Shared Stories: Short & Sweet x5

Posted on 14 September 2014 | No responses

tornado warning by rachel gardner

If you’re stuck in front of your computer right now, you might as well read something short and possibly sassy, or weird, or maybe stunning or gutting. This array of short-short fiction and nonfiction should do the trick:

1. Enhanced Fujita for Tornado Alley Widows by Elizabeth Breazeale. Liz is a member of my fiction cohort at BGSU, and this story is gorgeous and weird and haunting. I know Liz well enough to expect nothing less from her. Here’s the first line: “When our husbands come home we dress in blacks and greys because they tell us we look beautiful, colored like wall clouds and downbursts.”

2. Calcification by Rebecca Schwab. I read this nonfiction piece recently in Brevity. The last line just kills me, but here’s the opening: “Less than a year had passed since my mother died from a burst valve in a heart no one knew was faulty. That’s raw when you’re ten. And then Buttercup died.”

3. Gretel’s Revenge by Jackie Cummins. Jackie is another MFA friend, and her Hansel and Gretel retelling is sharp and fresh and startling: “The woodcutter is at a loss. Gretel, not quite fifteen, is cavorting with lycanthropic girls, stumbling home in the dim hours of morning, reeking of urine and musk, tufts of gray fur stuck in her lip gloss, eyes manic and bright.”

4. A Girl Walks Into a Page by yours truly. My bizarre flash piece was chosen as a Smokelong Weekly pick, and it will soon appear in the next Smokelong Quarterly issue. It’s about girls and books and reading and terror and imagination, with some dragons, vomiting ink, math equations, lost airplanes, and much more mixed in. (And check out that amazing artwork by Amy Trosino — I’m honored to have such an intricate work of art accompany my story.) “A girl walks into the pages of an Amelia Earhart biography and loses herself in mist. For months she circles the skies, blind, while waiting for the fall.

5. How I Liked the Avocados by Wendy Oleson. I’ll end with another Smokelong Quarterly story, just one I stumbled upon a few months ago and enjoyed: “When we get home I can’t sleep; I eat the avocado in the dark, standing over the wooden cutting board. I eat the skin because it is thin and from your tree.”

What are you reading?

Photo: Rachel Gardner

This Is What Novel Revision Looks Like

Posted on 5 September 2014 | No responses

In addition to all that other stuff I did over the summer, I spent a lot of time revising my novel. A lot. Of time. Here’s what that looked like:

That’s a fairly classic example of the day-to-day revision extravaganza. I’ve got my tea, my computer, my notes, and, of course, Cirrus completely in my way. But sometimes it got even messier. Like when I tried to draw a “map” of a certain section of the novel. Hint: Using highlighters and arrows doesn’t necessarily help make sense of anything:

I also had fun reading through some of the marginal notes I left myself months ago. I wasn’t always very nice:

But it all worked out. I finished the draft at the end of August, and it’s now in the hands of a few beta readers. So I’m back to writing stories, which is generally going well. Or at least until Cirrus decides to sit on my hands again as I work:

Summer Roundup

Posted on 29 August 2014 | 3 responses

In my MFA workshop this week, we talked about the writing work we may or may not have accomplished over the summer months. The general consensus in the room was of guilt and shame and regret — you know, standard writer stuff. Such is life. I know I didn’t meet all my incredibly unrealistic goals, but I did get some good work done. More on that later. For now, I present my summer photo roundup, aka proof of why I didn’t write thousands of pages this summer.

First, there was the painting. My old house desperately needs paint everywhere. I didn’t get to every room, not by a long shot, but it started to feel like it:

But seriously. There was a lot of paint happening this summer. Not an insignificant amount landed on my clothes, skin, hair, and even, in one unfortunate case, right in my eye.

Then there was the total front porch rehab.

And don’t get me started on this fun little project:

At least it turned out okay in the end:

I did manage to have some fun when I wasn’t drowning in house stuff. Like my trip with Peter out west, where we camped:

And saw amazing things like the world’s largest fiberglass cow:

Plus the wonders of Yellowstone:

And climbing to great heights:

Oh, and bison. So many bison.

