The Punctuation Trap

I was sitting outside of my undergrad adviser’s office one day (English majors for the win!), when I heard this quote. She was advising a fellow writer/English lover at the time:

“You have a very big vocabulary. But I don’t think you should use every word. Because, the thing is, you know the words, but you’re not using them correctly.”

I snickered because I’m a jerk.

This is a really common thing for new writers, but it isn’t limited to words. I see it most often with punctuation. You know which guys I mean:?! … ;

The problem with these grammar marks is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re stealing the show. Everything new writers use them for those first few years–trailing off, adding emphasis, indicating confusion–can and should be better achieved through words and actions. Using them is like using a cliche. It’s cheating. It doesn’t really show a feeling or an emotion, except in the broadest, most ineffective strokes.

New writers reach for them to sound like more experienced writers. Lacking confidence in themselves, they bolster their text (or their feelings) with big words and obscure punctuation. Because hey, if you can use punctilious correctly and throw in a semicolon, you can’t be all bad, right? Not quite. Punctuation marks are the spices of writing. The more obscure spices, like turmeric, paprika, and sage, are great with a light touch, but pour on too much, and the dish is kaput.

The basics will get you by just fine for a very long time. A manuscript that has proper periods, commas, and quotation marks is far more impressive than a manuscript chock full of misplaced semicolons, ellipsis, and whatever you call this: “?!”. When starting out, cull the more obscure punctuation from your writing. Learn to use the standards more effectively. How can a writer indicate confusion without a question mark and exclamation point combo? How can a writer combine thoughts, but still use separate sentences?

Once they’re gone, keep them gone for years. And I mean years. (Unless you’re writing thousands of words a day, then maybe nine months. At least give yourself the amount of time it takes to make a baby.) When it has been programmed into your brain that you do not use those, when you’re so blind to them, you red-pen them without even considering if they’re appropriate, then you may open your eyes to them. When do they work? When do they emphasize instead of scream? When do they give a feeling that is best earned through their use, and not some other word or gesture? When is a semicolon really a better choice than having two sentences? (If you find an example, please share it. Because, really, when?)

There are a few, rare moments when these little guys, the lovable jerks of the grammar world, are appropriate. And when they are, that one time in an entire novel-length manuscript, use them. They can be like swear words, completely effective when used properly, or so over-used, they slip out in front of grandma.

*Edited for an ironic grammar error.

 

I’m Sexist

But I don’t mean to be.

And that’s why it pisses me off when people tell me there’s no reason for feminism or that feminism should be dead. Here’s a story.

I come from the Harry Potter generation. When I started the series, only three books had been published and I was about 11. The final book was released when I was in my late teens or early twenties, and it felt like the end of my childhood.

I remember when I read the first book. It was Christmas, snowy outside. My brother had to beg me to leave Harry for a few hours to try our luck on our parents’ old cross country skis. (We had no luck.) I made him wait until the end of the first Quidditch match, and I remember thinking about Golden Snitches and Lee Jordan the entire time I failed at skiing.

I remember this for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is because I was certain J. K. Rowling was a man. Any author who wrote about sports, who invented a sport, had to be a man.

I also noted that Harry was a boy, and my 11 year old self knew that men wrote about men, and only sometimes women, but women always wrote about women. (I was pretty sure I was worldly. I was not.)

Harry Potter was also a good book. It wasn’t a love story. I was pretty sure that women couldn’t write books that were well-paced with lots of action. I was pretty sure that all books written by women had fairly low action and lots of emotions, and that the plot stopped so the characters could mull around and talk. I liked books like this well enough, but they weren’t Great, like Harry Potter. Only men could write Great Books.

This is pretty obviously bullshit.

Harry Potter

But it took me awhile to realize this, and it took me longer to realize how deep rooted these beliefs ran. I still can’t tell you why I have them or where they came from.

