know your reader

Posted March 15, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations

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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)

suspended submission

Posted March 7, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts

I received a non-rejection for a submission this week. It wasn’t an acceptance either. Or a request for a rewrite. In fact, it was unlike any response I’ve ever received. But it was nice.

I’d sent one of my Fathers and Sons stories to a lit journal that had issued a call for submissions, which is commonplace. Then I got busy working on other things and occasionally wondering what the status of the submission was (along with the half dozen others I have out there). In that time I received a rejection for a different story and moved on. Then this response came up in my email.

The note said that they were not sending me a rejection of the story. Rather, due to “administrative setbacks” (which I imagine means cash flow problems) they were suspending their journal for the time being. They wanted to release me from the “uncertainty of submission limbo” until they resolved their problem. Should that ever happen, they assured me they would take up consideration of my story again, and if they wanted it, they would ask at that time if it was still available.

I’ve certainly had my share of submissions lost in limbo. I’ve had some pieces for which I never received a response, but I’ve heard stories of writers getting positive responses sometimes years later, so I hold out hope on a few of those. But to get a frank and thoughtful response like the one above is nice. Imagine your journal, your pride and joy and the fruit of your dreams, going belly up, and yet you take the time to write to each of your submitters to give them some info and closure. That takes some guts, I think.

So, onward.

epsom salts

Posted February 23, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Process, Running

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So I managed to run 40 miles last week. That’s a new distance record for me, and while that may be a pittance for many, it’s a big deal for me. I didn’t set out to achieve that distance, and it was only Saturday afternoon when I realized that it was within grabbing distance, so I went for it.

After my long run on Sunday (9 miles, which isn’t the longest I’ve gone and which is, I’m sure, a pittance for many), I did something I’ve not done before. I took a hot bath with Epsom salts.

It was wonderful!

I thought, what a great post-run recovery tool! I wallowed in the hot water and bath salts on my aching leg muscles (those quads). And I wanted to have my laptop with me because I felt as though all good things were suddenly flowing through my brain. (Yes, it was probably just endorphins.) The writer Stanley Elkin was said to have done all of his work in the bath tub.

So I thought maybe an Epsom salts bath might be a creative tool as well as a recovery tool.

I’ll never know.

I fell asleep in the tub.

random ramblings

Posted February 16, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations

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:

cabin

because iconoclast

Posted January 30, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations

Tags: ,

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.

Groundhog Run 10K ~ 2014

Posted January 26, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Running

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GHR 2014

I had done the Groundhog Run 10K last January, and I vowed I would never do it again.

I did it again.

When I ran it before, I found the air stale and the scenery monotonous in the old limestone mines. Mile after mile of limestone pillars with the lanes between disappearing into the possibly endless darkness. The exhaust of big trucks and even trains that pass through the caves still in the air. Reports of orcs and goblins. The gloom of the underground could overwhelm a sensitive soul, but I had been preoccupied with the anguish of running 6.2 miles. I was glad I had done it, but I was also glad it was done, and I had no interest in doing it a second time. Once again, though, I had the chance to be on the company team, which meant not only did my fees get paid, but I got VIP parking (other runners had to be bussed in), and I got access to the VIP lounge (which has coffee, bagels, donuts, and real bathrooms).

Because I was not caring for anyone’s nursing baby this year (as his mother ran the 5K), and because no one had called for a team photo too early in the morning, I did not have to get there nearly four hours ahead of my start time (as I had to last year). There was one other difference this year. My wife came along as my support team. This is not really a good run for spectators. They do not have access to the bowels of the cavern miles back in the hill; they can only really be present at the finish line to watch us come stumbling in. And with my comparatively pokey pace, that meant my wife would have a lot of time to kill after I started.

We got to the mine only an hour before my start time, which seemed to me to be cutting it close, but we did have enuf time to find out where the chocolate milk was being given out — critical information for after the run. We also met up with some old friends of ours whom we hadn’t seen for seven years. I was going to run with one of them, but her pace is much better than mine, so “running with” her was more expression than reality. We milled about, caught up a little bit, and wandered over to the start area. (The place was too packed for us to get to the actual start for a while.)

Soon we runners parted from our spouses and pushed into the crowd of starters. We were in the third wave, so two groups took off ahead of us, giving us more space for collecting ourselves nearer the actual starting mats. Because we were underground, my running watch could not get a satellite signal and had to rely on the sensor on my shoe to judge how far and how fast I would be going. In order for it to do that, I had to walk a short distance as the watch searched for that sensor, and then after it was found, I would have to start the actual running within a certain amount of time or else the watch would have to find the sensor again. Fortunately, I was able to pull off this massive synchronization feat just about perfectly, and I pressed the GO button just moments before my feet carried me over the starting mats (which would provide the official — and likely more accurate — time). So we were off.

