Friday, December 12, 2014


(He must have died while dictating it.)

A really, really nice rejection note I got today on a story I really, really cared about. For no particular reason, I will take the name of the journal out.:

Thank you so much for submitting "Savage, Maryland" to ______. Though the piece received many favorable comments, it was not selected for publication in the upcoming issue. However, we all admire your writing and sincerely hope you will submit to future volumes. On a personal note, I once lived in Howard County (western side—Highland/Fulton) and have been on the quarry trails, so your piece was especially evocative to me. You drew this setting beautifully.

God. Damn. It. It's a really nice note, and with that level of specificity, there's no chance this is a "fake personal rejection." They really liked it. They just had more good stuff than they could fit. Fuck me.

It occurs to me that one thing that compelled me to start writing again was that I had some things inside of me I really had to get out. But I don't want to just put them on a page for my own personal catharsis. I want to share them, because some of them I really love. I want to give them away. That's how I felt about "American as Berbere," the one that did get published. There are a few more I really love and just want to find an audience. This is my third "encouraging rejection" in three months. I should be encouraged, but right now I just feel empty. If I am making pro-cons lists of whether to keep up this effort of writing, this deflated feeling right now of almost having found a home for this story is in the con column. I am not an indefatigably chipper person. If you tell me no enough times, I will stop asking. I'm really low right now. Which is not how I should feel after someone just said such really nice things about a story I wrote. Shit. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I probably don't write "literary fiction," part II

I never really loved writers who are virtuosos, whose art and language literally ARE the story.  I don't particularly love Joyce or Faulkner. Or Henry James. Or Nabokov. I feel like I love some writers that are great writers: Melville, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Marquez, Borges, and Vonnegut probably top my list. All of these had virtuoso moments, especially Shakespeare, I suppose. But only Marquez really wrote stories that you couldn't do a reasonable job of summarizing in words other than those used in the original. You'd get something far more banal, of course, if you summarized Ahab getting oaths out of the crew or Hamlet's soliloquy in other words than the original, but you'd at least have the right idea. You can't say that of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses. 

This is almost a litmus test for me of what I want to read. Saying I don't love art for art's sake isn't really true and isn't the whole idea. I love Monty Python for loving silliness for its own sake, why shouldn't I love something beautiful that is beautiful just to be beautiful? But I do prefer it when I have a feeling that somebody was compelled to write a story because of something she cared about, something she discovered she had to incarnate in characters to get out, rather than feeling someone just started with something that began on the page and grew from there.

I don't really love writing. I love things in the world, and writing is a tool I have tried to use to get others to love them, too. I realize that this doesn't make anything I write worth reading. Earnestness and sincerity, as Harold Bloom told us, are the sole constants among all bad poets. I could write a story that said "Humans are very precious and dear, even those who don't seem like it, like this person Bob who everyone hated but really had so much to give." It wouldn't be good. It hurt just to write.

I'm not sure I have the mindset and discipline to write something that is good enough. I think I'm a good reader, and that made me want to be a good writer, but maybe what I should really do is be inspired by what I read to do something.

By my count, I have eight more outstanding stories waiting for a yes or a no. One more yes, and I'll keep trying. 0 for 8 and I'm done. I'm just trying to work out here for myself why I really should just let it go if and when that last rejection comes. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Barring unforeseen events, I quit (again)

In spite of the boundless optimism of most people that their lives are great stories, there are few things in the world less interesting than biography. So I apologize for dumping a paragraph or two of it into this space.

At one point in my buoyant mid-twenties, I wrote a life "mission statement" a la Jerry Maguire, in which I declared something like "anyone can have kids, but writing great literature is truly rare and much more difficult, so I will not apologize if I fail to raise children on the way to writing great literature--or even just trying to." I spent the next several years of my life living like I meant that--not doing much that would have moved me in the direction of starting a family (heck, I even got divorced, so I was going backwards on that front for a while). The jobs I worked were all subsistence and I quit them all when they began to vex me. I went to graduate school and accrued a great deal of debt that I have still not paid much of 11 years later. The only thing I didn't do was write great literature.

I got tired of that at some point after taking another hand out from my parents or brother or sister or whoever. So I decided to put away childish things. I gave up writing as soon as I got my M.A., got a real job, started a family, and did not look back.

Writing again was sort of just a thing that happened. I have a friend with a giant Civil War beard. He says he decided one day not to shave for a while and just kept going for a year. That's kind of how this project came about for me. I started writing again one day, read some books on how to do it better, wrote some more, read some more, sent some stuff in, and here I am.

It was really fun getting one of my stories published. Since then, I've had two "encouraging rejections" along with plenty of the regular kind. Today, I just kind of felt the way I felt when I decided I had taken one too many hand-outs. I want to get back to real work. I utterly reject that statement I made in my twenties. If it meant the difference between my son or daughter's happiness, I'd give up writing a thousand Moby Dicks. My life is calling to me with responsibilities, and I am not bright enough to apply the mental energy to those as well as writing. I choose the life responsibilities.

Many writers say they write because they feel they have no choice. I am glad I do not feel this way. I write because I want to, and now I no longer want to.

In the off chance anyone stumbles on this blog one day via Google, here is my only writing wisdom for you: do not spend the money to go to grad school in writing. Not unless the school is giving it to you for free, along with a stipend. It does not guarantee, or even significantly improve, your odds at becoming a successful (money-wise) writer. You will accrue debt. You will have few options for careers but teaching at colleges, probably as an adjunct, which has a low wage and poor benefits. You may get small breaks with small presses from your contacts, but they will pay very little. You will have paid a handsome fee to join an overly glutted field.

Instead, do what few writing programs have you do: buy a book on how to write. Buy two. Buy ten. Read them. Do the activities and prompts, or at least a few of them. Write. If you can find a good reader to help you for free, that is best. If not, pay for it with a literary service. It's 150 bucks or so, which is 1% of where you'll be in the hole after grad school.

I'll see if any of the stories I've already submitted get a bite. But I'm not submitting anything new.

It occurs to me that the only story I broke through with was about the people I love, the people I have tried to help. That must mean something. I'm going to focus on those people.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It is possible I do not really write "literary fiction"

I have staunchly resisted the conclusion in the title for a long time. I have a Master's degree in English (not "English Light"--I specifically sought an M.A. instead of an M.F.A. because I took literature so effing seriously). I haven't read every work in the canon, but I've read a lot. I scored high on my Lit GRE. I know freaking THEORY, for Christ's sake. I must write lit fic.

If we're just using the definition of lit fic provided by the almighty and infallible Wikipedia, then maybe I am writing--or trying to write--literary fiction:
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
I hope that what I'm writing is doing that. But then again, a lot of works that aren't really thought to be "literary fiction" do that. There's no shortage of political and social commentary in Harry Potter, as well as exploration of the individual against a (sometimes surprisingly dark) human reality.

In practice, "literary fiction" isn't synonymous with "good fiction," and this is where I have been kidding myself. Writing is considered lit fic if it tends, in an oft-quoted line from James Joyce, to not simply be "about" something, but to be the thing itself. It does not simply use words to make a story that is about something, the words themselves, and the form they take, becomes the story.

Not all that is called lit fic is Ulysses, of course. One literary agent wrote about a "sweet spot" that publishing companies like it lit fic, a sweet spot that has at least enough of a plot to keep readers reading, but also has enough smart stuff to make it different from reading pulp. It's meant to appeal to good readers.

By any standard, I am a good reader, but I wanted nothing to do with writing for a long time. One reason, I think, was because I read so much literary fiction in college, and felt that #1: something must be wrong with me, because I didn't like a lot of it and didn't even "get" some of it, and #2: I couldn't write like that.

I started writing again after five years of reading "young adult" literature with my son. We've read a lot of the books you'd expect (although he's very young for some of these, not being ten yet). Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, the Tolkien canon, Lemony Snicket, that kind of thing. None of these are great books in the sense that they do anything new and unusual with language. In fact, in some of them, the language is a little bit unimaginative, and in the Percy Jackson series, it's just pretty bad. But that doesn't mean there wasn't greatness in these books. There was "a focus on the individual to explore some larger part of the human condition."

I try to write stories that are full of merit and maybe greatness, but I am not a virtuoso with language. Not that I can't hit a beautiful note here and there, but I'm kind of a puncher with words rather than a graceful pugilist. I take a Hercules approach--I prefer to progress by brute force when I can, and I only use my head if I get to a point where I have to.

But I wonder if trying to get published by journals that specialize in "literary fiction" isn't a losing proposal for me. I'm not sure I write it. I might be doing myself a disservice by insisting that because I think what I write is "good" that it is "literary fiction."