I found out J. K. Rowling was a woman after an Internet search. (The Internet was still pretty new, and J. K. Rowling was one of the first things I Googled…before Google was a verb.) J. K. Rowling wasn’t only a woman, but she’d hidden her gender on purpose. And weirdly, that’s what bothered me the most. She wrote under her initials specifically to hide her gender, and I felt duped. I didn’t reflect on my feelings about this, or what those feelings said about me or the world. Instead, I spent my time feeling righteously outraged in the way of 11-year-olds. And really pissed that I was so invested in Harry that I’d read more of his books even though I’d been “lied to.” Weirdly, I felt like she was furthering the exact sort of sexism she was fighting against (as if my own misconceptions about her gender didn’t prove the usefulness of her writing under her initials). I believed that being aware of something automatically meant you had to fight it.

It took me a long time to admit what you’ve probably already figured out. Had JKR written Harry Potter under her real, female name, I probably would not have read it. Or, had I read it, I would have found fault with it, judging it more harshly and picking Hermione apart. I would have found fault because she was a woman where I found no fault when I thought she was a man.

This is really screwed up.

It’s more screwed up because I was a young girl who wanted to be a writer. I’d glass ceiling’d myself. I’d absorbed that young male characters were standard and that a character needed a reason to be a woman. Female wasn’t a default setting. What bothers me most now, as an adult, is that this didn’t bother me as a kid. After I’d come to terms with J. K. Rowling’s trickery, I decided to copy it and use my own initials to hide my gender. I continued to write male characters unless I had a Reason to write a female, and I continued to believe that female writers weren’t, and couldn’t be, as good as male authors. It took me a long time to realize that the women writers I loved were not the Exception to the rule, but that the rule itself was ludicrous.

So, let’s raise our beer glasses (because women can enjoy beer, too. This chick used to believe wine was for girls and beer was for boys) to the kick-ass female authors who got us through our childhood’s. I’ll start. Here’s to Megan Whalen Turner, Robin McKinley, and, Queen of the Realm, J. K. Rowling.

 

How to Submit to Lit Mags

Since I’ve had (very, very) mild success submitting to Lit Mags, a friend asked how I did it. I didn’t think I had much to say, but stuff gushed forth in an email I wrote on Saturday…on mobile. So I guess I had a lot to say. Take it with whatever grains you think best: salt, sand, or hops.

She asked, specifically, “What does ‘we want meaningful works’ mean?” I’m going to lump all the Lit Mag phrases in together right now: send us your best work, send us stuff that wows/moves us, or makes us feel things. I’m sure there are tons more. What do they mean?

Well. Nothing. For the Lit Mags, they probably mean something, but for you, the author, no. Pretty meaningless. Maybe they’re meant as scare tactics, I don’t know. But you definitely can’t glean anything about whether or not you should submit from them.

So what’s important?

Pay attention to any adjectives they use and any genre words, those are important. Character vs. plot driven is a helpful distinction. My pieces focus on  emotion and I aspire to be literary, so I pay attention whenever those words are used. Don’t be too picky here. You’re looking to rule mags out more than rule mags in.

Once you find a call that might fit your piece, open the website. Does it look like shit? If it does, don’t click away yet, but start looking for anything that validates them. Do they pay their writers? Have they nominated their stories for any awards? Have they won any awards? Are they promoting any of their current or past writers on their front page? If the answer to all of these things is no, I close the window and write them off. They only need to check one of those boxes to keep my attention. (Some really solid mags have shit websites.)

Most of them have stories available to read online. If you have the time, read them. If you don’t, skim them.* Pay attention to their writing aesthetics. Do their stories sound or feel like your own? If they do, this is probably a good place to  submit. A lot of people ask if you like the stories, but I like a lot of styles that don’t mesh with my own, so I don’t really like this approach, personally.

Submission fees– I can accept small fees of $2 or $3. I’ve seen fees up to $23 (and even paid one once, but never again). Since the literary market is kind of flooded right now but doesn’t have money, I don’t mind the smaller fees at the starting gate, but I try to find mags that don’t charge. If I really like a mag or it has a good name for itself (like Ploughshares), I’ll pay.

