Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The "R" word

With so much that's truly troubling going on in the world, a fiction writer wonders whether fiction is relevant. The news changes day-to-day, but stories take weeks or months to write, then weeks or months more to be published. A novel can take years to write and years to get to the finish line. By contrast, South Park, a show which takes hundreds of people to produce, managed to get an episode about the Trump election out about a week after it happened.

I realize that writing isn't an either-or thing. I can write stories and take a break now and then to write about events of the day, sometimes on this blog. I've done that now and again, although I try not to give into temptation too often to take on subjects other than writing.

The news is a mix of impending war and a president who won't take the political slam dunk of just saying neo-Nazis are bad. (Or he will say it, but add that there are lots of other bad people, too.) What the fuck is the point of the story I'm trying to write about the girl who falls in love with a performer at a Renaissance festival?

This is a question I've answered for myself before. But that answer sometimes seems kind of weak when compared to the urgencies of the time. Yes, there will always be news headlines that scream to take our attention away, and if we always paid heed to them, nobody would ever create art. But in a world where information moves so fast, it just feels like fiction writing is a slow answer. If my novel were picked up for publication today, even the next season of Rick and Morty would probably make it out before the book did.

There are responses to this, of course. Fiction can focus on that which is timeless, which would fill a niche in a world that is always thinking only of the last 24 hours. But it's hard for me to see that fiction is doing this effectively. Here's a tough question for those who would defend the relevance of fiction: when is the last time you can think of that a short story or novel figured prominently in public discourse? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

So far, I find Amazon and the business of books kind of confusing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my book of short stories is now available on Amazon. (See it here.) I thought we were just in the pre-order stage, because that's what it says on the book's information page. Amazon says the book does not really come out until September 8th. I ordered one a few weeks ago, just to see if it made the sales numbers change, and got a note that it would ship on September 8th. But two days ago, I got another message that it was coming this week. It showed up today. I'm wondering if someone fat-fingered 9-8 and 8-9 somewhere along the way?

Other odd things:

-The price of the book dropped 48 cents from a few weeks ago to now. It's now $16.51, which is a really weird price.
-It is now letting people post reviews, which it shouldn't be doing until the book officially launches. (There's a great review now. Check it out.)
-I signed up for Author Central and linked the book to my author page. This is supposed to let me see sales figures. But nothing is there yet. After a bit of research, I think that the figures don't show up until the book actually launches. As I've just said, though, I'm not sure if the book has launched yet or not. So I don't know when I can expect to see sales numbers.

Signs I've probably done things wrong:

-I was supposed to send the book to reviewers with plenty of time to spare before it launched. The preview copies got delayed a lot, and so I was already not sure I gave them enough time when I sent the book out last week. But if the book has now launched, then all the reviews will be late.
-I knew there would be errors, but it was a little disheartening to get a text today from a friend (whose copy also came today) that said, "Nice editing, douche, and this is just page two" along with a photo of a typo.
-Although I can't see my actual sales figures yet, I don't think they're very good. I can see that Amazon currently ranks the book 1,454,547th in the world. It was much higher a few weeks ago, but it was never that great. We'll see, I guess.

Really, my goals for sales are just not to embarrass my not-for-profit publisher. That doesn't seem it should be that hard to do, but clearly, I need to step up my game.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The downside of ability and the downside of advice

One of my roles at work for a long time has been to write a type of report we do that's typified by extremely bureaucratic, tortured diction and strange structure laid down by tradition. Last week, I attended a course on how to edit others in writing these reports. That class was a sign that I'm slowly becoming an expert on writing these terrible things, which is to say I'm now good at bad writing. I feel sort of like Chandler Bing when he was forced to care about the WENUS, yelling at everyone who screwed up the report that he also screwed up when he started his job.

During the class, I tried to memorize material and then forget it. I'm always worried that bad work writing will leach into my writing, which I want to be nothing like work writing. There was one moment from the class, though, that I thought might actually transfer outside the walls of work. When reviewing strategies for mentoring new report writers, the instructors warned us that the better the writer, the more that writer might resist corrections.

I can't argue the truth of this in the real world. The more we meet with success, the more we tend to ignore advice. There's probably a lot of sense to this. Lebron James probably ignored a lot of advice from coaches when he was young, because that advice was meant for normal people, not for Lebron James. Good writers probably cruised through their earliest writing assignments without much work and without really paying attention to what teachers told them.

I learned to write, initially, from reading, internalizing, copying, and then, finally, synthesizing what I'd read into my own style. That was good enough to get me a long, long way. But just like any pro athlete, I--and nearly all writers--hit a point somewhere along the line where I needed someone to tell me something to get me to the next level. Failure to adapt would mean being good and never great.

Obviously, whether I've made this switch from instinctual writing to writing refined by an expert eye is an open question, since I'm still struggling to break out in a more definitive sense. There are two mutually opposed truths I'm confronted with whenever I think of using advice to improve:
1) If my writing were really that good, it wouldn't keep getting rejected so often, so I probably need some advice, but
2) Most of the advice I'm likely to get is probably bad.

Advice: damned if you listen and damned if you ignore it

One of the only useful things I learned from the many writing workshops I attended in grad school is that if you put ten people in a room to talk about a story, you'll get ten different opinions on what works and what doesn't. The exact same thing that some people say needs fixed is what others will say is the strength of the story. Even when there is an opinion shared by the majority, this can often be the result of groupthink, rather than an opinion independently arrived at by several different people. Statistically speaking, most advice must be bad, because it's all over the place and it can't all be right.

What I'm getting at is that ignoring most of the advice you will hear isn't being truculent or haughty; it's a necessary trait a good writer needs to develop. But ignoring all that bad advice will get you in such a habit of ignoring everything you hear, you run the risk of missing the one critical piece of advice you needed to get you over the top.

How does one know which five percent of advice to listen to? I mean, if I knew that what the person was saying was good advice, then I probably didn't even need the advice in the first place, did I? I feel like knowing what to listen to and what to ignore is itself just another innate ability of a great writer, one that I either have or I don't. As I get near the end of my fourth year of my mid-life writing revival with only a handful of small publications and one novel I can't seem to get an agent to bite on, I wonder if I have this talent. I'm down here just getting by in triple-A ball, and I need a coach to tell me how to make it to the majors.

I don't want to be in a workshop. Ideally, I'd like to have one good writer who gets what I'm about, knows my writing personally, and can give advice that will make me the best writer I can be according to my own style and ability. He won't try to coach Steph Curry to be Shaq, or Shaq to be Steph Curry. He'll know what works in my writing and what doesn't, and give advice that suits me. This has been a characteristic of many of the great writing friendships in history. It's hard to find something like that, though.

The funny thing is, I thought I was paying all that money 15 years ago to get something like this.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Depression and the literary editor

I've written roughly a zillion posts about how writing, especially the rejection side of it, causes me to feel like shit bordering on depression. This week, I began to consider the extent to which my eight months as a fiction reader take a toll on my psyche.