My running companion was soon out ahead of me, and by the first quarter mile, I had lost her. Also at the first quarter mile, oddly, was the first water station. No one needs water in the first quarter mile, but I realized soon after that that was not the point. Since the full 6.2 miles would require two circuits of the route, this water station was actually for when runners were at mile 3.35. (It would be a while before I would reach that point.) I started out slowly, by intent, and hundreds of runners were surging past me. I did a good job of holding back at this point when the energy of the crowd tends to get me going out too fast and wearing out too soon.

The first mile of any run is the worst for me. I question whether I can go even that far, why I am doing this to myself, why I have made all of the choices I have in my life, whether my life insurance premiums are paid up and my will is in order. Even knowing that I will eventually get through the anguish of the first mile doesn’t seem to help me get through the anguish of that first mile. But through it I always get.

Fewer people were passing me by then, and I had begun passing the walkers, all of whom had run past me earlier. I was beyond my initial agony but I was pushing myself to keep running. I had half promised myself that I could walk through the water stations, get a refreshing drink and a moment of rest, but when I came to the first (well, second) water station, I didn’t walk. I did grab a cup of offered water, spilled most of it, queried if they had Bud Light, but kept on running.

At several points along the run, the route goes down an avenue, makes a turn, then comes back along that same avenue. Thus I could see all of the runners who were ahead of me, and I studied them to find my friend. I never did see her. However, when I had made the turn and the oncoming runners were those behind me, I saw a co-worker and we waved. (This surprised me since she is a much better runner than I.)

And so the miles passed. I took water from all of the stations, but I never walked. I deliberately did not look at my watch to know my time since it can be a) not reliable, and b) often discouraging, so when I came back to the start and began my second time around, I really didn’t know if I was doing well or doing poorly. I did walk several hundred feet at this point. In the tiny back pocket of my shorts I had stashed some Honey Stingers, a kind of energy candy that supposedly would give me a boost to finish the race. I gobbled those as quickly as I could and then attacked the remaining 3.1 miles at a run.

By this point, the crowds had thinned. I rarely had to squeeze between or dodge around people to pass them, and this surprised me because I was actually passing other runners. I assumed they were even more exhausted than I was. What other possible explanation could there be for this?

When the opportunity allowed, I looked for my friend among the runners ahead of me, but I couldn’t find her. I kept throwing one foot in front of the other. I looked up now and then to take in the scenery (why was there a boat parked in that cave? is there a lake down there?). I took special meaning from the NO IDLING signs. I ignored the STOP signs. I took water when it was offered. And I just kept going.

Two things happened at mile 5. I found a surge of energy. I was exhausted. I wanted to stop. But I could feel my legs pumping faster, and I thought I could keep it up. Was it the Honey Stingers kicking in? The good night’s sleep I managed to get? The weeks of training? The glazed donut I had snagged from the VIP lounge? The three Advil I had slammed earlier? My positive mental attitude? I don’t know what it was, but I was eating up the pavement, feeling excited that there was some unexpected energy in me so late in the run.

The second thing that happened around mile 5 was that I caught up with my friend and passed her. I couldn’t believe that, but I couldn’t believe I was running so well at all. I expected her to trot up beside me, but she never did, and I ran the rest of the race nearly alone, seemingly going faster the farther I went.

At mile 6 I came upon one of my friends from the running club I am in. I didn’t even know she was at this run, but she recognized me and asked if my watch was working. Hers wouldn’t link to her shoe sensor and she wondered where we were in the total distance. As I said, I had not been looking at my watch much during this race, so when I obliged her and checked our mileage, I saw that we were at 6.1 miles. We had only a tenth of a mile to go, and I was still feeling strong. I hit the afterburners then and pushed hard to the finish, crossing the mats and then gasping for oxygen in that foul underground as I slowed then stopped. I had the sensor cut from my shoe (not the one that talks to my watch), and then someone gave me this:

GHR 2014 bling

My first bit of running bling for the year. The Groundhog Run is a benefit for the Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and those children are the ones who can fly because we run for them.

Soon after I finished, my friend crossed the mats. She and I walked a bit as she cooled down, then her husband and my wife found us among the crowd and we all hugged. I soon made my way over to the chocolate milk station and gulped two cartons (on top of the one that my wife had secured for me earlier). We took some photos. I met up with some other running club friends. And then the four of us returned to the surface of the planet and drove off to a breakfast joint for some well earned indulgence.

When I plugged in my watch later that afternoon and saw the time it reported, I compared it to the time I had run the race last year. I had shaved off nearly four minutes from last year’s time. And when I looked up the official time online, I confirmed that I had beaten my earlier time by more than four minutes. On closer examination of my run, I found I had negative splits. I ran each mile faster than the one before it, covering the last mile at a pace better than my best all of last year. That was surprising since I had taken off the whole month of December to recover from some injuries, so I considered myself in recovery mode.

So, I had vowed not to do the Groundhog Run a second time, yet I did. Now I’m thinking that I must run it every year and keep trying to get better.

devil in the details

Posted January 22, 2014 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Humble efforts

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.


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