Archive for the ‘Fathers and Sons’ category

perils and promise of procrastination

June 18, 2014

I’ve received a flurry of rejection letters lately, which is never fun but is a fact o’life in this kind of ambition. Mostly they’re for various Fathers and Sons stories of mine (though two have been close calls for an independent story, “Been Lonely So Long,” that included some very positive comments from the editors).

This has added to my growing consideration lately that perhaps I should not be submitting these Fathers and Sons stories for publication as one-offs. I do write them as complete in themselves, and they could stand on their own as whole stories. But they are part of a larger universe, which supports and illuminates both the parts and the whole. And since that universe is still under construction, the independent stories just may not be in final form until the whole is in final form. Does that make sense?

For example, a rejection I received last week was for my original Fathers and Sons story, “Death of Superman.” In the chronology of the stories, it takes place near the very end, but in my grand vision of a published collection, it would be the very first story, setting up a tension that would infiltrate each story that followed (going back in time), only being resolved in the revelations of the very last story (which I’m calling “Little Gray Birds”).

I’ve mentioned here before that I had originally written “Death of Superman” as a stand-alone story. I had no idea at the time that a universe of stories would spring from it. (There are twelve of them at the latest count. Some are finished and published while others are still just a collection of notes.) But as the other stories began to flow from it, and as I grew to understand the characters better, I’ve revisited “Superman” and revised it so that it better fit in the whole. One example is the narration. “Superman” is a first-person story. My character David is telling the tale, and it’s a reflective story. The trouble is that David, as he has evolved in the other stories, is not a particularly articulate or insightful man. (He is a good man, though.) And so I had to “dumb down” the quality of his narration from what I had originally written. That’s fine. It’s still a good story, and the fact that David misses so many messages in the course of the story helps allow his epiphanies in later stories.

And other similar things. There are certain tropes and devices that are cropping up in the stories. One example is cotton flannel shirts. They are a sort of uniform between two of the fathers and sons and a symbol of benign rebellion by the third. The title “Little Gray Birds” is itself a reference to a fleeting but important moment in an early story.

But the “Superman” submission that was rejected only last week was submitted nearly a year ago. (Such response time being the subject of a different post.) The story had gone through several revisions in that time, and the one submitted was quite different from the more integrated version now.

My point is that until all of the stories are written, I’m not sure that their influences on each other will be settled and clear. And so if I get them published now, I fear that they will be carved in stone and immutable. Thus an opportunity to better integrate the story will be lost.

That’s lofty and noble, but it’s advice I’m unlikely to heed. Practical Paul says that a published collection is a worthy but possibly overly ambitious dream while actual published stories are tangible and get free beers for the writer. (Never once!) Plus, I’m not sure how “immutable” stories are even after they are published. So I’ll likely continue to submit them even as I wring my hands over their internal influence and integration.

In other news: My legs are still a little wobbly after Sunday’s epic half marathon. I took a run yesterday that was a mess, but I intend to give it a go tomorrow. Gotta get my miles.

“The Most Natural Thing in the World” is now up at MOON Magazine

May 5, 2014

My latest Fathers and Sons story, “The Most Natural Thing in the World”, is now up at The MOON Magazine. Hop on over there if you care to and give it a read. I’m especially interested in what you think of this one. You can leave a comment there, or you can post one here. Or not. Up to you.

A lot is happening in the background of this story. A significant character development is beginning to be expressed here, one that will affect the father and son dynamic of the subsequent stories.

A word of caution, however. When you go to that link, you’re going to get smacked in the face with my face. I hope you don’t turn to stone or anything when you see it. (That photo was taken on the day I ran my second 5K. What a neophyte I was!)

I hope you like the story.

Trolley Run at work and play

April 28, 2014

One of my Fathers and Sons stories, called “Runaway”, is set during the Trolley Run, an annual event here in Kansas City for 26 years, um, running. I ran it last year, and I ran it again this year on Sunday. Before I bore you with my account of it below, I wanted to tell you that I considered running it pure research for my story. Granted, the story was finished last fall, and I’ve even been sending it out to a few places. But I was glad to run the race again just to gather whatever little details I might to add to the tale and the telling.

