Month: January 2011

Do You Submit? Really?

Submit? Who does that? Again and again, the more the better. Wimps?  Masochists?  Writers, that’s who. We submit a lot, and when we don’t we tell ourselves that we should. So does that mean we’re submissive?

Words have power, especially for those who use them as tools. Since I began sending out pieces of writing for consideration by editors and publishers (and yes, getting rejections in return), I’ve found myself thinking about the words used for this process. Many publishers have “Submission Guidelines” on their websites. Writers are sometimes advised not to send out multiple submissions. My writing colleagues speak blithely of their “subs” to critique groups and elsewhere.

So what is it about submitting a submission that bothers me?

I think it’s that “sub” business.  Think of other words that begin with it: subterranean, subculture, subordinate, subterfuge, subversive, subjective. There’s something low, sneaky or suspect about them. Let’s see what we can learn from the dictionaries.

The Random House Dictionary gives these definitions of “submit”: 1. To yield in surrender, compliance or obedience, as to a conqueror. 2. To subject (oneself) to imposed conditions, treatment, etc. 3. To refer or present for the approval or decision of another or others.

The OED (online version) has the following: 1. To place oneself under the control of a person in authority or power; to become subject, surrender oneself, or yield to a person or his rule, etc. 2. To yield, surrender, be submissive. 3. To surrender oneself to judgement, criticism, correction, a condition, treatment, etc.

Submit! What a word!

It’s interesting that neither dictionary explicitly mentions the specific meaning that pertains to writers, i.e. putting a piece of work out to a publisher or editor for consideration. The definition that comes closest is the third of the Random House ones:  to refer or present for the approval or decision of another.

Both dictionaries give the etymology of the word “submit” as Latin sub (low) + mittere (to send). Hence, to lower, reduce, yield. It’s clear that submitting something for the approval or decision of another is done from an inferior position. The person doing the submitting is perforce a supplicant.

I think we writers need better words for a process that’s a major part of being a writer. It’s challenging enough already, without all the connotations of lowness, deference, yielding and surrender. I can understand the use of “submit” or “submission” in law, where deference before the authority of courts and the state is inherent, but writing is an act of creation, and the results of this act should not be seen as something that must be presented from a prone position, cringing and grovelling before an all-powerful authority.

Certainly there must be conventions in the dealings between writers and publishers. Certainly writers should observe these conventions and present their work in a professional manner. Yes, rejections are part of the process and we have to deal with them gracefully (most of the time). But I think we can do without words that imbue the whole business with such a negative connotation.

What might be an alternative? The one I favour right now is “offering.”  To offer, instead of to submit. Here is my offering. I present it to you, a fellow human being, standing on my feet, looking you in the eye. You may accept or reject it, but not with your foot on my neck.

Every Garden Needs a Shed

These winter weekends when there’s not much happening in the garden present opportunities to clean out the garden shed. Or, if your garden lacks a shed, to plan and design one.

A garden isn’t complete without a shed, a structure apart from the house and garage, a place where the gardener can be outside and inside at the same time. And, of course, a place to stash tools, pots, bags of bone meal and peat moss, stakes, buckets and spare rocks. I am speaking of true sheds here. Opulent structures featuring upholstered furniture, electricity and plumbing are not sheds. Any place that the gardener cannot enter without removing her duck shoes or changing out of her gardening pants is not a shed.

Until 2007, the only shed in my garden was an ugly little excrescence attached to the garage, a poor excuse of a structure sided with chipboard painted a reddish-brown. Inside was a single sagging shelf, also of chipboard. The door had obviously been repurposed from some interior application. The whole thing was an offence to the eye, but it served its purpose longer than it was ever intended to do.

In the summer of 2007, the garden acquired its present shed, in a corner under the huge maple belonging to the neighbouring yard. It is opposite the two compost heaps, one of which occupies the spot where the former shed used to be.

My Garden Shed, Nov. 2010

This shed is a vast improvement over its predecessor.  It’s sided in cedar, board and batten style. Some of the roof shingles are leftovers from reshingling the house roof years ago; the others are from the old shed — hence the two-tone effect. Cedar shakes would have been ideal, but the plan was to use material already on hand wherever possible. In fact, the roof incorporates some of the chipboard from the old shed, under the shingles. Inside there are several sets of shelves and a little triangular-shaped counter for potting and similar activities. There are handy hooks for hanging hangables, rafters that support an array of stakes and tomato cages, and — best of all — there are three windows, one set of which actually opens. The door is another nice touch, custom-made from cedar boards with a door handle that is actually a suitably shaped piece of driftwood from the beach a ten-minute walk from here.

This shed cost in total only a little more than $1,000 (Cdn) to build. It’s about 8 feet by 10 and was designed and built by my husband. The whole project took less than two months from start to finish.

Now I have plenty of space in which to store garden stuff, with a bit left over for amenities such as a couple of chairs (one  folding). The shed is a little haven in the garden that affords shelter from rain or sun, a place to sit down and have a rest from digging or raking.

