Sour Grapes

Wow, this blog is suffering from a horrible neglect. Time to infuse some new life into this thing. I’ve got a few ideas. Some may stick…stay tuned.
Meanwhile—a few lingering pet peeves from the writing world:

The journal that pocketed my reading fee (a probably those of many others) and “disappeared”, well before it ever got close to reading my work. You did me wrong. What’s that? It was just a few bucks you say? Oh, right. You know what? That’s bully logic. Like—It’s just your lunch money, Joe, get over it. OK then. I’m done with it. But you’ve got a karma target on your back, southern-tier reconstituted journal. It’s out of my hands.

The editor that rejected my story because of a word. Yes, one lousy word. My message to that editor: hang in there. News travels slow where you live, in the center of the country. The concept of a rewrite request will reach you soon.

Journals (more than one) that demanded name, address, phone, and email, yet never bothered to contact me regarding my submission. Hey—I respected your guidelines. In return, can you respect common decency? I don’t care how you do it…I’ve gotten form rejection letters, form rejection emails, form rejection postcards. But they had something in common, right? A FORM. A response that took the shape of something. Sure, I know you’re busy. Volunteer student staffers wading through a giant slushpile. So just what are you teaching those students anyway?

Ode to a Meltdown

It was about two years ago when Charlie Sheen had his big meltdown and got fired from Two and a Half Men. Shortly afterward I wrote this short piece about Charlie and sent it out to a few places, but no one would touch it.

Charlie

Charlie’s been drinking. A lot. As measured by others, not by him. Too much for others is just launch sequence for Charlie. Even so, he’s a little queasy now. Someone told him once that it helps to eat something when you drink, so he chews a mouthful of blue pills. That explains how he ends up parading naked in front of the Sphinx at the Luxor Hotel in Vegas, shouting at the network to Not Let His People Go. His people are his sitcom people, the ones formerly paid handsome sums to be his people. Some assistant throws a sheet over his shoulders and helps him disappear before security arrives.
Now Charlie’s in a penthouse suite of the Luxor, doing a bit of unauthorized remodeling using some hooker’s head. She looks so absurd, spitting out teeth and chunks of drywall, and Charlie feels bad about it for a second and says hey, I’ll pay to fix that, and tries to shove drywall bits into the gaps in her bleeding mouth, and why didn’t my screenwriters come up with pure gold comic shit like this – I would have never been fired. He is still laughing his ass off when the cops kick in the door.
They take Charlie to the holding cells and all the while he’s screaming Do You Know Who I Am? and the cops say sure we do, you’re a drunk ho-beater, and they throw him in the one with the non-functioning toilet. There’s a fully-functioning camera mounted high on the concrete wall.
Charlie passes out and dreams it’s the day of his breach-of-contract trial against the network and the jury box is packed full of hot bitches and they all shout Guilty! before the judge can even sit down and the network bigwig cries and says Charlie, you can come back at double your old salary and Charlie smashes a wooden chair over his head and says okay, sure.
Charlie wakes up at 5am, shivering on a metal slab, his thighs damp from where he pissed himself. His head is shot full of iron spikes. He remembers he has a house, kids with names, one of them starts with M. He hopes that blonde with the nice ass is feeding them some cereal or something, and where the hell is Dad? He should be here by now.
Charlie remembers years ago, when he was a kid, and Dad was on break from filming Apocalypse and took him to Egypt to see those shabby mock-ups of the Luxor, the ones made of real stone blocks, and some security guard grabbed Dad and showed him where Charlie had scrawled his name and a few American swear words on the monument. Dad had shaken his head, like he was disgusted. Charlie never understood that part. What didn’t he get? That was some funny, funny shit right there.