Years ago, when I was trying to get published in Agni, one of the top literary journals out there and for which I was clearly kidding myself, I must have subscribed to their newsletter. Maybe I thought this would somehow increase my chances of publication. Whatever the reason, I've ignored it every time it has come, but for some reason chose to read it this week.

In a meditation called "The Sluice," Agni Editor Sven Berkerts talks about how he is liberated each summer when Agni stops accepting submissions for three months. "Closing the sluice never fails to deliver a bit of a body-shock and then, almost right after, a growing sense of psychological well-being....This is...because for a fixed period of days I know I'll be free of the remorse of saying no to hard-working writers."

Berkerts remembers his own writing life, the bundling of papers and postage and envelopes and trundling it all to the post office to wait and wait and wait for what was often bad news. His life as editor is therefore "tinged with guilt," because he is the bearer of bad news to hundreds of writers a week.

He attempts to wrap up by trying to clarify what Agni is looking for from writers--not very successfully, I thought, although it's not really his fault. I've never seen any magazine adequately answer the "what we want" question. It's an impossible question. The best answers I've read are more what they don't want--we're tired of stories in bars, for example. We're against stories in which children are raped. We generally don't publish stories written in second person. That's at least a little bit of a help. But nobody can explain what they want. Berkerts' attempt, "writers thinking things through from the ground up, using language that is free of the innumerable standard conformities," is a description of what we all know we ought to be doing, but doesn't tell us anything about how to do it. It's saying "we want writing we think is good."

I can't blame him for trying to end on a positive note. I've noticed in just eight months that being an editor/reader is tough on me psychologically. I give a lot of no votes, even though I say yes a lot more than I should, statistically speaking. I feel terrible about not even reading to the end many stories that I can tell were written with great affection, but which I can tell just don't have the juice.

The morose feelings aren't just because I'm dumping on somebody's dreams, though. I now have an entirely different way of looking at my own submissions. I'm the one putting one more task onto some volunteer reader somewhere. I'm the one flicking one more little spark of troubled conscience their way.

More than that, I now have a very visceral feel for the sheer numbers involved. It's one thing to know that 200 people submit for every story a magazine will publish. It's another to count to 200 one-by-one, reading a story for each tick. It's the difference between knowing a marathon is 26.2 miles and running one.

At my day job, I work for an organization with tens of thousands of people. Every day is like a major sports event in terms of the number of people there and the logistics necessary to take care of them. I occasionally get the sickest feelings. I think about all the food, all the animals slaughtered, all the fertilizer dumped, to feed all of us. I think of all of us excreting in various ways, all of the sewage we create. I feel incredibly superfluous, like if I were gone, it would make no difference at all, except to decrease slightly the demand for sewers and fertilizer. 

That's how being an editor makes me feel about writing. The supply of writers is enormous. Nobody needs me to write. Over the past year, I've become much more aware of both how much it sucks to say no all the time and how inevitable nos are. It makes the sting of a rejection actually worse, rather than better. It's a confirmation that I'm just another writer in the sluice.

I'm thinking of ending my volunteer stint as an editor at the end of the year. If I don't just end my writing career or my life first. Our summer break ended Tuesday. We got over 30 submissions the first day.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"American Bastards" is not a good translation of 미국놈

A few weeks ago, CNN, among others, fell victim to one of my least favorite examples of a human translation that reads like a computer translated it. The headline reads "North Korea state media celebrates gift to 'American bastards,'" the "gift" being the ICBM tested on the Fourth of July.

This is an example of a translator getting a little giddy. True, 미국 (pronounced mee-gook) means "America," or, in an adjectival sense, "American." And you can certainly find dictionaries that will tell you that 놈 (pronounced like the word "gnome") means "bastard." But there are two caveats. First, even in its pejorative sense, the word has never meant what we mean by "bastard," i.e. "an illegitimate child." That's just one of many pejorative terms one could use to translate the idea of the word as an insult. Others are: pigs, dogs, jerks, slime, etc. I really think some dictionary maker long ago picked "bastard" as the go-to translation, and people have been automatically following that for so long, we've come to believe that really is what it means. (For reference, the Korean profanity Wiki page, which had this term first on the list.)

Secondly, Koreans, just like us immoral Westerners, have been getting a little freer with their swearing in the last few decades years. Words that used to shock no longer do. "Gnome" just does not carry the hand-over-mouth level of resonance that "bastard" does. In fact, there are many senses in which the word doesn't even mean anything particularly bad. You can call someone a "good gnome," (착한 놈) which I would translate as something like "a good dude."

Merciless punishment to American imperialists!

One of the best South Korean movies of the past decade was called 착한놈 나쁜놈 이상한놈, or "The good gnome, the bad gnome, and the weird gnome." Its title for English-speaking audiences  was "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," playing on the classic Western. That was the perfect translation, and it correctly didn't even include "gnome." In South Korea, the term is now used on television without it scandalizing anyone. That Gangnam Style song everyone was freaking out about a few years ago includes the saying that "a jumping gnome has a flying gnome above him," meaning "no matter how good you think you are, there's always someone better." Anyone who translated that sentence as "the flying bastard is above the jumping bastard" is an idiot.

Here's what Naver.com, my go-to English-Korean dictionary site, has to say about the word "gnome":

One might argue that North and South Korean dialects use the word differently, and that the word carries a stronger feeling in North Korea. Possibly this has some truth, but whatever meanings things have in the beginning, those fade over time. North Korea has been calling Americans "Mee Gook Gnome" for so long, it's lost a lot of its resonance. That's just the term they use now for us in certain contexts.

At the very least, a South Korea reading North Korean pronouncements about the U.S. does not think "bastards" when he reads 미국놈, which means an American reading a translation with the word in it is getting a different feeling than a South Korean reading Korean.

Cast out the invading imperialist American forces, who are the source of all unhappiness and suffering!
At its worst, the word carries a sense of dismissiveness--"punk" is far close to it than "bastard." I'd translate it just "Americans," or, if you must keep something pejorative in it, maybe "Yanks." Forcing "bastards" in there is heavy-handed. Not every translation needs something in English to account for everything there in the original. Putting it in there seems calculated to get a reaction, to make the text seem more derisible and ridiculous.

When CNN and others yuk it up at the crazed invective of North Korean media, it gives people the perception that North Korea is not rational, that they can't even form coherent sentences. Public discourse about this story was partially sidetracked by head shakes over the use of "bastards" (always in the headline and always in scare quotes), which meant pundits glossed over more important subjects. The only conclusions one can reach from reading "American bastards" are that either North Korea hates America so completely that war is inevitable, or that North Korea is so foolish we can afford to ignore them. Both of these assumptions have their own dangers.

If the Americans start a war of aggression, they will be the first destroyed! (This uses the term "gnome." Isn't it already clear from context that there's a negative connotation? Do I need "bastards?")

Monday, July 31, 2017

A man crush leaves a comment, so I write a critique which is actually more of a general aesthetic treatise

A few posts ago, Anis Shivani, or someone doing a cyber impersonation of him, left a comment after one of my posts. This was pretty exciting for me, since I've quoted him a lot on here and really find a lot to love in his Against the Workshop. He has given voice to a lot of misgivings I've felt not just about workshops and writing programs, but the modern fiction establishment. I suspect when he writes these critiques, he's saying things many have felt, but few have the courage to proclaim.