Even when the trip came to an end, the good times didn’t stop. My friend Rose and I decided to embrace life’s messiness at a mud run:

And the Gay Games came to Cleveland:

But then all of a sudden it was only days before I had to return to the MFA program. I realized, at this point, that throughout my busy summer, I neglected all the gardening work I’d pledged to do. Oops:

And now summer is over and this is what I have to look forward to:

 

In other words: I’m back! See you soon.

 

Cartoon Friday: Amazing Exploits

Posted on 15 August 2014 | No responses

I’m peeking in to say hi, but I won’t stay long. I have exactly ten full days of summer break left before classes start, and I’m trying to use them wisely. As I typed those words, a turkey vulture flew over my house. It passed directly over my writing room window and gave me a menacing stare. I think I’ve been put on notice. Back to work. For now, here are some cartoons.

 

Writer Cartoon I'm writing a book. Just as soon as I finish this riveting game of solitaire.

The Polka-Dotted Notebook

Posted on 24 June 2014 | 4 responses

I haven’t written much about this here, but last year, my two best writing buddies each moved to opposite sides of the country around the same time I started my MFA. This was a big change for all of us, both individually and for the critique/support writing group we’d developed over the years.

This week, I was looking at a journal (pictured above) and, for a few minutes, couldn’t remember who gave it to me or even if it was one I’d purchased myself. The three of us gave gave out matching journals multiple times, so we all have sets of notebooks that were gifts from each other. The fact that I couldn’t immediately remember who purchased this one nicely encapsulates our writing friendship and how intertwined our writing lives had become. (When I did remember who gave me this journal, by the way, I felt silly for temporarily forgetting — she bought it in Europe a few years ago.)

My copy of this particular polka-dotted journal has been long since filled with words, and now new notebooks await me. So in the spirit of filling the page, I’m going to take a summertime break from this blog. I’ll be back either in late July or sometime in August. Until then, I hope you write your heart out. I know I will.

Cirrus Conquers Fourteen Hills

Posted on 11 June 2014 | 4 responses

My story “Under the Linden Tree” is out in Fourteen Hills. Before I give you what you really want — more photos of my cat, Cirrus, clutching that very journal — let me share some submission stats, if that kind of thing interests you.

This story surrounds a photographer, Sam, who photographed his sister nude when they were growing up; decades later, he still fosters ambiguously unhealthy feelings toward his sister. An editor at a top-tier literary journal praised the story and writing but told me that “it’s the second story of the first five I’ve read that uses photographs as as way to begin and organize the story,” so it was a pass. A rejection from another journal offered, “The fiction editors have discussed your piece a number of times because we found it to be one of our favorite submissions. The difficulty is that we have received over 500 submissions, and while we enjoyed your piece, due to page constraints, we are not going to have the space for such a long story.” (The story is about 6,000 words, for anyone keeping track.) Overall, the story received seven rejections, about half personalized/tiered, before being accepted by Fourteen Hills a week after that last personal note.

Rejection aside, Cirrus stepped right up to pose with the issue. I’ll let him take it away:

Odds & Ends: Paying the Price

Posted on 3 June 2014 | 7 responses

When losing is really winning. First, that beautiful hardcover lit mag you see to the left is the latest issue of Tampa Review, which includes my short story, “Q&A at the Film Fest.” For anyone out there who enters the occasional literary contest but feels disheartened by not winning, let me share that I submitted “Q&A at the Film Fest” not through Tampa Review‘s regular submission process, but as an entry for their Danahy Fiction Prize. My story was named a finalist but did not win. A few months later, however, the editors contacted me to say they hadn’t forgotten my story and wanted to publish it. So it seems that sometimes contest entries, even if they don’t win, really are accepted for regular publication from time to time. (And in this case, since Tampa Review pays contributors, I recouped my original contest entry fee in the process.) Just a flash of hope for everyone out there getting the “Thanks, but sorry” emails after entering contests.

The path to double publication. Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is a dark, compelling, gripping, risky, and difficult novel. I loved it. I read it in two days, and it only took that long because I forced myself to slow down and not stay up all night finishing it. Some of you may be aware that she has an essay collection, Bad Feminist, out later this summer. Two books in one year? Damn straight. Check out her thoughts on having it all come together in the same year, and how she worried for a time that And Untamed State might not find a publisher at all: Two Damn Books: How I Got Here and Where I Want To Go.

