Posted tagged ‘Velvet Elvis’

Friday Feature ~ “Velvet Elvis”

July 2, 2021

“Velvet Elvis” was a watershed story for me. In some ways I feel like this was the story that signaled I had finally become a writer. This must be so because I’ve written posts about this particular story four times on this humble blog. This one gives the genesis story, and it was fun for me to go back to read how it had evolved in my head. Here is where I announce its original acceptance; I had forgotten that the acceptance email had been shunted to my spam bucket. (It still amazes me that I read some writing advice once that said you should never use a semicolon!) This post is a brief announcement that the story won an award. And this post was a self-congratulatory one, which just shows you how happy this story made me at the time. (Since self doubt seems to be written into every writer’s resume, I think I’m entitled to this little bit of satisfaction.)

I think what was most important for me with this story was that I had discovered my preferred writing style. It’s something that first appeared in “Moron Saturday” and continues to this day in Obelus and Latest Big Project. What I had achieved, and sustained, was a snarky, comic voice in the narrator. It is playful and fun. It feels engaging and congenial, yet it allows me to hide some commentary and judgment within it. It also feels the most natural to me when I sit down to write. It’s easy for me to call up and put to work. (I don’t know why I try to write any other way.)

If you go to those links about the other posts, you’ll see that this story had a busy life. I’m glad it’s still online, though the editor told me it will eventually drop off since the journal is no longer being published.

A completely unexpected outcome of this story was that I made two new writing friends because of it. The editor, Nathaniel Tower, was very forthcoming and supportive in his comments about the story, and I’ve maintained an email correspondence with him to this day. And out of the blue, one of the other writers published in that edition, Wesley Scott McMasters, friended me on Facebook, perhaps because he liked my story, and we now have a postcard correspondence going. The postcards are supposed to be of museums we visit, but the pandemic quashed that a bit. I’m hoping we can revive it, though I’m still a little hesitant about getting out in public.

So I like revisiting this story. It re-energizes me when the unavoidable frustrations of trying to be a creative person in a crass world come. Plus I think it’s a pretty good tale worth telling.

“Velvet Elvis” info you can ignore

January 4, 2012

This is a self-serving post that you can ignore if you want.

You may recall that my story “Velvet Elvis” appeared at Bartleby Snopes in December. The magazine runs a vote for readers to select the best story of the eight they host each month. The winner of the vote is then given a spot in the publication’s semi-annual print edition. (Call me old fashioned, but I still like to see my stories on paper.)

Because my story had been selected an Editor’s Choice, it made the cut and will appear in the print edition, regardless of its outcome in the voting. When the voting opened, my story raced into the lead, which was gratifying but unnecessary since I didn’t need to win. Soon after that, though, another story, “My Father and Jackson Pollock” by Wesley McMasters surged past and remained well ahead for the duration of the voting. That’s fine with me. I was disappointed, though, that my choice hadn’t done better in the voting. I had voted for “Reynaldo’s Solutions” by Shaun Hayes, which I thought was fun and well done. In the end, this story came in third (after mine in second and McMasters’ in first).

Recently the editor sent me the proof of the print edition. The entire print edition. The entire eight megabyte print edition. I read through my story to find any errors (none), and I flitted through other parts looking for any errors I could find (a few). But I was happy to see that “Reynaldo’s Solution” has also made the cut. It will appear in the print edition. I don’t know how the editors make their choices in cases like this, but I don’t care. I’m pleased that Mr. Hayes will see his worthy story in print (on paper).

Further rumination:

What if my story hadn’t been selected as an Editor’s Choice? Would I have organized a get-out-the-vote campaign? Would I have wrung my hands as I watched the votes come in for the various stories? Would I have been truly sad when I didn’t win the popular vote? The better part of me says that the story exists on its own and doesn’t need validation from anyone. The other part of me, I suspect, would have other things to say.

it’s your right and your obligation!

December 26, 2011

To vote, that is.

