Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

writing tips blog

March 24, 2014

I was tempted to title this post the BS Writing Tips Blog, but I refrained. (Though can I say I truly refrained if I said it in the body of the post? I’m so conflicted.)

Anyway, Bartleby Snopes, which was kind enuf to publish one of my stories, now has a writing tips blog, and the inaugural entry is up, here. This first entry seems a little obvious, especially to an iconoclast like me, but they welcome input in the form of comments, so perhaps a writerly dialogue will enhance their effort even more.

So surf on over there if you have a mind and see what you think.

know your reader

March 15, 2014

Back in the day, when I was guilty of committing journalism, one mantra that was supposed to guide my work was “know your reader.” Has there ever been a more impossible bit of advice than that?

I think the idea is that you must understand what your reader knows, wants, and needs. How smart they are. The range of their vocabulary. Their political leanings. Their attitudes and preconceptions. Their bedrock and their areas open to reflection. Or something like that. Once you know all of that about all of your potential readers, you encapsulate it. Then you a) deliver it, b) challenge it,  or c) ignore it and write what you want. But how can you really know the reader, much less a group of readers? Far less a group of anonymous readers who inconveniently do not fit into pigeon holes?

Certainly those who partake of recognized faux news outlets, those who have a tightly focused interest in a particular arcane subject, and others are ofttimes more easily identifiable, and you can somewhat “know your reader” and thus pander appropriately. But in my experience, the net is cast far wider than this for most writing, and I think this is even more true for fiction.

Yes, there are fiction readers who favor genre writing, and most genres have their conventions. (By “genre” I mean things like romance or crime or mystery or western or speculative fiction and not the broader definition I’ve seen lately of short story or poetry or flash.) Yet I suggest that even such genres have so much diversity in them, so many subcultures of readership, that their readers do not lend themselves to easy categorization. (And the iconoclast in me feels that such genre conventions should be shaken up anyway.)

Yet for the writing I’m trying to steer my humble abilities toward — general literary fiction — I think the readership is so amorphous that there is no point in trying to target it. And not only that, but this genre definition seems so broad that a vast diversity of approaches to story telling seem to fit. I try reading journals to see what kind of fiction they publish, and I often see work that is different from what I do. I read the work of friends and see that the kind of general literary fiction they write is often different from what I do. I’m not saying I’m a misfit (that’s for you to decide) but that I am one among thousands of individuals. I do what I can until I’m satisfied — and thus I guess I know at least that reader — and then send it out, sometimes almost blindly. And I think the closest I can come to knowing my reader is knowing the kind of fiction a given editor publishes.

So I don’t even try to know my reader anymore. I write the stories I have, to the best of my humble ability, and then try to find them homes. I suppose that sounds like blasphemy to some, but it’s a place I’ve arrived at after years of effort and rumination.

I read somewhere — and I wish I could find the source — the each person’s life, even the most simple person you know, is like an entire book, and the best you can ever hope to know is a few pages from their book. I think for the most part, that is true. And if so, then what hope can you have to know a reader, a reader you have never met, who lives on the other side of this planet we are on, who brings his or her own lifetime of experiences to reading and understanding your story?

And if this reader is taking the time to read what you’ve poured some of your own heart and soul into, then maybe the table should turn and you should give them the chance to come to know you a little better.

What do you think? (and I know you think cuz I’ve read your blogs and stories)

random ramblings

February 16, 2014

Obligatory comment about the astonishment and embarrassment for not having posted here in far too long.

I don’t have any great news to report, no happy acceptances of my stories to revel in or wound-licking rejections to lament. I don’t really want to throw out posts in which I pontificate about this or that (or the other thing) since I’m sure my thoughts are no wiser or more discerning than anyone else’s. (And what if they’re far, far less?) I did run a 5K in 13 degrees around a windy stadium parking lot last month, but it was not a shining moment for me (and I got a finisher’s medal, which I think is ridiculous for trotting a mere 3.1 miles). I could put up an adorable photo of my dogs, perhaps (since I don’t have any grandchildren — and I’m not at all bitter or resentful about that. Not at all!).

Even the writing is humdrum. I continue to pick at my Fathers and Sons stories. I have a number of them out to magazines for consideration. (Even after sending them out, I continue to tinker with them.) I’m contemplating sending one of my Finnegans cozy mystery novels (remember those?) to a small publisher for consideration too. Even my finished novel The Sleep of Reason is getting some long-overdue attention from me for possible submission.

I’ve had this idea for a story for a few years that I’ve tried working on lately. I think it was conceived during my Borges-reading period. It circles back on itself in a satisfying way, or it would if I could write the damned thing. But I fear the ambition exceeds the ability with this one. I’m not sure I have the chops to write it in the way I imagine it in my pointed little head. Frustrating.

