Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Confessions of a literary journal reader: overcompensating, and not the penis kind

I've written before about the fallacies, logical and otherwise, that might befall a literary journal editor, and how these fallacies might affect whether your story gets picked for publication. Editors are humans, and sometimes, the things we do are just weird.

You can control a lot with the way you write a story. Your skill as a writer can probably control, with about an 80% degree of accuracy, whether your story gets looked at more closely by the front-line readers or tossed aside. But when it gets down the the tough decisions of whether to publish the many stories a journal gets that deserve publication--many more than they can actually publish--there may be some things going on that you can't control.

Here's one I've caught myself doing lately

Although I neither like cars nor guns, in other ways, I kind of fit the male American stereotype. I like sports. I like sex. I like a particular kind of narrative voice, aggressive, quick-hitting and jocular, that tends to come from male writers. I'm aware of this tendency, and sometimes, I find myself overcompensating for it by intentionally trying to vote for female voices, sometimes even ones I don't really like. Maybe I'll vote down that hilarious story about the misogynistic womanizer with a secret soft side, or I'll vote up the story about consignment needlepoint workers in Kenya even though I could barely get through it. I don't exactly keep affirmative-action type quotas, but I am aware, usually, of whether the last few stories I voted for were written by men or women, or whether they featured male or female characters.

In case you were wondering--ladies--I do not drive a sports car. I have an old Corolla. So I'm not overcompensating. Or am I aware that people know men with sports cars are overcompensating, and I'm overcompensating for that? Hmmm...

This is similar to the other fallacy I wrote about, where I am more likely to vote for a story if I haven't voted for one lately, and less likely if I just recently voted for one. I'm not sure exactly what kind of cognitive bias this is--it's something like an availability heuristic, but maybe also something like the gambler's fallacy. I'd call it a fairness bias--a sort of one for you, one for me, incredibly clumsy kind of thinking.

Even being aware of it, this is still lurking at the back of my mind. I'm not only aware of it, I'm also aware of being aware of it. I don't want to give in to it, and I also don't want to swing too far the other way trying to avoid it. It's a very uncomfortable thought looking over my shoulder as I read and do my best to get it right.

There's really nothing you, as a writer, can do about this kind of thing. Which is why one point I keep trying to get across is to take all rejections with a grain of salt. It'll be a grain of salt in your wounds, I know, but really, just don't beat yourself up too much. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

More of an HTGP than a WIHPTS: "Raptor" by Charles Holdefer

I've been doing a lot of Would I Have Published This Story (WIHPTS) installments lately, while reading through the Puschart Anthology from 2017. The last story I read was so good, I'm not even going to do a WIHPTS for it. Yes, I would have published it.

Instead, I'd like to offer a quick HTGP (How to Get Published). Very quick, actually, because that's how this story introduced the main conflict. Here's two things any fiction writer trying to get past numbskulled first-line readers (like me) should do:

1) Get into the conflict in the first page. Here's how "Raptor" does it: The first sentence teases it, "Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend." We then get two quick paragraphs telling us who is involved and where we are, then the conflict literally descends into the picture:

With a swoop the raptor grabbed Ronny and the baby chair and then began to arc upward, pumping its wings furiously

We have a family that was on one arc now completely redirected by something not only tragic, but freakishly unlikely beyond all imagining. That gets us knuckleheaded readers past the first page.

2) When you need to go into a flashback or offer some kind of exposition, give another lead-in with as much force as your opening sentence to the whole story. You've established one kind of momentum, but when you shift on the reader, you risk losing all that if you don't give it another shove to overcome gravity settling on it.

Holdefer did this with three sections that begin with "even if not for the raptor..." Even if not for the raptor, the mother and father might have had marital problems. Even if not for the raptor, the mom was prone to substance abuse and depression. Even if not for the raptor, the father might have started cheating on the mom. This uses the inertia-defeating thrust from the first section to power the backstory, making the exposition as quick-hitting as the main action.