Accepting this would greatly alter my "game plan." I've been trying to publish short stories with the hope of accruing enough credits to find someone to take a novel. But if I drop the whole idea of writing literary fiction, I could skip right ahead to the novel. Commercial fiction doesn't require a long understudy period in short fiction for journals like lit fic does. 

When I took up writing again, the short story was a way to improve how I wrote and to gain credits. I think I have done enough of the first that if I really am not writing lit fic, I could just stop caring about the second.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tellitslant's submission service and the "encouraging rejection"

I got my second "rejection with feedback" in a week yesterday. I was amused to find that tellitslant, the poor cousin of Submittable in the family of submission tools, has "encouraging rejection" as a status category. Seems a bit presumptuous. Seems like the question of whether it was "encouraging" is up to me. I haven't decided yet whether I like these "no with a note" responses better or worse than no response. Would I rather lose a game by a lot or lose a nail-biter in a heartbreaking last second play? Do I want to know that I almost made the cut?

 Yeah, I guess I do. It's harder to take at first, but easier to take a week later, I think. Okay, "encouraging rejection" status granted.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Man up or give up, Weber

Got some nice feedback on my writing and this blog yesterday:
If I have any advice for you it would be this: don't take the rejection so hard. I've been reading your blog and I wonder if what is making you doubt yourself is writing about the doubt and the rejection, which is something you have no control over (and seems counter productive). Rejection, more than anything else for a writer (save solitary confinement at the keyboard) is the one constant. You will always hear no and you'll hear it often, but you also have many publications ahead of you because you are a fine writer, Jake, and I think you should put your energy into creative writing instead of questioning editorial decisions and the stories that are being published today. You are now a voice among them, and I think as soon as you accept that rejection will always be there, you will enter a new and productive period of writing that is solely focused on your work. The bookshelf is large and journals abound and all of it is so damn subjective, but as long as you don't give up you'll keep seeing your work out in the world where readers will find you. I felt compelled to offer you this ra-ra speech after reading one hell of a story. Keep going, and focus on the positives and the things you are absolutely in control of, which is your own writing practice. The marketplace will/has found you, so keep going and forget about the rest.
In the Marine Corps, folks would have put this less diplomatically, and asked if a part of my anatomy that I do not actually have because I am not a woman had gotten sand in it. Quit bitching about what people publish or don't publish, about you not getting published, and just write stories already, if that's what you want to do.

There is undeniable wisdom is this kind of no-excuses advice. (I'm talking about my imaginary advice I'm putting in the mouth of imaginary people, not the much nicer advice I got from this person.) I've been thinking of putting the blog on hold to get back to more fiction writing for a while now. (There was already a blog gap in September when I wrote non-stop to make a deadline.) But first, here's why I do this blog.

First of all, I think graduate school in writing was a giant waste of time and money, and want to make sure I leave that message to the world to help others not make the same mistake. Seriously, if you really want to make 22K a year teaching four comp classes, then get an advanced degree in English. If you want to write, though, learn to do something that pays reasonably well and that you don't hate. Then, buy some writing books, get someone to critique you whose taste you respect, and write.

Secondly, I don't want to write if nobody is going to ever read what I write (other than family and a few friends who feel compelled to). I don't think there's any value in that. If I knew that nothing I wrote from this moment on would find an audience, I'd stop writing this instant. So I want to work through the question of how realistic it is that I will find an audience.

Like a lot of writers, I do feel some sense of compulsion to write that is independent of the audience question. But the audience is there in my mind at an early stage. I think one important reason I write has to do with wanting to have more stories that I like to read out there. Nobody else is going to write them, so I have to write them. When I write something and accomplish my goal in writing it, I like it. But if I can't find others to agree, what does that say about me? Or about them? Either way, it makes writing seem futile.

If I can write stories and they can find an audience and those stories help make the lives of others better in some way, then writing is utterly worth it. If not, it's worth nothing.

That's where I've been for a long time. But my adviser is right--there really are no guarantees. I hate "faith," which I take to mean "thinking you know something that you don't really know." But I have some admiration for hope, which I interpret as "acting as though something matters when you have no idea if it really does." So I'll get back to it and quit bitching.

But not without limits. I put writing away for a decade so I could raise a family (and quit mooching off mine). I'm going to keep writing and sending off until the end of the year, then I'm putting it away again for a while. C.S. Lewis said that "the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world," and while I don't share his faith, I do think that I would trade a Nobel for a loaf of bread if that loaf of bread would be of more use than all my writing could.

Monday, November 3, 2014

My Puritanism and my deep doubts about literature

Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. The mechanisms of hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative. Not so the pleasures of Paradise. Paradise is not a story. It's about what happens when the stories are over.
-Charles Baxter

I remember vividly one afternoon in the library at University of Illinois-Chicago in my second semester of graduate school. It was an ugly concrete box of a building on a campus full of ugly concrete boxes. The bathroom had a hole in the wall separating two toilets, and graffiti that was neighbor to that hole invited me to place my dick in that hole at midnight. 

I had just endured a three hour class with a rather nasty professor who had an annoying habit of rephrasing every answer to every question given by grad students in order to make it seem that she knew an answer that was slightly more correct than the one given. I was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion, one that I could not quite express, that there was something wrong with literature as a profession.

If there was ever a time that God intervened in this agnostic's life, it was that afternoon, because I found a book quite at random that changed my life. It was the now-hard-to-find book Why Literature is Bad for You by Peter Thorpe.  It isn't a terribly closely reasoned book, but it does present some arguments about why reading literature might not always be a healthy activity that pass an initial common sense test. One of them has overtones of Augustine. Augustine critiqued literature for causing fake emotion: you would cry for the downtrodden in a story, and this would make you not realize how much you ignored the downtrodden in the real world. 

Thorpe's argument is in that family. Although literature can be quite good at opening our imagination to other consciousnesses and making us see the other as something both alien and familiar, it can also trick us into accepting something we know is wrong. For example, we can be led to sympathize with Mersault in Camus's The Stranger, although if we were jurors, I hope we would find him guilty. 

I don't think that literature really means to make us feel sympathy with sinners. However much the last 20 years has seen a shift toward deeply, deeply flawed protagonists, we are usually meant to either find at the end that the hero has made some small but profound (for the hero, at least) change toward something affirming, or we are meant to find some sort of cautionary tale in the failure to change. But even so, this never-ending glut of stories about sinners, investigating the many sides of sin, the many ways to sin, the oh-so-fascinating narrative friendliness of hell can begin to take a toll on a person's psyche. I wonder if this might not be in some ways a more profound influence than that of violent video games or television. A character like Tyler Durden or Milton's Lucifer is so beguiling, that even once the lawyer withdraws the argument, its influence is already there on the jury. We allow compelling bastards deep into our consciousness in a way we might not with Master Chief blowing endless holes in aliens in the Halo series.

Stories are never going to go away. Mark Turner's The Literary Mind showed that humans naturally think in stories, even in our everyday language. "The economy is stagnant" implies a picture of the economy as a body of water (which of course it isn't). It's a story. But this essential narrative nature of humanity makes me wonder if we are sometimes too casual with the content we make.

That doesn't mean we should intentionally set out to make characters who are better than real life, or who don't make the kinds of mistakes we don't think are "edifying" for readers. But we can't treat fiction as though it were a wholly different class of writing from non-fiction. Fiction is a vehicle to say something that is best told in a story rather than in a persuasive non-fiction format. You can do that by starting with the thing you want to say and finding the story to tell it, or you can do it by imagining a story and divining what it might be telling you. But you can't just dream up characters for readers to believe in and empathize with and that's it. That's making your readers into Augustine's corrupt literary consumers, enjoying the pleasure of vicarious feelings as though they were a fine wine. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

On the auspicious eve of my first publication...

...I am wondering if I should just stop writing stories.

I quit trying to write fiction after grad school for many reasons:

-Too many good writers, not enough readers
-Wanted a job I could support my family with
-Wasn't sure that writing was a good way to have impact in the world--great books have been written for hundreds of years, but the world is still full of bad people (many of whom have read those great books).
-I sensed that the profession of literature made you kind of a dick, based on the fact that almost every professor (of literature) I knew in grad school was a dick. (Only one who was MY professor, but plenty were lurking about.)
-Even if I were a great writer, there was no guarantee I'd ever be lucky with publication
-I have no desire to write something if nobody or practically nobody will ever read it.
-I felt that after grad school, I was out of step with what made literature "great."
-Rejection is very hard psychologically on me. So why should I voluntarily add 50 to 100 instances of it a year that aren't strictly necessary? (It doesn't get easier with practice.)
-Tangibly helping people in the world is probably worth more than writing a great story.