Inside the Shed

Maintenance is simple. Once a year, take everything outside and get rid of anything that doesn’t belong or is never used. (That’s a problem with sheds — they can become repositories for junk, which isn’t their purpose. So Christmas ornaments, tires and non-garden tools should be banished from the garden shed and stored in the garage. On the other hand, really large garden items, such as the lawn mower and ladders used for pruning operations are appropriately housed in the garage). Anyway, back to maintenance. When the shed is empty, sweep out the accumulated soil, plant debris and rat poop (yes, there are rats here in paradise). Then put everything back in. Get a cup of coffee or whatever beverage you favour, sit down and admire your outside-inside refuge.

Book Reviews and Readers’ Appetites

In real life, I am a librarian, a cataloguer. I work in the technical services department of a public library, so I see a lot of books. I also work with a lot of book-related cataloguing data. Occasionally something I see in the sloshing sea of books and data (“metadata” we call it these days, but that’s another story altogether), catches the attention of my reader self. Somehow I never seem to be attracted to the latest bestsellers — more likely the bestsellers of some years past, or even ‘worst-sellers’ that have been around for a while. I don’t really go looking for books to read.

Most often I read book reviews after I’ve read the book, seeking out the most convenient ones — on Amazon.com, rather than professional reviews in literary journals or even popular magazines and other reviewing sites. My purpose in doing so is simply to find out what other readers thought of the book in question before I finish with it — a sort of one-way conversation with a community of readers.

I avoid the five-star and one-star reviews, which are mainly uncritical cheerleading or condemnation. The four, three and even two-star reviews tend to be more thoughtful and interesting, demonstrating an interesting dynamic between “professional” reviews and ordinary readers. Take, for instance, the comments on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower. (All right, it’s not at all recent (1995), but the title attracted me, given my gardener’s predilection for blue flowers). This book won the Booker Prize and received glowing commendations in all sorts of media outlets.

Prizes and attention from literary celebrities are wonderful marketing tools for books. Note the proliferation of prizes, awards and medals in the past couple of decades, as books have become commodities. A lot of people, it seems, will buy a book because it’s an award winner (everyone loves a winner) or because it has Oprah’s seal of approval. Not surprisingly, folks who do this expect the book to be a good read. They open it expecting to be entertained, their appetite whetted by the incandescent prose of enthusiastic endorsements.

Often, it seems, the book fails to live up to the reader’s expectations. Many who found The Blue Flower disappointing said, in their own reviews on Amazon, that they bought the book because of the prize and the reviews, but did not expect to find it so challenging. Entertainment, you see, should not be challenging, or require any mental effort on the part of the entertainee.  Laura Miller, commenting on Salon.com, notes that readers value something they call “flow,” which is not generally evaluated by professional reviewers. Writing that flows, says Miller, can be consumed quickly and effortlessly in part because it uses familiar phrases (i.e. cliches) that don’t get in the way of finding out how the story ends. So is flowing prose merely the equivalent of processed food, pap for the uncritical mind?

But back to The Blue Flower (which I actually enjoyed). One three-star reviewer’s comment seems particularly apt. He or she described it as “a novel for other writers to admire [rather] than a book to really enjoy.” What got in the way of many readers’ enjoyment of this book was a certain detachment from the characters which prevented readers from really caring about them, the frequency of untranslated German words and phrases, and what some identified as a consciously awkward style, as though the novel was a bad translation, presumably from German.

Some would say this simply demonstrates that there are literary readers and nonliterary readers. The former appreciate the subtleties and nuances in a book such as The Blue Flower; the latter find them obscure or tedious and prefer a fast, plot-driven read such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

But here is another idea, expressed in a recent posting to the Preservation & Conservation Administration News by Kevin Driedger. Commenting on the inherent impermanence of all things, including books, Driedger opines that books are merely vehicles for text. And about text, Driedger has a really interesting idea: “The meaning of a text,” he says, “does not reside in the text itself, or with the author and the author’s intent, but the meaning of a text is created by a community of readers as it interacts with the text.” The community of readers, its values and purposes, is always changing. Therefore so is the meaning of the texts with which it interacts.

Now that any reader can express their opinion about a book for all to see, the interaction of readers with texts is far more visible than it used to be. What is the effect, then, of thousands of readers who say that a literary novel such as The Blue Flower is obscure and boring, and thousands more who say that it is wonderful, subtle and revealing? Or, conversely, the zillions (well, 1,600) of 5-star raves in favour of The Da Vinci Code? Are the borders between literary and popular fiction breaking down at last?

And what does this mean for the anxious, as-yet-unpublished writer, brooding over his or her precious manuscript, determined to hone it into something that will cut through the defenses of jaded editors? There are so many rules for writers, stated in uncompromising terms: you must show, not tell. You must introduce conflict on the first page. You must plant a ‘hook’ in the first paragraph. You must avoid words ending with ‘ly.’ Well, I see books — real, published books — that break these rules splendidly. (I have been told that once you have been admitted into the fold of Published Authors you can break the rules; it’s only those who labour in the outer darkness that need to observe them — slavishly).