Here's something I'd like to emphasize to writers: this is really excellent writing, but it's not something writers of average talent can't emulate. This isn't the kind of verbal painting that only the greatest virtuosos of the English language can hope to achieve. It's just good, normal fiction writing. More and more, I'm seeing that it's possible to write a really powerful story without necessarily having to have access to language that's beyond the reach of all mortals. Just stand in there and tell your story your way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Two posts, one day: my book is on Amazon! (pre-order)

I didn't even realize this when I posted an hour or so ago, but my book of short stories is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Here ya go:

Me reading...me...beneath a tree on a summer day

I got my preview copies a few days ago, and I gotta say, even though I was really over the whole experience of having a book published and thought it was lame to get emotional about it, I got kind of emotional. My stories seem so much more grown-up in a book than on my hard drive next to my son's plagiarized homework.

Word to the wise, if you're thinking of ordering it to be nice to me or whatever: there will be an e-book version, so you can save yourself $8 or something by waiting for that to come out. Not sure I'd pay $17 for a paperback. But then, I don't love anyone like you all love me, right?

Summer is a terrible time to get motivated about submitting stories

I do things in cycles. I won't clean the house for six weeks, then I clean it all in six hours. I may have a mild form of manic-depressive/bipolar disorder. I make it work for me by doing everything when I'm up and coasting when I'm down. This summer, without nightly arguing over homework to occupy me, I've been trying to get serious about taking some of the very best stories I've got, making them look super shiny, and then sending them off. I mentioned a while ago that I'm going to take a scatter-shot approach and send them literally everywhere, but part of that strategy has been a commitment to including some of the top journals in the mix. A lot of them, actually. The top journals take more work, because a lot of them don't just work through Submittable. You have to use their separate submission service or once in a while even--God help me--mail it in. But I'm up for the task right now.

The problem is that most of the top journals are off for the summer. Their schedules really do not match the arbitrary nature of my gumption. They all seem to open back up at about the same time in the fall. Will I still have the will then to blitzkrieg my way through sending out submissions? Time will tell. In the meantime, I guess I'll busy myself with sending off more query letters to literary agents about the novel...that also won't get read because everyone takes the summer off.

What I'm getting at is what anyone who's been writing seriously for a while probably already figured out. You need to align your drives with the writing season. Fall and spring are where it's at. Align your biorhythms/chakras accordingly.

Monday, July 17, 2017

No for three in a row: WIHPTS, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson

For this round of Would I Have Published this Story (WIHPTS), I make my second foray in recent memory into the seedy underbelly of the teenage, American, female psyche. A few months ago, it was for 13 Reasons Why, but today it's for the next story in this year's Pushcart Anthology, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson.

The usual caveat: this isn't exactly "criticism," although my views on the story sort of come out while answering the question of whether I think I'd have recommended this story for publication as a reader at a literary magazine. The bigger point, though, is to look at the reasons, logical and illogical, why one editor might accept or reject a story, and to use that to help writers out there understand why their own stories might get rejected. 

How would I have voted?

Yet again, I'm fairly certain I'd have voted no. And yet again, I think I'd have probably been wrong.

Why would I have voted no?

There might have been a bit of an irrational reason to reject the story for me: the other day, Anis Shivani, something of a literary man crush for me, commented on my humble little blog. (Or it was at least someone convincingly playing the part of Shivani.) Soon after, I got his first book of fiction, "Anatolia and Other Stories." One of the stories in there is about a man at a writer's workshop retreat, who rather drolly notes that all of the women in his workshop seemed to be writing about anorexia. Which kind of made me subconsciously roll my eyes in sympathy with that main character when I got to "Midterm," about the struggles of a college freshman girl with anorexia named Chandra. I may have taken the proximity of Shivani's story as a clue I should reject the one by Johnson.

Even before I read that story by Shivani, stories about anorexia would have been a tough sell for me. They're kind of--and this is really not to dump on people who have it--played out and after-school-specially to me. My blogging buddy Karen Carlson said the voice of the lost-in-the-sauce female protagonist was "off-putting," even while it was the right voice for the story. Even Johnson herself seems well aware of how many readers might take such a character, and tries to let the reader know she has guessed the reaction by having Chandra's professor beg her not to write "another paper about anorexia" for class.

