RIDGEWOOD ECSTATIC

A brown flicker by the lights. A nest gnawed through worn acoustic paneling. One, then two birds alight on twin fluorescent bars suspended far above Food Dimensions’ supermarket floor. Below, swaying, pitching, rolling and yawing, tile gullies gone grey-yellow from grubby footfalls and spills, extend, extend!; between cliff walls of chipped enamel bulge edible geometries of blue, yellow, faun and beige.

The birds curl thread claws over the edge, dip, fall, plunge and propel themselves upward, two dark darts swoop among the cans, seize soft grubs of masticated grain, grip and tug pieces from under suffocating see-through skin; and leave behind feathers and traces of beak.

An underworld undergirds this marketplace, or rather, under grids it, radiating aisles outward. From sufficient altitude, from an avian perspective, one would hardly see much difference. A triangle bisected and striated by lines of black asphalt instead of a brittle white metal that is something close but far cheaper than steel. And closer still the asphalt flows and gleams at intervals with pressed steel shells, egg shells, cradling combusting liquids in a cast-iron crucible. To the automobile and its driver – when in the condition of being a driver – the city is rendered as necropolis, a tomb world of clipped decisions, direction, distances and long-dead Dutchmen who have moldered past the point of matter, and all that remains are names. Onderdonk.

And it goes on and on in this vein…

Tiered Rejection Responses

I often see discussion about whether or not there really are tiered rejections at literary magazines. There are! Since I received a rejection letter this morning, I thought I’d share what I know as an editor. For ours, we use a simple content management system that allows us to collect and respond to submissions. It’s called Submissions Manager. I do not know how easy it is to customize the replies, but in our case we have four levels of rejection. Agni and One-Story also seem to use Submissions Manager (looks like One Story’s webmaster actually developed the software.). If a literary magazine’s submission page is plain with a small login in the top lefthand corner, and a registration page in the center; you are interfacing with (a/the/Mr./Ms?) Submissions Manager.

After I download and read a story and decide what I think about it, I have to switch the story’s status. I have four choices if I want to reject it, otherwise I can ‘accept’ or ‘withdraw’ it. (I don’t know what the accept button does!)

A standard rejection looks like this (ours is worded slightly differently):

Dear James McGirk:

Thank you for sending “The Godling of Greater Kailash.” Your work received careful consideration here.

We’ve decided this manuscript isn’t right for us, but we wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Kind regards,

The Editors

That was from AGNI. I use this letter for almost all the submissions I read. Doesn’t mean anything really, just that I can’t use the story. Could mean it’s terrible — although most stories I get aren’t, and seem like they’ve been workshopped. Usually just means that the text didn’t grab me. More taste anything else. But if there is some horrid flaw, i.e. if the story is missing an arc, or it’s written in a different language I will send a standard rejection. But it really is almost always taste. (Or the aforementioned missing arc – and this can be emotional, or language based– the text just has to do something to me.)

The next stage is a second tier ‘nice’ rejection. I send more second-tier rejections than I should, the big difference being that we encourage these people to submit again (we are enormously backed up, so wanting to see anything more should be taken as a compliment). If I send one of these it means I enjoyed what I read. The story might not be perfect, but something about it was exciting. Here’s an example one from One-Story I received this morning (or at least I think it’s a 2nd tier rejection — these damn things stir up such conflicting emotions):

Dear James McGirk:

Thank you for sending us “The Godling of Greater Kailash”. We really enjoyed this piece, but we didn’t feel it was right for One Story.

We hope that you will continue to send us your work.

Sincerely,

The Editors of One Story

Now, I have neither sent out nor received a “very nice” third-tier rejection. These really are the same as the second-tier rejections, only more encouraging still… I don’t really know why I would send one of these instead of a “personal” 4th level or encouraging 2nd. Here is ours:

Thank you for sending us your work.

Unfortunately this particular manuscript was not the right fit for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

We look forward to reading more.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art

I guess if we actually did want to see more, I could send one of these. But I would still rather send a fourth-tier rejection. These are just plain empty fields. I have used this feature to personally respond while rejecting a story. I basically said the story in question was great but it was too long, and I would love to see a shorter story. I published the second story he sent me.

Dear XXX

XXXXXX

Sincerely,

XXXXXX

And so there you have it… the four tiers of rejection….