If a mag charges and doesn’t do any of the things in the “shitty website” paragraph, I get out of there fast. That’s just lazy people being lazy.

I’ve had luck filtering searches at thereviewreview.net (and will frequently check for reviews or listings on there when I find a mag a like).

I think the whole process is easier if you’re looking to send out a minimum of 3 stories, but works best with at least 5 stories. This way, its math working in your favor. Sifting through calls to place your one perfect story is disheartening and hard, and the rejections sting more. Looking for 5 stories at once? You’re bound to find more mags that fit the bill, and since you have multiple pieces out, the rejections sting less (in my experience). I try to sit out and send out enough pieces to enough places that, by the end of it, I can’t quite remember where they all want.

On this note, keep track. I use excel. I have one spreadsheet per story, and track the name of the place I sent it, the date I sent it out, and whether it was accepted, withdrawn, or rejected. I also keep notes. Do they take a particularly long time to get back to you?  Was the rejection nice? I like to remember this. Spreadsheets like this especially help if you have to withdraw a piece. You’ll know all the places you sent it without having to wrack your brain.

*I think it’s important to read and support literary mags. I’m not saying don’t  do this. Really, find the magazines you like and read them. But I don’t think reading lit mags and submitting to lit mags are the same process. Read for fun. Submit like it’s a job.

I’m a Real Writer

I should write some meditative piece about how it feels to finally be published in a lit mag, but I have nothing incredible to say besides this:

It feels awesome.

Seriously, if this is your dream, go forth and achieve because even at this baby step, the validation for the effort is incredible.

Read the story here: http://www.bodypartsmagazine.com/5-grave-photographs-by-kl-morris.html

Body Parts 5 Grave Digging SM Graphics Grave Photographs SM.png

Graphic courtesy of the awesome folks at Body Parts Magazine.

In case you’re curious, my favorite snippet-as-synopsis is:

“Candy Kent, I solemnly swear that I have no intention of raping you.”

I like their choice, too.

 

 

The Bad Writing Series: “The 100”

Before we get started, caveat: I liked season 2 of “The 100.” I think it took a lot of risks and made some brave storytelling decisions. Overall, I think it’s written solidly. Go check it out. That being said, let’s move on to what I didn’t like.

There were a lot of questionable leadership moments in season two of “The 100.” Thematically, that season asked probing questions about the tough decisions leaders make in tight spots, and what the consequences are and should be. Despite all of this meaty and valid stuff, there was one scene that stuck out in my mind because it was bad, bad, bad, and it underscored a point I’ve only just begun to realize. Bad writing isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. Here’s why.

“The 100” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where survival comes at a high price. Our Leader, Abby, was only just reunited with her daughter, Clarke, before Clarke ran off again to save someone else, leaving the relative safety of the camp. Abby is under duress, stressed from her position as Leader and worried about Clarke.

In this scene, Abby, walks up to her daughter’s friend, Raven, and asks if Raven helped Clarke leave the camp. Raven denies having anything to do with it. They repeat this exchange, Abby asking more forcefully, and Raven denying everything. Here’s where things get dicey.

Abby lashes out and smacks Raven across the face.

But here’s the bad writing: After Abby displays vulnerability and fear (dropping her face to her hands and hiding it), Raven immediately forgives her, symbolically pushing her cup across the table to share.

Abby’s momentary lapse, her split second of power abuse, happens because we need to sympathize with her. The best way to do that is to show her cracking under pressure. She needs to have a reaction to her daughter’s disappearance, so she lashes out at Raven because we care about Raven.

Except this isn’t okay. Abby is the Leader. She’s In Charge of Raven. Raven is not only her subordinate, but her daughter’s friend. What this scene actually shows is an abuse of power made forgivable by extenuating circumstances.

Abuse is never okay. There are no mitigating circumstances that could make it okay.