So I didn't write for ten years. I barely read--at least nothing that was in English. My job is to translate, so I read stuff in other languages. But I never read English novels or short stories. And you know what? I was kind of happy.

In the 13 months of my mid-life crisis writing experiment, I think I've lost some of that happiness. You could crack wise about how wisdom brings suffering or something, and say that I was just filling those ten years I thought I was happy with mundane stuff. Isn't that what humans do, though? We focus on the secular, because it's what here. We eat, drink, and make human connections, and the time passes, and soon we're old enough to die and end all our troubles.

I'm going to let it play out a little longer, but this is very much an activity whose worth is under assessment.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A nice personal note to go with my rejection...or was it????

The flash fiction piece I wrote last month got rejected by Apeiron Review, but came with a personal note with the rejection (first one I've gotten--everything else has been form letter "no" and the one acceptance).

Thank you for sending us your work. We appreciate the chance to read it. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.

Just a note: this piece has a lot of potential, and we held onto it for so long so that we could really get to know it. The last line, in particular, held a lot of meaning. We hope to see more of your work in the future.

All the best to you!

Apeiron Review 

Funny thing is that they didn't hold onto it that long (a little over a month). Could this be a fake personal note? But why? They didn't try to sell me anything. The last line of my story I actually did not like--it felt to me like a borderline hogwash summary. However, I can see where they might have thought it was pregnant with meaning. I'm pretty sure this is a sincere "close, but not quite."

I'm calling it a moral victory.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The award for best form rejection letter by a writing journal goes to...

I just got a rejection from Carve Magazine, the same magazine whose literary services I used in August to get a sense of what editors think when they read my stories. Here is their form rejection letter:

We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but we will not be publishing “Savage, Maryland.”

Editorial decisions are ultimately subjective, so we encourage you to keep writing and submitting. When your work finds a home, we’d like to know so we can share the news with others. Tell us at

We hope you continue to enjoy reading future issues of Carve, and you are welcome to submit again.


Editor and Staff
Carve Magazine |

P.S. If you're looking for in-depth feedback, check out our editing services at We offer a broad range of editorial and mentoring services.

Why do I like this? Several reasons. #1) There is never even a flutter of anticipation that you got picked, only to feel crushed later. #2) There is an admission that there is an element of randomness to this. Other zines do this, of course, but not as well or with as much seeming integrity. #3) The magazine has a "REJECT!" section, where you can show up with a story they turned down that someone else wanted. Now, the skeptical might say that this is just an opportunity for them to hawk the "premium" edition to you, but I have no problem with this. A lot of journals are trying sneaky things to get you to spend the coin to be a full member, and at least this one shows a little humility.

I'm a little concerned that this rejection came so fast. One day under a month. That means it was a quick throw-out. I don't think I'm writing obvious throwaway stories anymore. Makes me a little concerned that they think I am. But, oh well. They're not in my top ten favorites, anyway.

My first published story comes out on Baltimore Review on October 31st.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

The right way to lie

"Specific, definite, concrete, particular details--these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness. Mary is sure that Ed forgot to pay the gas bill last Tuesday, but Ed says, "I know I went, because this old guy in a knit vest was in front of me in the line, and went on and on about his twin granddaughters"--and it is hard to refute a knit vest and twins even if the furnace doesn't work."

-Writing Fiction, Burroway, 7th edition, pg 26

Most readers can probably be divided into those who love great sensory descriptions of scene, those who let their imaginations go with the details, and those who are happy enough just skipping over that stuff. I've been one of the second most of my life. I first noticed this tendency in myself when I was nine and reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series. He was describing his characters traveling through a woods, and try as I might to bend my imagination to the details Alexander wanted me to see, I could only see the woods behind my house. Even after the characters had traveled for days, I still had only moved them from one end of the woods to another. 

Later, in high school, I read Lewis and Tolkien. I got very badly stuck for two days once on the same two-page description of some outdoor scene. They used British terminology for topography, and in those days learning a term you didn't know required getting a dictionary or encyclopedia. I eventually just said to myself, "this is a mountain," and moved on. 

I guess I'm a Philistine with details that set a scene. Jhumpa Lahiri or Khaled Hosseini's pearls are trampled by swine like me. In the last few years, I've been better about appreciating scene, partly because I've tried to write it but mostly because I can now just push an unknown word in Kindle and get a quick definition. This helps keep me on track. It's also critical that a deepening sense of how to view scene like it were film, with all the possibilities of meaning available there, have made it more enjoyable to put in the effort to imagine what I'm supposed to imagine.

But it still doesn't come naturally to me. Here's the beginning of an early favorite story of mine:

A certain man had two sons. (What were their names? What did they look like? What were their favorite colors and subjects in school?) And the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me" (What did the father do to gain his wealth? How did his sons feel about this occupation?) And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. (What was his motivation for leaving? Did he plan to party his money away, or did it just work out that way? Did he justify his decisions to himself, or was he deliberately blocking the voice of reason in his head?)  

You get the idea. You can put together a fine story without a lot of details. Flash fiction (which I don't really like that much, but everyone swears it can be as powerful as its longer cousins) necessarily drops details in order to keep the word count under 1000 and still have something happen. 

I think there's a much deeper reason why I tend to be anti-details than just my own laziness or lack of spatial and artistic intelligence. The passage I started this post with says that details tend to hide a lie. But don't they also tip the skeptical among off that a lie is being told? If a student starts to tell a long story about how the homework didn't get done through no fault of his own, or if the employee begins to talk a long time on the phone about why she is calling off, the teacher or boss gets a tingly feelings that all is not well. It's the same in fiction. I hit a point where, after too many too close details, I start to call bullshit. Here is a totally unfair example of a passage I recently read and hated. It's from "Depth Perception" in Carve Magazine by Laura Gibson. There are a number of well-crafted details that I accepted and even enjoyed for some time:

-Sitting on an old milk pail between rows, he stopped for a moment, a clutch of pineapple weed in one hand..
- I sat up and leaned over the booth table and put my face close to Lou’s, inhaling his sawdust and wood smoke flecked with motor oil, a whiskey after-burner.

But then I get to this line:

-The bottoms of his boots smooth and worn, so thin near the balls of his feet he’d have to have them re-soled soon.

And I just felt that the story was bullshit and had a hard time going on emotionally. Her lead character was putting the corpse in the rig, but my willingness to follow the story stayed there in the bar. Why? It was one detail too many, and too fine a detail. Nobody notices things like that with that amount of detail. It leads me to wonder: who is the narrator? Is it a disembodied person seeing through one character's eyes? Is that why he can see better than the person herself? (Incidentally, I'm not at all calling this a bad story, or saying Gibson should have written it to my taste. I'm saying that this is a taste I have, and I find it offended often in 2014.)

Well, of course that is exactly what third person limited is. But muscular or fine details have a way of making that too clear to me, and ruining my ability to listen to the disembodied voice. It just announces itself too much when I need it to stay hidden. It's like realizing what eggs really are in the middle of eating an omelet.  It's too good of a lie, and it makes me feel uneasy about the whole prospect of listening to a lie for the next 15 minutes to 20 hours, depending on the length of the lie. 

Of course, there is a way around this for me. Tell me tons and tons of lies. Make your lies outrageous. Because then, it'll be clear to me that you're just spinning a yarn that's meant to make me enjoy myself, and I can forget about suspending disbelief. This can be done in fantasy, of course, but it can also be done with really self-conscious description. The Corrections comes to mind. I of course know that all the too-fine thoughts going on are all Franzen, but he's not trying to hide that, so I just go along with Franzen, and it turns out Franzen is a pretty entertaining liar.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A book I should have read a long time ago

I just ordered Against the Academy: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies by Anis Shivani. Given that this whole blog is nominally dedicated to my dislike of the university workshop (and the literature it engenders, which seems to occupy most of the journals considered worth reading by the literati), I guess I should have read this a long time ago. I've been busy. Mostly doing stuff having nothing to do with literature.

I found the book when I came this review while looking for criticisms of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which I just read. Man, Shivani is a strident son of a bitch. Too strident, I thought, in his sweeping smashing of nearly all literature that DOESN'T deal with death and the thinness of capitalism. But maybe that will be just the ticket for something I think is as obviously a failure as university writing programs, but that seems to go on and on like McCarthy's road. I am planning to read it just to enjoy vicariously feeling his seething rage and he makes points I've thought about, but do not have the wit to phrase as sharply as him.