Write something interesting. Write it from your heart, revise it, ask a few trusted and thoughtful people to read it, revise yet again. Then get your text out there by whatever means you find practicable, and let the community of readers interact with it, each in their own way.

Romancing the Blue Poppy

This is the right time of year to think about growing the Himalayan blue poppy, genus Meconopsis, if you want success with it from seed.

Eleanor Perenyi, whose book of garden essays, Green Thoughts, is one of my favourites, confessed to a total failure in her attempts to grow Meconopsis from seed. I can say with considerable pride that I have achieved success, not once, but several times. I think one of the secrets is to use absolutely fresh seed — no older than 6 months after harvest — which means that most commercially available seed is too old by the time it reaches the hopeful gardener’s hands.

I purchased a plant of M. betonicifolia in the late ’90s.  It bloomed and set seed, which I gathered and seeded early in 2000. I ended up with ten or so young plants, which I set out that autumn into a fussily prepared bed under an Ailanthus (“tree of heaven” — ha!). In the summer of 2001 they bloomed gorgeously — a pool of heavenly blue.With typical gardener’s hubris, I expected repeat performances over the years, so didn’t bother to take pictures. The following spring only a few plants emerged from what was by then a root-infested bed. Blue poppies are notoriously sensitive to root competition. The struggling survivors succumbed over the summer, and that was that.

Since then, I have had a measure of success by growing these plants in less rooty situations and in pots, but never again have I had the alluring mass of bloom (if you can consider a 3′ x4′ patch a “mass”) as in 2001. Last summer, in fact, was a bust — only a couple of wretched little blooms on my potted specimens, probably because I hadn’t bothered to add fresh compost to the pots. Blue poppies demand slavish attention from their gardeners. Without it, they die in true prima donna fashion.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my method for growing Meconopsis from seed. First, get fresh seed, either from a plant you have bought or from a fellow gardener. The seeds are ready to gather by late August or early September. Preserve them in cool, dry conditions until the following January or February. To achieve germination, two things are needed — fluctuating temperatures and light. Because you will be subjecting them to outdoor conditions, use durable, shallow (2-3″ deep) vessels with drainage holes.  I use plastic honey containers with lots of little holes punched into the bottoms. Containers that come with translucent lids are especially good. Use a commercial seed-starting mix, dampened and firmed into the containers. Tamp it down and smooth it with some sort of suitable implement, such as a flat-bottomed glass. Scatter the seeds carefully over the surface, trying to space them evenly. The trick is to achieve a balance between too many, which will result in overcrowding, and too few. You have to allow for a certain amount of germination failures and seedling deaths. Don’t cover the seeds with the soil mix; they need light to germinate. Set the seed containers into an inch or so of water until the surface is wet, then allow them to drain and place in a warm spot, such as the top of a hot water tank or refrigerator. It’s probably a good idea to cover the containers with a sheet of plastic at this point. Leave them in the warm spot for a week or 10 days, then move to a sheltered outdoor spot. I put my seed pots next to the foundation on the north side of the house. At this stage, put the lids on your containers, if you have lids. Otherwise, enclose each container in its own plastic bag, making sure that the bag doesn’t sag down onto the soil surface (check for this after rain). The idea is that they will be exposed to temperatures that occasionally dip below freezing over a period of two months or so — January through March here on Vancouver Island. By April you should see seedlings emerging! At this point, damping-off is your worst enemy. Remove the covers from the pots, at least partially. You don’t want them to dry out, but you don’t want fungus-producing conditions to prevail. Air circulation is essential. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle (carefully!) transplant them to individual 4″ pots, using a humus-rich, well-draining soil mix. In early fall, transplant the young plants to their permanent spots, in root-free, well-drained soil amended with lots of compost, and a situation that gets morning sun but is shaded in the hottest parts of the day.

A disclaimer — this method works in the temperate Pacific Northwest, where winter low temperatures rarely exceed -5 degrees C (23 F). In truly frigid climates, something else is called for. The idea is to expose your seed pots to fluctuating temperatures that cross the freezing point several times.

There is a lovely little book about Meconopsis by Bill Terry, who grows a number of species with much more success than anything I have managed on my rooty little patch. The title is Blue Heaven.  Even though it’s a small book, it has many illustrations to whet the reader’s appetite for these fascinating plants. The cover absolutely radiates blueness.

I will be fussing over my plants, potted and otherwise, hoping that they will bloom better this summer than last, and that I will get seeds to plant next winter. With blue poppies, it’s wise always to have a few new plants coming on to replace those that expire all too easily. Nicola Furlong, a fellow Smashwords author and WordPress blogger here on Vancouver Island,  is also an aficionado of the blue poppy. Both she and I will post photographs of success on our blogs.