Dear Whoville—Duotrope is Not the Grinch

I’m thankful for many things this year—a few short stories written, some of them published (one of them felt really big-time!), a positive workshop experience at Kenyon, and lots of great reading thanks to the work of talented internet writer-friends with last names like Sparks and Bell and Kloss and Carr, etc etc. Lately, though, I’ve read a lot of tedious posts about Duotrope that come off as little more than well-worded, grammatically-correct whinings. My thoughts on the subject:

  1. So Duotrope will start charging a user’s fee in 2013. So what. They perform a service. They collect and house publishing information in a database. Some will still find it useful, and if those writers use it, they should pay for it. This is the Information Age. That’s what we all buy and sell, on a daily basis—little electronic bits of value. Didn’t you just buy songs from I-tunes? Didn’t you just pay to download from Netflix or Amazon?
  2. Duotrope tried the tip-jar approach for a while (seven years) and it didn’t work, apparently. They kept it free until they couldn’t afford to. The honors system only works when most people are honorable. No surprises here. My question to all those complaining about the upcoming $50 fee: did you ever voluntarily send Duotrope $25? According to Duotrope’s policy statement on the change, only 10% of users ever bothered to do so. The anonymity of the internet makes it easier to be a taker. I’m not so sure 90% would stiff a waitress.
  3. The idea that publications should foot the bill for Duotrope is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because the publications that can afford to do that are the ones that don’t need Duotrope in the first place. One of the most important benefits of Duotrope is helping spread the footprint of small publications, electronic or otherwise. Tiny venues and upstarts can’t afford all the other ways of getting noticed in the noise of the internet, all of which cost money.
  4. If Duotrope is the Grinch of the season, what about all the publications that are now charging submission or reading fees? Ready to boycott those too? Ready to denounce The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and so many other leading journals?
  5. Saying that Duotrope is just a pretty submission tracker makes smart people appear ignorant. If that’s all you want it for, then fine. You’d be okay with an Excel spreadsheet too. Those who do a lot of submitting know about its advanced search and list-saving capabilities. That’s where, in my mind, the $ 50/year fee is understandable.
  6. If the world of writing and publishing could be viewed as an entity, like a country, then struggling writers are surely its taxpaying rabble, and the taxpayers always pay for everything. Always. Whenever a company or organization “absorbs” cost increases, the customer is the last to absorb. Am I right, Papa John Schnatter?
  7. The mere fact that some people are reacting strongly to this news is proof of Duotrope’s value. If I were Duotrope, I’d only be scared of silence.

 

A Halloween Memory

When I was young, maybe fifteen, I punched a clown in the face. It was at one of those cheesy haunted houses run by the Jaycees or the Lions or some other weird service group where all the men had big bellies and wore fezzes. You remember those haunted houses, right?—the ones that featured Chainsaw Hockey Mask Guy, Mad Scientist, Evil Amputating Surgeon, Ace-Bandaged Mummy Lady, etc. They always seemed to have a disturbing clown too, popping out of some dark corner. That was a big problem for me.

This particular 1980-ish haunted house was actually located in an old house. It may have been in Parma, Ohio. It was claustrophobic. It was hot inside, stale, and smelled of human sweat. Strobe lights blinked. Alice Cooper blasted from hidden speakers. I sensed grabbing fingers, breathed the alcohol breath of strangers. It all seemed to compress and feed on itself, elevating my sense of discomfort. Then there came a dark, maze-y area that you had to feel your way out of. That’s when the clown sprang out, cackling. That’s when my fist sprang out, connecting with his face.

Note to seasonal workers: If you dress like a deranged clown and work in a cheesy haunted house for minimum wage, there is a high probability someone like me is going to punch you in the face. In public, they might apologize and say it was impulse, instinct, inappropriate. In private, they will remember how good it felt, their knuckles smearing that insane painted grin right off your face.

When my parents asked me later whether or not it was worth the $5 admission, I said yeah. Absolutely.