Johnson actually correctly guessed my thoughts twice in the story. The other time was when Eli, the boy who takes interest in Chandra, starts talking about his philosophy of how we all need to just be present and live our lives. It's the way only a self-important college student tool would talk, which is why Johnson has Eli say, after one monologue, "I sound like an asshole?" Well, now that you mention it, yeah...

Johnson understands that her story is a tough sell for the reader, but she's determined to make us care about Chandra anyway. Just because Chandra's troubles are kind of cliche, first-world troubles doesn't make them less troublesome for her. In fact, that's what makes it so pernicious: she looks very much like she's on her way to becoming a statistic, another girl who washed out of college in the first year. And she's such a cliche, the people in her life seem unable to summon the energy to help her adequately.

Johnson manages to make the reader care about Chandra, in spite of all the obstacles, which is quite an accomplishment. But I kind of think I'd never have gotten far enough as an editor to find out that she'd done it. I don't want to put hypothetical votes into the mouths of other editors I work with, but there are a couple of women at the journal whom I've seen on more than one occasion reject a story with the note "a little too 'YA' for my taste." If either one of them had said that about this story, I'd have probably agreed without thinking too much about it.

It's really remarkable this story managed to get past the inevitable knee-jerk reactions against it. I have to give the Colorado Review props for having accepted it in the first place. It shows a lot of willingness on the part of their editorial staff to hear a writer out. I'm not sure I'd have done as well. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

If I wrote blog posts modeled off glam rock ballads, this is what I'd write

The other day, Mrs. Heretic and I, nostalgic for Korea, went to the get some 잡채 and 콩나물 for a late lunch, then followed it up when we got home by drinking soju on the back porch. After a while, we moved from the porch to the kitchen table, where we passed the time watching music videos from the era we regard as our childhood, more or less the 80s. Unlike my feelings for Korea, I'm not at all nostalgic about the 80s. I regard it as the time in my life when I realized I was not good enough at sports to become a pro athlete. I dislike almost all of the music I grew up listening to. For some reason, though, with enough soju, it became fun for a while to listen to these songs as Youtube chose them for us and be reminded why I dislike almost all of them.

At some point, Youtube moved us back to 1977 and Meatball's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which we listened to, even though I was too young when the song came out to remember it from back then. I don't think I even knew who Meatball was until my late teens. I have no strong opinion on whether "Paradise" is a good song. I'm nearly serious opinion-free on music in general. It's never been a huge part of my self-identity. As a kid, I mostly listened to what was on the radio so I could keep up with conversations at school. (Edit: Mrs. Heretic says people will not get that "Meatball" was a joke. Fine. He's the other staple ground beef meal in American homes.)

I'll say this for the song, though: it's long and it's several things at once and it's self-assured and indulgent and there's a certain joy in that. The song would never get made now; it's too unwieldy and hard to program. It's a vestige of a time when rock stars made the fucking songs they wanted to make and people could play their songs or not. (I guess. I don't know anything about rock and roll history.)

It reminded me of Lydia Davis's "After Reading Peter Bichsell," which I blogged about recently. I said that if I'd seen the story come in to my literary journal as an editor, I'd almost certainly have voted no on it, but reading it gave me a strange pleasure, in part because it took certain liberties I don't think writers take much anymore.

I seem to be doing the same thing with this blog post. I've already spent over 200 words just introducing the concept of the structure of this post. And now here's where the song changes.

Today was one of those "hit a great shot" kind of days

Golfers often talk about how they spend most of the time hating golf, but then once in a while, they hit a great shot, and it keeps them coming back and suffering through a terrible game for a while longer. That was me today. I was really giving thought (again) to pitching it all, mostly because of how unhappy the whole publication struggle makes me sometimes.

Then, today, I had two things happen that were encouraging enough that I'm probably still in it for a while longer.

