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. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Genesis

All modern fiction opening lines are unrealistically catchy, thought the stripper holding the fish between two tongs made of her dead cat's thigh bones...

For the longest time, I thought I'd call this blog "Failed Writer" when I finally got around to writing it. Now that I'm at last giving this a go, there are two reasons I've decided on a different title. First, I actually got a notice this week that the Baltimore Review is publishing my short story "American as Berbere" in their fall edition. So I'm not really "failed." I'll soon have one whole fiction credit to my name, to go with the three (I think) that I had as a poet about 13 years ago. Secondly, it seems the name was already taken by someone who hasn't updated the blog in over a decade.

This is a space for people who fit certain criteria. You may like it if you fit one or more of the following criteria:

1) You're someone who has tried at least a few times to publish something "creative," like fiction or poetry, and been rejected.
2) Even if you've occasionally been accepted, you have seen stuff get published that you think isn't as good as what you wrote that got rejected. Not always, but sometimes. And you're pretty sure it's not just sour grapes, but you're not totally sure, because no matter what they say, it's really crushing when you get a rejection.
3) You don't really always agree or understand with the advice in writing "how-to" books, such as the well-known Burroway text or Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream or similar fare. Not that you are an unteachable ass who out of hand rejects all advice and just wants to use your natural genius unfettered by so-called "wisdom," but because you are honestly engaged with the advice in the texts and with the literary tradition you love, and feel that not everything you are being told is helpful.
4) You spent (or borrowed, and are still paying back) a ton of money to go to a writing school, and don't feel you learned much of use there. You think most of what you were told in workshops was half thought-out junk that some overworked grad student with three jobs just said so he/she could prove he/she participated while waiting for his/her turn to be read. You wondered if you were the only one who thought that the workshop was a fraud, as well as your grad school writing "program."
5) You think a lot of fiction is being written that's really good, but a lot of it also seems to look similar to everything else that's being written. You wonder if this is because of writing programs. (And yes, you know that like a million people have already made this point.)

I did once suggest to my adviser in grad school that I didn't think the workshop was a great idea. She laconically replied that if I didn't like it, I should leave grad school. I stayed, because I was already in debt and close to a Master's, so I stuck it out for a piece of paper. But the experience did leave me feeling that I was something of a heretic.

So this blog is about the experience of writing and trying to become a better writer, while also being skeptical about those who purport to help me to become better. There is a lot of good, even great advice. There is also a lot of junk. There's probably a lot that might be good for you, bad for me, or vice-versa. This blog is about the struggle (I hate the word "journey") to improve while resisting what doesn't make me better. I hope to find a few kindred spirits.

I'll blog about my reactions to writing books, articles, and blogs. I'll blog about fiction being published now. I'll blog about what I'm writing and how I'm going about making it better and getting it out there. I'll even blog about workshops--I'm hoping to join one soon, just not one made up of grad students. I'll blog about being humble enough to learn and strong enough to stick with what you think works.

Next entry: general thoughts on Burroway and Butler.