Portrait of Jessica Salmonson as tree-hugging nymph, circa 1973, by art photographer Tom Van de Ven. Today of course she's a happy old hag & lives in the same tree's roots devouring worms & beetles.

Pitfall of Purple;

Or, How I Got Carried Away Writing A Rejection

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson



The major reason editors don't write personal rejection letters is they take too damned long, even if you keep them short. In my own case, I can't even keep them short. Once my motor gets going, it takes a very long time to shut her down.

Another reason not to write rejection letters is that a hasty opinion written quickly may not be all that useful because the recipient frequently cannot hear good advice or even tell good advice from bad. There's also a great difference between a swiftly rattled off note or letter that may contain errors, & a story that was supposedly rewritten a few times & is ready for submission — but it is nevertheless embarrassing to fault someone on sloppy syntax or spelling, in a letter which itself includes one-draft errors. So few editors risk it. Because to a rejected author who rarely receives anything but rejection slips, that hasty note or letter takes on gigantic importance. An editor's rough-drafted mispelling or grammatical mishap proves the editor to be a complete moron to have rejected the story; while a bit of praise to ease the blow is taken as an admission of the submitter's extravagant genius.

To say "This part was good" is transmuted into a promise of future success beyond the rejectee's wildest dreams. "Keep trying" means to send the editor everything the rejectee has written since the age of ten in order to receive additional critiques. But "Your opening sentence fails" awakens a desire for murder & revenge.

An angry rejectee will read that letter ten thousand times, memorize it, & quote every actual or imagined blunder to his friends. They even occasionally commit such absurdity to print, as I once saw an entire issue of a small press news fanzine devoted to little-published writers discussing in virulent terms their accumulation of letters from editors. Without exception it was clear they had gained nothing but a direction in which to vent their frustrations.

Some while ago while I was editing one or another horror anthology, a struggling author who I had met at a convention & found to be very amusing sent me a story. On one level the story was tailored just to my tastes. It was purple & gloomy, just the sort of thing I'm a sucker for. Alas, it was not well done. I rejected the tale, but because of our having met, I broke from my usual rule not to explain why. I ended up writing a miniature essay.

There was mainly one type of flaw in the story, but it occurred on every page. Sentences the author may have thought colorfully clever could be read with an entirely unintended meaning. Such sentences create what is called "subjunctive tension."

I've elected to share this letter because I think it is interesting on two levels. Though no one is likely ever to read the story critiqued, the examples of subjunctive tension quoted from it are nevertheless apt to prove instructive to writers who have given this problem little thought. And the letter itself is representative of the type of commentary most editors could share when asked "If you cannot use my story, will you please tell me why?" Editors simply dare not, or we'd get nothing else done. But now & then, it happens. With identity altered, & with some of the hasty grammar of my original missive improved, here is that Letter of Rejection.


Dear Jane:

But of course I remember our having met! I've since seen two of your stories published, one in a magazine, the other in an anthology. Congrats!

The story you sent along tries for a lot, & I do prefer moody rather than bloody horror. But ultimately nothing happens in your story; it delivers very little; & it gets annoying after the first five or six pages of the character's unvaried internal suffering. I laud your attempt toward a higher use of language; but such higher use presents a great many pitfalls, & throughout your manuscript you've fallen into one of these pits.

Simple "see dick run" writing such as many call Hemingwayesque is hard to construct inaccurately. But when one delves into the real complexities of language, sloppy combinations more easily arise. It is so difficult to avoid them that most editors simply demand "no purple!" It is very likely that they wouldn't publish Poe today, since most of today's editors lack the skills to tell bad purple from a story that is brilliantly ornate. For my own tastes, when it is done right, purple is the finest shade, the reek of decay lending spirit (in a darkly holy sense) to a horror tale.

Right from your opening (& closing) two-word sentence, "I rise," one wonders "rises from what?" (a chair? a bed?) "rises to where?" (into the air? out-of-body?). The poetic effort, "darkness settles its menacing bulk further like a brood hen on her nest" is generally in need of editing (nix "further"). In addition, the mood of menace is not advanced by the image of a brooding hen. Night "as menacing as a chicken" might've struck a chord for me at age of five, when I was chased out of the back yard by my grandmother's chickens.

Yes, there's more. When you describe a silent breath that goes "whoosh" this word incites a giggle. It's the sound a spaceship makes in the silence of space, according to "sci-fi" comics & movies. Or — we're told your protagonist "heard his beating heart in his ears." This provided another giggle. It is first of all a redundancy, for what else would he hear with but his ears? Additionally, read literally, it says his heart is in his ears.

There are many phrases like that in your story. "Sweat springs to my forehead" (arg! get it off!). "My nails bite my palms" (chomp chomp). "Jealousy spurts from me" (tell him to get that sucker back in his pants!). "A scream builds in my throat & escapes" (perhaps the scream built itself a wee ladder to climb free?). "I noticed the newspaper sitting on the patio table" (a way to avoid figuring out the difference between "laying" & "lying" perhaps, but you've created a whimsical image of a sitting newspaper — perhaps with its legs crossed! The sentence is clearer if you delete "sitting" altogether, but the necessity of trimming a story can become harder when the style is purposely ornamented).

"Not a mark to mar her beauty" doesn't go well with "fear carved in lines on her face the way rigor mortis had frozen her mouth." It's not only awkwardly worded, but contradictory. Does this mean her fear-carved face was what he found beautiful? That the body of the corpse was beautiful merely because there was no wound or injury, without regard for a face rendered ugly by its expression? But she had clothes on, so only the face & hands could be remarked upon. Your descriptions are simply a muddle.

Night personified as "a slinky vamp" is strained & silly, especially after we've already been told Night is a scary chicken. "Seeing the minutes pass" is also very unlikely unless he's clock-watching. Silence that is "deeper suddenly." A face to "glow ephemerally." Every page has a half-dozen of these turns of phrases, which suggest the writerly truism "find your favorite lines & cross them out" isn't a bad idea!


Many of these phrases constitute "subjunctive tension." Fingernails with teeth. Newspapers that sit. Springing sweat. Heart in the ears. The classic examples given in Creative Writing 101 are "The Sun burst through the window" (& fried the family) or "He swept his eyes across the floor" (into a dustbin) or "he fell to the floor with a dull thud" (& the two of them writhed there together). Such as these invoke Gahan Wilson cartoons.

With supernatural tales, it is especially necessary to watch out for these sorts of phrases, for the curtain between what is & what isn't possible is very thin. With all these subjunctive tension phrases, even passages of purple that might otherwise have been "passable" become unacceptable & cloying. Your phrase "Rage bubbles inside me in a hot caldron of loathing" is an example of excess usually ascribed to younger writers than you & I. The "suicidal angst of waves" that "pummel the sand in frustration" was equally a hoot.

These noble attempts at a heightened language poke out of an environment of words too insubstantial to support them. If every sentence were constructed flawlessly, you might get away with overblown metaphors. But if a vast number of phrases are unintentionally silly, then it justifies the common editorial stance against purple prose.

There are some very good moments in your tale. The father obsessed with the grave allowing his child to bury him on the sandy beach was chilling. You obviously know something about writing, as two of the three general pitfalls of the purple you have assiduously avoided. The other two are mistaking the redundant for the descriptive, "The enormous giant strode hugely"; & the other is mixed metaphor, "swirling like an ocean's maelstrom or a Dallas Cowboys' cheer leader's baton in the steaming whorls of his mind's coffee"). There's none of these from you, & that's good. But your one blunder — the plethora of "poetic" phrases which invoke whimsicality — destroys the story.

Thine, Jessica


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