When shows/books/media/art portray abuse like this as acceptable and forgivable, then viewers/readers/consumers digest it as okay. Television shows affect the way we think and feel about the world. Seeing a character we respect and like get smacked in the face by their superior and then forgive their superior makes us think, Ah, forgiveness trumps abuse. It’s okay if someone I am subordinate to hurts me if they’re under stress. Circumstances make unacceptable actions acceptable. It takes work to step back from the show and realize that it isn’t okay; that the thing we’re being shown is a plot device meant to create sympathy for Abby.

That’s the real danger of this scene, but I want to break it down to show you why it works. There are three beats in this moment: Abby’s escalating frustration, her release (lashing out and smacking), Raven’s forgiveness.

This follows a pattern that we know and expect. A character is frustrated, they react to that frustration, something makes it okay. Because the responses all seem appropriate—Abby’s smack is a response to the frustration, Raven’s forgiveness is a response to the smack, the scene feels complete. It feels done. We aren’t asked whether it’s acceptable. Had the scene ended with the smack and a glare or stare from Raven, it would have asked questions. Was that okay? Can Raven react? Does she have the power to react? The sense of not-doneness created by ] Raven’s lack of response would have encouraged viewers to probe deeper.

Or, the writers could have gone a different direction. There could have been no slap: Abby wantsto smack Raven, but holds back and breaks down, instead. Or Raven doesn’t forgive the slap. She calls Abby out on the inappropriateness. It would be within character for Raven.

***

It’s possible to argue that the second season of “The 100” is all about the dangers of power, leadership, and the ease with which you can abuse that power, and so this moment is thematically appropriate, except for one thing: this moment is never scrutinized. Abby’s misstep is washed away and forgotten. Taken both out of context and in context, it’s wrong for her to have slapped someone under her charge, but it’s more wrong for the writing to forgive her for it. She never realizes that what she did was inappropriate. In a season filled with bad decisions, abuse of power is never put under the microscopic.

Tampons, Bad Writing, and a New Series

I read “Fifty Shades of Grey” in a grocery store. Wouldn’t you know the first scene I opened to was the infamous tampon scene? And hands down, yes, I was turned on, so it did its job (if awkwardly, given that I was standing by my mom and there was a rack of half priced bread nearby). But while “Fifty Shades” may be an effective piece of erotica, it isn’t a well-written piece of erotica. And that’s a plum shame for the really well-written erotica out there.

At least, I thought it was just a plum shame, but now I’m starting to get really angry and really embarrassed about it. It’s good that a piece of erotica got so popular. It’s good for a sex positive world, and it’s probably good for a lot of people, but it’s not good for writing. I’m really pissed that such a poorly written book is selling so well. It isn’t even the only one. So many of the mega hits right now could have been better written by pterodactyls, and they don’t even have thumbs (at least, I don’t think so). And that’s embarrassing for me and every other wielder of the English language–and if you’re reading this, you’re a wielder of the English language.

There’s a serious gap between being able to read and being able to recognize good writing. If you’re wondering why recognizing good writing is important, ask any musician why pop music is bad. Shitty writing lowers the general expectations for writing everywhere. Shitty writing leads to shitty books, shitty readers, and back again to shitty writers. Shitty writing depreciates the art as a whole, and that is a serious shame. So, for that, I’m starting a crusade to try and show you what shitty writing is, how to recognize it, and what to do when you find it (buy something better!). For however long it takes, I’m going to work on a series called “The Bad Writing Series.” (Okay, no points for the title, but it gets the message across.) I’ll take on bad books as whole, and moments of bad writing in otherwise really good books, and I’ll talk about why they’re bad. And you should learn from it because bad writing should matter to everyone who cares about books, stories, and English.

Well, I Author’d the Shit Out of That

Part I: The Request

I get one little publication credit, and I upgrade myself from ‘writer’ to ‘author’. See how that goes?

Along with the story, the amazing people at Body Parts Magazine asked if I had an author photo, and all hell broke loose. The crazy came out. I mean, top level insanity here.

