one really stuck in my craw.
Rejection is hard. It sucks. And all writers know the taste of it. In the end, it’s best if it’s administered like the proverbial bandaid - removed quickly and soon forgotten. If you can’t take it, you probably shouldn’t be writing.

Filed under Writing Writing Process Rejection Rejection Letters Writers Literary Magazines Literary Journals

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