Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Past, the Present, the Future: the Writer Described

It's a great a scene. It's not uncommon, no, rather, you've probably been cast in this scene too. It's a holiday party. People are everywhere. They all have ugly holiday sweaters and wearing them proudly. If this scene should take place elsewhere in the English speaking world it's exactly the same except people are wearing “jumpers”. Somewhere between the kitchen table and the back door, you run into a group of three or four people. It's four. One is your mother or aunt or grandma. We'll call her MAG. Next to her is a cousin, an unknown cousin, we'll call this one SUC. Then there are the other two, simply called TOT. You have never seen TOT before. You could be related to them, you just don't know. All you really wanted was a cup of mulled wine, and now you wish it was a tumbler of vodka. When you're stopped, you realize that you don't even know these people. Sure, you share genetic material, but the same can be said about you and a banana. Then scene begins:

MAG: Oh, you all know [Insert your name here]. You know [Insert your name here] is a writer.
TOT: Oh? Like a reporter?
[Insert your name here] : (Journalist? Those days are over.) No. Not really.
SUC: Writer? (said with confusion and disdain.)
TOT: What do you write?
(The question of the hour)
[Insert your name here] : Novels.
SUC: What are they about?
(This is really is the question of the hour. Why do you have to explain this over and over and over and over again?)
[Insert your name here] : Death and destruction, robbing people, oh, oh, oh, what's that called when you fuck around on your wife?
MAG: Adultery.
[Insert your name here] : Right. And adultery. But at the heart of it, I like to write love stories.
TOT: Oh?
[Insert your name here] : Yup. Well, happy holidays. (Exit stage left, glass of mulled wine raised in a toast.)

Does this ever happen to you? My parents are older, they believe a young man should go out and get a job. They think a young man with college degrees should be making tons of money. They think a short story published in a small magazine is a paycheck. I know it's up to me to tell the family how I want to treated and it's up to me to explain the ways of the writer's life. But I don't care. It's family and even if they don't get it, they should love me anyway, and if not, they should love me because I was once a cute little boy. Right?
Then there are the other people. You share genetic material with them too, more than a banana but less than your family. These people may know a thing or two about writing or art or academia. These people are possibly peers, colleagues, potential employers or publishers. These people may still wear ugly sweaters (jumpers) and they may still ask you what you're writing. Death, dismemberment, adultery and thieving although fun, may not be what you want to tell them.
You will probably want to tell them something more favorable.
This post can probably help you with this conversation, and possibly with the conversation with the family too.
We can break this up in three parts: the past, the present and the future. Sounds like my beginning, middle and end I'm always on about. I digress.
The past: consider building a Curriculum Vitae commonly called the CV. I say it's the past because it is a concise record of what you've done. There are ten thousand articles about this subject. Sufficiently said: keep yours simple, and showcase your best work. Since we're writers here, let's focus on that. Education, publication and current projects are the most important. If you teach, add that. I added my acting experience (it's limited, yes) because I write screenplays. Wanna see mine? Spend your time with it and add anything you think is pertinent. This will focus what you have done if not for others than for you.

The present comes next. What are you doing now? We're standing next to one another at the punch bowl and I'm asking: “What are you doing now?” This is your opportunity to tell me and everyone else in a tangible way. There are a few ways to do this is a concise way. Keeping a public blog, working a press or magazine or teaching are real showcase things to say. Mention forthcoming publications. Handing someone a card with your personal website or blog address listed will be a tactile reminder. Adding a hotlink to either of these things as a signature at the bottom of each email you send works too. These are great ways to share the present. If you are not working, you may consider carefully what you share. I mean, if you tell someone you're a writer and you had one publication in 1992 and you haven't written anything since, this approach won't work. If you're actively adding publications to you CV and you write a blog or whatever, let people know: “here's my website, I write a weekly column about canned spinach.”