Paying the price. In The Cost of a Dream, Kim Treidman keeps it real in her discussion of how much it really costs — in money, time, isolation, even humiliation — to pursue the dream of writing and publishing. As she says, her story is not for the faint of heart: “So now for the big question – the one you’ve all been waiting for: am I going to make money on this book? Hell, no. Have the emotional benefits of getting the book out there made it all worthwhile anyhow – seeing the cover, receiving the first advance copies, doing the readings and interviews and public appearances? No, no, no. While there are aspects of all of these that bring joy and affirmation and celebration, I have to say that in the grand tally none of these benefits comes even close to the costs.” But don’t worry. The piece ends on a slightly higher note.

On literary vs. commercial. The New York TimesDraft” series, which explores the art and craft of writing, has some interesting opinion pieces. I enjoyed reading this one, A Master’s in Chick Lit, about a published commercial author who entered an MFA program and subsequently dulled her voice and the excitement in her writing in the name of Literary Art (capital L, capital A). Even though this isn’t my experience in my MFA program — we encourage everyone to pursue and honor their inherent voices and skills, and to write what they want, and we never promote boring writing in the name of so-called literature — this was still entertaining and also a little depressing.

Dust in the wind. Did you know that we’re all going to miss almost everything? And that’s okay.

Open for business. Frustrated that so many lit mags seem to close shop during the summer months? Here’s a handy list of journals that are open to submissions during the summer months.

A keep-it-short competition for poets and fiction writers. I’m happy to be on staff at a literary journal that remains open to submissions during the summer months — and those online submissions are always free. But if you don’t mind a small entry fee for the chance to enter a top-notch contest, then Mid-American Review‘s Fineline Competition for flash fiction, prose poems, and anything in-between (as long as each piece is 500 words or under; no line breaks for poetry) has been extended through June 15. So send us your short pieces. First prize is $1,000; the winner and some finalists will be published in our special 35th anniversary issue. The entry fee for each submission of three pieces is only $10 — that’s fairly low for a contest with a $1,000 grand prize.

A blog is born. Finally, I’m happy to announce that Mid-American Review‘s new website and blog are up and running. Here’s an interview I conducted with our editor-in-chief, Abigail Cloud. She offers excellent insight and was a really good sport about everything — even when I asked her to describe the publication in 10 words or fewer and to make it rhyme. Check it out!

 

Worst Blog Tour Answers Ever

Posted on 29 May 2014 | 2 responses

Once upon a time, a well-meaning friend tagged me in one of those blog tours and I responded in obnoxious run-on sentences that avoid actually answering the questions. Buckle up, guys. It’s time for my stab at the “My Writing Process” blog tour. And when I say stab, I mean stab.

Who tagged me: Tricia Springstubb is the author of many acclaimed works for both adults and children, most recently What Happened on Fox Street; Mo Wren, Lost and Found; and Phoebe and Digger. Her new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island, is forthcoming from HarperCollins, and an as-of-yet untitled chapter book is also on the publishing horizon.

But who is Tricia really? Here’s a photo of her with a stuffed fox (bottom of post) at an author’s event on an unbearably hot day in 2012. Here’s that time she totally caught me drinking wine at an awards ceremony when I’d previously claimed I wouldn’t for fear of getting tipsy before having to accept the award. (Spoiler: She joined me with a glass of her own like any good friend would.) And here’s a lovely guest post she did for my blog a few years ago. I’m lucky to be in a writing group with Tricia, which means I get to reap the benefits of her thoughtful reading and of course get sneak peeks of her writing before it hits the stores and inevitably wins awards or gets starred Kirkus reviews. Tricia is a kind-hearted and wonderful writer and reader, and I’m lucky to know her. She tagged me in this blog tour, though I have to say she (or anyone) doesn’t deserve the type of vague/bizarre answers I’m going to give. Let’s hit it!

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on a second story collection that so far consists of creepy, dark stories that require lots of cringing and tea breaks and worrying that what I’m doing is potentially horrifying/distasteful/off the mark. And I’m still working on that novel about stars and skin and girls and futures and pasts.