Friday, October 24, 2014

My first ever review

Blake Kimzey is getting a ton of publicity from this blog--or will, when more than five people read it--as a result of having been the guy who was randomly assigned to edit a story I sent to Carve magazine. I recently read his winner of the 2013 Black River Chapbook Contest, Families Among Us

I've never done a book or story review on here, and I'll think I'll do one now. But since this blog is supposed to be mostly about writing, I'm also going to be looking at it from the view of craft (getting ideas of what to do, developing an aesthetic, uncovering strategies, etc.)

One of the most striking things about this slender book (six short stories, four of which are very short, 32 pages total) is that for a book of short stories, they mostly fit together pretty well. A lot of short story writers joke about how they try to come up with convoluted ways in which they can present their short stories as a coherent, related collection when it really isn't (because, of course, nobody publishes short stories).  Four of these six are so closely related, I really hope they were written with each other in mind. Otherwise, Kimzey uses the same idea an awful lot in his short fiction.

Because the stories work together so well, it's nice to consider this chapbook as a text to be taken whole. In this manner, we end up with an interesting structure (spoiler alert times a million, although I don't think it will ruin the book much--in most of the stories the surprise is given away early on):

Story One: A family crashes on a jet, sprouts gills and lives underwater for a long time. They decide to come to the surface to re-adapt to life on land after an indefinite amount of time. It doesn't take, and the boy and girl cast off their clothes and return to the sea.

Story Two: A boy is born with a "beetle back" and wings. He learns to fly, although he is otherwise normal. He eventually sheds his clothes, flies off, and is never seen by the family again.

Story Four: A boy is born with what seems to be a worm-like mid-section. The boy eats dirt. The boy eventually casts off his clothes and squirms away, never to be seen again.

Story Five: A boy turns into a bear. Before he completely transforms, he casts off his clothes, heads to the forest, and finds a bear companion after hibernation.

Stories three and six are the change-ups. Story six actually acts like a nice ending to stories 1,2,4, and 5. It's the story Kimzey had published in Tin House for "Flash Friday." Here, a village has gone out to seek a lost child, and they find him after he has apparently fallen from the stars. What happens next is up to interpretation.

Story three is the one story that doesn't quite fit. It was also my favorite, although I have to say if Edward Said read it, he'd probably go ape shit. (Let me save you some time. Orientalism is a million pages of stodgy prose that basically says that people tend to read themselves into the "other.") An American bicycle tour guide in Paris is fascinated by the owls who live in his neighborhood and by the burka-clad woman who lives upstairs. Turns out, the burka-clad woman who lives upstairs is hiding a part-owl body beneath her covering. He is mesmerized, but the girl's father takes her off to the forest to lay her oeufs. 

I have to admit that by story four, I was a little tired of the story cycle. The most exciting moment came for me in story #2, "Up and Away." In the first story, "A Family Among Us," we get a perspective that might technically be third-person objective: we see all the actions of the family, but do not enter their thoughts. "Up and Away," though, gives us a nice use of third-person omniscient, a now rarely-used technique that stole the spotlight of this story. Because here, we get a truly family-level perspective of what is probably the core legend of this clan. We jump from mother's brain to sister's brain to father's brain in the same paragraph, much like one might hear a family tell one of their favorite vacation stories by talking over one another.

The final story, "And Finally the Tragedy," strikes me as a fitting ending to all the stories except three, because it is as if the village has gone to try to find all those children who have gone feral and ventured off into the wild. They have found the child, but the child brings back a revelation, something indecipherable: he opens his mouth, but instead of speaking, his mouth is "as cavernous as a two-story movie theater," leaving the narrator (the only first-person narrator in the book) to fear "he would swallow us whole."

Yet this first-person narrator, the town's reverend, still feels it is his duty to interpret the meaning the boy brings: "It was up to me to make sense of the boy." And so we, as readers, must make sense of Families. 

When reading magic realism, a form to which these stories undoubtedly belong (story four even has a boy who eats dirt, a la Rebecca in One Hundred Years of Solitude), I like to think that one key to unlocking the cipher is something that George McDonald said in The Miracles of our Lord: many of the miracles of Christ were just exaggerated versions of something God does all the time in nature anyway. God always turns water into wine (okay, you need other stuff, too). God always makes fish and bread. God always  makes fig trees wither and die.

So in the magic realist story, you have an element that is like the world as we know it, but stretched out of proportion. Children may not have beetle backs or fly or have gills, but they are a part of the natural world, as much as we parents try to convince them they are not. (Is there anything more savage than the birth of a baby? How did we ever get to celebrating this event with soft blue and pink balloons?) They do eventually leave (unless they major in English).

The first story is a slightly different story arc. The family actually begins by leaving the fuselage of the plane, where they have lived, as inside a womb, beneath the sea for who knows how long. But the children chafe at wearing clothes, and long before they even see civilization, they are playing a dangerous game of seeing how long they can hold their breath beneath the ocean, wishing to re-grow their gills to get back. So we all somewhat reject being taken from the womb, and long to return to  breathing our air through gills.

Rather than emerge from pre-life and wish to go back, the boy in the final story has returned from post-life and brought something of the terrible mystery back with him to trouble civilized folk.

The stories have much more harvest to yield than this, and the best thing I can say about them is that they brought me enough of joy that I am willing to keep trying to reap from them. I have said before that I like a story that has a point, that says something a cashier or a bouncer or a Marine can carry with him or her that will make life richer or maybe even just tolerable. But I don't always need to be able to fully realize what that thing is. I want there to be something to eat. If I enjoy the atmosphere and the appetizer was appealing, I am willing to wait for the main course, even if the main course does not come for decades. Whatever treasure is hiding in these stories (enough metaphors mixed in one paragraph?), there is enough of a map here to spend some time enjoying looking for it.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Counterpoint: Readers are sometimes great

In my last post, I wrote about how readers can be terrible. They can, and this has some ramifications for writers. First, you have to realize how easily you can lose a reader. That doesn't mean you've got to always spoon-feed or hit them with pap or otherwise try to compete with less demanding forms of entertainment. That's likely to end badly for you: cat videos will always be more cat-video than you can ever achieve, and you'll just earn contempt for trying. Fiction isn't something people read primarily because they have to. They do it for enjoyment, and people enjoy being challenged a little bit. Just don't take that willingness to take on a challenge for granted, or push it beyond its natural limits.

Secondly, you can maybe sometime give yourself a break as a writer if you think you wrote something great and you got feedback that perplexes you. It's possible that your reader was distracted, in a weird mood, or just isn't a very good reader. That doesn't mean you can just dismiss all advice you don't want to hear because the guy's a knucklehead anyway. But it's a factor worth considering.

All that truth about readers often being ass hats remembered, though, sometimes readers really are pretty great. I mentioned two stories I gave up on early on for bad reasons. I eventually finished both stories. It just took me a while to work up to them. Readers are people, which means they will often (most of the time?) confound you with their thickness, but they'll also knock you over with their perceptiveness. They'll make you feel grateful for the loving, giving way their read your stuff.

I mention this because I don't think it's helpful when actually writing to think too much about the asshattery of readers. If you worry too much about it, you'll never write. Instead, picture a really good reader (maybe you), and write to that person. Don't exhaust your good reader more than you would someone you really like, unless you happen to like being exhausted. But write with confidence and certainty that your work will find a good reader if you accomplish your goal in execution.

Considering what twats readers can be is something you should only do after you've written and gotten feedback either pre or post-publication. Consider well what you hear from a reader, and be willing to be humble enough to make changes.  But also take everything with skepticism. A lot of people just comment to have something to say. Many people weren't paying much attention when they read. (Obviously, I think almost everyone in my college workshops fits this description. They were just overworked, and probably more interested in getting, rather than giving, good feedback.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

All readers are douchenozzles. I am a reader. Therefore...

If you read through some of my previous posts, you'll see that Blake Kimzey, author of Families Among Us, the book that won the Black River chapbook contest, was nice enough to respond on this blog, even though I wasn't 100% happy with his feedback on one of my short stories. He even sent me one of his short stories, one that he says he really is invested in, but can't seem to get a single journal to bite on. I gave him my thoughts on the story, not because I think I know how to write a story that will get published, but more as an example of his eventual typical reader--someone who reads literary journals. In the feedback I sent him, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut: "Readers...are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything."

I've been thinking about this idea a lot in the last week. Readers have lives, lives in which they not only have literally millions of choices about what to read, but millions of choices of things to do other than reading. As a writer, you are always one split-second of unappealing writing away from losing your reader forever. And a reader has no more reason to feel bad about dumping your story than he does about deciding to take a nap instead of watching Fried Green Tomatoes for the eighty-seventh time on TNT.