In my story, the son, Curt, is beginning to grow apart from his father. He’s about 11 years old, and that’s natural enuf, but the father, David (whom you’ve met in “The Lonely Road” and “Men at work and play” and the soon-to-appear “The Most Natural Thing in the World” as well as “When We Were Young and Life Was Full in Us” if you happened to catch it for the week or two the magazine allowed it to be online) is feeling the separation keenly even as he sees it as healthy and inevitable (and in part of his own doing). So I combined work and play, but on with the play by play:

*   *   *

I had really wanted to have a good experience this year at the Trolley Run. Last year, when I ran it for the first time, I was pleased with my performance. But I hoped in the time since then that I had gotten a little better and would turn in some “impressive” numbers.

I assumed I was fully recovered from the half marathon I did two weekends ago, though I had been running less in the subsequent days. I guess I was eager to find out of if my reduced training would help or hinder my performance on the four easy, downhill miles of the Trolley Run.

Unlike most runs, I got to the start with only an hour before it was to begin. That’s cutting it close for someone with as much pre-race anxiety as I have. But I immediately ran into some friends from the running club, and as I wandered around, I met more. City busses were pulling up constantly, disgorging runners who had parked at the finish and were being shuttled to the start. I understand there were about 10,000 runners and walkers this year, which is even more than last year. I suppose I was lucky to see anyone I knew but I’m glad I did.

I was afraid my luck would be thwarted, however, by the gathering clouds in the sky. It was nearly 70 degrees at 7:00 that morning, and the benevolent sun was shining on all of us, but a storm was rushing in from the west. The forecast estimated it would reach the city by around 10:00, and even if I walked, I’d be finished before then. It looked as though the storm had other plans, however, and was eager to be at the start of the race with the rest of us. The sky to the west was filled with dark clouds and they were getting closer every minute.

I was in the green wave once again, the third group to start. The first wave was to start at 7:45, but according to my watch, they were let out of the gate several minutes early. (Maybe I wasn’t the only one watching the sky.) By the time my wave was shuffled to the start, we were only a few minutes past the official start time. The small gang of friends I was with at the start all wished each other a good run. We would run at different paces, so we wouldn’t see each other again until the finish. I got my watch to find some satellites, and after a moment, I was across the starting mats and on my way.

Too fast.

As I said, I wanted to have a good run, but that meant marshaling my energy so that I could sustain it across even the comparatively short distance of four (downhill) miles. I made the mistake, there at the start, of looking at my watch and seeing the pace I was running. Much, much too fast. A lot of runners start out too fast because the whole pack is surging around them. I knew I would burn out quickly if I kept going at that pace (which didn’t really feel fast to me at the time). So I tried to throttle back. I did not look at the pace my watch reported but merely trotted along at what I felt I could sustain. And after a few turns and elbows in the ribs (the pack was dense for about two-thirds of this run) I reached the first mile marker. Of course I was already trying to negotiate with my rational self for a short walking rest because my lungs were really pretty angry with me. They say you should always be able to carry on a conversation while running and that if you can’t, you’re going too fast. I couldn’t at that point, but it was only because my lungs were monopolizing the conversation. I’d had a chest cold several weeks back. In fact, I was in the last stages of it when I ran that half marathon two weeks ago. I suspected I was not fully over it because I was breathing harder than I thought I should be at that point.

At mile two the first water stop loomed before us. I was running down the middle of the road (less slope there to avoid potential knee or hip ache) and had to cut over quickly to grab a cup. I try to be charitable in my assessments of other people’s efforts, especially those of volunteers. But I have to say the water stations on this run were terrible. Perhaps they were unprepared for the number of runners. Or maybe those of us in the middle of the pack were coming along a little late. But they didn’t have enuf cups filled (though they were frantically trying to) and wound up just handing us the bottles of water intended for filling the paper cups. This is problematic for two reasons. One, even an eight-ounce bottle of water is too much to drink on the run. So then you have the half-filled bottle to carry along with you. Or, two, you take a couple of sips and then throw the bottle, mostly still filled with water, down on the ground. That’s what I did. As had hundreds of others. So there were plastic bottles in the road that our fleet feet had to race across. (I had thrown my bottle to the curb.) Something similar had happened to me on the St. Patrick’s Day run when they served (too much) water in large plastic cups that then littered the ground beneath our feet. Because road hazards. I didn’t even slow down at the second water station on the Trolley Run.