On a non-writing note, I also have these wildly unwise plans to paint nearly every room in my house this summer, which is saying something because I am a slow and terrible painter. It takes me something like four days to remove photos and spackle/sand a wall and then another full day to clean off the dust and then two days to apply that blue tape and then forever more to paint and squint and fix my mistakes and then wash the paint out of my hair. I bought three gallons of paint this week and honestly, just thinking about clearing out the hallway to start painting it makes me want to take a two-week nap. Also, my garden is 96% weeds and I’m considering just changing my perspective to consider weeds the desirable things and everything else invasive. So basically, I want to change the inside and outside of my living arrangements and also write part of one book and revise another, all in three months. Should be a super fun summer.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This question makes me think of this one time at a Big Fancy Writing Conference when an agent asked me what other books I’d compare my manuscript to and I panicked and went blank. I mean, in regular life I could definitely offer up comparisons, but in that moment I just couldn’t. Sometimes my brain self-sabotages and shuts down with the intent of making me look stupid, but what can you do. Also, in case you were wondering, my agent meeting was one of the conference-organized ones that I’m sure some agents only subject themselves to in order to gain the rest of the sweet sweet conference perks (I don’t blame them). So it’s not like she tracked me down on the dance floor or anything because she was dying for my comparison titles. Of course, I did know someone who asked a literary agent to dance at one of these writing conferences and she politely turned him down and then they had to continue standing next to each other in awkward silence. Anyway, that is apparently my entire answer to this question. You’re welcome.

3) Why do I write what I do?

If you knew what I was writing right at this moment, then this would be a very awkward question indeed and we would immediately drop eye contact. Let’s save this moment for all the uncomfortable questions I might get if one of these books is published. I will say, though, that last night I woke up at 3am with a way to end the story I’m currently working on and it was only after I jotted out a note to myself that I realized the ending sort of explained a big part of my life. But of course the real reason I write what I do is because, like all other writers in the universe, I think that what I have to say needs to be said and that it hasn’t yet been told in quite the way I’m going to tell it.

4) How does your writing process work?

My writing process is fueled by self-imposed guilt trips, green jasmine tea, spider solitaire, ambition, good books, jealousy, lyricism, rhythm, and hope.

This is where I’m supposed to tag additional authors to join the blog tour but I’m not going to because I’m just that rebellious; plus, considering the quality of my answers here, I feel like I have already derailed this portion of our tour. Instead, I encourage you to read the much more reasonable blog tour (blog relay? What even is this? What am I doing? Seriously, I don’t know) answers from Tricia, Kristin Ohlson and Susan Grimm.

Photo: Julia Wolf

Short Story Collection Contests, Part II: Submission Pitfalls and Tips

Posted on 13 May 2014 | 2 responses

Yesterday, I described my process for reading and evaluating dozens of manuscripts for a short story collection contest. Today, I’ll share some of the common problems I saw in the submissions as well as some tips aimed to help writers submit the strongest collections possible.

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. Here are some of the most common pitfalls I noticed in contest submissions:

One of the Crowd: The writing was competent (or even impressive) on the sentence level, but the stories were slow, predictable, or uninspired. Even if the stories were proficient, if there was no spark – nothing that excited me, made me want to keep reading, or set the collection apart from others – that collection didn’t stand a chance against the other submissions.

(Un)happy Endings: The writing and stories were interesting and well-written, but they ended poorly. Most often, the stories would conclude very abruptly or just trail off, creating the sensation that they had no endings at all. Other endings were predictable or sentimental. Either way, a weak ending ruined any effect the story might have otherwise achieved.

Highs and Lows: The collection was uneven. In addition to several stellar stories, the collection also contained stories that were dull, predictable, slow, or flawed. No matter how wonderful the strong stories might be, the weaker ones detracted from the collection as a whole.

Most of the submissions I received were really well written. Beautiful writing, however, isn’t enough to make a standout short story collection. If you’re putting together a collection, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do my stories end strongly and leave the reader with a lasting impression?
  • Do all of these stories belong in this manuscript, and if not, am I willing to hold off on submitting until the entire collection is as strong as it could be?
  • What about this collection might excite or inspire readers? What sets it apart from others?

