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.