Like every hopeful author, I’d spent my life studying author photos, judging them, and dreaming up the perfect one. Of course, I never took any actionable steps to achieve the Perfect Author Photo because that would mean jinxing any possibility of getting published. (Preparing for something means it won’t happen, obviously.)

So when Body Parts emailed me asking for one, I said I would totally get them one that week, like the professional I am. Then I spent most of the week flipping through old social media profile pics wondering why I’m so un-photogenic and such a nerd.

Then: lightning bolt moment. I have a fancy camera! I’ll do this myself. (Because doing something well without ever practicing has always worked out.)

Part II: The Set Up

I globbed on the makeup, fiddled with the camera settings, and sat in some sunlight. Then. Selfie time. And I ended up with what I thought were some kickass photos. So I shared them, which turned out to be my mistake.

“You look like an old, hardened woman.” –My Mom

“Uh. I think you look hot? Sexy, maybe?” –My Sister

“Did you intend to look pissy? Because if that was your intention, right on!” –My Friend who is a Model

“Why aren’t you smiling? You should be smiling at least a little bit.” –Assorted Friends

“Hot damn. That is my sexy wife.” –My Tall Person (who has been taught to say such things)

Part III: The Meltdown

I spent three full days wondering if I had a sort of face dysmorphia where what I saw in the photos wasn’t what other people saw. I mean, I was looking at the version of myself I always wanted to exist, and people were recoiling from it. This chick in the photo was somebody I wanted to be, and nobody else liked her. What did they say about me? About what I wanted and who I aspired to be?

And then one of my friends said, “But as long as you like it, that’s all that matters.” And that’s when I realized it. In my line of work, that isn’t true.

Part IV: The Overthink

It doesn’t matter if I like what I write. What matters is whether the reader responds it. Of course I write what I enjoy, or what I would want to read, but at the end of the day, that isn’t enough. If I bring a piece to workshop and they tell me it’s failing, I have to listen. If I don’t, I’ll be hanging onto an unsuccessful piece.

In the case of the photo, what I wanted to know was how people were responding to it. It wasn’t a picture of me, your friend, daughter, sister. It was a picture of a person who wrote a story. Does that picture make you want to know more about them? Find them on Twitter? Connect with them? Seek out their work? Does it jive with what I wrote or enhance it? It’s just about the only visual aid my short story’s going to get online, so it had better be doing something. Just sitting there looking pretty isn’t enough.

And, I think, that’s what my friends and family wanted. They wanted a picture of me that conveyed good ol’, amicable (if slightly moody), me. And this picture wasn’t it. It was a little pissy, a little edgy, a little intimidating. It wasn’t neat, and it wasn’t necessarily someone you’d want to be friends with. It wasn’t me.

But in some ways it was the me that wrote the story. It was the me the way I saw myself as a writer. That vision, that edgy, intimidating self was there. It had been built up through years of looking at author photos—my own persona (though not in person, never in person, because I will never be able to shed my awkward, goofy self). But on a jacket cover? As a profile pic? Yes. That’s me the writer.

The whole meltdown could have been avoided if I’d thought before I shot. What do you want this picture to say? What do you want it to achieve? How do you want the viewer to respond? The same way I think about short stories. Then, based on the feedback I got, I could have seen if it was working or not. And then I could have decided if I wanted to change my approach. Since I dove in headfirst, jumping from fifteen minutes of selfie to “Look at me! Did it work?” without ever wondering what working would look like, I ended up with a jumble of responses and thoughts, none of which were what I was expecting.

It’s very possible this is a long and convoluted way of saying, “Set your expectations and know them before you check to see if they’re met.”

But that’s how an author author’s. What do I want to achieve? How do I achieve it? Now write it. Then check with readers to see how they’re responding and rewrite.

The collision came from how other’s view me and how I viewed myself, a dichotomy I could have been saved from me had I acknowledged it.

The ‘P’ Word

I got married last year, go me! Attended a wedding this weekend for a cousin of mine. On the drive up, I got some really amazing news. Totally elated, I sort of screamed my Tall Guy’s ear off and nearly made him drive us off the road when I lurched over for a kiss/hug combo. Excitement’s a deadly thing, guys.