All the while, my lungs were screaming at me to STOP THIS INSTANT! By this point I was on the true downhill stretch of the course, a straightaway before the last turn to the finish arch — my absolute favorite finish stretch in the city. I wasn’t about to stop, and I had more or less vowed to open up on this stretch and maybe grab a fast enuf mile to beat my performance last year. Except I didn’t have anything left in me to open up the run. I just plodded ahead, throwing one foot in front of the other and, curiously, continuing to pass people.

When I finished the long straightaway and turned toward the finish arch perhaps a quarter mile ahead, something clicked and I did manage to pick up the pace a little. I’m sure I looked ragged. I felt ragged. I knew that there were photographers in the area, and I didn’t want to look the way I felt, but by then it was all about finishing the run as well as I could regardless of how I looked. So I threw my mouth open, threw my feet before me, and threw everything I had left into the run. The cheering crowds. The gentle downhill straightaway to the finish. The delicious delirium of being within reach.

And then I crossed the finish mats and switched off my watch. I was panting, but I wasn’t about to spiral to the ground or empty my empty stomach. I was done, and my lungs were grateful. The chute after the finish was crowded (just like last year — ugh!), but I managed to get the timing sensor clipped from my shoe, and then I went in search of chocolate milk. My wife and son found me, and we pushed our way through the crowd to the party booths beyond. One bottle of Propel (not too bad), one slice of pizza, one whole wheat roll, and four blessed, blessed bottles of chocolate milk later, and I was ready to go. I met some of my running friends and we shared high fives. But I was beat.

I had really wanted to have a good run this year. But I did not. I had a GREAT run this year. The reason my lungs were so angry was because I had run — and sustained — a very fast pace for my ability. I had shaved four minutes off of my time from last year. I ran faster for longer than I ever have. And I beat the rain.

So I’ve had a good Rock the Parkway half marathon and two weeks later a good Trolley Run. Seems like I’m going to have to keep this up now.

“Men at work and play” is now online

April 17, 2014

My story “Men at work and play” is now up at Wolf Willow Journal. Click on over there and have a read if you’re interested. As of this morning, it bears the title of “The Shawl in my Closet” but I’ve asked the editor to fix that.* The story begins “Curt knelt in the gravel before the dying fire . . .” If you see that, you’re in the right place. And if you care to, let me know what you think.

For one of my early published stories, the editor had used the wrong name in the byline. That never got fixed though I had asked. Oh well.

I read through “Men at work and play” now and spotted all of the things I would have fixed if I’d seen them before submitting. I can’t believe I use the verb “slump” in successive sentences. I have a dangling modifier that sticks out. (I’m not usually too bothered by these, but this one bugs.) And do I really need to say they’ll be a mess twice?

As I said in yesterday’s post, not a whole lot happens in this story . . . except for everything. What came before and what comes after in the cycle of stories gets concentrated and focused in this one. That I could even write this I take as a sign that I’m finally in control of the shifting, amorphous mass of tales that have been presenting themselves to me over the last two years.

So this marks the fourth Fathers and Sons story to see publication: “When We were Young and Life was Full in Us,” “The Lonely Road,” “Men at work and play,” and the forthcoming “The Most Natural Thing in the World.” I have a couple of others in circulation. I’m feeling pretty good about this whole cycle.

* Fixed!

“Men at work and play” accepted for publication

April 15, 2014

I am still really weary from running that half marathon three days ago. (And we won’t talk about last night’s run.) But I’m feeling buoyant right now because in this morning’s email was an acceptance for one of my Fathers and Sons stories.

“Men at work and play” will appear in the next issue of Wolf Willow Journal, which will apparently make its appearance online tomorrow.

This is an important story in the cycle, even though not very much happens at all in the events I give. Three generations, knocking about the cabin, doing chores, a little fishing, a campfire, quiet closeness. It’s almost more of a vignette (or as I’ve seen disdainfully described lately, an anecdote but not a story). It is a kind of lens, collecting and focusing the lives that have come before in the stories of the cycle and foreshadowing many things that will come in the later stories. I intend to write a companion story for this called “Men at rest” that will parallel and fulfill much that is in this one.

I had sent “Men at work and play” off to this magazine based on a call for submissions with the theme of sanctuary, and the nurturing quality of the family cabin in these stories is something I have been trying to depict throughout. It seemed a good fit, and it was.