I decided to read and then write a critique of his first book of short stories, Anatolia and other stories. After reading it a few weeks ago, I've been stymied about how to write this critique. I'd hoped that I'd find in his stories an alternative aesthetic I could aspire to, something different from what dominates the journals and winning short story anthologies year after year. Turns out, I didn't really connect much with this group of stories. I liked them less than I like most modern fiction, not more.

Which led me to ask myself: have I become so inured to a certain hegemonic aesthetic that I'm incapable of responding positively to alternatives? This is a strong possibility. So, rather than write a straight critique of Shivani's work, I've decided instead to try to trace what it is that makes his writing different, what there is about it that makes it belong to another time, and then interrogate my own assumptions about fiction that make me prefer a modern approach, or at least an approach that's more ubiquitous in modern literary fiction.

Hopefully, this will also serve as something of an answer to a friend of mine, who has sent me his fiction before, and I've found myself saying "I like it personally, but I don't think I'd publish it if you sent it to me, because I don't think it succeeds at certain things." I hope this will explain what I mean better than I've done so far.

Distance between author and narrator

One characteristic of Shivani's collection that's different from most modern fiction is that there is very little daylight between the point-of-view of the narrator, in whose voice the stories are told, and the author, Anis Shivani, lurking behind that narrative voice. Modern fiction-writing theory teaches writers to practice a form of Shakespearean negative capability popularized by the Romantics, that we should withhold ourselves from interjecting too much of our own selves into the work. Shivani (and my friend) are nearly opposite this kind of approach: the author and narrator are often almost one and the same (or the main character is antagonistic to the author's philosophy, and there as a cautionary tale). It's fiction that's strongly tied to the philosophical novel.

Shivanian aesthetic

I know where Shivani, the author behind the works, stands on each piece of fiction in this collection. Because one story is about a writer who goes to a sham of a writer's retreat called "Go Sell it on the Mountain," I don't even have to guess what Shivani's aesthetic is. He tells us. His first-person participant in the retreat says the following lines, both to reject the writing he sees others writing and to describe his own type of story-telling, which is rejected by other participants:

Her ((another writer at the workshop)) writing was curiously glassy on the surface: it gave you no entry point, no means to project your living, breathing mass of flesh onto the consciousness of the author. This kind of writing was in vogue now, while I wrote in the old-fashioned raconteur's spiraling manner, leisurely getting to the core of the story. My models were the forgotten writers of the thirties, forties, and fifties, like Roderick Lull and Morley Callaghan, who killed you with their explosive revelations of your own culpability in injustice.

Or, in another instance, the narrator shares these thoughts in a workshop with another writer, only to have his thoughts attacked by the workshop moderator:

"...what is the narrator's moral stand toward the lead character's afflictions? Does she have a moral opinion? Or is she neutral to her ups and downs? I don't see the author present behind the scenes.

The author in Anatolia and Other Stories is always visible, and often barely behind the scenes. In addition to the story of a writer finding his aesthetic out of place with hucksters selling false hope to the talentless, there is another story of Arthur, an old professor who feels out of place because he is being crowded out of the world by an academy and wife who espouse theoretical notions he thinks are ludicrous. Change "Arthur" to "author" on that one, too.


This voice where the thoughts of the author are often pushing into the narrative has a certain feel to it, like we can only proceed so far before we get a summary of what we've just gone over. There are frequent insertions of phrases like "Of course," usually preceding a sneering recounting of some fallacious habit of some character. (There are 43 instances of "of course" in the book.) In another place, it's "Oh, I'm sure he said something about the need to pace ourselves..."

I used to hate hearing the workshop stock phrase that a story "floats," meaning it doesn't have enough flesh and bones to tie its ideas to Earth. But these stories float a lot. There are powerful ideas in play here, so powerful, in fact, that there cannot be any shortcuts past incarnation. But in many stories, the word comes to dwell among us without first being made flesh.

In no story was this more evident than "Repatriation," a frustrating, semi-apocalyptic tale of people not sufficiently Anglo-Saxon enough being shipped out of the United States to...well, they never do make it anywhere. The story is nearly haunting, nearly palpable, but it keeps resorting to summarizing statements of how we got to where we are, brief quips from a fictional history. There is a tantalizing line in the story about how the refugees on the ship, not allowed to have books with them, "trade in poetry." I wish the whole story had been about that. Instead, it's part tirade, part oh-yeah-by-the-way-some-things-happened-on-the-ship, part details from the life of a hazy first-person narrator before the roundup.

Telling over showing

"Show don't tell" is one of those workshop mantras that rightly deserves some rebellion against it. It's not historical. It rejects the "instruct" in "instruct and delight." It overlooks that wanting moral instruction from stories is a core aspect of human nature.

Shivani tells a lot. Even when he shows, he often follows it up with telling. In "Independence," we get this summary of a character, rather than hints from action, dialogue, etc.:

Was it that he faced his mortality in the mirror the innocent boy held up to him? Was it that he saw in the boy's mindless questions and motiveless harmony some challenge to the ordinary man Saleem himself had become? Saleem had never been a rebel; he'd never gone through the wild phase his university classmates had, putting their fathers through the ropes, driving their poor mothers to distraction.

In one instance, right after we have a scene rendered, with Julie pinching the cheeks and ruffling the hair of her child, we immediately get an explanation of what those actions meant: "The good thing about Julie was that she didn't jump into defending her mothering skills when Saleem accused her of shortfalls in that area. She listened seriously, like a good pupil." Or later, "Their father pinched and rolled his chin, in an expression of concern." That's showing and telling in one sentence, the action and the explanation of the action all in one.

I'm not really criticizing this trait; this is more of a description of where Shivani lies on a spectrum of descriptive and prescriptive narrative. I'd like to see more fiction written near this end of the spectrum. I just didn't find this collection was a particularly effective representative of its spectrum.

Or am I just a tool of my environment?

Shivani the critic has convincingly--to my mind, anyway--attacked the modern academia-publishing complex in serious fiction for its dogmatic insistence on an unimaginative, bourgeois form of realism, what he would, after over a decade of developing his thoughts, come to call "plastic realism."  I realize that in my critique of Anatolia, I've assumed a position well within the mainstream of this kind of realism. Perhaps, as much as I've railed against M.F.A. programs and suggested I don't find much on the scene that deeply inspires me (all of my top five authors are dead), I have, without meaning to, been commodified by this system. Maybe in the process of trying to get published by literary journals, I've ended up adopting the aesthetic I think is likely to get me published by them, and become, in the process, the sort of person who can't appreciate something like Anatolia that doesn't conform.

I don't think this is the case. I wanted to like these stories. I admire Shivani the critic so much, I was dying to love Shivani the story teller. He commented on my blog. I wanted to write about how I really got his fiction. I just didn't. Not that there was nothing to like in these stories, but nearly all the gold in it were thoughts similar to what Shivani has penned elsewhere in non-fiction form. As a story teller, I think he's a very good critic.