I can think of two examples in the last month where I myself was guilty of being a dirtbag of a reader. One was the short story "Yachts" from the Spring/Summer edition of Glimmertrain. I almost didn't read it at all, because just from the title, I thought it would be about some rich characters in Kennebunkport or something. I set the magazine down, and didn't read it again for two days. If the story hadn't made it clear in the first page that it was actually about a poor person from New York who gets talked into a yacht trip in the Mediterranean with his wealthier friend, I don't think I'd have ever read it. A second example was a story from the Baltimore Review's 2014 compendium of all its work. "Patience" by Janice Greenwood began with these words: "Shortly after Maria had been released from the hospital, the snails began to destroy the garden." I thought there would be a lot in the story about gardening, which I consider to be boring. I put the story down and read something else. I haven't picked it back up yet. Totally unfair.

When I was at the Baltimore Book Fair a few weeks ago, I attended a workshop led by Baltimore Review's editors on "making the ordinary extraordinary." Seth Sawyers asserted that "you can talk about anything that interests you, and if you really are passionate about it, a reader will follow you." I'm not sure he was right. I'm kind of a jerk. I assume others are, too. If you try to sell me on a story about a lady who knits sweaters, I doubt I'll stay with you. I might, depending on how clever you are in writing it, but you've definitely turned up the difficulty on trying to get me to stay with you.

The upshot of all of this is that maybe it's good when you get feedback from someone and it includes some ideas that maybe reflect that the reader didn't all the way "get it." Because your real readers certainly aren't going to be MORE attentive than that. I still think I am right to have been annoyed by the lazy readership I got in grad school workshops, because, well, I was paying a lot of money to get a better readership. At the very least, I deserved more than half thought-out criticisms by other beginning writers who were struggling to keep up with classes, their own writing, and part-time jobs.

I really think the "literary service" was a nice middle ground. I can't afford to use it on every story, but really, I'd recommend it over a writing program for a lot of writers looking to get their careers started. I certainly got a closer reading than I ever got in grad school, and I got more useful feedback. But it wasn't TOO useful. That is, it wasn't so sympathetic to me that I got an unrealistic idea of how sympathetically my asshole readers in the real world will read it.

So does the basic selfishness of readers mean that you must always choose high-octane story lines that will prevent them from getting bored? I don't think so. If your pool of potential readers is a random sampling of the general public, then I reckon that for every person like me who loves Schwarzenegger films and hates gardening, you'll get one who loves to make their own socks and grow herbs. But you do have to keep your readers in mind as you write. This is definitely not something you do during an early draft, but as you get near your completed story, you need to kick the tires to make sure you don't have anything in your story that will make someone put it down for good. And getting feedback from a reader, even a distracted reader, can be useful for this. Your friend, family member or paid editor is still giving it more care than the person out in the world will. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Misplaced aggression

In the 19th century, writers were sometimes paid by the word by periodicals. This led to what can only be called "padding" by some writers, as they laid on parenthetical remarks and lists of adjectives. Even those who weren't induced by money were influenced by the style, and almost any writer of prose you can think of from 1850 to 1890 had a style that leaned at least a little bit in the florid direction. (Mark Twain comes to mind as a possible exepction, but even then, he was willing to let characters run off at the mouth in imitation of the style, and a reader of Twain does get some enjoyment out of Twain's permissiveness to his characters.)

Some folks find this style baroque and unappealing. I have always envied the world they lived in that had time for such rhetorical luxuries. We don't write that way now. One specific injunction all fiction writers face is to avoid overuse of adjectives. One reason is that writers are supposed to use verbal economy now (how is it that in the 19th century, when paper cost money, writers were encouraged to use a lot of it, while now, when digital space is essentially free, we all need to be sparing with our words?) The main reason, though, is that adjectives are not considered to be anchored enough to reality, and can thus be a violation of the "show don't tell" policy. Don't tell us that Cindy is loquacious, show her prattling on a lot. 

I think that writers are making up for being restricted from using all their fancy adjectives by using nouns that no normal human being knows. I'll use The Road by Cormac McCarthy as an example, but I can find examples in almost any literary journal. McCarthy's style, if you've never read the book, is almost unbelievably plain. Many of the sentences (most?) are only fragments. The book is compared to a dream often, because the brevity of the sentences leaves everything only roughed out. There is no artifice at all.

Except for the nouns. Depending on where the characters are, you can end up getting three nouns on one page that I have to look up. What's a macadam? Mastic? I don't know. I see this all the time--writers using nouns in their writing to identify a very precise item that hardly anybody would recognize without looking it up. This isn't a bad thing. I think it derives from a similar impulse to that which once made writers call characters "loquacious." Those writers wanted to give the impression that they knew all the people in their stories with godlike precision. So they had a name (adjective) for each of them. Modern day writers want to give the impression that they are truly in command of their dreamscapes, and so they make a point of showing that they know the proper names of everything within them.

I don't really object to this. I did it myself recently in my flash fiction attempt. I looked up the type of grasses and trees that would have been native to an Illinois prairie. I DO think that writing like this runs the risk of giving the impression that it was written ten minutes after a Google search. (Mine was.) That can spoil the illusion that the precision of nouns was meant to create.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Confession: I am not a huge fan of flash fiction

I love Borges's many short, short stories. Many of them, I assume, are under a thousand words. Other than that, I can't recall any really, really short stories that have stuck with me, that have shaped who I am in any significant way. I wrote one, just to see if I can do it. I guess it was on okay story, but even I left it feeling like I had just sketched out something else I needed to write later as a longer story.

I think flash fiction is a bullshit genre. It's everywhere now, and editors and writers both are swearing that you it can carry the full power of longer fiction, but I haven't seen examples. Flash fiction (and the "i-story") are just bad attempts to make fiction seem to be keeping up with the times, these go-go times of short attention spans and four social media running at once. The result seems to me to be embarrassing, like when churches try to ape pop culture to seem hip.

Flash fiction often seems like an easier challenge than the "six word story" challenge. It's an etude, a thing for writers to try, and they may learn something from it that will allow them to write smarter when they get back to "real" stories.

The only thing I do like about the short-short is that it tends to be lenient about allowing authorial intrusions, which I think modern lit lacks. An example is Sherman Alexie's "Idolatry," which allows for this country-westernish moral to be drawn at the end: "In this world, we must love the liars. Or live alone." You'd never get away with that in longer stories. We accept it in short stuff, because we are specifically looking for a novel-sized life lesson in a pill, and so we allow it. It's like Jesus telling a little vignette, and then wrapping it up with "So I say unto you..."

I'll probably write more of it, though. Just like at my job, I hate writing my own performance review, but eventually started putting effort into it because I was tired of mediocre reviews, I will probably also work harder at making flash fiction because I want to get stories told, even if they're not really in the form I would prefer to write them.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unreasonable expectations of literary journals

I write this entry to grant other writers struggling to get off the ground the same license I have granted myself. We all see when we go to submit to various journals that they tell us some form of "You should support us if you're going to submit to us," or "The best entries are from people who are familiar with our work."

Soooo....journals accept about 1% of their work. So really, if I want to go on odds, I need to submit a hundred times to get accepted once. That's a lot of submissions. I'm not going to read the heck out of you all before I do that. I like to read, but I have a day job, and a family, and it takes time to do all that and write. I can maybe read two or three journals a month.

So, here's what I've decided: I have paid subscriptions to two journals. I read a few more regularly that make their content free online. Other than that, I will be happy to support the heck out of your journal when you do one of two things: Publish a story so great it changes my life, or show you share my taste enough to publish me.

As soon as Baltimore Review puts out the edition with me in it, I'll planning to drop a decent donation on them. (I don't want to do it before, because I don't want to be seen as bribing them.) I think it's only fair I do the same for anyone else who publishes me. If they do something to help me get my stories out there, I'd like to help them to keep putting out stories.

But let's be real, literary magazines. Any decent journal is going to put out good stuff that will be similar to the good stuff in other good journals. There are more than enough talented writers to fill hundreds of journals with worthwhile short fiction. I know what quality writing looks like. So I think I have some sense of what belongs in your journal even if I haven't read everything you put out.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Changing course

I was going to write about what it feels like to see something published in a journal you've submitted to that seems to you not as good as what you wrote that got rejected. I was going to do this by looking at the Spring/Summer Glimmer Train. But this seems stupid to me now, for a few reasons. It's one thing for me to air my grievances with a writer who I paid to be my editor/adviser on here, it's another to rip on another writer, like me, who's just trying to get his/her stories told. It's just not charitable. My own frustration shouldn't be a cause to be unkind.