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Kenyon Part Two – Night Terrors

Part of what you do at Kenyon Review’s summer workshop is stand up and read something new you’ve written there at the workshop. Every evening at 7pm, the entire workshop population gathers in the auditorium. Instructors and their fellows are exempt from the “new work” requirement, because they read the first two nights. They get to bring polished, outside work. The rest of us, on evenings three through six, brought our rough drafts and our panic.

Literally.

I couldn’t sleep the night before I read. Some of my workshop acquaintances were undoubtedly still draining beers at the Village Inn when I hit the thin, plastic-coated mattress early, knowing it was futile:

10 pm I have to try to sleep. Which piece am I going to read? The serious one, which is furthest along, or the funny one, which is rough around the edges but would allow me to hide my stress level? Do I need to do laundry? Did I call my wife today? 11 pm. I wish I had a beer. The dining hall has good crisp apples. This dorm smells like old sneakers dredged up from the bottom of a lake. Will they let me read sitting down, without a podium? What is that brunette’s name in non-fiction? 12 am. What if I have an all-out panic attack? Is the Village Inn still open? What sort of college kid slept on this same mattress two months ago? Was he insomniac? Is this mattress cursed? 1 am I’m go to skip my reading and go get drunk a see a movie. 2 am Maybe I should start writing something new, right now, something full of insomniac brilliance. I could read that instead. 3 am Oh God 4 am I am so screwed 5 am It’s too late now 6 am I’m getting up and going for a jog.

Later that day, I chose the serious piece. I practiced it at the podium, with our workshop fellow sitting in the last row to check my voice projection. I didn’t eat much for dinner. I went to the Village Inn at 6:15 and had two beers before heading for the auditorium at 6:50. I made sure to hit the mens room before taking my seat. My nerves fed on themselves as I sat through the first five readers. They were great. I trembled slightly as I gripped the podium and read, but my voice masks my nervousness. I made it through and sat down. People clapped. After the reading, they told me how much they enjoyed it. Thanks, I said, I’m glad, because I missed it. I went to the Village Inn and closed the place down. Then I slept for seven hours on my thin, plastic-coated mattress. I had no dreams whatsoever.

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Interview with a 12-Year-Old Author

My son Luke, who will be 13 soon and is already trying on the teenager for fit, has really been focusing on his reading and writing lately. So I interviewed him.

Q: When did you start writing?
A: When I was six, I think.
Q: What is your favorite thing you’ve written so far?
A: The Very (blank) Man series. There was The Very Sick Man, The Very Fat Man, The Very Thin Man, and The Very Fast Man.
Q: I remember those. The Very Sick Man was my favorite. He was totally covered with dots. So what are you working on now?
A: It’s a story called Darkness. It’s about a boy, the son of the city’s mayor. One day the sun doesn’t come up, and it stays that way for weeks. The boy tries to help everyone survive.
Q: How do your ideas come to you?
A: I’m not sure. Some come from reading, some just pop up, some are, I don’t know, like parts of dreams.
Q: What advice do you have for other young writers?
A: Use your imagination.

Note: After this interview, my son read my wife and I the first four chapters of Darkness and I must say I’m pretty impressed. There’s a distinct top story and a distinct bottom story. He uses very little back story, staying instead with the action and maintaining forward momentum. He uses a dream premonition. His dialogue is sharp. Every chapter ends with tension.
Maybe I should sign up for a workshop with him.

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Notes From Kenyon’s Workshop