In addition to these big-picture craft issues, some additional, nuts-and-bolts issues cropped up in my batch of submissions. Here are some tips for when you’re compiling your own contest entry:

Make sure you are submitting work appropriate for the contest. I know this one should be obvious, but I received several submissions that did not meet the parameters of the contest. Several writers, for example, submitted novels instead of story collections. (The first time I came across a novel, I was so surprised that I actually stopped and double checked the contest’s rules.) I did look at these novels – I wanted to give everything a chance and didn’t toss anything aside unread – but they did not make it into the “yes” pile. Even if they had, they probably would have been disqualified. I also received some essay collections (nonfiction) or hybrid collections of multiple genres that also didn’t qualify as short story collections.

Please note that there is a difference between a novel and a linked story collection. I received many linked collections, some of which were very strong and ended up among my final selections. I understand that some manuscripts might blur the lines between linked stories and novels, but the submissions I received were very easy to figure out: either they were story collections, or they weren’t. It was clear that the novels were submitted by writers who didn’t fully grasp the type of contest they were entering.

Adhere to the page length expectations for short story collections – and if you deviate from those expectations, make sure you have a good reason. Most story collections generally came in around 150-225 manuscript pages. I received one, however, that topped 400 pages, and another, very short collection that consisted entirely of single-page flash stories. Now, I recognize that there could exist an unpublished 400-page story collection of great genius just waiting for someone to overlook the page count and take a risk, just as there are surely readers who’d fall in love with that very short flash collection. But be aware that if you submit something that doesn’t meet the traditional expectations of what a story collection looks like, you start out at a disadvantage unless your work is so special/strong/compelling that it makes a case for itself. Unfortunately, none of the outliers in my submission batch gave me a convincing reason to move them into the “yes” pile.

Follow standard format guidelines and don’t use decorative clip art/images/graphics of any kind. I only saw the clip-art issue a few times, but it was always memorable if only because it left such an unprofessional impression. Of course, if one of your stories makes use of graphs or charts that are integral to the work, then fine. But putting clip art on your cover page or on the first page of each story doesn’t work in your favor. In general, you can’t go wrong with using a 12-point font like Times New Roman or Garamond, double spacing, etc. And please don’t forget page numbers.

Check and double check your table of contents before submitting. I saw quite a lot of table of content pages that were off – either by a few pages per story or, in some cases, by many dozens of pages. This didn’t prevent me from reading and enjoying a collection, but it was a bit of an inconvenience. I do use the table of contents to orient myself, skip ahead, return to another story, etc. It helps when they’re accurate.

Pay careful attention to story order. Remember, I started by reading the first story and then the final story. There’s no guarantee that’s how your collection will be read, but I do believe it’s a fairly common practice. In any case, you’ll want to start strong, and you also want your final story to leave the reader with a lasting impression. I suggest putting your strongest story first, your next-strongest story last, and then your third-strongest story second. I understand that your “best” stories are subjective (everything here is subjective), but surely you have an idea of which stories might be your best. And please don’t place one of your weaker stories second in the collection. Several times, I read a strong first story only to feel let down when it was followed by a weak second story. Even if the collection picks up again later, that sour taste lingered from the questionable second story. (The best advice, of course, is to slave over your collection until you don’t have any weak stories in the collection. Easier said than done, I know.)

When I finally finished reading and packed up the manuscripts (mostly to prevent Cirrus from trying to eat their rubber bands), I was left with a solid list of finalists and a better understanding of how these contests work. And while I can’t speak for all contest readers, I can say that when I stepped into this role, I tried really, really hard: to be fair, to be attentive, and to treat the work as I’d want mine to be treated. But I also saw that no contest can be truly fair or objective or correct. Every reader and every judge brings his or her own tastes and passions to the table. All we can do is hope that our work, once it’s developed and strong enough, hits just the right person at just the right time.

Are you entering contests? Why or why not?

Short Story Collection Contests, Part I: The Reading and Judging Process

Posted on 12 May 2014 | 3 responses

I recently served as a reader for a short story collection contest. That means I was responsible for evaluating between three and four dozen book-length manuscripts – only a small portion of the contest’s entire entry pool – and sending my top picks on to the final judge, who would choose a winner to receive publication and  prize money.