Similarly, I have another story idea that seems to be born of my Faulkner-reading period. Oblique references. Tortured souls. Tortured sentence structure. Another theme where circles play a part. (What’s up with that?) I guess I’m the guy to write it, but how? How?

Also, is there such a thing as spandex rash? (Apparently so.)

Here’s a picture of my little cabin in the woods:


because iconoclast

January 30, 2014

I love that the word “because” has become a preposition. “I was late for work because traffic.” I love this fact not so much because I’ll use it in my writing (because unlikely) but because it is a clear sign of the evolution of our language. The construct even has a name: “because NOUN.”

I make no secret of my war with grammar Nazis. Greater minds than mine have called grammar a tool, not a rule. I assert that creative writers are given a free pass on grammar (and punctuation and even spelling) if their writing calls for it. As long as the message is getting through (or not getting through if that’s the intent), then grammar is optional.

Of course if you’re writing technical manuals (which I did for years) or legal contracts (which I did for years) or magazine articles (which I did for years) or even high school term papers (which I did for years), then the “rules” of grammar are necessary to achieve the lingua franca.

But if your thang is creative writing, then help us evolve the language. Be out front and create new styles, new words, new constructions. Evolve “teh grammar.” Because internet, I understand.

In a way, it’s pathetic that some will insist that certain standards of grammar (that prevailed usually in the generation just before theirs) are fixed or at their finest and that any deviation is suspect or trendy or just plain wrong. Because myopia.

I suspect that the because NOUN construct is merely trendy and won’t make its way into standard usage, though the generation after mine seems to be its greatest user.

3,000 words

January 4, 2014

Is it just me, or have a lot of publications been limiting word count on short stories to a mere 3,000 lately? The last few calls for submission I’ve pursued had this limit, and I wonder if it’s the new thing (or maybe just a coincidence).

I found a magazine that put out a call with a theme that seemed to be a good fit for one of my Fathers and Sons stories, so I revisited the story (which had been simmering on my hard drive for a while) with the idea that I would submit to the theme and maybe have a shot. Of course, the magazine limited the word count to 3,000, and my story was 3,350 words. So I asked myself if I could cut out 10 percent and still tell the story I had to tell.

Turns out I could nearly do it. (I came up through journalism, so cutting superfluous words is a skill I’ve acquired.) I chopped and chopped and reworded and slashed and burned and killed my darlings and all of those things and got the word count down to 3,145. So close!

I had given an earlier draft of the story to my wife to read some months ago, and at the time she told me that the story had ended at a given point but that I had kept blathering on. I remembered that as I faced those last 145 words. So I checked how many words my ending blather came to, and they came to exactly 145 words. Truly. If I ended the story where she believed it ended, then I would make the cut.

My extra words at the end were intended to reinforce the theme of the story. (I tend to start with a theme and build a story plot to serve it.) But if my wife was correct then I didn’t really need that reinforcement. And presumably the editor would see that too. So I saved the file under a different name (to preserve my original ending) then chopped out those last bits of blather. With a little more tinkering, I got the word count down to 2,980, which I think is a safe buffer that did not comprise the story telling I wanted to do.

I sent the story in this morning. The magazine has a higher-than-average acceptance ratio according to Duotrope’s Digest, but its response time can be up to six months according to the reports. I dug a little deeper at the magazine’s site and learned that their 3,000 word limit is not some editorial preference but an actual physical limitation of the blogging software they use to post stories. So that cleared up at least one mystery.

The year is only four days old, but I’ve already submitted two stories (with reasonable hopes of acceptance) and I have a third I’m muscling to get ready for submission too.

a one-time fling or a long-term relationship?

December 27, 2013

So clue me in. Just how is one supposed to react after getting a story accepted by an editor? I mean aside from turning cartwheels and such.

I’ve always thanked the editor and praised his or her exceptional taste in fiction after I get the news that a story is accepted. And I generally send a follow-up gushing of thanks after the story actually appears. But beyond that?

Should I be trying to maintain a relationship with the editor and/or publication? Friend them on Facebook? Is that more or less expected? Or is the transaction completed and ’nuff said?

In a couple of cases, I have kept up tenuous email conversations with editors (or left comments on their blogs). I’m not sure why other than that we have the common interest of writing and fiction (and because they wrote back). But I haven’t pursued this with all of the editors who’ve accepted my stories. And I haven’t done this with the intent to grease the wheels for future acceptances. (Though three publications have accepted second stories of mine.) In fact, I fear that these people get so many, many emails that the last thing they want is for someone to be knocking on their door with no purpose beyond staying in contact.