Kenyon Review’s workshop last week was a great time. I learned enough to fill a few blog posts, but for this one, I am going to limit it to some submissions advice from David Lynn, editor of the Kenyon Review. In the middle of an informal discussion, David said that he looks for three things in the pieces KR accepts: surprise, delight, mastery. That’s it. Three little things that are so tough to find together in one piece of writing.
So, surprise. Some secret kept from the reader, but one that feels necessary and earned when revealed. No ta-da’s, no it-was-all-a-dream’s, no they’re-already-dead’s. Nothing contrived or cliched. If the secret makes the reader think “Of course, that fits perfectly”, then the writer has achieved surprise.
Delight is different than surprise. Delight is an emotional reaction to the human-ness of the characters in the story. Does the reader feel the pain/joy/loneliness/anger of the character? If so, then chances are that the reader has started to care about the character(s) and become invested in reading further. This gets at what Tim O’Brien termed the “emotional gravitas” of the story—a human connection that goes beyond the idea of plot and into the realm of humanity and feelings.
Mastery, as defined by David Lynn, has two parts. On its surface, mastery means command of language. The metrics here are sentence construction, spelling, grammar–the basic tools of writing craft. The deeper level of mastery is mastery of the story as a whole. Is the author in full control of the story in all its facets? Has the author built the perfect vehicle to present the story? This gets at structure, pacing, voice, and other more esoteric measurements of craft.
So that’s it…three little things that can get you past the editors at KR and make your story one of the 0.60% pieces submitted that (per Duotrope stats) KR will accept. That is my assignment for the next few months. Years.

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The Ten Books on My Island

Sometimes people ask me to recommend a book. Of course, the unspoken second part of that sentence is “that you think I would like”, and I think I mostly fail them by recommending books that I like, not thinking so much about them, but too bad. I’m a fan of literature, not some pulp concierge.

Here are a few books that have affected me deeply, and I’d make sure they were on my proverbial desert island.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This novel is beautiful and entrancing. I didn’t know what magical realism could be prior to reading this.

Pastoralia, by George Saunders. Saunders is master of the funny/poignant. Read them all, but “Pastoralia” and “The End of FIRPO in the World” are my favorites.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. This book blew me away with its structure and genius.

The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco. Another entrancing book. It’s funny that it’s a novel about the alteration of time, because I totally disappeared into it while reading, and didn’t return to reality for an entire day.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by JRR Tolkien. The ultimate time-swallower.

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. I feel like an improved human being when I read this. Like DFW was slightly more evolved, and a few of his fragments found their way into my skull. And it’s easier to deal with than his bigger beasts like Infinite Jest.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Master class in realism.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. A waking nightmare with a mildy hopeful ending. Tough to do, but he did it well.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. A novel that exists simultaneously in massive and intimate scales. Remarkable.

The Bible, by many. If you can look past the religious complexities for a moment, it’s a truly amazing collection of short stories.

Rejection Collection

I’ve read some of the sad, hilarious, outrageous and downright rude rejections some writers have received from editors, and it makes me feel lucky that the ones I get are mostly decent, thoughtful and sometimes even apologetic. Here’s a recent sampling of my recent rejection fare:

  • Dear joe,
    Thank you for submitting XXXX to XXXX. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. This was pretty close for me. I really liked the language and voice, but the XXXX thing is a bit overdone I think. I would have preferred to see this as a piece separate from anything else; the XXXX thing was too hard to overlook.
  • Dear Joe
    Thank you for your continued interest in XXXX and for sending another thoughtful submission. It’s much appreciated.
    I enjoyed reading XXXX as it’s a striking story in many ways. It also felt true (“XXXX.”) Overall, though, it’s not a snug fit for the zine.
    Again, my “issue” with the piece is that it’s a bit “one-dimensional” (and again, I mean this in the neutral sense of the word). The story sort of goes one way. I feel like there isn’t any real room for me, as a reader, to wonder for/about these characters, what might be really going on within them. There isn’t some kind of essential ambiguity in the story.
    I believed this comes down to one reader’s experience and expectations of fiction. And it’s about what I’d be looking to pick for the zine instead, rather than any kind of judgment on your work.
  • Hey Joe,
    Thanks for sending us “XXXX”. I got a big kick out of much of it. Here’s the deal, the parts I wrestled with, I really wrestled with. What comes to mind are the XXXX, which I liked but rang too close to a XXXX from a ways back, XXXX. It had XXXX narrate. Have you ever seen it?
    It was really funny. While this and that are clearly different conceptually it’s like I say they’re just a little to close to the same for me. I also admit this is a weird thing to have misgivings about. It’s entirely subjective, but I couldn’t get passed it.
    All that said, I’m a huge fan of your writing and would be very appreciative if you’d send us another story for consideration.
    I also sincerely appreciate your kind words regarding XXXX. It’s words like yours that keep me going with this project.
  • Dear joe,
    Thank you for sending “XXXX.” I appreciate the chance to read your piece, and although I enjoyed it, the piece is not right for us.
    You have a strong voice, and I hope you consider submitting to XXXX again in the future.
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Ten Things About Writing That Make No Sense

