Archive for January, 2010

Writing Life: Previews, Works in Progress, First Publishing Rights, and More

Poor WordPress, automatically turning every post title into the default URL for the post.  I hope there’s no character limit on these things.  Snappy titles were never something I was good at — in fact, if I could, I’d leave the space at the top of my stories blank, and let the editors just pick their own damn title.  They do a lot of the time anyway, and it would save me a lot of time wasted trying to find a title that, while not necessarily very good (I try not to let my ambition run too far ahead of my ability), at least didn’t make the story sound really campy and stupid.  I could have written great titles for 1960s horror movies.  That’s not what this post was going to be about, but now you’ve learned something else about me.

Headlines, though, those are fun.  I feel like headline writer for The Wall Street Journal would actually be my dream job.

Anyway.  I’ve been wrestling with re-creating a “Works” page on this blog to showcase a few stories, just so my (limited) audience at least has some idea what I’m talking about when I babble about my “writing” — whatever the hell that is, right?  Unless you happen to be in my editing group (love yas), you’ve never seen the prose in question.  And that puts me in a rather awkward spot, since most publishers of short fiction are pretty strict about not taking anything that’s ever seen the light of day before, including in small excerpts on your blog.  I feel like the options open to visual artists on sites like DeviantArt or even crafters on Etsy aren’t very useful to writers, especially short fiction writers.

One obvious solution is to write short samples specifically for the blog page, but in all honesty, I’ve got an ambitious writing schedule as it is.  There’s enough irons on the fire without adding another, and if I did, the results (since I would know in my heart of hearts that they didn’t need to be publication-worthy) would probably be half-assed and not an example of my work that I want to show the world anyway.  I’ve seen some people who have or contribute to free fiction blogs as a way of generating exposure, including some novel-length works, and I admire those people — but realistically, I think my deadline on proving I can make at least some money doing this is a little tight for that kind of time investment, and I don’t know that there’s any real proven correlation between running pieces in free e-zines and scoring professional publications, yet.  Maybe in a few years (after the iPad has changed the face of publication forever, right?  Just trying to stay topical this week…)

Another option is to sacrifice a few stories for the “Works” page and only submit them to the semi-professional sorts of publications that are willing to take previously-run stories, rather than First Serial Rights (or whatever), and I have considered that one.  Especially the really good one that keeps getting bounced, I think because it doesn’t fit as neatly into “themed” issues and most of the places I’ve sent it have been doing those lately.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway, but it might be time to just throw that one up in its entirety and offer it up to the semi-pro tier of things at this point.  Postage is starting to add up on that one (it’s kind of fun to do the math and figure out how many times you can submit a story of such-and-such length and so-many-cents-per-word before the postage costs outweigh the profit, but also kind of not).

“Previews” that aren’t directly from the text are another option — I can see a use for text pulled out of drafts that didn’t make it into the final version, but still capture the feel of a piece.  It does lock those chunks of text out of any published version for good, though, and I’m always reluctant to do that — you never know what’s going to be a good fit after a round of post-rejection changes (which I’m usually sparing with, but still, you never know).

Unfortunately, all of this is so much whistling in the dark if I can’t get a better handle on formatting WordPress pages — ideally, I’d like the “Works” page to be set up largely like the actual blog, with every work showcased in a separate “post” of its own, though obviously things like the date and time, tags, categories, and all of that are less important.  Failing that, I at least have to be able to do some basic centering, sizing, and formatting besides hitting “ENTER” to separate my paragraphs — currently, I can’t even get it to make a larger vertical space by hitting “ENTER” multiple times (though I suppose I could use good formatting habits, and just put a bunch of pound signs on top of one another).  So that’s another skill to acquire somewhere.

I’m gonna learn to play the guitar here some time, too.

So that’s another iron in the old fire for now, but maybe one that will wait on getting some drafts out to the editing group, because right now they all think I died.  Just wait until I send you the novel to look at, suckers!  Tune in Monday, when I talk about pony stories.

Seriously.

Writing Life: Warning Label

Last night, I got to watch a chef talk someone out of quitting his day job to become a cook.  I liked the lecture (it was definitely a lecture); it rang a familiar chord.  I feel like it was the sort of full-disclosure that all “dream,” non-nine-to-five jobs need, especially anything that can be put after the phrase “someday I’ll retire and just…”

The relevance here, obviously, is that writing needs a disclaimer, possibly more than one.  Maybe they give one to MFA types (but judging from the ones here in town, probably not).  It should say “this isn’t actually relaxing, or even necessarily enjoyable most of the time.  Mostly you will hate everything you produce (though you may feel good producing it, until you go back and read over it), and so will your editors, who will reject it over and over again until you never want to see the piece again.  Keep in mind that this is a process that happens twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred times a year, maybe more, so your self-worth will constantly be in doubt.  Also, you will lose sleep and weight, your spouse/partner/S.O./whatever will hate your job, and everyone who knows that you’re ‘a writer’ will ask you about what you’re doing right now at every social event you go to even though it is the very last thing you want to talk about in the whole wide world up to and including Nazi midget porn.”