The stories I want to read and write

I don't mind being told how to feel about a story. I like it. I prefer it. But the moral grounding has to come organically from the story, or at least feel like it does. When Dori tells Marlin "It's time to let go!" it's pretty clear we've come to the climax of both the story and of Marlin's narrative arc. There's nothing thematically subtle about that line. But that line also works, because it is grounded in a real drama of a guy trying to find his kid. 

I once tried to write these types of philosophical narratives, where I'd have some thought about the world, stick it into a character, and then try to make that be enough to bring a world to life. It never worked. Jonathan Franzen's intellectual characters work not because they have brilliant thoughts--although they sometimes do--but because their brilliant thoughts do not solve all the problems in their lives. Sometimes, they are the source of nothing but anxiety. Franzen's characters do not exist just to have thoughts Franzen wants them to have. They have thoughts because that's part of what they do as fully formed characters. They might be characters similar to Franzen, but that's not the same as saying they're puppets Franzen has giving us his prophetic vision of life through the guise of a nominal story.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm a Philistine, or just an unimaginative critic. Maybe I'm unable to transcend the bourgeois tastes of my time. That's completely possible. Maybe I've developed such a knee-jerk response against what I think won't get published, I've equated it with something that shouldn't get published.

I might be wrong about what I like, but I don't think I've confused what I like for what I ought to like. Not yet. And my requirements for what I like are definitely not modern. I've never improved much upon Horace's "instruct and delight."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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

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

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

Here's one I've caught myself doing lately

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Summer is a terrible time to get motivated about submitting stories

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

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

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

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

How would I have voted?

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

Why would I have voted no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fucking Anis Shivani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Finally, some actual literature from me

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Rejection Thursday special: a quick idea for literary journals to easily provide more than just a no

Work informed me that today was "Thankful Thursday" and asked us to share our gratitude. I thanked the lady who sells me my coffee. She's probably more efficient and performs more tangible good in the world than anyone else I see at work. Then again, I thank her every time she gets me coffee. I'm an asshole, but not a jerk.

Anyhow, I've decided to dub the day "Rejection Thursday," which has zero alliteration, but is still 97.2% less dumb. The day after posting about a really strange coincidence where a story I voted on in the literary journal I work with showed up in the copy of Prairie Schooner I was reading, I got my own rejection from Prairie Schooner. Not really a big deal; it's a tough journal to get into. But this is one of those stories I really have an extra amount of attachment to. It's inspired by my daughter, who is not officially my daughter, but who needed a place to stay six years ago and I've called my daughter since. It's not much of a real-life-transcribed-into-fiction story--almost none of what happens in the story happened in real life--but it is the best shot I've taken at expressing some of the things I've felt and learned having her in my life. It's got all my own inadequacy and failure to be for her what she needed, all her elusive charm built of her own survival mechanisms she's developed while dealing with things I can't--and don't want to--imagine. I felt drained after writing it. Every rejection I get for this story feels like I've failed her somehow.

So what do I want journals to do?

I understand all too well that journals can't respond to every submission. They can't even do it for 10% of the stories they get. But here's something I'd like to see journals try: have each reader/editor who weighs in on the story assign it a 1-10 rating. They don't have to justify the rating, just based on the stories they see come in, is this a 1 (utterly unredeemable, horribly written), a 10 (publish!) or somewhere between? I'd say a 7 or above is a story you probably read all the way through.

The writer would, in addition to the standard rejection notice, get a readout of the number from each reader who provided one (naturally, the readers' names would be kept off the ratings).

I know journals will never do this, because it opens them up to all kinds of hate from writers. Journals already face occasional anger and bitterness from writers who are certain their stories were better than what got published. A unexpected low rating to go along with it would only fan the flames.

But it would be extremely useful to me, especially when trying to figure out where to go from here with a story I can't just walk away from. I know the number would be something the reader spent two seconds assigning, but that's actually useful, since the up/down decision also happens nearly as quickly. It's not the same as criticism: that requires a full reading every time, no matter how bad it seems. It's just a quick, first-number-that-pops-into-your-head reading of how close a reader was to yes.

As much as I doubt any journal would ever try this, I think it'd be a really interesting experiment for one to try for a single reading period.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A very special WIHPTS

This is now the fourth round of Would I Have Published This Story? (WIHPTS), and it's by far the weirdest. A little while ago, I thought I was going crazy. I picked up the summer edition of Prairie Schooner and went to the first story in it, which is a breezy little story called "Sometimes I'm Suzanne" by the Australian writer Merran Jones. Congratulations, Merran.

It's a quirky story of a boy named Matthew who has a second person rattling inside his brain, in this case, a middle-aged woman named Suzanne. She's there like some people might be born with an extra finger, not really malignant, just one of those things that happens from time to time and makes Matthew a little different. She sometimes takes over Matthew and does things an older woman would do. She and Matthew have some dialogue between them. But she's not always there, which is why Matthew says "sometimes" he's Suzanne. But sometimes, he's just himself. On his own, he's not particularly effeminate. His father, who had daddy issues of his own, eventually hates the girly behavior of Suzanne so much he leaves.

The thing is, I knew I'd read this story before. I just couldn't think of where.

Finally, it struck me. She submitted it to our journal, the one where I'm a volunteer editor. I remember it because we, the editors, talked about it a lot. We very nearly said yes to it. Two editors said yes, two said no, one said maybe. While we were kibitzing over it, the story got accepted by Prairie Schooner.

How did I vote? I voted no, with a great deal of hand-wringing. It was one of the first stories with a split vote I'd weighed in on. Might have been the very first. Here's my note in Submittable:

I see why there's division on this. It's witty and quick and ultimately kind of sweet, but it hits a few wrong notes. Beyond "fell into a sar-chasm" (wah-wah) there's the tell-not-show of "Kev could never escape his dad's Stockholm Syndrome-clutch." I'm voting down, although it feels like in doing so, I'm voting against moms. 
 A few days later, the story was withdrawn when it was accepted elsewhere. 

The "sar-chasm" joke, by the way, is still there in Prairie Schooner, so I guess they liked the joke that I didn't. The line about Stockholm Syndrome is there, too.  I feel some parts are edited somewhat from what we read, but I'm not sure. One of our other editors mentioned that Kevin, the father, seemed like something of a cut-out, just a one-dimensional boorish lout. I feel like the version that's in P.S. draws him a little fuller, but I might be totally mistaken about that. Maybe we just thought one thing about him and the editors at P.S. thought something different.

In any event, this story really proves what the WIHPTS series is supposed to prove: that fiction editing by literary journals is far from a science. I guess it's not a total crapshoot: the story did get our attention, so we treated it with more care than most of the stories we get. Both we and P.S. realized we had something worth taking a closer look at. But we still ultimately differed on whether it was "good enough."  