And the polling has now opened over at Bartleby Snopes for the December Story of the Month. I’ve made my choice and cast my vote (and, no, it wasn’t for my story). If you’ve read the December stories there, then perhaps you’ll consider voting for your favorite as well.

I noted last week that my story has already been selected as an Editor’s Choice, so it will appear in the next collection, which is the point of the voting. So let your good taste be your guide.

“Velvet Elvis” is an Editor’s Choice

December 21, 2011

I learned yesterday evening that my story “Velvet Elvis” has been selected as an Editor’s Choice at Bartleby Snopes. This means it will appear in their seventh semi-annual collection of favorites. That should be available in January as a downloadable file but also in a print edition.

This helps to make the season bright!

anatomy of a story ~ “Velvet Elvis”

December 12, 2011

Consider this a companion post to the one I did last week about my story “The Respite Room.” In that post I dared to venture into the dark, cobwebby labyrinth of my creative process to attempt to understand how that story evolved. I’m trying to do that same with this post, dealing with the bits and pieces of my memory of writing “Velvet Elvis,” which is now up at Bartleby Snopes.

I had the kernel of “Velvet Elvis” around for a long time. At least a decade. Somewhere in the 20+ paper journals I’ve kept over the years I have a few entries exploring the original idea. I have thought about going back to find those entries, but it would be a gargantuan search with little to no payoff. The story is what it has become; it is not what it might have originally been. Still, should I ever be randomly flipping through the pages of one of those journals and happen upon the notes I made for the story then, I will be interested to see what I was thinking in those days.

In “Velvet Elvis” I have an artist who infuses her paints with scented oils. Thus her rose paintings smell like roses. Her pine forest paintings smell like pine forests. And so on. Her innovation is popular at the art fairs where she exhibits and she’s the de facto queen among the other exhibitors, and she is my antagonist. In the story I try to portray this innovation as no more than a gimmick, one that will lose its lustre quickly, though she doesn’t realize this. However, in my original conception of the story, this was the innovation of my protagonist. I had thought that my protagonist (a woman originally) was struggling, weary of the drudge of constantly exhibiting and looking for a way out, only to come up with the scented paintings innovation and become the queen. (That story would have been told by her nephew — for some reason that I don’t recall.) The innovation was to be so spectacular that other painters were trying to learn her secret, even attempting to bribe the nephew so that he would chip some paint from one of her works so it could be “analyzed” and have its secrets revealed.

I think that’s where the story idea began to falter for me all those years ago. The process of “analyzing” paint chips it far too technical for my skill (or my will to research), and I began to think that such an “innovation” was probably not even all that innovative in that group. If one painter could figure out how to do it, other painters of equal technical skill could likely do the same. They wouldn’t need to steal the secret; they could figure it out on their own. For all I know, artists are doing this very thing now.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the kind of art fair I depict in my story. I’m not talking about the “starving artist” exhibits that pop up at hotels and convention centers, selling mass produced, “one-of-a-kind” paintings made in China. Rather, I’m talking about street fairs where there is an eclectic collection of artists working in all kinds of media. There is a festival feel to these things, with live music and food tents and throngs of people and a subculture all its own. We have a number of these in Kansas City throughout the year. My story is set in the lower tier of these kinds of festivals. My characters are struggling, attempting to become worthy of getting exhibited in the major fairs. (The “best” art fair we have in Kansas City supposedly has an 11-year waiting list for a booth.) What I’ve noticed at these fairs is that, at least in some cases, when one artist comes out with some innovation, some fresh idea that gets a lot of attention, that same idea begins to appear among other artists’ works at subsequent fairs. The idea gets copied and milked for as long as it can.