Interestingly, I’m actually going to be paid for this story: $20. (I hope that’s US dollars since the publication is based in Saskatchewan.) This is the third piece of my fiction that has earned me an income, so my bank account has swollen by $40.15. Woohoo! And it is the fourth of my Fathers and Sons stories to be published. I feel as though I’m getting some traction.

I’ll be sure to put up a link to the story when it appears.

story accepted

March 21, 2014

Nice way to start the new year. One of my Fathers and Sons stories, “The Most Natural Thing in the World,” has been accepted for publication.

It will appear in the May issue of MOON Magazine, addressing the theme of “The Wonder of Boys.” The editor made a couple of minor changes to the text but otherwise said she really liked it.

So I’ll post a link here when it comes up. This makes my twentieth piece of published fiction. I realize for some of you that’s a weekend’s worth of work, but it’s a landmark to me.

devil in the details

January 22, 2014

Ever hopeful, I sent in one of my Fathers and Sons stories, “The Death of Superman”, to a journal for consideration. Several days passed and I dutifully chewed my nails. Then a response came. And it wasn’t a rejection!

It wasn’t an acceptance either. It wasn’t even a request for changes. And it was only indirectly an acknowledgement of receipt.

The email stated that the editor couldn’t read the document I had attached. I’m willing to admit (reluctantly) that people may not read my stories by choice, but this was the first time someone could actually not read it at all (and presumably wanted to since she is an editor and I had submitted).

So I took at look at the file and discovered that although I had saved it with a .DOC extension, I had saved it as an RTF file. (I didn’t know you could even do that. I vaguely recall submitting something somewhere recently that actually did call for an RTF file. Now I have to worry that everything I’ve saved since is in that format.) The journal’s guidelines specifically called for .DOC files. So I re-saved it properly and re-sent it today.

No word on whether my rescue of the manuscript will have any effect on its possible acceptance.

Update 27-Jan-2014 - The editor wrote to say that she could not read the story and that I can expect a response by the end of February.

Update 22-Feb-2014 - The editor ultimately declined the story, but I got a personal rejection and a welcome to submit there again sometime.

thick skin report ~ it stings this time

January 12, 2014

So I recently received a no-thank-you from a magazine for one of my Fathers and Sons stories. That much is nothing special. It’s the nature of our business, right? But this one stung a bit.

I peeked into Duotrope’s Digest, where I log nearly all of my submissions and track their fates, to see what my acceptance-to-rejection ratio actually is. I’ve recorded 92 submissions there, but I had withdrawn 10 of those because they were simultaneous submissions that were accepted elsewhere. Eight more fall in the “Never Responded” category. So let’s say there were 74 viable submissions. Of those, five are pending a response, and fifteen were accepted for publication. (I have 19 published stories, so the calculations here won’t be exact — and anyway, I’m not a math person.) My ratio, then, is around one acceptance for every five submissions. (Check my math since, again, I’m not a math person.) According to Duotrope, I have a higher than average acceptance ratio.

That’s all fine and good, but a rejection is still a rejection, and this one hurt.

I really thought I had a good story for a really good market, and some part of me was certain the editor would feel the same way. The editor was quite gracious about the rejection, writing me a detailed email explaining why my story (“Runaway”) wasn’t right for his magazine. Every word he said was right, and that’s perhaps why it stung so much more than normally.

In retrospect, it was not the right story for his magazine. My story is more reflective and internal than the typical thing he publishes. Had I not been so impressed with my story and its worth, I might have realized this and not sent the mismatch.

Still, his detailed rejection response gave me plenty to fret over. While he liked the opening (and said one of his staff found one image will likely stay with her) he thought the story slowed down after that. He said it had too much back story, exposition, and reflection. That’s certainly true, but that is also pretty much what my Fathers and Sons stories are. They span three generations of men and their sometimes difficult relationships with each other. Events that happen 30 years before have influences much later. There must be some back story, and there certainly must be some reflection.

What stung the most — and I’m not saying the editor is wrong — is that he said the story was too “sentimental” for their tastes. I’m troubled by this because, I guess, it’s the only way I know how to tell the story. It’s not humor. It’s not speculative fiction. It’s about the joy and anguish of three men related to each other as fathers and sons. There is a ton of sentiment in their lives.

I realize that half the tale is in the telling, and maybe I’ve laid it on too thick in this piece, but part of me feels a little helpless. Sentimental. That’s a big word, and if it’s a flaw, it’s a big flaw.