Three other things to think about: 1) This story ended up getting accepted by a top 50 journal, so just because an "easy" publication turns you down doesn't mean a "hard" one will, too. There's a good deal of luck involved no matter where you send it. 2) The first two votes on this story were yes for us. The third was maybe, which led to more editors taking a look. If voter #3 had just said yes instead of maybe, our chief editor very likely would have accepted the story then, and we might have gotten it before P.S. The difference for one editor between maybe and yes ended up leading to two more no votes, which, had P.S. not accepted it, might mean Jones would still be trying to get it published because of that one near-vote. 3) I think I'd maybe vote differently on this story now than I did then, after more than six months on the job. You can't control as a writer how experienced or smart your fiction reviewer will be. So just keep submitting.

It's also possible to draw this conclusion: what the fuck do I know?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Where are all the good Ohio literary agents?

I've gotten back up off the mat after my disappointing near-miss with an agent, determined to get to that magic number of 50 rejections before I allow myself to lose hope of getting this novel out.

While churning through the list of agents, I'm amazed how many are in New York City. Even though this article suggests authors should turn up their noses at anyone not in New York (because they can't hob-nob with publishers, and, therefore, presumably can't get you a deal), I'm flabbergasted that they can afford office space in New York when publishing is supposedly becoming such a bad business.

I think if I saw a literary agent with the stones to set up shop in Youngstown, Ohio, I'd want to sign with that guy. Means he's not driving up his commission to pay for his office and his lunches with the publishers.

I assume that so many agents and so many publishers being in New York also leads to certain kinds of novels that appeal to New Yorkers becoming ubiquitous. I'm know I'm sick to death of New York as a setting in movies. It's not just that the story is in New York. It's the way New Yorkers talk about their city like Cross-Fit douches talk about Cross-Fit. Like anyone who doesn't love it and want to live there no matter what is an idiot.

I probably won't have the luxury of picking an agent from Canton, or even North Canton. The reality is that right now, I just want the book to live, and if it required a half dozen bus trips up to New York to get it done, I'd gladly do so. But it does make one wonder to see page after page of agent offices in one of the most expensive places on Earth to set up an office.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Agent disappointment

Trying to get something you've written and care about published has some incredible lows. Last weekend, I decided to quit messing around and send query letters out to agents for my novel. I've sent some, but got discouraged and sort of used "waiting to hear back" as a reason to quit writing. Thirty minutes after writing one, an agent responded with "You have my attention," and asking for a PDF of the novel. That was pretty exciting.

The idea often strikes me that this novel is the main reason I was put on Earth, and that I have a responsibility to try to get it out there. (I also often dismiss this as magical thinking and tell myself I should grow up, suck up more at work, and then go fix the weed whacker.)

I got this response today from that agent:

Jake, I’ve read half your novel, and there’s so much to love. You’re really funny, and I’m fascinated by this look into ((the)) culture ((of the place where I work)). And what you’ve done with the...worldbuilding (I HATE that word but I’m using it anyway) is rather impressive. However, I’m struggling to find the takeaway. It’s clever and you’re obviously talented, but I’m not finding the depth or layers necessary needed for me to feel the satire is working at the level it has to in order succeed in this tough literary fiction arena.

Thanks for sharing this with me, Jake. I appreciated the chance to consider. Best of luck to you!

For like thirty seconds, I thought I'd found an agent, and was on my way to getting this book published.  Getting the agent seems to be the biggest of the hurdles. This was the first time I'd even gotten one to pay attention enough to ask for the manuscript, although I felt like the premise was at least compelling enough I thought I'd get a lot more knee-jerk interest. 

It's a really kind, decent email, and I can't say a thing bad about the agent. He was incredibly fast and sympathetic and seemed to get it. He's in a tough business where you have to make quick decisions about what you think you can sell. I get it. I make quick decisions all the time at the magazine about what I think we should publish and what we shouldn't. I totally understand. Still sucks for me.

I'm really not the kind of person who just brushes off setbacks. I can't even think about another query letter right now. There was a time in my life when I had put writing away, embraced bourgeois normalcy, and felt rather content. Why did I ever start writing again and ruin that tenuous balance that only holds if you don't ask questions of it? I'm much less happy now than I was five years ago. Common sense would seem to dictate that if something is making you unhappy, you should quit doing it, but every time I try, I end up back at the computer trying to write that one more story or try one last place to submit something. 

I am so tired of being good but not good enough. 


Sunday, June 25, 2017

WIHPTS? "After Reading Peter Bichsel" by Lydia Davis

It's time for another round of Would I Have Published This Story (WIHPTS), in which I attempt to demonstrate the arbitrariness of short fiction publishing by taking stories that have earned critical praise and trying to guess if I'd have voted for them to be published in the small literary journal I work for if I'd have seen them come in without anything to flag them as special.

The first two times I did this, I was pretty confident I'd have voted to publish the acclaimed stories, which kind of undercut my theory of arbitrariness. Let's see what happens this time, with "After Reading Peter Bichsel," originally published in The Paris Review and later re-printed in the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Here is my caveat about what this game means and doesn't mean:

This isn't really literary criticism, although I guess my opinion on the story will sort of come out in the wash as I try to guess what my own reaction might have been. The bigger point than just criticism of one story is to cast a light on how fickle publishing is. This is a story that has been deemed one of the year's best, but that doesn't mean it might not have met a different fate, that there wasn't some luck involved.

Short Answer: Would I have published this?

No! I'd have rejected it, probably with extreme prejudice, after reading perhaps two or three pages. And I'm relatively confident other editors would have agreed, and our journal would have rejected it with a non-personalized note. There is one other editor in particular I'm thinking of who would have called this story "thinly fictionalized memoir."


This is an achingly slow and subtle story, something the narrator (author?) offers a bit of apologia for early on. She recounts being given a book of stories by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. She wants to read the book to improve her German while she is traveling throughout Germany and Switzerland. The narrator remarks on these stories that:

He (Bichsel) will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, "There are stories that are hardly worth telling," or "There is almost nothing to say about X," and then sometimes follow that with a "but": "But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now," or "But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember." He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

The narrator says, before launching into the main narrative, that this characteristic applies to her own story: "I wanted to say...that there was not much to tell...there was a scene, one that involved a peculiar character, and later a coincidence." Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn't really much of interest in the story.

Why would I have voted no on it?

1. I already alluded to the main reason: it feels like memoir. It sounds like a travel anecdote, barely fictionalized. I'd have wondered if the writer meant to send this to  the creative non-fiction category.

2. It's adjective heavy: In the first page after the main narrative launches, we get: "small, undistinguished, reliable, attractive, crowded, noisy, buxom, energetic, peaceful, small (again), large, placid, agreeable, vague, comfortable, companionable." I don't have quite the revulsion to adjectives that some writers/editors do. Sometimes, I'd rather have one succinct adjective rather than a long rendering of why the author applied that adjective. That is to say, sometimes, it's okay to tell, rather than show. But so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story, would have made me feel the story had something of an amateurish feel.

3. Putting in the bit about reading some Swiss writer--in the original German--felt to me like a humble brag on the part of the writer. Actually, if this had been presented as creative non-fiction, I'd have accepted this much more readily. But labelled as fiction, this felt like there was too narrow a distance here between the narrator and the author, and the author was trying to show off that she spoke a foreign language and that she read someone in that language. Given that I've pushed through my share of novels in foreign languages more difficult than German (my own humble brag), I wasn't that impressed.