When I started writing, it did not take me long to figure out that the laws of logic disintegrate in the universe of writing, and I think that’s probably as it should be, because writing is art and art is the domain of the heart, not the head. So it kind of makes sense, the non-logic, and yet it’s still frustrating as hell.

That being said, here are (in no particular order) ten things that are completely beyond my comprehension:

  1. The difference between “new” writer and “emerging” writer. Someone tried to tell me once that the difference was publication. Well, maybe that made sense in 1987, before Al Gore invented the internet and you had to type and print out your manuscript on your IBM word processor and pack it in a manila envelope with a SASE and mail it off to the stodgy print journal with a two-word title that combined a fancy place name with “Quarterly”, and then wait the better part of a year to hear from them, but what about now? If I get my 100-word story published online at Blowholes and Gunwales, or one of the real 4,000+ publishing entities that show up on Duotrope, am I emerging? I think not—but where that line is exactly, I have no idea.
  2. The difference between “author” and “writer”. I know what the difference feels like, but not how to define it. For instance, I call myself a writer, not an author, and I won’t consider myself close to being an author unless I sell over 1,000 copies of something, or until something I wrote is turned into a screenplay. Even then, I’d probably stick with “writer”. To me, “writer” feels simple and honest, while “author” sounds presumptious. Maybe that’s just my understated Midwestern thing again, but you know what? I’d trust a garbage man over a sanitation specialist any day.
  3. Writers who flip out on editors over rejections. As they say on ESPN, C’Mon, Man! How long have you been a writer anyway? Rejections are the staple of a writer’s life.  Fact: the Geneva Convention requires that anyone who jails a writer must give said writer two rejections and a glass of water daily.  Suck it up, angry little writer. The Send button is your enemy. Move on. Vow to win them over next time, with better work.
  4. Writers who don’t participate in the community when it’s time to support others, and yet expect the community to go nuts over their latest project. I’m trying to be better at this myself. I’m a terrible Fictionaut member, for example. I log in rarely, but when I do, I feel like I need to read and comment on at least three other pieces. It’s an amazing tool, this Al Gore internet thing. It lets introverts safely experiment with extroversion in the dark recesses of their own homes.
  5. Why just about every third story of mine involves artificial limbs.
  6. How I can manage to get print acceptances from journals with less than a 1% acceptance rate, and yet get routinely rejected by an online journal with a 35% acceptance rate.
  7. Why, according to VIDA stats, there are still many more men than women being published, interviewed, reviewed, etc. in literary circles. I am consistently blown away by the amazing writing that women are putting out there (I’d name some, but there are just too many). If these “gender-unbalanced” venues (see VIDA’s website) publish based purely on excellence, as most claim to, then these stats should reach 50/50 in no time.
  8. Fictionalized nonfiction. Thank you, James Frey, for trying to convince us that nonfiction could be partially true, mainly true, vaguely true or almost true. Nonfictionalized fiction would have been the safer choice.
  9. Why Jonathan Franzen doesn’t understand that he presents poorly and makes everyone want to not like him whenever he opens his mouth. Yes, he can write. Yes, he has some money now. He can now buy a small European country (Franzenbourg?) and write in seclusion and hire actor Thomas Haden Church to play him at media functions.
  10. Why it took me until 2009 to start writing, because I can’t imagine not doing it now.

 

 

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