One was actually a rejection. But it was an encouraging rejection, and it was from The New Ohio Review, which is a really good journal. I have a friend to whom I've tried to explain what writing is like for me, and his reaction to the notion that an "encouraging rejection" is actually a thing was an incredulous "Fuck's a rejection encouraging?" but it really can be. It means that something about the story made them at least take notice. It means there really was something in that story.

The second thing that happened was another agent asked to look at the manuscript for my novel. This could very well just end in disappointment again in a few days or weeks, but at least I'm getting some movement with it.

Those don't sound like very impressive things now that I've written them down. But that's what happened, and now I'm back to grinding some more.

Fucking Anis Shivani

I've quoted this lightning rod critic/poet/novelist several times on this blog. I find much of what he says instantly compelling, because his critique of the academy, of M.F.A. programs, and of modern writing in general seems to match conclusions I'd arrived at on my own. He's suspicious of M.F.A. programs because they're really just socialization of writers, a socialization that teaches us all to be nice, to say nice things about our betters, and that if we do, we'll be rewarded with occasional publications and maybe writing jobs. He says this has led to an insular type of academy-proctored writing, one that is divorced from the public, who largely ignore everything this system produces.

Last year, Shivani was giving an interview. He was talking about his rather ascetic personal training as a writer, in which he turned away from family or even sex, and more or less locked himself away and read. He started to talk about how much reading a writer should do, and said this:

So my question to you, if you want to be a writer, is: Are you willing to shut yourself down and read, read like a writer, the ten or twenty thousand books you need to read before you can know anything about writing? Are you willing to give the best years of your life to reading and writing, are you willing to make writing the first and only priority in life, more than your family and the people you love or money or health or security or anything else? And all by yourself, in solitude? If yes, you can be a writer, if not, you can’t. Community is optional and dispensable. It’s something you do, perhaps, after you’ve established your identity as a writer, not before. But today the cart comes before the horse, it’s the opposite of what it should be.

Those are the kinds of statements that make me think I should pack it in as a writer. I'm not that dedicated. I'm not willing to punt my family for my writing. And maybe, as a result, I'm not that good.

But something about that doesn't sit right. Shivani has himself criticized writers who have no real life experience, who know only teaching and books and the narrow things one learns from domestic life, such as having children and divorce and parents dying. They lack Melville's misery on a merchant ship, or Faulkner's experience in the factory. I've written before about how I prefer to read Carl Sagan, a scientist who writes, to Andrea Barret, a writer who sciences. It's maybe okay if I'm not a pure writer, if I'm a guy who's done some stuff, read some stuff, thought about it and is trying to learn to write well enough to share it.

I haven't read 10% of what Shivani has probably read. When he mentioned the Italian hermeticists in this essay, I had to admit that I didn't even know who the fuck the Italian hermeticists were.

But do I just give up because of that? I do have some stuff in my background that makes up for not being the most well read person out there. (And that's not litotes when I say "not the most well read." I'm not woefully under-read. But I am a slow reader, and I've spent a lot of time reading in foreign languages, books that sometimes took me months to finish. It's limited what I've been able to get through in my life.)

There is enough going on in my brain that it's worth trying to squeeze out, and I'm not just talking about the perfect .gif from a contemporary American sit-com. In any event, I'm not yet despondent enough that I'm able to overcome the compulsion to write.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Finally, some actual literature from me

A few months ago, I wrote about getting a story accepted where the editor actually asked for a few changes. The biggest change, which I now think of as a really good one, was the name. This Christmasy story was originally called "City of Dawit." It's now called "Silver Spring," after the city in Maryland where a lot of Ethiopian/Eritrean folks live.

There's not much to say about it, other than it's not short (about 7,000 words), so if you plan to read, get comfortable.

I wrote this back when I still thought Trump becoming President was the most laughable idea in politics. I didn't know then how important immigrant stories would become.

Here's the story, courtesy of The Green Hills Literary Lantern.

This story will be one of the twelve in my upcoming book, due out in about two months, so you can consider this a sneak-peak.