Of course, we might have been totally wrong to overlook this story

The point I want to make through this WIHPTS series isn't that some stories get praise without deserving it. It's more than your story or mine that has been overlooked might not have deserved to be overlooked. With this story, I'd have applied some pseudo algorithms I've developed over time to help cut down on my work load and get through the slush pile more quickly. One is that if I don't want to keep reading after a page or two, neither will a magazine reader.

But reading this story not as a slush pile candidate but as an already validated and lauded story, I can see something of why people see value in it. The point of WIHPTS isn't criticism, so I'm not going to go into it deeply here, but there is definitely something interesting in the reaction of the narrator at a few points in the story. She hesitates to give a woman a pen, although she has a spare. She wants to ask something about the woman when she sees her again later, but she is overwhelmed by the logistics of getting through it in German. She reads to improve her German, but doesn't actually speak to anyone, which, of course, is also a way to learn German. At the end she sees a man on a train who is an avid reader like herself, and when the train moves, he braces himself against its movement. Is that what reading is to some people? Just a way to prevent being moved, being changed?

When I made myself read the story, I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d'etre they weren't always in a rush, didn't always have to have explosions.

So this story might very well deserve its place in an anthology of the year's best, although I'd still have rejected it from our small literary magazine in ten minutes or less. I'm pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I'm not using a Kirkus Review for my book

I kind of got a magical shortcut to a first book by winning a contest. I guess it's as good a way to get a book published as any. The nice folks at Washington Writers' Publishing House put together a pretty nice package for me:

-They pay for the printing of the book
-They publicize it on their website and social media
-They got me a couple of readings for the fall at D.C. bookstores

However, there are a lot of ways in which I'm kind of on my own. Not totally on my own: they'll give me advice. But there are some steps related to publicity that are my responsibility:

-Contact venues for reviews
-Set up my own readings outside the ones they set up
-Get papers to publish announcements (papers? honest to god newspapers? who would read the announcement?)
-Generally promote myself

One of the suggestions they made was to get a Kirkus review. What's Kirkus? They used to be the book reviewer. From what I can gather, they kind of went belly up in 2009, but then re-emerged by selling their services to authors. They seem to especially market themselves to the self-published, suggesting a Kirkus review will make the book look more legitimate. It's $425 to get a review in seven to nine weeks. That review then shows up on Amazon and...other places? I'm a little hazy on this. Basically, it will increase the visibility of my book, I guess.

Okay, fine, but it's $425. That's on me to pay. No wonder the head of the publishing house said, when she told me I had won, "You're not going to make any money off this." They were expecting that $1000 would go to stuff like this, I'd guess.

Here's the thing. I kind of already told WWPH that I would donate the $1000 back to them. (I hasten to add that I did this on my own. They are allowed to advertise their contest in certain places because they offer a prize, and they didn't at all ask for the money back. I just was really impressed with this small, cooperative publishing house, and this was something I wanted to do. Everyone who wins is then supposed to help out the publishing house for a while. This is my way of helping. I don't have a lot of other talents. It's unlikely I'll be able to do much else for them of any value. )

The upshot is that $425 is a lot of money to me. Mrs. Heretic and I have had a kind of crappy run of luck money-wise, with unexpected bills popping up here and there this last year. That's a lot of money to me. (I apologize to my anonymous reader, who dislikes when I complain about money problems.)  Kirkus can't really promise that the money spent is going to result in a lot of sales. Or any extra sales, really. The last several winners of this contest said they used Kirkus. So far, only one winner has sold at least 1,000 copies of her book, and that was because it got picked up for D.C. schools, who bought a few thousand copies.

My former advisor from graduate school--with whom I had a nice conversation, including a post-mortem of what went wrong in graduate school--has promised to get the book reviewed on American Book Review. Another member of the publishing house will help get it reviewed at the Washington Independent Review of Books. I think I'm going to just call that enough. The book is just not going to sell that many copies. Most of the people who buy it are likely to be people who know me. I don't know that many people.

Another issue is that the review Kirkus gives you, about 300 words, is typically about 200 words of plot review. I have a book of 12 short stories that don't go together at all. Fuck they gonna say bout that? Nothing that will convince people to buy the book. 

In other words, I don't know really what I'm going to get for my money. I'm okay with the fact that this book isn't going to sell a lot. There's no way, though, that I'm going to pay what would be the first $425 of my son's college fund on some vanity project for myself.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Next round of WIHPTS: Kendra Fortmeyer's "Things I Know to Be True"

I had so much fun playing my first round of "Would I Have Published This Story?" I've decided to play again. The idea is pretty simple: I take a story that has won a fair amount of praise, in this case "Things I Know to Be True," from this year's Pushcart Anthology, and I try to guess if I would have voted to publish this story if it had come at random into the literary journal where I volunteer as a reader.

This isn't really literary criticism, although I guess my opinion on the story will sort of come out in the wash as I try to guess what my own reaction might have been. The bigger point than just criticism of one story is to cast a light on how fickle publishing is. This is a story that has been deemed one of the year's best, not only by the original journal that published it (One Story), but the editors of the Pushcart Anthology. But that doesn't mean it might not have met a different fate, that there wasn't some luck involved...

Short answer: Would I have published this story?

Probably, but I wouldn't have liked it. Sometimes, I vote for a story because I can see it was written well enough that it deserves to be published, even though I don't really like the story very much.


 It's the story of a Vietnam veteran, Charlie, struggling to get his shit back together after a traumatic experience...you know...back in 'Nam. He goes to the library every day and reads something, which then often triggers some reaction in him demonstrative of his anguished mental state. For example, while reading Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," he believes that the existence of words describing a man who is encased means there really is such a person. A story of a fire makes him put the book under water to put the fire out. Charlie has a sign above his bedroom door, his "things he knows to be true," and they are responsible for his inability to tell fact from fiction. His list: 1) The past and the future exist through stories, 2) Stories are made of words, 3) Words make the future and the past exists.

There's a coping mechanism in there for dealing with the ghosts from Vietnam, but Charlie hasn't learned to use it right. He's victim of a sort of magical-realism break with reality, when what he needs is to learn how to use words to his advantage. The key is that if words make reality, then Charlie can re-write the story of his life to control the past. Charlie eventually learns this ability, which is the climax of the story.

What's good and bad about it

What I don't like about it has more to do with personal taste than critical assessment. In the last decade, there have been a LOT of stories about veterans with PTSD coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them even are framed as stories written by veterans as part of their PTSD therapy. Vietnam was obviously before we had things like PTSD therapy writing sessions led by MFA candidates, but this does sort of have a Vietnam-standing-in-for-Iraq kind of feel to it. The narrative style of the mentally ill person writing the story reminded me rather too pointedly of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I also found the theme of narrative as a means to make the world whole again a little well-worn. I tend to be a little suspicious of themes in fiction that are about fiction itself. While it's true, of course, that the stories we tell ourselves greatly affect our outlook on life, there are also some wounds that words seem a little pathetic to try to fix. I don't think Charlie would really have a philosophy about stories like the one given to him; that's the author putting a list above Charlie's door for him, not Charlie. It's just a little too precious, fiction trumpeting the real-world value of itself. It's the kind of thing that's guaranteed to titillate editors at fiction magazines, which is why it did so well.