But the story was still stuck because I didn’t really have a problem for a sympathetic character to overcome. I’ve said several times in this humble blog that the art gene that makes occasional appearances in my family skipped me. I cannot make physical art. I cannot carve. I cannot sculpt. I cannot draw or paint. Late in his life, my father took up painting and drawing and found he had a real talent for it. Mostly he painted copies of other works or photos, but I have several of his pieces. (Skip a generation and stop at my daughter. She also has the painting and design talent. I have several of her works as well.) My father painted little that could be called original, which is fine. He didn’t exhibit or sell his work; he painted for his own enjoyment. But I sometimes wondered if he ever tired of just copying and felt frustrated that he couldn’t create something out of whole cloth. And that gave me the idea for a new protagonist in my story, a man this time, but a man who had run out of ideas and was just hanging on, trying to make the rent with his work at these fairs but seeing the end coming.

I imagined myself having a conversation with this man, listening to his laments about being left behind, about being creatively bankrupt. And that mysterious creative part of me supplied my fictional painter with a solution to his problem. I actually saw myself telling my fictional painter how he could reignite his work. This is not how the problem is resolved in my story, not in process but it is in outcome. (Read the story and you’ll understand what I’m babbling about here.)

Once I had the bit of plot worked out, the story wrote itself. I don’t think I even went though very many drafts. Actions and reactions just blossomed in my head. The foreshadowing I needed became apparent to me, the parallel structures suggested themselves readily. The bit I relate in the story about a painting being stolen was actually told to me by a painter many years ago; the memory of it popped into my head when I needed it. I did do a bit of research to give the story some substance: I visited every local art fair I could and even found a discussion forum online for this subculture that helped me understand how things there work. And I sent the “final” draft of the story to my daughter for her technical input, specifically about making scented paint. The stars aligned for me with this story and I had a working plot and development.

Then came the hard part: finding a home for it. I began submitting it a year ago. I sent it to five different magazines before it was accepted by Bartleby Snopes this last September. My first rejection came from Johnny America, but it was a personal rejection with positive things to say about the piece. The second was from Rose and Thorn Journal and it was a form rejection. (In retrospect, I’m not sure I made a very good effort at matching the story to the magazine’s interests.) I submitted it to The Foghorn, and when I didn’t hear from them long after their average response time, I withdrew the submission and got it into circulation again. My next rejection came from Jersey Devil Press, but it, too, came with encouraging words. I was certain I had a good story that just needed to find the right editor. And then I submitted it to Bartleby Snopes where it got a welcome acceptance. (This submission also seemed like a miss-fit. My story is longer than the usual things I’ve seen published there.)

Some random points:

I use the word “fistfuls” in the story. I think some purist would assert that the correct plural of that word is “fistsful” but that sounds dreadful; I would refuse to use it. If I’ve just coined a new word, the world is welcome to use it.

I still employ my grammar violation of choice: sentence fragments. I don’t use as many as in “The Respite Room,” but there are enough. And, by golly, not a single editor pointed them out as a problem.

That very last sentence of the story is one suggested by the editor. It certainly delivers the payoff, and I’m glad he requested I use it.

Brian Keaney pointed out in the comments to my last post that the developments in my art fair story could easily apply to the publishing world. This was intentional on my part. (Really, it was!) If one were to read my art gimmick story and see parallels with the (fading) trend of vampire stories, say, I think that would be a valid reading. There are just as many gimmicks and trends in our business as in others.

Elvis has entered the building

December 11, 2011

My short story “Velvet Elvis” is now up at Bartleby Snopes. Click on this link if you care to read it. (I’ve also updated my links page.) At the end of the month, the magazine will open a vote for the best story of the month. (They release two new stories each week.) The story of the month gets a special page at the site and is guaranteed a spot in the print version of the magazine. So when the voting feature comes up, I will note it here and shamelessly beseech you to vote for my story.

Every time I read it, I enjoy the memory of writing it. If a short story can ever be said to have “written itself” this is the one. I felt as though I should step out of the way and just let my fleet fingers fly across the keyboard. Should I find the gumption, I’ll try to do a post about the genesis and development of this story as I did for “The Respite Room.”

Also, I have a recurring motif that I try to use in most of my stories. It appears in this one. Any ideas what it is?