I’ve also been in a circumstance where I could have arranged to have lunch with a certain editor since I was in her town. Does that seem reasonable to pursue? Or creepy? (My few meet ups with fellow bloggers have not been successful. In one case I was so disillusioned that I stopped contact altogether.)

I realize, of course, that there is no universal truth about this and that each situation should be dealt with according to its own evolution. But I wonder if there is some norm, some generally accepted level of dialog for this.

What do you do?

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.)

guerilla marketing

October 7, 2013

On many writing websites and blogs I’ve seen exhortations for marketing our “brand” as writers. We’re told to have a blog, to tweet, to have a writerly presence on Facebook and Google Plus and Linked In and every social media platform we can find. We should have cards to hand out and we should keep a high profile at conventions and readings. And I’m sure there are more instructions for marketing ourselves, but I have turned my head away from all of that because it just feels unseemly to me.

Sure, I’ll concede that this kind of hustle might work for some writers in some cases. It might get them more read or better known at least. But does it improve the actual writing? How many of us can compartmentalize our creative selves, devoting a given fraction to writing and a given fraction to self promotion? How many of us are solitary, asocial types who are uncomfortable in the public sphere at all, much more so in the world of hustle and charm? I know I’m not the glad-handing type with a sparkle in my toothy smile and a not-so-hidden agenda to push my wares on the helpless and unsuspecting.

And yet, for years I have engaged in a kind of guerilla marketing of my stories, and this week was the first time I received actual confirmation that it worked (at least one time). I carry small strips of paper in my wallet that list my story title and the name of the online publication where it can be found. “Travel Light – read it online at Penduline Press.” I leave these in unlikely places where they may (or may not) be found later. Between the pages of library books. Between the pages of bookstore books (especially airport bookstores for some reason). Inside little jars and wooden boxes at craft fairs. (This is especially pertinent for my “Velvet Elvis” story.) Even pinned to public bulletin boards. I leave these notes and go on my way and never know if they reach a target.

Except that someone did find a note I’d left between the pages of a local travel guide in a bed and breakfast where I had stayed two years ago. The note referenced my story “Moron Saturday,” which is now no longer online, but the person reached the version of it I have posted on this blog and left a comment saying he or she had found my note.

I think it’s a benign sort of marketing ploy. It’s not crass or in-your-face. It’s not even all that arrogant since I don’t include my name on the note. A finder can pursue the link if interested or toss the note if not. I suppose the libraries and the bookstores and the crafters might object to my piggy-backing on their audience, but I don’t think they’d object too much.

No, I’m not a hustler, but I can do this kind of anonymous promotion of my stories and still respect myself.


August 5, 2013

How is it that I’ve been away from this humble blog for so long? Here’s how: I don’t have anything spectacular to fulminate or pontificate about. I think the summer heat and humidity have drained any original thoughts from my head.

I could tell you about the three rejections I received in seven days, but that’s hardly newsworthy or unique in our trade. Or I could tell you how wonderfully my Fathers and Sons stories are coming along, but there’s nothing especially interesting going on there either. Curiously, I seem to be getting ideas for stories outside of that universe more than I do within it. I’ll take them all, of course, but the Father’s and Sons bits are of a piece, and I don’t like having them left undone, assuming “done” is a state I could ever achieve with them. The more I write of these three men the more I see needs to be written.

Actually, I’m just about ready to give up on submitting the individual stories for publication. I’m not sure any of them will be finished until all of them are finished. Each grows from and feeds into each, so no one story feels as though it is properly “told” because I’m always seeing ways it must be adjusted or refined to serve the evolving needs of the other stories.

I’ve said before that I consider Fathers and Sons to be a “novel in stories” (which is a concept I came up with independently but that I’ve seen here and there now that I’m aware of such a beast). There will be a narrative that connects them all, but the stories won’t be spaced evenly through time the way a conventional novel normally is. I like to think that each of the stories can stand alone as a whole, and that’s certainly how I’m writing them, but as I said, they’re not going to be finished for a while. Does that make sense?

So I’m now writing them with a longer-term view. Perhaps I will submit individuals here or there, especially if I find a submission call that seems suitable — and I probably have a half dozen submissions currently out there — but all of that will be provisional since the stories could change.

I don’t mind this, but I do miss the gratification of the occasional acceptance. So I’ll keep doing the only thing I know: writing and rewriting. And that’s why there’s just not much to talk about lately. (Aside from the ceaseless running. I’m building toward my first half marathon in October. It’s terrifying, even though last week I did lace up to run that exact distance — 13.1 miles — and did it. Then comes 2014. A full marathon?)

Thoreau’s birthday

July 12, 2013

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s birthday, but you probably already knew that.

His given name was actually David Henry Thoreau, and you may not have already known that.


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