Still, I'd have probably voted for it. The narrative is crisp, it doesn't waste words, and it has a clear theme. (I prefer a theme I'd quibble with to a story whose theme I can't begin to fathom.) And much as the story might make too much of fiction's real-world power to overcome the past, it's probably much healthier than a story where the veteran is simply overwhelmed by his demons and can't make the center hold. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has suggested that much of the understandable impulse to help veterans of the two long wars overcome PTSD has actually led to the proliferation of a victim mindset. This story at least puts a weapon in the hands of its veteran and allows him to fight back.

A personal aside: what troubled me about reading this story

I just posted about a story I thought of on a Friday and got accepted for publication by Monday. Some of the things I've just said bothered me about "Things I Know to Be True" are things I myself did in my own story. It also uses the first-person narrative with a main character who is using writing as a means to overcome a trauma.

Rather than learning to write my stories my way, I wonder if I'm just learning to write the kinds of stories that literary journals will accept. It does seem that the stories I myself think are among my best are the ones I seem unable to get published.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Good and bad ways to break POV rules

While recently considering Chris Drangle's excellent short story "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," I touched on something that occasionally troubles me both writing and reading in a third-person limited (or "single vision") point-of-view: the distinction between the narrator's voice and the character's voice. I'd wondered about this while reviewing another story I liked before. One reader suggested I was perhaps being a little doctrinaire, so I thought I'd dig a little deeper into this subject. It's actually kind of brushed over in the writing "how to" books. Here is an explanation of 3rd-person limited POV from the Gotham Writers' Workshop guide (which I'm using because I loaned my Burroway to someone and haven't gotten it back):

With the third-person point-of-view the narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator is a voice created by the author to tell the story...With this POV, the narrator has access to only one character's mind....The story is told by the narrator, from the perspective of a single participant in the action....The entire story is filtered through the POV character's consciousness.

Told by the narrator, but from the perspective and through the consciousness of the POV character. Hmmm....they give an example paragraph, from Elizabeth Tallent's "Earth to Molly":

     At the hotel, really a shabby bed-and-breakfast, the landlady, pinching her upper lip in displeasure at having to hoist herself from her chair, let Molly into her room and left her with the key. The landlady was a long time retreating down the hall. The dolor of her tread, with its brooding pauses, was not eavesdropping but arthritis. Molly was sorry for having needed her to climb the stairs, but of course the old woman complained her stiff-legged way up them all the time, showing lodgers to their rooms. Why, oh why, would anyone spend the night here? A prickly gray carpet ran tightly from wall to wall. It was the color of static, and seemed as hateful.

The GWW book points out that it's Molly wondering why anyone would spend the night here. Here's where I get a little shaky though: who is the one noting the "dolor" of her tread? Is that Molly? If so, then Molly knows some old-timey words that most people don't know. If it's the narrator, then we have the narrator's voice mixing in with Molly's observations. I'm not criticizing, I'm just pointing out that this happens, and that it isn't often made that clear when people write about how to handle POV. Does Molly merely see a carpet, and the narrative voice tells the reader that it's prickly, gray, the color of static, and hateful? Is this something Molly thinks? (If so, Molly thinks things I have never thought ever.) More likely, it's the narrative voice both translating Molly's senses to the reader and adding narrative editorial.

I was actually right about something 
The GWW then uses the term "distance" (which I was not sure was the right term, but it is) to explain this very thing I'm talking about: "While this narrator seems to stand just behind Molly's shoulder, or perhaps even lurk in her mind, the third-person narrator may also stand back at a little distance."

GWW even flat out tells us that 3rd person limited can be useful when you've got a character with limited intellectual powers, because the separate narrative voice can say things the character can't. So it's okay if Tallent's narrator knows the word "dolor" but Molly doesn't. Great.

So when I've wondered about other authors doing things that struck me as funny with their 3rd-person limited, it's not that the narrative voice is doing things the character couldn't. It's that 1) I'm not sure how far we can take the narrative voice's intellectually greater powers compared to the character and still feel like we're in that person's head, and 2) I think once a voice establishes its distance, it shouldn't jump around too much. Doing that is as jangling as breaking POV by suddenly giving us the thoughts of a non-POV character.

 Issue number two is easy to avoid once you've characterized the issue, which I just did (you're welcome). It's issue one that I'm grappling with as I work to figure out my own aesthetics. When I read the kind of story that makes most reviewers weak in the knees with its sinewy and stylish prose, I tend to get a little distracted, feeling that the voice is so strong it actually is another character. And where is this voice coming from? It's no longer hiding when it's that strong. It's now front and center, which means I feel like I'm now actually moving into what I would call the 3rd-person potentially omniscient. The voice doesn't know all, but it's capable of explaining anything the character happens to come across. The city dwelling character is suddenly out in the woods? No problem, the narrative voice knows the names of all the trees and shrubbery. The character is fixing a car? The narrative voice knows what every little bolt and screw is called, and is willing to look at it in a minute detail that no person I know actually looks at things with. It's like the narrative voice can direct the character's eyes and ears to do things while the character herself is off living her life doing what normal people do.

Cormac McCarthy springs to mind. I've never seen such a string of nouns of improbable specificity. It's a uniquely McCarthian thing to do, and lets you know you're reading a book he wrote, which almost makes Cormac McCarthy himself a character in his own novels.

Of course, I'm not really sure what I want as an alternative. My son recently had to read the 1972 young adult novel Watership Down--possibly the book least-deserving of its status as a classic I've ever read. In it, a warren of rabbits, when it comes across the things of men, will describe those things in extremely rabbit-centric terms. A railroad is an "iron road," for example. Any type of machine is a hrududu or something like that. (The book definitely breaks this POV trick, though, which is one of the 11,000 things wrong with it.) I wouldn't want to read endless novels where the reader is tied to the main character's ignorance.

I do know that if you spend the whole story at once distance from the character and then suddenly jump, it's going to feel off somehow. It's an amateurish thing to do as much as directly addressing the  "gentle reader" is. And I wouldn't mind seeing other narrative voices than just artistic savants possessing the sensory apparatuses of their characters. Not that I'm sure what I want instead. Maybe this is why I'm writing so much first person lately. It may not have the respect these days that 3rd limited does, but it's definitely the easiest not to screw up.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Spamming the A button FTW

My son tells me that "FTW" is old and lame now, but I don't know another way to user gamer lingo to refer back to my "spamming the A button" technique of literary submissions I recently decided to follow. Basically, I decided to submit a lot more.

I kind of needed a win. 2017 started off pretty good, with a story getting accepted in January and then I got the call about the book in February. Since then, it's been a shut-out, even though I feel like what I'm putting out now is the best work I've done.

But two weeks into my submit-your-ass-off technique, Drunk Monkeys just accepted a story, so I'm off the schneid.