Anatomy of a story ~ “The Respite Room”

December 5, 2011

I probably shouldn’t do this, but I want to write about the genesis and development of my short story “The Respite Room” since it has been on my mind recently. (The story will come out next month in the Little Patuxent Review, about which I am inordinately vain. The editor asked me to tinker with the last line, so I’ve been revisiting the writing of the whole piece since everything leads to that last line, of course.)

As you probably know from reading this humble blog, I am wary of knowing too much about my creative process. I fear that a consciousness of it may somehow slay its natural flow, the way I think some people’s slavish devotion to “writing rules” and “grammar rules” slay their own creativity (but that’s a different lament).

This story came from my experience for the last ten years volunteering in a respite room at a local hospital. The respite room is a place for the family members to get away from their patient’s room — the beeping monitors and sucking respirators, the unrelenting grimness — and take a break, have a sandwich, make some calls, watch some television, or just sit and relax.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of people pass through the room; I’ve seen the extremes of humanity because often their souls are laid bare. As I say in the story, these people are going through the worst moments of their lives, and I’m present as a mute witness. (I did not begin this volunteer work as a means to generate story material. If I had, it would have been a poor decision since it’s resulted in only a single story, one that I have struggled with for nearly as many years as I’ve been volunteering. But my personal motivation does flicker into my character’s motivation a bit, which I think gives him credibility.)

Conversely, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers who have helped run this respite room through the years. It’s tempting to believe that I’ve seen these people at the best moments of their lives, but I don’t think this is always true. I think that there is a predatory type of personality who is attracted to this kind of work. There are many types of personalities who do this work, of course, but I’m interested in the superior, arrogant person, the one who sees helping the unfortunate as a way to “straighten out their lives.” Who see managing such resources as requiring control and judiciousness. Who see the needy as “grasping” and “greedy” and the victims of their own poor choices who are lucky to get any help at all and ought to show more appreciation for it dammit! I’m not altogether fair in this portrayal, of course. I’m stressing this attitude a bit (but not very much, in my observation) in order to make it easier for me to understand and work with. And this kind of “predatory charity” is manifested in many other avenues of life in our complex society, which I think makes my story more universal while remaining specific. But I think I’m straying from my point in this post.

Anyway, this combination of seeing people at their worst and seeing others at their “not-best” has kept me reflective for a long time, and trying to write a story to crystalize my thoughts is the natural outcome, at least for me. And thus “The Respite Room.” (By the way, my original title was merely “Respite Room.” Somewhere along the way it picked up that definite article. I don’t know when that happened, but I don’t suppose I mind.)

I started writing the story as a first person reflection by a volunteer in such a room, mostly as an account of a typical day. My original goal was to suggest that the human interactions in the respite room were a microcosm of our overall society, and to that end I had intended slipping in all sorts of characters who would represent various groups who provide service in our communities: police, janitors, trash collectors, ministers.  That effort turned out to be more of a vignette than a true story, and I soon had to evolve it. I took it into third person narration so I could discuss my protagonist’s thoughts more objectively, and I found that all of the service-sector characters I had intended were drawing away from the point of the story (which was growing more clear to me as I struggled), so I dropped most of them, keeping only the police representative in the form of a hospital security guard. His presence does instigate a plot point; otherwise I might have dropped him too.

And I found I was lacking a clear representation of that “predatory charity” personality, so I added a new character. She makes an appearance at the end, though I reference her early in the story, and I think that fix is what made the difference and finally allowed me to see the real story I wanted to tell. It allowed me to pull together the fragments I had. I often get these kinds of epiphanies in my writing; they’re not necessarily some revelation a character receives but rather ones I receive about how to develop the story. When this happens, a story I’ve struggled with for years suddenly seems to flow through my fingers onto the keyboard in final form. (This recently happened with the story “Velvet Elvis” — which should appear this month in Bartleby Snopes — I had been casting about for a plot for the basic idea behind it for many years too.) The trouble with relying on this writing-through-epiphany process is that it can sometimes take years for it to happen, which tends to limit productivity.