While Living Arrangements won a collection contest back in 2010, this was my first time on the other side of the fence. I thought I’d share my process for reading/judging these manuscripts as well as some tips for anyone planning to enter a collection contest in the future.

My Process

First, I’d like to stress that there’s no universal process for judging writing contests. I wasn’t given any strict guidelines for how to proceed, and every contest reader probably has her own method for sorting through the vast number of entries these contests attract. Based on a very rough estimate, I was responsible for upwards of 8,000 pages of fiction, which again represents only a fraction of the contest’s overall entries. (The photo I’ve included here shows many, but not all, of the collections I read.) That’s a lot of pages. So how did I do it?

I started by logging each submission into my own spreadsheet. For the record, this contest used anonymous submissions, which meant I did not know the writers’ identities. Next, I quickly read the first and final stories in each collection. That’s right – only the first and last story, nothing in the middle (except for a few special cases that made for trickier decisions). Then I separated the collections into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. I was fairly conservative in my decision-making process. If I truly couldn’t decide between a “yes” and a “maybe,” I moved that collection into the yes pile. If I couldn’t decide between “no” and “maybe,” it went into the maybe pile.  Here’s a breakdown of how I made decisions for each category:

Yes: I moved a collection into the “yes” pile when it contained strong writing, imagination, storytelling, technique, etc., so I could later give it a full, careful reading. Putting collections in this pile didn’t necessarily mean they would end up among my final picks, of course; it only meant that they needed a more complete reading so I could make the best decision possible. Usually, designating a manuscript as a “yes” was a fast and easy decision – a strong submission came across that way from the start. Roughly 22% of all entries ended up in my “yes” pile.

No: Making a decision to move something to the “no” pile was also usually a quick and dirty decision. Maybe the writing wasn’t strong, maybe the stories were cliché or contained glaring flaws, maybe the submission wasn’t appropriate for the contest, or maybe I simply knew there was no chance I’d rank that submission among my top choices. I placed 58% of submissions in this category.

Maybe: I moved a story in the “maybe” pile when I didn’t see enough that warranted either a “yes” or a flat-out “no.” By far, making the call to put a collection in this pile took the most time and created some of my most difficult decisions. This was the only category in which I might dip into other stories besides the first and the last to get a more comprehensive view. Unfortunately, in reality, the “maybe” pile was really more of an extension of the “no” category. I considered the maybes something of a backup in case my “yes” pile wasn’t as strong as I’d expected once I completed full readings. Roughly 20% ended up in this pile.

On Time, Instinct, and Fairness

That was the first round. From there, I spent more than a month reading the “yes” pile. In most cases, I read each manuscript in its entirety, from the first page to the last. (A few times, however, I stopped reading early when it became clear the collection wasn’t strong enough to make it as one of my top picks.) Sometimes I grew frustrated with a collection that started out strong but started to waver later on, but at other times, I was so engrossed in the manuscript that I didn’t want it to end.

At every step of the way, I was aware of my own biases, preferences, and the very subjective nature of this entire process. Above all, I wanted to be fair. I didn’t want to discount a collection just because it wasn’t the type of book I’d usually pick up. I remained open to different voices and styles and subject matters. Mostly, though, I simply wanted to find really good submissions that deserved to win the prize.

This process also took a lot of time. I couldn’t exactly blaze through an entire stack of book-length story collections in one weekend, after all. And while I worried over the rankings at first (“Does this collection really deserve to be in my #3 spot? What makes it better than the manuscript in the #4 slot?”), my decisions became easier with time. I took notes on each submission, and soon a natural ranking emerged. The standout manuscripts made themselves known and quickly rose to the top. Of my group, I had two manuscripts that were very, very strong – collections I hope to see published sometime in the near future, even if they don’t end up winning this contest – and several others that were so good I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up winning.

But remember, I wasn’t the final judge, and I also didn’t have the benefit of seeing all the contest entries. If my portion contained that many potential winners, then there were probably a lot more strong submissions out there in other readers’ hands.

Tomorrow, I’ll post some of the common pitfalls I observed among submissions as well as tips for entering collection contests. Stayed tuned!

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