Actually, this is a story that wasn't even in my head until Friday night. I was driving to a friend's house for a reading discussion of The Enchiridion, when the story just sort of came to me. Parts of it fell into place while I was stuck in traffic, and I was actually tempted to skip my quaff of Lyon's Rum and an evening of camaraderie to hurry home and write before I lost it. Instead, I wrote down what I knew of the story on a receipt lying on the floor of my car, spent the evening with friends, made it home by 1 AM and wrote the beginning of the rough draft until 2. The next day, I went into work to catch up on some work I was behind on, then came home and finished the rough draft.

I showed Mrs. Heretic the rough draft, talked it over, fixed it up, and then sent it to Drunk Monkeys' 24-hour response on Sunday. Today, I got an acceptance. So a story I had never thought of 76 hours ago will now have a home soon.

Let me here just put in a plug for that 24-hour response. It's three bucks, which is what a lot of journals are now charging as a reading fee in order to wait for six months.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Let's play "Would I have pubished this story?" (WIHPTS)

It was unfair, of course. Was it monstrous? A mistake had been made, but the numbers all but guaranteed mistakes. The sheer numbers. Every system had its failings. -Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County"

I've been reading the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart anthologies pretty faithfully for the last four years, figuring that's a pretty compact and efficient way to keep up with what's good--or at least critically well reviewed--in American fiction. When I read these stories, I often like to play a game with myself. It goes like this: If this story had come into the literary journal where I am a fiction editor, and I knew nothing about the author or had anything to mark this story off as special, would I have voted for it to be published?

Here, I offer to the public the latest round of this game I've just played, which was with Chris Drangle's "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County." This is an appropriate story to show how the game works, I think, partly because of that epigraph above. The story is about how an injured veteran's wounded dog, who is also a war veteran, is accidentally put down by a clinic, and what happens when the veteran comes to pick up the dog he thinks is still alive. It could also be a metaphor for the editing process at any literary journal: we have so many stories to go through, it's inevitable we're going to make mistakes and "put down" the wrong ones sometimes.

Quick Answer. Would I have voted "up" for this story?

Yes. It's a compelling story with a clear conflict, and the central conflict is introduced within the first page. We have two characters drawn with enough detail that we, the readers, are troubled to see them as they unintentionally come into conflict with one another.

There is a caveat to my yes, however. Our journal has a 5,000 word limit, and this story goes well over it. It's always strange to me that so many journals have 5,000 or 3,000 word limits, and that it seems easier to get a story published if you can get your word count down, but for the anthologies, it seems most of the stories are longer. I think there's still a feeling that a really short story isn't serious, somehow, even though all writers trying to break into publishing are pushed to write shorter pieces. 

What might have made me vote no?

1. A confusing passage early on.  There are two female characters, Portia and Naomi, who both work at the animal shelter where the dog is accidentally put down. Naomi is the one who fucked up. Early on, when we're still learning how to differentiate the two, we see Naomi leave a room and check a few things to see if it was her fault. We then get Portia again. Here's the passage:

     Back in the staff room, Portia was biting her nails and Dennis was stirring the instant tea.
     "How did it happen? "Dennis said.
     "I don't know."
     "This is so fucked up," Portia said.
     "Shut up," she said. "No, sorry. Let's just think."

I was confused about who "she" was in that last line. We've had Portia's name twice since we last heard from Naomi, so I'd think it was her. But it can't be Portia, because then it wouldn't have been a new indentation and a new line. Eventually, I got that it was Naomi, still in the scene, talking. But getting confused early on in a story, even for a second, sometimes puts an editor off for good.

2. Screwing up a detail about military life. There is a section that gives the back story for Fisher Bray, the wounded veteran, about how he ended up in the Army, how he met the dog, and how get and the dog were injured. I think Drangle did enough homework to get through that section without messing it up. But before that, Fisher explains that he was in the "First Battalion, 25th Infantry." If you know anything about the Army's makeup (or just look here), you know that "25th Infantry" is a division. Below a division are several brigades, each of which has several battalions. So there are many "First Battalions" in the 25th Division. Fisher Bray wouldn't say "First Battalion, 25th Infantry," in other words, unless I'm missing something.

I wouldn't have disqualified the story for this, even though I've kvetched before about people screwing up this kind of thing. It would just have given me a slight, instinctive nudge toward a no vote, and I'd have added a note for the writer to edit it. (Drangle might also have been wrong about Fisher shaving at 4:40 AM in basic training; when I was in boot camp, hygiene came at night. But that was the Marines, not the Army, and it was a long time ago, so I might be wrong. It wouldn't be a meaningful mistake, anyway.)

3. Would Fisher have really liked Megadeth? Infantry guys are know to like their hard-core rock, but this seems like something a Gen-Xer would have liked, not a kid who was 19 around 2007 or so. Again, not a big thing.

4. My often-felt uncertainty about an inconsistent narrative distance from the character. Just for review, third-person limited, which is the most ubiquitous point-of-view choice in literature today, means we, the readers, can only see the story through the five senses and the thoughts of one character. This story has different POV focus characters in different sections, which is fine. That doesn't violate point-of-view. That's just rotating third-person limited. Lots of people do it. No problem.

There is also an aspect of distance to point-of-view, however. That is, how far the voice of the narration varies from that of the point-of-view character. For example, it's very rare that a third-person narrative would have a character speak in dialect during dialogue and also have the main narration keep this dialect. The main narration has a distinct voice from the point-of-view character.

But how far this distance between narrator's voice and character's voice should be is not something discussed much. I don't feel it's something most editors read into too closely. But it does bother me sometimes when a nameless, invisible narrator gives us descriptions the main character himself/herself couldn't have come up with. That's part of the light criticism I made years ago of the story "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullenhttp://workshopheretic.blogspot.com/2015/07/how-to-be-lazy-as-shit-as-writer-and.html. Sometimes, the narrator's voice is actually the thoughts of a character. Sometimes, it's a voice that is saying things I don't think the main character would think. If this distance from the main character is too great within the same passage, I find it a little jarring. Here's an example from "A Local's Guide":

     After lunch she stepped out for a short walk. It was seven thousand degrees outside. The cotton field behind the shelter was halfway into flowering, the dark bolls splitting around the cloudy blooms. In a month the strip picker would start lumbering down the rows, huge tires and green chassis and bright yellow teeth in front, thoughtless and methodical.

The "it's 7000 degrees out here" thought is Naomi's. The poetic rhapsodizing about the strip picker and the bolls and the thought that the strip picker rolls on impersonally like so many forces in life--that's all Drangle.

I don't think there's any "rule" against this kind of mixing in writing how-to thought. It's certainly done all the time. I do it. But it's kind of a cheat for a third-person limited narrative. The idea of the third-person narrative is that the writer is going to give you a catharsis through the life rules and philosophy of the character, not the author. But authors sneak their own thoughts into third-person limited stories all the time, and sometimes they do it though a bit of supernatural intervention into the universes they've created.

None of these quibbles would have kept me from voting for it, I think. It's an excellent story, with a sharp conflict and plot that suggest strong themes. But one never knows. If I'd been in a bad enough mood that day, maybe I'd have looked at how long it was and thrown it out as soon as I got confused for a minute on page two.