Anyhow, it's a given that in a volume with a dozen or so stories, there will be a few the editors liked that I don't. I do usually like most of the stories in GT, which is why it's one of the few lit journals I subscribe to. I've just given my explanation of what I like and what I look for in fiction; others are welcome to their own aesthetic. Maybe what I'm more frustrated about is that in general, I don't see enough of the kind of stories I love. It's one of the reasons I decided to start writing again.

Why else did I start writing again? God, what a played out question--"Why do I write?" In my twenties, I really believed in the nobility of literature with an unquestioned faith. In grad school, I began to think that literature could actually make a person evil. I certainly thought most of the people who did literature for a living were not good people. At some point, I decided to get a real job and focus on using my status as a gainfully employed person to stop mooching off others and actually help out a few. It felt a lot like when I cut ties with evangelical Christianity in my early twenties. I was giving up a high-minded philosophy that made people care less about others in exchange for what I hoped was a more humanistic way of thinking.

I really started writing again because one day I thought I might lose my job, and I wondered what I would do with myself. Writing seemed like something that could be meaningful--like, if my time were running out, that was what I would really want to do. I guess it's a common reason to write--to leave something behind that's lasting. Considered a little more skeptically, though, I guess you could say that the reason I write is awfully close to vanity. I want to think that my life wasn't a waste, that I did something. So why don't I spend more time helping refugees, my sole volunteer work I do? Why don't I try to make more money to give to others? Why writing?

I'm not sure I want to know the answer. My petulance over other people getting published over me gives me a hint that it really is about my vanity. Except that when I write something that I look back at and actually like, it doesn't fill me with pride. It makes me feel humble, small. It puts me in a good place where I don't feel needy for attention. So is writing about vanity, but really about the fight to expunge myself of it?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

All this biz about "character-driven"

I've been wanting to talk for a while about what it feels like when something gets published and you don't think it's that great. Before I can do that, I guess I have to back up to talk about what "great" means. I'd like to deny having an aesthetic philosophy, because it sounds like something the people in grad school would have claimed they had, but I guess I can't deny that I have one. It isn't that complicated, and it's really old school. Literature should: teach something, give joy to those who read it, or both. Preferably both. If you know aught of literary history, you'll recognize this as the old Horatian "instruct and delight."

I think modernity mistrusts "instruction." We tend to talk about observation, and revealing truth in little bits like reporters, rather than philosophers. Instruction smacks of didacticism or pedanticism. It's stuff for kids. And even stuff for kids doesn't do that anymore, we think. Don't give us your morals, your fobbed-off truisms. We want real life, life as it is.

The writing books tend to support this. We are encouraged to imagine characters like they are real people, imagine every little thing we can about them, then put them in situations and see what happens. You let your characters show you what they will do. That's the essence of "character-driven" fiction in a nutshell.

A lot of thoughtful folks have written about what "character-driven" means as opposed to "plot-driven." The main thrust of most writers is that in character-driven stories, everything that happens flows as a result of who the character is. Jodi Henley said that the first Rambo movie was character-driven, because:

it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.
But later Rambo installments were plot-driven: "Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW."

Jordon McCollum's idea is much closer to mine: "Most writers use both character and plot to drive the story forward....It's not an either/or." I'd go a little further, though. Remember all those "elements of fiction" that were tacked up on your 7th grade teacher's wall? Plot, character, setting, conflict, theme? I think ALL of these drive a story. In any story, one of them might come more front-and-center than another. In some stories, like maybe the first Saw movie, setting might not matter that much. In others, plot might take a back seat (Tree of Life). But all the elements exist in just about every story.

To me, then, whether a story is "driven" by X,Y, or Z is kind of arbitrary. A story should be driven by what the story calls for. But I think I tend to call a story "plot driven" if, when asked to describe it, the first thing I do is start telling the plot. I guess that means that most stories end up being plot-driven to me. For example, I'd call Hunger Games a plot-driven story, because if you ask me to describe it, I'd say it's about a world where the government makes kids fight each other in an arena like gladiators. Plot.

So a story can be driven by plot, character, setting, conflict. What about theme? Can there be theme-driven fiction? Again, modernity tends to groan at the thought, but if you consider the best-loved stories that most people treasure, I think there are a lot of stories where theme might be the first thing you think of. Examples: Moby Dick, 1984 (or a whole lot of dystopian stories: The Giver, Brave New World, etc.), the parables of the New Testament, lots and lots of kid's stories, To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath. I could go on. Maybe you'll think some of these are stories you remember more for the plot. Fine. But I'll bet you could take a decent shot at a one or two-sentence summary of the theme of any of these stories.

I like stories where I either think I can figure out a theme or where I am left what feels like a breadcrumb trail leading me to the direction of theme. You don't have to hit me over the head with it. Even Jesus knew not to do that. But I want theme to be within my reach if I do some work for it.

A word about what theme is and is not. "Friendship" or "social justice" are not themes. Those are subjects. How you feel about friendship or social justice are themes. This is the source of my crankiness at my editor Blake Kimzey from Crave magazine. He had some great ideas about how to make the story come alive, but I thought he was mistaken about the theme, and we used a different vocabulary to even talk about theme. Why? Because modern-day literature and writing programs don't teach theme in this way.

I disagree. I think it's the most important thing there is. It's why we read not just fiction, but anything. To know something about the world. I'm not saying you should write a story where you say "I'm going to write something that proves that love really does conquer all" or "I'm going to write something that embodies my belief in free markets." But if you can take cues from your imaginary character to guide you through a story, why can't you also be led by your sense of the way the universe is? Will Tom and Angie end up together? Well, do you think that the universe is full of souls who never really connect? If yes, then probably not.

So theme matters, theme isn't a broad subject, theme can guide fiction overall. Keep this in mind when I talk in my next post about why I sometimes wonder about what does and doesn't get published.

FREEBIE: Examples of quick themes in well-known stories:

Moby Dick: If you go up against the universe, you're likely to get the crap kicked out of you.
The Giver: Being fully human causes a lot of problems, but it's worth it.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Leave people who don't bother you the fuck alone.
Grapes of Wrath: Poor people get shit on by rich people.
1984: In the end, stupidity will be the end of us.

Terrible example of the concept of theme: "As the title suggests, the main themes in Pride and Prejudice really are pride and prejudice." --some middle school teacher somewhere. Neither pride nor prejudice is a theme. 


Friday, October 3, 2014

Two tries, zero responses.

I have sent two e-mails to the listed leaders of writing groups in my area looking to join the workshops/writers' groups, and neither has answered. Maybe I'm meant to be a lone wolf.

Working on completing a manuscript on nine short stories to send in for a local writers' competition. More later. Critiques of what I've been reading, I think.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A second post in one day

Nothing for a month, and now two posts in one day.

I just got back from the Baltimore Book Festival, where I ran into the good folks at the Baltimore Review, who are publishing my first-ever-published story next month. I met some of the editors, and attended a talk they gave on "making the ordinary extraordinary."

I'm kind of cynical about "community" in writing. I don't like cooperative projects. I like to either be given a job or not given it, and if I'm given it, then I want to do it. And I'm not a terribly let's-all-hold-hands kind of guy. But it was sort of nice to feel a sense of a community of writers. It's inspired me to do something  I started to do a few weeks ago, and got sidetracked on. I'm going to try to find a workshop to join.

If I'm really the "workshop heretic," I guess that might seem a little hypocritical. I really did dislike the workshops in grad school. You'd have ten kids, eight of whom wrote stuff that was a total mess (I was often one of them.) The kids all had totally different aesthetic senses, most of which we were all still developing. We were all sure of ourselves, which made it hard to listen to each other. But more than anything, we were all BUSY. So busy reading so much, that we really didn't put the effort into really reading each other. The thoughts in a workshop like that are always canned, just something done so you can fulfill your obligation to participate. For all the money you spend in grad school, I'd really rather you just have a few hours one-on-one with the instructor each semester and mostly ignore the other students. Or, I'd have liked to have paired up one-to-one with someone I mostly saw eye-to-eye with, and just exchanged ideas with that person.