But now I have “The Respite Room” finished and accepted. I’m enjoying all of the warm fuzzies that come with that and chiding myself for not working on more stories. But I think I needed to get through my analysis of this story, which has been on my mind as I said earlier, so I could be free to work on those other stories. Will the stories now flow? I will watch and see.

A few stray thoughts:

I had written about my struggles with this story as long ago as this post back in January of 2009. In that I discussed the placement of a single word. Curiously, in the final story I’ve chosen the wording that I had rejected in that blog post. Also curious is how my intention in the wording has been taken from me and completely subverted by current events. Back then, I wanted to suggest that my hospital security guard character was a benign, almost comical person and certainly one with no menace. (It makes sense in the story.) I speak of his menace as being seen in nothing more than the canister of pepper spray he has on his belt. The point was to suggest that he was not menacing at all. Recent events with the use of pepper spray in the Occupy movement turned that completely around. I don’t think it hurts the story, but it does add another bit of meaning to it I hadn’t intended.

I use sentence fragments throughout the story. I have no reluctance with flagrantly breaking the so-called “rules” of grammar. As you know if you’ve read my rants in this humble blog, I think creative writers get a pass on grammar if they are able to get their meaning across in some rule-breaking way. (I recently saw the adverb “hectoringly” used in My Antonia. I’m sure the writing mavens would have catalepsy over that — adverbs are bad, don’t you know. Willa Cather didn’t seem to get that memo.)

I alternate plot-furthering paragraphs in the story with backstory paragraphs. I hadn’t realized I was doing that until a recent read through. I’ve been told before that I’m pretty good with seamless flashbacks. I’ll take that on faith; I just write what I write. But I was a little surprised to see how I was telling two stories. As I’ve said before, half the tale is in the telling. It seems to work.

Some of my liberal politics do creep in. They’re in keeping with my protagonist’s ethics, and it think they give counterpoint to the antagonist’s attitude. But I’ve done it so subtly that I think you would have to go looking for my bleeding heart in the story to find it. The lack of universal health care? The lack of a national service model? The fact that every aspect of our community is tied to every other aspect? It’s in there, and sometimes a paper cut is more than a paper cut.

This is one of my “serious” stories. I do seem to write in dichotomies. My stories have either been serious, “literary” works or they’ve been snarky, comical works. (“Velvet Elvis” is one of the latter.) I can’t account for this — maybe I don’t want to know why — but it may be that I need the release of a comical story after all of the wrenching effort of writing a serious story. Or I write the serious story to persuade myself that I’m not just writing stuff to make people laugh. Whatever. I write what I write.

Somewhere along the road I also “realized” that my protagonist is married to one of the minor characters in that novel I’ve been struggling with: Larger than Life. His wife does not make an appearance in the short story — I’m not even sure he’s married yet in the setting of the story. And he is only mentioned by name in the novel-in-progress — though by then they have two children. Faulkner did this a lot in his stories and novels. (Nota bene: I’m not claiming I’m in league with Faulkner!) Characters who are the subject of whole novels are given tangential references in other of his novels. Often, this illuminates both works in unexpected ways. I don’t think this brilliance is happening in my humble scribbling. Nor was this relationship between these two characters my original intention with either work. I just sort of realized it one day. I suppose that strengthens my understanding of these two characters, making it easier to write about them and find their places in their respective stories.

As I said above, my intent on taking this perilous journey into my creative process was to give myself some closure on this story that has occupied my heart and mind for nearly a decade. I’m pleased with it, but I’m eager to move on as well. Catharsis achieved, I think.

Little Patuxent Review is a print-only publication. I won’t be able to give you a link to find the story online. After a suitable time, I’ll post the text of it here on the odd chance that you might care to read it.