And the future? Well, this may not be for others to see or know. But whatever you want to be, don't hesitate to tell people: your peers, colleagues; employers, readers or parents. You never know when one of them may be able to help. Think of this “future” as self promotion. Get involved, community projects, or build a community. If you have a personal mission statement and that is the goal, consider that the future.

Next year at the ugly sweater holiday party when you get interrupted by that gang of four, you won't be so unaware. You will hand them your card with all the entreaties and information. You'll say: “I'm doing all kinds of things, writing, publishing, teaching, blah, blah, blah. Check me out.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Seven: The Wrap up.

We've just spent eight weeks on this topic of writing the short story for the editor. I can't guarantee anyone can become a writer, write a short story and get it published in just eight weeks. If I could guarantee that, well, I'd be selling my advice and program to the masses for $19.95.

What I can guarantee is the process. And furthermore, it's a process that anyone, writer or not, can develop. There is only one thing a writer needs to do, and that's to write. Just write.

I remember when I first met Aimee Bender. She was giving a reading of An Invisible Sign of My Own at a boutique bookstore in Northwest Portland. It was the summer of 2000 and I had just read The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I loved it. Anyhow, during the question/answer after the reading, most people asked what she meant by some image or other. I wanted to hear about her process. She explained she had a specific start and end time to her writing day, everyday. That's discipline, and it shows in her work: it's well developed, well thought through and it's a pleasure to read. Furthermore, she's got three books published and she has a CV list of publications too lengthy to record. In short, she is successful. Should you want to be a published writer and enjoy success like Aimee Bender, write, write, just write, everyday no matter what.

Isn't that the bulk of the process you want to know? I know I said a writer can't always emerge in just eight weeks after reading this series, and it's true. However, a writer who has come through all this should consider themselves armed with tools they need. If it's discipline try this: 2 hours a day working on a short story and do this for eight weeks? Take the weekends off. Write for two hours a day, five days a week and do that for eight weeks: you get eighty hours total.
Remember our lessons on conflict and character and plot and exposition and our methods of publication research.
Next, spend time reading magazines and short stories. Read what I've recommended. Then read other pieces. Keep notes about what you read and where you read it and how it made you think or feel about your own work.
Next, develop your plan for the search for publication. Write a good cover letter.
If you have followed all these steps and you've developed your story then you have a process all your own.
If you don't get on acceptance letter, do not feel disheartened, most writers have miles of rejection before they enjoy a yard of acceptance. It's life. And it ain't so bad.

I hope you've enjoyed this series. I hope you've enjoyed your process. As always good luck and happy writing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Six: Submit it.

Her name was Tiffany. She was a tall girl, all arms and legs. She had brilliant blue eyes, at least I remember her having blue eyes. Her nose had a slope to it that made me weak in the knees. Weak. It probably made me weak in the knees. I can't remember, well maybe not, she probably did have a nose. It doesn't matter. That was a long time ago. I was 15, maybe 16, and I was in love. And Tiffany the object of my desire did not feel the same way about me. She was the object and I the rejected. I think a little literary license is making more out of the Tiffany heartbreak than was really there. I would hope so, it was a long time ago and the rejection I've had in my life since then has been so much more painful, so much more personal, and yet it is all like the rejection of a skinny, blue eyed, sloped nosed, teenaged girl.

The point it, that's life.

If you've been paying attention at all for this write the short story for the editor series, you know that we have the chance and the challenge to do our best work, write our very best using all the faculties and tools available to us. We have the confidence to know the best ways to construct out stories using our lessons of character, conflict, plot and exposition. We have shared some examples of good writing, and we have the tools to read as writers. It's been a great couple of months for thinking and reading and writing and doing.

Hopefully all your stories have been working out, both in the practice and in the result.

Now what? We've discussed the reading of magazines to understand various elements of the fiction short story. Hopefully you have been looking at magazines. I come from the background of the online magazine. Online journals as such have grown in popularity in recent years and for good reason. They reach a larger readership, they're “green,” they make it possible for that typo to never be permanent. They are easy to design, easy to change, and very inexpensive to run. And with the vast number of them they are free to read, free to subscribe, and they're always available.