I'm hoping that a workshop of amateurs, such as the ones I can find through the Maryland Writer's Association, might have smaller egos and less overall reading workload.  I wrote to one a few weeks ago, but the leader never got back to me. I'm going to write to another one this week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Too much of this and that

It's been a month since my last blog, but that isn't because this has become another one of those blogs that the writer gives up on after a few tries. I've been nose to the grindstone cranking out a few more stories so I could get to 150 page manuscript. I entered it in this:

I went to graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago in writing from 2002-20004, and immediately quit writing afterwards. I was tired of being broke, already in a lot of debt, and realized that there were far more talented writers than the market could support. So I decided to really make a break from writing. I deleted all my work, threw away hard copies. I didn't even read much for a long time, at least nothing that could be called "literature." I focused on work, once I found a grown-up job.

Last October, my work closed for four days. I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life if my job went away. I was surprised to find that the answer was "I want to write," and that it didn't really take much time to think of that answer. So I decided to set aside as much of my free time as I could in a year to write, to study the craft of writing, and to read really good fiction. Since the deadline for the Iowa short fiction competition was September 30th, that seemed like a good end-of-year goal to meet, so I pushed hard at the finish line so I could meet it.

Anyhow, on to the next subject: the potentially negative effects of reading too many "how to do X" fiction articles. There are a lot of people who (often for free to the general public, and seemingly out of a sense of mission) give out good writing advice. An example of the kind of thing I'm thinking about is K.M. Weiland's blog. Every day, there's some new piece of advice, like "the wrong way to write a smart character," or "how to find your character's breaking point." Useful stuff, and I've no problem generally with how she goes about it. There are, of course, tons more examples out there, and everyone has their favorite. I'm not here to pick on or praise one or the other.

There is something about the whole "area of writing to focus on today" method that I think might be dangerous to a writer, though. When I was a teenager, I fell in with evangelical Christianity for a bit. Well, about seven years. I was pretty into it. I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. In between, I listened to a lot of sermons on the radio. Every one of those sermons picked a Bible passage and delivered some message that was part exposition, part exhortation to apply the passage in our lives.

Funny thing about a new sermon every day is you can end up being all over the place in your life trying to apply them. One day, the sermon is about how we need to think of the world as a valley of tears, and the next day is all about the joy of the Lord. You hear "turn the other cheek" one day and "tolerate no evil" the next. It gets a believer a little discombobulated.

The same thing can happen in writing. If you just read a helpful article about how to imagine scene, you might end up spending far more effort on scene in your story than the story merits. There are a lot of elements to every story to keep in the right balance, and you can easily be misled about what that balance is based on the proximity in time to the last time you read an article on one of those elements was.

Better is to have a general grounding in most of the elements a writer uses, then step back and write your story. If you think one element is really in demand in your story, then gingerly look up good advice on how to handle that element as it relates to your project.

I'd hate for writers to suffer from bad timing, and hear a "the meek shall inherit the Earth" sermon just before meeting the playground bully.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My experience with a "literary service"

I had planned to do either a post about how too much "how to" fiction advice can be bad for you, or one analyzing a recent short story I read in Glimmer Train and how I think its publication shows that some common advice isn't really the solid advice it seems to be. While working on those, however, I got a reply to something I sent to Carve magazine's literary services. It's basically the workshop experience, only cheaper than college and the only feedback comes from someone who actually is a published writer (unlike college writing programs, where you get a lot of bad advice from bad writers).

You can pick different levels of help, from "give me an idea to write about" to "let's be besties for three months and talk all the time about my writing." I chose one of the cheaper options: read one of my stories, line-edit it, and give me a 1-2 page analysis. I ended up with Blake Kimzey, who wasn't listed as one of the editors, but whatever. I didn't care. My main goal was to get the answer to one question: when I send in a story that I think is good enough to publish, does someone who is an editor at one of those journals think it's junk immediately, junk after 5 pages, think it's good but not good enough, think it's very nearly good enough, or think it's good enough but they just don't have enough spots to publish it? Why am I not getting published?

I'm going to just post his two-page reply (not the line-by-line edits) and my reply back to him. I doubt he read my reply. ((Update: Obviously, he did, because he responded and we talked back and forth for a while. I did a review of his chapbook. Nice guy.)) I don't think I was really supposed to reply, even though he said I should. I might have been too whiny-douchy-wounded bad writer in a beginner workshop with him. I considered not sending my reply, but then I thought, "fuck it, it's my dime." What should you know? The story he's talking about is about an under-achieving blues drummer named Steve, who still is attached to his ex Evy who gave him herpes, even though now he's with Maria, who's pretty awesome. Blake's two pages here:

Re: “Infection”

Dear Jacob,

Thanks for sharing this story with me. And congrats on getting a draft of this story completed. I will say right out that my critique, both this letter and my comments in the margins of your story, approaches the story from the direction of technique, as opposed to some larger thematic or emotional response. I believe, following Henry James, that it is “execution [which] belongs to the author alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we measure him by that.” So I am thinking here about how the execution of “Infection” might be sharpened; that is the end towards which my suggestions go.

Let me first say, Jacob, that this is a good first draft. I really enjoyed a lot of the writing, particularly in the second half of the story, when the emotion of the story is finally sparked by the way you let the reader access Steve’s inner life, letting us truly in for the first time. The second half of the story is also where your voice shines. If you read the second half of “Infection” you’ll notice a rhythm and a poetry to the sentences that is mostly absent in the first half. The first 10 or so pages and the final 10 or so pages are simply two different halves. The second half is where your powers of literary description are the brightest, and you’re using language in really wonderful ways to bring the setting and emotion to life (and also the backstory, and here I’m thinking about Evy, the way she left her mark on Steve, and wonderful all of that would have been to know in the first few pages of the story).

So hear me when I say there is a lot to admire here, Jacob. But also hear me say that the thing you’ll be working against as you revise is the imbalance between the overly thin first half of the story when compared to the much stronger second half. In general, you’ve got a workable cast of characters here—Steve, Maria, Evy, Bennie, Toga, and the rest of the band—and an outer story (the Point A to Point B) that moves quickly from start to finish. You have all of the elements that make for a really great first draft, which at heart is a story that is ready to be revised into a polished piece of writing capable of publication.

So where should you start? This piece is all about character. Steve. Maria. Evy. And even a few of the bandmates. A lot of imagination went into writing this story, of course, and I know you can get even closer to the beating heart of it with more character, scene, setting, and overall world-building description. On balance the writing is too thin, especially in the first half of the story. It floats too much. The characters aren’t fleshed out enough and the setting drifts off the page, but the good news is that the scaffolding is already in place to construct everything that is lacking in this draft. You just have to write into the place markers you’ve already left for yourself.

If you look at my comments in the margins of your story, you’ll see that most of the stuff I was asking of the story in the first half appears in the second half (which is too late). The problem here is you need to front load “Infection” with all of the telling details you layer into the final 10 pages of the story. Most readers, and certainly most editors, won’t get to the second half of the story if the first half is found wanting, as it is here. You’re a talented writer, and your greatest powers of description in this story are on display in the last 10 pages, and, if you had to choose, it should be the other way around (though the goal is to have all 21 pages as strong as they can possibly be, ridding them of any imbalance).

I don’t want to belabor this, but I kinda do, because this is where you’ll find the most help as you revise and are looking for things you did well. The final 10 pages are where you start to give us more backstory, more character, and more setting. And, more importantly, where you answer the burning questions I had about Evy, Steve, Maria, and what is truly at stake for them. However, in a short story you can’t take 10 of the first 20 pages to warm up, to get into the story. You need to hit the ground running in a short story, because often times a short story reader doesn’t have the same patience as someone reading a novel. There is no benefit to holding onto and/or stashing detail near the end of your story. The reader needs all of that good stuff to inform (and affect) everything that follows the opening hook. Striking a better balance with respect to this is going to take some work, but I know you can do it.

I’m going to hammer this point because the thing is, after reading “Infection,” I really wanted to know, see, and feel this world more, in addition to wanting to really know who your characters were (what makes them 1 of 1) and to understand fully what world they inhabit (and how it affects them). All of this will attend to and illuminate their inner stories, bring them to life fully on the page. And because “Infection” hinges on who your characters truly are, I think the first place you should start is at the character level. By default, knowing who your characters are will open up the rest of the world (the setting, for example). This will help you clear a lot of things up. I kept asking myself: into what lives have I, as a reader, come? I wanted to know Steve and Maria at a much deeper level by the time I got to that really wonderful final line, to be able to value what it is that makes them come together romantically. After all, this is a story that wants to tackle big themes: money, class, art, charity, love, regret, and a host of others. You have the writing talent to juggle all of these things, but they won’t come together if you don’t access them through strong characterization in every paragraph.