Takeaways from Second Semester of my MFA

  • After experimenting with a new medium (digital video), I remain convinced that writing conveys character and complexity better than any other I’ve encountered thus far (and I’m including CAVE writing in that). But after watching a couple of television series back-to-back on pirate television stations, I think the best plot-writers are probably working in television these days.
  • Developing a more rigorous reading process – specifically re-reading stories – will be the next big challenge of my writing career. For decades I’ve read like a journalist, sifting swiftly through text to find nuggets of information. But if I’m going to learn how to really draft my own work I have to learn how to slow down and process what I’m reading. I will plunge myself into the great works of short fiction this summer, as recommended by my workshop leader – DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver, Rudyard Kipling, Sommerset Maughm, Paul Bowles, Isaac Babel… am also going to plunder from next semester’s short story seminar whose reading list includes:
    Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy; Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Forty Stories; “Ward No. 6”; Joseph Conrad: Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad; The Shadow-Line; Edith Wharton: Roman Fever and Other Stories; “Bunner Sisters;” Willa Cather: Collected Stories; D. H. Lawrence: The Complete Short Stories; Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories; Philip Roth: Nemesis.

  • I will skip the Willa Cather.
  • The “multiple scripts” metaphor (imaging different, conflicting perceptions of a scenario) for writing dialogue.
  • Transcribing while editing video and cutting when things get boring.

    More to come…

  • The Q & A: Lorin Stein

    This month editorial control of the Paris Review, a pre-eminent American literary magazine, changed hands from Philip Gourevitch to Lorin Stein, now a former senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (and an occasional contributor to this magazine). While at FSG, Stein made his name finding and refining such authors as Elif Batuman, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Denis Johnson, Sam Lipsyte, Richard Price and James Wood. He also worked on FSG’s recent translations of fiction by Roberto Bolaño and personally translated from the French “The Mystery Guest” by Gregoire Bouillier… [LINK]

    Three Minute Fiction: JOYOUS TRANSACTION

    NPR Contest Image

    We’re supposed to do this with yarrow stalks, but “coins,” he says, “are more indicative of global currency flow.”

    I stand to leave. Scraping my chair back. He shakes his head and swirls his coffee: “more modern,” he says.

    I sit down again. Take a sip of mine.

    Given the swirling streams of capital – well, I get it; as a modern soothsayer coins aren’t a bad idea.

    But I’m not asking about money.

    He pushes aside his Straits Times, revealing an I-Ching and three U.S. quarters. He slides his coins to me. I shake and fling. Coins flash, fall across the table six times in succession. He tabulates my score: Heads-heads-tails. (Twice) Heads-tails-tails. (Once) Heads-heads-tails. (Twice again) Heads-tails-tails….

    He points at the coins and beckons. I slide them over. He shakes his head. “First: my fee.” I slide that over too. He nods and turns the book around for me to see:

    58. Tui, The Joyous

    Lakes resting one on the other:
    The image of the Joyous.
    Thus the superior man joins with his friends
    For discussion and practice.

    The moment of discovery! My muscles flinch involuntarily: “That’s all?” I say, my voice a squeak.

    “You understand why you do this now?”

    He’s so wise, that crumpled grey suit, those yellowing plastic frames. Enlightenment is bearing down on us: I feel it. I squish my palms together, and choose my reply very, very carefully. “For fun?”

    “You don’t fully understand.”

    “I don’t,” I say, pressing my palms harder. “Tell me! Please!”

    He picks my coffee cup up and dumps it into his; brown liquid floods, soaking the paper: “that mindless moment of exchange,” he says, as it drips on my pants, and he gets up and leaves.

    Prose Poem

    From Wikipedia

    BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT – Myrtle Ave.

    Not every nexus needs glamour but where Myrtle and Wycoff Avenues meet there is – of a seedy sort. Where the M- and L-lines cross, where Ridgewood, Queens slopes down to meet Bushwick, Brooklyn, lies the densest concentration of beauty supply stores in New York City. Here, for the discerning consumer of polyvinyl wigs or discount hair dyes, is a bonanza of buying opportunity; but for the rank amateur choking on fragrant ketone contrails, these are a rare opportunity to spot postmodern potions shorn of marketing magic. Row after row, they reduce to bare bottles stacked on stamped steel.

    Reasonable prices diluted through volume. Cash accepted gladly. Cards keyed reluctantly in on a gooey pad, the line behind chitters and taps booted toes.