These are by no means the only magazines out there. There are the college/university journals, the larger independent and the magazines with millions of copies in circulation. I don't need to explain this further than I already have in the “small press” series. The point is simply: at this stage of your short story, it's time to get it off your desk. It's time to let it go. It's time to tell Tiffany how you feel about her. There are only three possible outcomes:
1) You send your story out and that's it. There is no word back, there is no closure, it's all a mystery. If you haven't heard back in 4 months, or 16 weeks, you can either send a reminder to the editor (include your name, the title of your story and the date it was sent) or you can simply abandon the magazine the way they abandoned you.
2) You send your story out and the editor sends you a rejection letter. This is the Tiffany rejection all over again. Remember a few thing when you get rejections. Most editors will publish less than five percent of what they receive. The more reasonable number is about one percent. When you get than form rejection letter, don't beat yourself up asking “why?” this doesn't help. It waste time and energy. Your story may be fine, their magazine may not have space and they may have had hundreds of submissions to sort through. I know at I Umbrella Factory Magazine select five of the best pieces for jury. After jury we generally run three of those pieces. Three pieces from the one hundred I get initially. Do you see? It may not be you. Occasionally, you will find an editor who sends you a personal note. These editors have taken the time and whatever they say, it's probably worth listening to what they say. I became a fiction editor because of two rejection letters I received. One letter was from Jason at Fiction Weekly, and the other was from Nate at Monkey Puzzle. I admire both of them for the work they do and I'm grateful that their rejection letters did what they did to me.
3) You send your story out and it gets accepted. Great. You've succeeded. During my time as editor I have developed great relationships with some of my writers. It's great to get a writer, whether they are established or not, and put their work out for the masses. It's been my experience that most writers are very gracious too. Some however, were not. When an editor accepts something, it really does behoove you, the writer, to behave properly. I've had writers who suddenly owned my magazine and me. I've had writers who now know the intricacies of my business. I've even had one writer who after we accepted their work, even ran it through our copy editor and then coded it, decided to retract the piece. I'm sure there were good reasons for this. Needless to say, why go through all the trouble and hassle of writing, then submitting, then acceptance only to fink out in the end? Don't be afraid of it, that's all I can say. Trust that the editor will treat your piece with the respect that it deserves.
If your story is something you might be ashamed of in the future, submit it anyway. I've got at least three of my earliest publications as points of embarrassment. Fortunately, those three will never resurface. But it was a wonderful feeling when they were accepted.

There are a few items of business to tend to with you and your submission process.

These points will increase acceptance:
Research the magazines in your market.
Read the magazines in your market.
Subscribe to these magazines.
When you choose one:
Follow the guidelines.
Be respectful and professional in your cover letter. Editors do not need the flashy sales pitch, the confessional, the personal or the arrogant in your letter.
If you submit the same story elsewhere, let both magazines know. A simultaneous submission tells me that the writer has one story and fifty magazines. Why not have fifty stories and one magazine? Also, should the story get accepted, you must send notification to everyone else.
Keep notes. Know where you sent what and when you sent it. I use a simple spread sheet. Organization will help you away from embarrassing situations.

Good luck and happy submission.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Five: Confines and Structure.

Today, I want to imagine there are no limits, nothing tethering us, noting holding us back. We can be whoever we want to be, do whatever we want to do, and most importantly, we can write whatever we want to write.
Today, as an exercise write whatever you want. Write as much as you like. I know we talk about fiction and this is the short story series, but write whatever you want. If you need help getting started pick a geographic place or a memory and go. There needs no structure and no rules. Do what you want to do.

A pause here for a creative endeavor.