In search of an ending

November 29, 2011

I’ve been fortunate (I guess it’s fortunate) in that nearly all of my stories that have been published have not been altered by the editors who accepted them. Of my thirteen accepted and/or published pieces, only two have been revised (and those were merely suggestions for revision, which I accepted).

The first was my story “Race to the summit,” which you can read here. The editor wanted some of the story order rearranged, and some of my original description in the story he found comical (which it wasn’t supposed to be). So I made those changes, he published the story, and the rest is history. (Or fantasy in this case.)

The second is a recent acceptance, “Velvet Elvis,” which will be coming out in Bartleby Snopes sometime next month. In that case, the editor wanted to change only the last sentence; in fact, it was only the last word of the last sentence that he wanted changed. I made that change willingly. You’ll have to judge whether it works or not when you read it.

Today, I received the third editorial change request of my humble career. My latest acceptance, “Respite Room,” which will come out in Little Patuxent Review in January (print only), needs its ending fixed too. In fact, once again, it’s the last sentence that the editor wants strengthened/clarified. So I’m working on some ideas, and I’m open to suggestions from the editor. I agree that it will likely improve the impact of the story.

But am I starting to see a trend in my story-telling skills? Can I not always write a good ending?

“Velvet Elvis”

September 18, 2011

Last week was a tough one for me. In the lumbering course of seven days I had two story submissions rejected and one agent who had asked for a partial of my novel decide to decline it. But the weekend came, and with it came my far-flung son and daughter-in-law (they’re both doctors, don’t you know). So I took comfort in their company and opened my laptop in the small hours of Saturday morning to begin again my usual struggle with words.

And then I happened to check the spam bucket of my email.

My short story, “Velvet Elvis,” which I had written about just last week in this post, has been accepted for the December issue of Bartleby Snopes. In that earlier post I note that the story that had been rejected was already back in Submishmash for consideration; Bartleby Snopes was the targeted market.

The response came in only three days. I realize that magazine prides itself on its quick turnaround time, but I’m going to take the warm fuzzies of a swift acceptance anyway.

“Velvet Elvis” is one of my humorous stories. I think it is well crafted, coherent in its universe, and satisfying in its outcome. I set it in the world of the weekend art fairs — in one of the low-end weekend art fairs. It’s snarky, but its fun and not mean spirited (not much, anyway). I’m eager for you to read it.

So watch for news here when my story is published. I’ll make the usual hue and cry and put a link for it over in the sidebar.

And, of course, let me recommend Duotrope’s Digest to you if you’re not already familiar with it. I found the link for Bartleby Snopes and read some background about the publication there. It truly is a wonderful resource for writers. Throw some money their way.

In which I try to behave as an adult

September 13, 2011

Other writer/bloggers obviously have more self confidence than I. Take Annam Manthiram for example. She regularly posts about the rejections she gets for the many stories she sends out. Given that rejections are not only a fact of life in this endeavor but the norm, I should be able to make occasional note of the rejections I get as well. I haven’t, as you know.

But now I’m going to try to be an adult about it and write a bit about the current fate of one of my stories. It’s a humorous story set in the art fair community, and I call it “Velvet Elvis.” I’ve sent it out to four likely magazines, and I’ve received three rejections. (The fourth never responded even months after its own reported response time. Nor has the magazine updated its site all year. Kaput, I suspect.)

One of my rejections was a flat no thanks in standard, anonymous form. I’m used to those. The other two, however, were more generous, and they gave me hope for the story. The editor at Johnny America said he really liked the story but that its tone wasn’t quite right for their mix. (I do tend to snarkiness when I write my humorous stories.) He welcomed me to submit other work, and I likely will when I feel I have something right.

The most recent rejection was from Jersey Devil Press, which I really thought I had targeted exactly; my story seemed identical to the type of thing I’d seen there. The rejection was personal and supportive. He said that there was much he liked about the story and that it was a close call, but he was going to pass.

I like my story, and I’m going to keep sending it around. It’s already back in the Submishmash system for another magazine.