At the Welcome-Out-of-Towners Party (my family has them, it’s a thing), I ran up to people, hugged them, and squealed, “Guess what you just hugged?”

If I paused too long between the “Guess what you just hugged?” and the answer, I got this:

“Two people! You’re pregnant!”

I see how they got there, but, um. No.

“I’m published!” I screamed. And usually, people went with the excitement and did the scream-dance with me, or laughed at me while I did. Some people even got the news secondhand and came over to scold me for not telling them in person, which was awesome.

But there were some people who’s eyes dimmed a little after they found out there was no burgeoning life in my womb. Whose chosen ‘P’ word could in no way compete with the real ‘P’ word. And to these people, I’d like to say, “My uterus has been fully functional since I was eleven. You never asked about pregnancy then. You’re right, I’m married. And I still remember everything I knew about birth control from the pre-married days. Butt out of my birth canal, babies. And get excited that this amazing woman in front of you is getting PUBLISHED.”

Instead, I just ran off and found someone else to tell.

I’m nauseous like curdled mac and cheese.

I heard a rumor that “I am nauseous” means you cause nausea in other people. So, “Like rotten meat, I inspire nausea in other people.” Tickled by this information, M and I spent a wonderful afternoon trying to one-up each other’s metaphors.

“I’m nauseous like rotten mac and cheese.”

“I’m nauseous like puppy diarrhea.”

“I’m nauseous like toe fungi.”

“Like a dog puking.”

“Then eating its puke.”

“Like exercising too much.”

“Like burnt coffee.”

“Like turds.”

I figured now would be a great time to crusade against the incorrect use of the word nauseous, but before I did, I checked my facts. And thank God I did. I’m a one source wonder (Merriam Webster), victim of confirmation bias (it’s as I thought!), and hold to the idea that language is fluid and common usage should be respected. So, take what you will from this.

From Merriam Webster online:

“Those who insist that nauseous can properly be used only in sense 1 (causing nausea or disgust) and that in sense 2 (affected with nausea or disgust) it is an error for nauseated are mistaken. Current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating. Nauseated is used more widely than nauseous in sense 2.”

If you’re having trouble parsing that, no worries. I did, too. Basically it means, I was wrong. (It’s surprisingly hard to type that.)

The more colloquially favored “I am nauseous” can mean that you’re feeling nauseated. It’s totally acceptable. And people who say it can’t be used that way (me, for example) are stuck-up buttholes who need to get a life.

But this is all taken from the dictionary that claims ‘octopodes’ can be the plural of octopus, so there’s that.

Merriam Webster’s Entry on Nauseous

More information on nauseous/nauseated from Grammar Girl and The Grammarist.

Leftover Feelings on “The Leftovers”

I tried very hard to celebrate the off-screen moments in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, but I had to accept that I was trying to celebrate a mistake. No matter how lovely my sentences were regarding the thematic relevance of the off-screen moments, nor how thorough my charts about their content and placement, at the end of the day, this article did not come together, and it took me awhile to accept that it was because the off-screen moments weren’t thematically significant. They were a slip-up.

I cannot speak to Perrotta’s intentions in writing The Leftovers, and I’d like to congratulate him on writing a successful book right off the bat so we can get that out of the way. Unfortunately, I cannot congratulate him on writing a unique book, which is where the problems start.

The Leftovers is considered a unique book. In it, a huge percentage of the world’s population suddenly disappears, and that sounds interesting. But it’s not. The Leftovers isn’t about the Sudden Departure, the never explained rapture-like event that causes millions of people to disappear. Perrotta barely glances at the global or economic ramifications such an event would have—the lack of people to run the stores, for example, or to keep the schools open, or to maintain most of the actives of daily life. Instead, Perrotta focuses on the (really, really) mundane life of a newly divorced father, his teenage daughter, his just-joined-a-cult son, and his budding romance with brand new widow, Nora. (To be fair, by the time the book starts, Tom, Kevin’s son, has basically un-brainwashed himself, and the cult leader is behind bars, so even that interesting story is squashed by banality).