Still, I’m already thinking about ways to revise the story to maybe diffuse the heavy dose of sentimentality in the last paragraphs. Maybe I did overdo it.

So I’ll lick my wounds and stand up straight and move on. (But it still stings.)

“When We Were Young” is online

December 18, 2013

My story “When We Were Young and Life Was Full in Us” is now up at The Fictioneer. This is one of the stories in my Fathers and Sons cycle, the other published piece being “The Lonely Road.”

I’m really fond of this story, and not just because it contains teenage sex. I think it is my most controlled work, in which I was aware of what I was doing with every word and bit of punctuation. I felt as though the story emerged naturally and mostly in final form on first draft.

Which is balderdash, of course. This is also the story I’ve passed around to several friends for comment including Averil Dean, Pete Anderson, my lovely daughter, and, most certainly, my wife. Each made suggestions for changes and improvements and/or reinforced what felt strong and right to me. And don’t forget that the editor required me to change the last paragraph since the original was too literal. To make that change, I found I had to make a few minor changes throughout the story. So it clearly didn’t emerge in final form at the beginning.

But I knew the characters well by the time I got this story into rewrites. I knew just how to change it, just what to say, just how each would react. I don’t often feel this way with my stories, which is probably why I have so few published or even in what I’d consider finished form. For me it’s rare when my creative engine is firing on all cylinders.

If you have a chance to read it, I’d love to hear what you think. There is an option to leave comments at the story site, and of course you can leave your witty and insightful comments here too.

Update 5-APR-2014 – The magazine was only available online for a couple of months. There is no longer a link to the story you can go to in order to read it.

dumbing down even the punctuation

December 2, 2013

That title is unfair. It’s probably just click bait, but whatever.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that as my Fathers and Sons stories evolve, I’m learning more about each character. (It’s as though they really exist out there in some imaginary reality and I am slowly getting more glimpses of their inner lives, but I realize it’s really that the needs of the plot are directing their subconscious development in my chaotic mind.) One of the things I’ve learned about the central character, Davey, is that he is not very bright. He’s a good man. He’s honest, hardworking, loyal, loving, and wants to do the right thing all the time, but he’s one of life’s “C” students. He’s never going to see the nuances that his much brighter son and wife do, and he’s slowly coming to understand and accept this. He is supposed to be just an average guy, very accessible, very relatable, very likeable.

As a result, I find myself rewriting much of his dialog and introspective bits to make them less articulate and insightful, more prosaic. I recently had the opportunity to review the very first Fathers and Sons story I’d written, “The Death of Superman”, to prepare it for submission to a magazine for consideration. (I revisit that particular story a lot because it’s where this whole cycle sprung from. That was supposed to be a one-off piece; I never expected the characters to leap from the page and grab me by the throat.)

What I found in my most recent pass through was that as I was bringing the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and character-expressed insights down a notch or two, I wondered if Davey would use semicolons in his speech.

Isn’t that a strange thought?

I try to use semicolons in my stories, in part because they are a useful bit of punctuation, but mostly because I read some puffed up know-it-all say that semicolons are archaic and confusing to modern readers (who, he seemed to think, need their writing dumbed way down). Plus, semicolons lend themselves to the conversational style most of my story narrators use. (If you search way back in this humble blog, you’ll find my rants about how you should treat your narrator as another character of your story, with a background and style at least as well developed as the characters the story itself is about. Does that make me seem like a puffed up know-it-all?)

And so when I found some semicolons in Davey’s narrative — “The Death of Superman” is told in first person — I paused and wondered if I should take them out. They seemed too “sophisticated” for this average guy. Raise your hand if you think about proper punctuation for your thoughts and utterances. I know I don’t. I just let the blather fly without a thought to how I would punctuate any of it. And so, I realized, I was being a little nuts trying to clean up the punctuation of Davey’s internal monologue. I’m reminded of this offering from the late, lamented Boggleton Drive comic.

So I submitted the story over the weekend and got the automated thank-you response, telling me the editors hope to respond within 90 days. That’s certainly better than the 512 days it’s taken another publication (so far) to respond. (I’m guessing that one wasn’t accepted, which is just as well since I hadn’t dumbed down the narrative nearly enuf on that draft back in those days.)


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