Now, what did you do? I hope you had a lot of fun writing it and I hope it has some good (or usable) qualities to it.
Did you have one or more characters? Was there a conflict? Plot? Exposition? Is it what you might consider a short story?
Whatever it was that you just wrote, it is not ready to leave you. I hope you had a wonderful feeling with that first draft, but that wonderful feeling will not become a wonderful feeling in your reader. It certainly won't please your magazine editor either.
Since we begun with no structure, no rules, now comes the confines.
1) I love to count. A short story is generally considered 1,000 to 7,000 words. Most magazine editors cap word count at 4 or 5 thousand. At Umbrella Factory Magazine, I like the 1,000 to the 5,000 word range. Note: anything less than 1,00 words is considered flash fiction and there is a huge market for that. And your long short story, or novelette, begins at 7,000 and goes to 17,000 words. You do not have to keep the word count in this range, but this is the editor's preference.
2) If this is indeed fiction, please follow the rules. Following syntax and grammar rules just make things easy to read.
3) Format your page so it looks presentable. 8.5” x 11” (American), or A4 (everyone else). Use 1” margins all around. Use a comfortable font. I prefer Courier. Yes, it looks like a typewriter, but the real beauty in Courier is that all the characters are the same size. It's easy to read. Ariel, Garamond, and Times New Roman are all perfectly good fonts to use. 12 points please. Double space. Page numbers. Give it a title. This is the beginning of it.
4) Rewrite it.
5) Rewrite it again.
6) Rewrite it again.
7) Revise it now. I never recommend spell check, and I never use it. Spell check will recognize a wrong spelling, but not wrong usage. Be care with it.
8) Check to see that this piece has the elements of character and plot we've been talking about. If not refer to steps 4-7.
9) Read the original draft and compare it to the revised draft. Differences? I hope so. For me, I still use a pen and paper for the first draft so I have an archive of where everything began. The differences are amazing.
10) Try your piece on a reader. Writers' groups are wonderful for this workshop process assuming you have a good group. Whatever they say, it will be good advice.

These confines and structure are not meant to stifle you as a writer. In fact, I think the opposite is true. When you have to make sense of what you're writing, you will be thinking about the readers.

Good luck and happy writing.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Four: Exposition

Perhaps the very notion of complex thoughts and concepts is a point to belabor. Perhaps not. It's possible that in our pursuit of the editor's short story, we're going about it completely in error. There is the academic approach to all of this, and we do use a little of that here. A little bit of formal training can't be all bad. Rather, when we talk about the short story we're doing it from a worker's approach. Hopefully, we're all busy working at our desks or cafe tables, and we're reading and writing and thinking. I, for one, have written a couple of short stories during this short story for the editor series that I am almost proud of. I hope you can say the same thing. A quick rehash: character, conflict, and plot. All good things to consider in the short story. Today, it gets more worthy of consideration.
Today's discussion and this week's pursuit: exposition.
To take the formal let's look at the way John Gardner describes and defines exposition for us:

In his exposition, the writer presents all that the reader will need to know about character and situation, the potential to be “actualized.” Obviously he cannot plan his exposition without a clear idea of what the development section is to contain and at least some inkling of what will happen in the denouement, since in the novel, as in the short story or novella, what the reader needs to know is everything that is necessary if he is to believe and understand the ensuing action... And here, as in the shorter forms, what the reader learns in the exposition he must be shown through dramatic events, not told. (Gardner 186)

Here, John Gardner takes for granted that the students of fiction are just in a pursuit of the novel. Yet, he does make a few good points: give the reader what they need to know and give it through dramatic events. Fair enough.
Let's consider exposition in a dismantling the word way. All it means when you look the this word: expose-to uncover, bring to light and -tion, a noun. Just bring to light the events and that's all we need to do. Right?
I have always found this concept of exposition tricky when spoken of in a theoretical way. This is why I have suggested that the academic is not going to get us there any quicker. As with other complex concepts presented to us as human beings, concepts like irony or love, we must first be given an example, then a definition, then a connection. When we think about exposition, let's think about the storytellers we have in our lives. A writer should be a storyteller, yes, but not all storytellers are writers. Many storytellers do what they do because not all that far back in our history all stories were passed along orally. Perhaps this is still imprinted on our genetic code and it's more pronounced in the storytellers.
My grandfather, Frank Aiello, was one hell of a storyteller. He would have entire rooms of people entertained with some yarn about judges and immigrants, poachers and the game warden, wops, krauts, japs and polacks, in short all his brothers who he loved and they all had funny stories too. His method of exposition? Well, he told people what they needed to hear for the story to make sense. He also used different details during different tellings, if the audience was different or needed different things to understand. He was magical in so many ways. As a child I would listen to these stories and see the reactions on the listeners and I would jump as he delivered the denouement to everyone's delight.