The conceit of The Leftovers is to get a lot of really sad, grieving, and confused people in one book and see what happens. Honestly, I think it could be a really great story and might offer an interesting lens through which to view the more difficult aspects of and actions after natural disasters (or terrorist attacks or mass murders, or any event where a lot of people die tragically). There’s a great amount of dramatic tension when people are coping with the unimaginable and disagreeing about the proper way to grieve and what the government should be doing. By using a literary event (re: totally fake) like the Sudden Departure, Perrotta isn’t under any obligation to be courteous or compassionate to the real people who have suffered from a similar event. Unfortunately, Perrotta doesn’t do this. Perrotta uses The Leftovers to get a lot of really sad people to be mostly sad together, and then help each other be sort of happy. He tells the same suburban-style story you could read elsewhere on the bookshelf, or more likely have already experienced if you live in suburbia.

My original plan was to examine Perrotta’s use of off-screen moments (any time relevant action happens off the page, so it’s implied or summarized) to leave the reader with the same uneasy, slipping-away feeling the characters have after the Sudden Departure. But as I delved deeper into the text, looking for examples of well-executed off-screen moments juxtaposed with on-screen moments, I found myself at a loss. There wasn’t any rhythm or rhyme to the off-screen moments vs. the on-screen ones. The use of off-screen moments was one of Perrotta’s main techniques in the story.

Let’s look at Meg’s death. For argument’s sake, let’s agree that Meg’s death happens startlingly on the page:

” ‘I love you, too,’ Meg said, but there was an odd flatness in her voice, as if her soul had already left her body, as if it hadn’t bothered to wait for the deafening explosion a moment later, and that imaginary flash of golden light.”

At first, I thought—How visceral to have such a shocking death right there on the page in a book where so many characters disappear without any descriptive paragraphs. What a great juxtaposition.

But there were problems with that. Similar disappearances or deaths were given the same emotional weight, or moments that I felt should have the same emotional weight were given the shaft.

Take the moment when Christine abandons Tom and her baby in the parking lot. We’re given the moments leading up to that moment and then we cut to Tom driving away, thinking about how he and the baby were abandoned. We don’t experience the abandonment itself. Christine is equal to Meg in the story—both of them are characters who the main characters would not have met and formed emotional bonds with were it not for the Sudden Departure. Yet Tom’s abandonment isn’t treated with the same visceral shock as Meg’s death.

This inconsistency carries throughout the novel. Nora abandons Kevin during a Valentine’s dinner date, yet we never see the inevitable confrontation or fallout from that moment. However, when Jill decides she’s done with her slacker summer friends, she’s afforded an entire good-bye paragraph. Even the beauty of the Sudden Departure’s solely off-screen presence is sabotaged when Nora recounts, in detail and in scene, the moment when her family disappears. (It should be noted that Perrotta uses flashback throughout, but, except for this moment, the moments told in flashback are never given the weight of the moments he tells as they’re happening. Notably: Tom leaves the baby on Kevin’s doorstep, but we don’t get that exact moment. We’re treated to the seconds leading up to it and Tom’s thoughts while driving away, but the moment he leaves the baby is flashback and emotionally diluted as a result.)

There is no rationale for Perrotta’s on and off-screen policy. Despite numerous charts and excel sheets (okay, maybe not excel sheets), I was unable to find a unifying theme steering them. Ultimately, I was forced to admit that there was no ‘use’ of off-screen moments at all. I don’t know how to say this, especially to one as successful and highly regarded as Perrotta (I saw him read at AWP in 2013 and really liked him, this was what prompted me to read The Leftovers at all), but this seems to be inept writing from someone who’s incredibly successful and well respected. Was Perrotta rushing to complete a novel, omitting many interesting and complex scenes, or was there a better reason for him to employ this technique?

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