We want more of Steve in the next draft: Who is he? What does he have to lose in this story? What does he want? What kind of life has Maria interrupted? Right now Steve is a passive actor in these pages, letting the story happen to him. Maria comes to him, he loses the roof over his head, and he is dealing with a romantic past that haunts him, and yet there is little charge to how he reacts to these stressors, at least not until he leaves the stage mid-gig near the end (and by then it is too late to activate him in the story because it is racing toward its conclusion). By activating Steve’s backstory (which appears too late in this draft) and giving him more agency in the present action of the story (the relationship he is in with Maria and how Evy haunts him) he will rise to life on the page.

We also want to talk about the timeline (which also gets at the story arc). This draft moves a little too fast and tries to get from Point A to Point B too quickly. You need to think about pacing as you revise. The level of detail and threads per inch from scene to scene need to increase (read: add more detail). There is a lot of vague build up in the first half of the story and then a flash of activity in the final pages as you race to the finish. I’d like to see you slow down, Jacob, and really develop the scenes, the setting, and attend to the timeline. You can answer simple questions such as how much time elapses in the present action of the story. You go from specific time in the first third, to general time in the middle third, and back to specific time in the final third of the story. But I’m not sure how much time elapses or how the events of the present action of the story cast a shadow into the future, and my sense is that Steve and Maria are different people at the end of this story.

Okay, I know that is a lot to take in, Jacob. I hope my comments help you uncover some instincts you were already attending to in your work. There are of course a lot of comments that address specific sections of your story within the document itself. This letter, of course, can be the start of a larger discussion about this story if you like. I’m happy to clarify any of my comments so that your revision of this story is something you are confident sending out at some point in the future. At any rate, let me know and we’ll set up a time to talk. Thanks for a fun read. I wish you all the best, and happy writing!

My best,

Blake Kimzey


Now, my reply:

Dear Blake,

Thanks for the feedback. Although you offered to make this part of a dialogue, and invited me to reply, my commerce sense is tingling: I don't think I paid for dialogue. That is, I thought my 130 bucks got me one two-page reply and a line-by-line edit. So I'm kind of wondering if you're saying "If you'd like to upgrade to the 'We Can Talk Back and Forth for a While" plan, just add another five hundred dollars!" In which case, sorry, but I can't. I've already wasted more time and money on my dilettantism than is fitting.

In the off chance that you were just being nice and wanted to hear what I thought of your feedback, my reply is below. I've tried to be brief in case a reply implies consent to pay for the upgrade and you charge by the word:

As always happened in my fiction workshops in grad school, a lot of what you said was stuff I wrestled with in the writing and editing process. Should I have painted the bar more in the opening scene? Did I pick the right pace by going halfway between close description and summary for scene one, close description for scene two, then a mix, then a closing that is close again? I thought so--I basically just did what I've always done, and gone with the "if I were filming this, what would the camera be doing?" rule. I couldn't tell if you were actually not happy with the mix or just noting it.

I definitely considered giving the reader more of a reason to understand why Maria liked Steve. (I gave an explicit, authorial intrusion for why Steve likes Maria: he enjoys seeing what it's like to have someone think you are more than you are.) I decided not to. One of the few short stories of the many I have read in the last few years that actually stayed with me was Kelly Link's "The Summer People." Edith Pearlman astutely said of this story that it "dispenses with that sine qua non of realism, motivation...'Who knows what makes any of us do what we do?' the poet Amy Clampitt bravely wrote--an insight that writing workshops might keep in mind." Maria loves Steve because she does.

You read pretty carefully, and picked up on a few errata. Maria can't be both plump and thin. I'll make her boxy and strong throughout. I had in mind a woman who lifts weights instead of doing cardio. Overall, I'll take about half of what you said and use it for a re-write. Thanks.

I'd ask one thing of you to keep in mind for future editing: don't ever say "good first draft." My Facebook posts aren't first drafts. I edited this a lot before I sent it to you. I meant what I said: for all its flaws, I think this work belongs in a decent literary journal.

You chose to separate theme from craft; fine. Unfortunately, I think too many journals do the same thing. The result is that I seem to read an endless stream of well-crafted stories that put little thought into theme. Even the way you talked about theme reveals something. You said "you're dealing with a lot of themes here: love, art, poverty, etc." Love is a subject, or an idea. It's not a theme. How you feel about love is a theme. I know it's common to talk about ideas as themes nowadays, but it's not really correct. And it shows why I read so much fiction and like so little of it. Theme is an afterthought. Writers are just focused on creating realistic and engaging characters with motivations that are thwarted and then making them react until they come to the great moment. They either begin with an image or a character. I usually start with an idea or a plot. I know that's heresy, but I do. Moby Dick has errors all over it. Melville forgot what the Pequod looked like in an early scene when he described it later. Queequeg all but disappears halfway through the book. But it's the best book I've ever read, because it's full of truth.

Everything I read has flaws. So does my work. I feel that its thematic strength makes it stand, in spite of its flaws. This is a long diatribe of self-justification, of which I'm sure you get many. You did point out a lot of ways to improve my writing, and I thank you for that.

Jake Weber 

Long after the fact update: Overall, I think this is probably worth the money. If you're like me, and you're skeptical of the general literary tastes of the age, you're likely to hear some things that irritate you, but all told, it's much cheaper than graduate school, and gives you feedback at least as good--as possibly better--than what you'll get in an M.F.A. program.  By the way, since I've mostly given up on trying to publish my stories, I went ahead and just shared the short story I sent in for critique here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"throw strikes" vs. "keep your shoulder back"

When I was twelve, I loved baseball above all things. I was even good at it. I still have a news clipping from my hometown paper that says "Jake Weber pitched and batted the North Canton all-stars to a 15-3 victory over the Massillon National All-Stars." I hit two home runs in that game, and pitched for four innings until we were ahead enough they saved me for a future game. I never got to play that future game; two nights later we got creamed and we were done.

As I got older and the mound moved out to the full 60 ft 6 inches from home, I had problems throwing strikes. In those days, coaches tended to deal with my wildness by offering this really helpful advice: "C'mon, Jake. Throw strikes!"

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh. Throw strikes. If only I had thought of that.

Nowadays, coaches at all levels are better informed. There are lots of videos available, many for free, where even an amateur leader of nine year-olds in Ohio can more or less trouble shoot mechanics issues of pitchers. I had to live with amateur psychiatry instead. I needed "Keep your shoulder back as you come through your motion," but I got "Just relax!"

I compare these two approaches to those used by two well-known books on writing: Writing Fiction, edited by Burroway and Stuckey-French, and Robert Olen Butler's From Where you Dream When I decided to give writing another try a few years ago, these were the first two books I read.

Butler is the old-school coach, giving advice like "Write from your white-hot center." He meant something like write from your truest, most instinctive, most pre-verbal and sensual self. Great. Throw strikes. HOW do I write from my white hot center? I know that it's what I want to do. Why am I not doing it?

He does offer a few practical ideas. He recommends writing in the early hours, while your brain is still in its addled, dream-like, pre-verbal state. He recommends writing instinctively. Then, later, you go back and edit, and just take out anything that doesn't "thrum." Again--how do I do that? The closest thing he offers to practical advice is his description of considering your scenes like a film director (with an emphasis on the Stanislavsky method). This was something I had also heard alluded to vaguely in graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago by Gene Wildman. Basically, you imagine your scene like a director. Should the camera be wide-lens? Close-up? Should this be a montage or a slow, real-time study?

That was a little better. It was like saying "You need to keep balance throughout your pitching motion"--a general rule of thumb, but still not precise enough to tell me what the hell I actually needed to do.

The Burroway/Stuckey-French book is what I needed. (I also liked the Gotham Writer's Workshop book, which had a similar approach, but shorter.) It had tangible advice on things like pace, scene, description, point-of-view, tone, and even very specific directions on how to handle quotations and avoid too many "tags." It was humbling, after having an advanced degree in English, to realize I really didn't know how to do some basic things. But thinking back, I wasn't the only one. My graduate school workshops were filled with bad writing.

Why? Because grad school was all about emotional support and nothing about the guts of how to fix your shit. Writing programs weren't alone; in academic literature courses, we always tried to jump right into some high-level analysis of a text based on some sexy theorist before most of the class had understood the base text's denotative meaning. We were trying to throw curve balls when we couldn't throw fast balls. We wanted to delve into the white hot center without figuring out where the door to the center was.

Maybe in five years, when I've knocked off a dozen short story credits and my first novel, I'll return to Butler and find inspiration to write a magnum opus. For now, though, I'm still working on keeping my shoulder back.

Next up: The dangers of too much "how to" or an analysis of the short story "Bagram" by Tom Paine from the Spring/Summer edition of Glimmer Train.