So? Where does that leave us? Somewhere between a “higher” thinker with a dry explanation of exposition and my grandfather who knew how to employ it without ever giving it a name.
Somewhere between.
I believe most writers have this betweenness when it comes to the exposition. Gardner recommends that the first 1/3 of a story be dedicated to the exposition, the second 1/3 to the development and the last 1/3 to the denouement. He also subscribes to Aristotle's begin “in the middle of things.” Where do we fit in now? We're writing a story for our magazine editor, remember?
I think the clever writer who invests in the story, the characters, their struggles and desires and then the overall construction of the short story can have the exposition happening at every turn, every page.
I've come up with a few examples that may or may not be pertinent to the short story.
Julio Cortazar's “Marvelous Pursuits” in Unstable Stuff comes to us first. In less than five hundred words we go from a severed spider's leg to enemy troops invading the city. How can these two events be linked? I ask you assuming you've never read the story. How can you, or any writer get from one to another of these points and in less than 500 words? The beginning: “cut off the leg of a spider” certainly in the middle of things. Then the character proceeds to mail it to the minister of foreign affairs, builds mountains out of sugar, dances under trees, then to the denouement. The letter is opened and the troops invade. Exposition? All the way through, not just the first third: 166 words.
We've talked about Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams before. I think John Gardner would have loved this book. Lightman has a beginning, a middle and an end. He starts in the middle of the action. The plot definitely uses the Fichtean Curve. It's beautiful and beautifully written. It is a novel, so this example may be a bit of stretch for the short story. In the chapter “20 May 1905,” Lightman suggests a world where there is no memory. As a reader of this chapter, you are discovering the aspects of this world as the characters do, they have no memory and we've never been there before. Talk about giving the reader what they need to know-it's discovery and it's inclusive.
The last example is another snippet, crup or vignette. From an academic stand point, Richard Brautigan is an absolute disaster. But when we consider the intuitive nature of the storyteller, we must not discount Brautigan. I present “Trout Death by Port Wine” in Trout Fishing in America. “It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination. It was reality.” It's fantasy and nonsense and a funny way of digging at the journalistic writing and Alcoholics Anonymous. Who knows? They may be or may not be helpful examples to you, but it should be enough to get you to think.

This week's exposition task:
1)listen to a storyteller or solicit a story and pay attention to the exposition.
2)knows that these pieces of exposure are the tools for the reader to understand and make sense of events, motivations and action. You are reading, aren't you? Read, read, read. As you read short stories know that this exposition is happening. Keep reading. If you're all out of fresh stuff to read, look at some of the wonderful magazines online. Check for some magazines. This will be part of this program in a couple of weeks, so consider this a head start.
3)expose us to a character. List out all the good actions, evil actions or both that make that character who s/he is.
4)the short story (or stories) you've been working on since we began should give you an indication of how you use exposition. You should be armed with enough exposition-sense to see it.
5)need an exercise: Here's one from Kyle Bass-
a)pick three of the following: a foreigner, a person suffering from memory loss, a child, an alien from outer space.
b)give them an everyday object that they have to figure out what it is.
c)begin in the middle of the conflict.
Exposition here? Probably. Good luck, and happy writing.

Brautigan, Richard. Trout Fishing in America. Dell: New York, 1967.
Cortazar, Julio. Paul Blackburn, trans. Cronopios and Famas. Pantheon Books: New York, 1969
Gander, John. Art of Fiction. Vintage: New York, 1982.
Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams. Warner Books: New York, 1994