    North. Transverse. Traverse, bags of swag rustle and crinkle. What had been predominantly white semaphore extends bluing, vanishing in a blurred dot of cars, people and buying opportunity. Primary colors appear. Discount department stores become big box banks; taco stands become Taco Bell; bodegas become 7-11s; Food Dimensions, A&P; arm-linked families of Puerto Ricans give way to jostling Italian teens who seem threatening until they clamber into cars, leased, but luxury marquees all the same.

    A triangle square; benches for resting, inset, a World War I memorial hemmed in by fluttering flags (billings, not battle colors). Christmas lights coil around railings, cycles streak by, Teutonic surnames carved on columnar base, symbolic squad teeters on top, its perimeter observed by crenulated balconies; the gothic script stamped but fading on the apartment awnings below.

    Then up, past Pizza Hut, and the porn store, to another transverse, Freshpond Road, marking the end of the BID, the beginning of Maspeth and a hypotenuse back to the beginning of Myrtle.

    ~JAMES MCGIRK (Group II)

    Feral City Geopolitics and Chronology

    Indo-Pak Border dustplume

    Port Lightning would have been an important pitstop along the Silk Road or an alternate sea route. During the immediate pre-history of Feral City, the Island would have been played a prominent role during the Iran-Iraq war and Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. As the story progresses (1989-1999), the island would have been at least a refueling depot during the first gulf war. One possible partial model for Chiragh Pattan is Diego Garcia, an airbase and naval port owned by the United Kingdom, approximately 1000 miles south of Ceylon.

    From looking at major island city states (Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Monaco etc), almost all are just off the coast of a conjunction between two or more big cities. In this vein, Port Lightning might be a few miles off the coast of Karachi – a major Pakistani city with approximately 12mm people.

    Karachi

    Arvind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations has its shortcomings, I think there’s something disingenuous about the way he portrays the subaltern – where’s the horror? – and he isn’t much of a prose poet, plus he’s mindlessly anti-BJP, but he does have a nicely articulated chronology of a made-up Indian resort town between 1987 and 1991 (i.e. between the assassinations of the Gandhis). Takeaways: foreign remittances, city corporations, and the proliferation of satellite television.

    Here’s mine (very much a work in progress):

    CHRONOLOGY

    1989: Khomeini dies. Julian arrives in Port Lightning.
    1990: Gulf War begins. (USS Vincennes might drop by – later when the city starts to erupt in violence I’d like to have a gunboat drop by like). Chapter 5 begins here. Julian is recalled from a school trip when the bombs begin falling.
    1991: Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India.
    1992: End of British rule, beginning of self determination. Treaty ends, colony reverts to local rule.
    1993: WTC bombing.
    1994:
    1995:
    1996: Kabul captured by Taliban. US Special Forces probably begin interdiction.
    1997:
    1998: Iran masses 250,000 troops on Afghan border.
    1999:

    Takeaways from Slushpile Sifting

  • Alzheimer’s and parents’ deaths lose their force as plot devices/ emotion tweakers after the 100th read or so;
  • Plagiarizing premises’ from famous short stories dilutes their power;
  • Using graduate school as a setting or graduate students as characters seems lazy and boring;
  • Plot remains paramount – well-written plotless stories dominate slushpiles;
  • The ability to convey emotion through words is rare;
  • You get one premise free, the others you have to earn;
  • After completing a draft, figure out what the story is (the story making machinery) and then write it again;
  • Having a PhD in English/CompLit etc. doesn’t mean you can write things people want to read;
  • First Semester MFA Takeaways

  • Remove dust jackets from hardcover books before use;
  • Drafts should be completed and started over from the remembered remnants;
  • “Real writing” takes place over winter break;
  • Anxiety is normal and should be encouraged (i.e. the productive kind);
  • Workshop leaders will continue to confuse first-person narrators with their progenitors — even in graduate school;
  • Writing about one’s homeland is one’s birthright and opens the deepest, most intimate veins of narrative; (Where is my homeland?)
  • Proper literary criticism assumes an author anticipated and intended all undergraduate-level interpretations;
  • Plot problem? Have sex/a gunman enter a room/leave a room;
  • Write with AUTHORITY;
  • Telling is quicker than showing;
  • Columbia MFA work goes in the priority pile (what is the priority pile?);
  • One can assume that strangenesses that don’t quite cohere to a narrative are taken directly from an author’s life.

    More as I think of it….