It could use polishing, I suppose, but I feel like that’s the general equivalent for the “late hours, lousy pay, jerk-off head chefs, years of doing dishes” speech I heard last night.  It was a good speech, very honest.  Hopefully the guy listened.  Of course, the conclusion was that if you sit there through the whole thing going “yeah, okay, that sounds stressful but whatever, this is what I want to do,” you’ve got a good shot at making it.

So we’ll see, right?

Writing Life: “A Man of Letters”

A phrase you never hear anymore, “a man of letters” — and I think it was pretty much always “man,” since it went out of fashion around the same time as phrases like “that mob of damned, scribbling women” (thank you Mr. Hawthorne) and other such sentiments.  But it still has a nice ring to it, with or without the nationalistic flavor (“a man of American letters”), even if it’s over and done with now, and I always liked the sort of blurry etymology there — maybe it refers to the actual alphabetic characters that make up each word; maybe authors just had to write a lot of letters to publishers and such (still do, really, though they’re mostly copy/paste jobs now).  Or maybe — I’ve always liked this interpretation — novelists in the days when all correspondence had to be written and mailed were recognized as writing really good letters, on account of all the authorial practice.  Very long letters, at the very least.

The point of all this is that I’ve been writing letters, lately, in addition and somewhat as an alternative to scribbling in my journal or posting shorter, less-polished thoughts online.  Overall I think the result has been to inflict more of my unfinished ideas on friends, rather than wrestling with them somewhere I have to see them again (the ideas, not the friends).  I did worry briefly that I might accidentally send off the only written copy of a really good idea that way, but looking back over the shorter scribbles in last fall’s journal (often tagged “Use This Somehow,” or just “UTS”), I’m not sure there’s much at stake here.  Better they should entertain someone else.

The change of venues was largely inspired by a letter-writing friend of mine, who is unfortunately infinitely better at the physical side of it than I; her envelopes are hand-stamped works of folk art, while my highest aesthetic goal tends to be legibility.  But she assures me that it’s fun to get anything in the mail, no matter what it is, and I’ve foolishly taken her at her word.

The upshot of all this, incidentally, is that if you the reader would like a letter from me the blogger (or writer, or whatever), drop me a comment with your address, and I will send you one.  I’ve got it set to require approval from me before any comments are viewable, so I just won’t approve any that contain addresses, and keep it private that way — if you happen to know my e-mail address, you can also just send me an e-mail, but I get enough spam on this blog that I’m not going to post it for the rest.  Just leave a comment; I promise no one else will see it!  And some time after I get your address, you will get a very unattractively-written letter, bordering on illegibility, but hopefully interesting in content — maybe a poem, maybe the scribbled start of a story, maybe just some words about life.  I jot ‘em down as they come, so who knows what you’ll get.  But it’ll be in the mail, and that’ll be fun.

And that way I can be “a man of letters.”

Devil’s Details: A Post About Formatting

As the title says, today’s post (which I’m getting a head start on by posting just after midnight) is mostly about formatting.

We live in the internet age, and there’s a limitless supply of opinions on how to do basically anything, but editors of short fiction are mercifully agreed — for the most part — on a pretty standard manuscript format; I’ve even been linked to the same couple of how-to essays by most of the publications I’ve looked at (William Shunn’s essay is the most common, with Vonda N. McIntyre’s coming in second).  So there’s at least a decent starting-point, but all of the essays and opinions I’ve looked at have left a few points unresolved, which while they probably won’t make or break a submission (or even be noticed by the majority of most editors) could still use settling in my mind.  For curiosity’s sake, if for no other reason; also because conventions are useful as a thing to occasionally break from when you need to signal something particularly important or strange going on in your text.

Of course, my biggest trouble with the whole thing is purely technological — I was a real computer whiz back around fifth or sixth grade, and I can still use my Mac like the best eleven year-old in the business, so getting it to do little things like, say, default to Courier instead of Cambria as the font in Microsoft Word hasn’t happened yet; likewise other defaults such as double-spaced rather than single, page numbers with my name and the title of the work, and that sort of detail.  I can at least set them all manually — I’m not that bad at this — but it would be nice not to have to reset four or five options every time I start a new work or a separate-file revision of an existing one.  And, realistically, when am I going to need to type in anything but double-spaced Courier?

But setting that aside, it’s mostly just finicky details I’m concerned with.  Dashes are a big one for me, since I could teach Emily Dickinson a thing or two about overusing them; there seems to be agreement on using two — like this, which I think WordPress automatically turns into a single, longer dash, but was achieved by hitting the button twice — but less agreement on whether or not to flank the double-dash with a space on each side.  Line breaks suffer from the same confusion; everyone likes the pound sign (“#”) as the indicator for a blank line in the typeset version, but I’ve seen it centered and I’ve seen it justified right, and I’ve seen it both with and without an empty line above and below it in the original manuscript as well.

Everyone likes a double-space after a colon and a single-space after a semi-colon; I’m not sure I agree with the explanation that this is to make them easier to distinguish (one would hope that context could do that), but I’m happy to follow the rule.  The double-space after sentence-ending punctuation can be a little harder to abide by, since quotations and parentheticals can make exactly what constitutes the end of a sentence somewhat dubious.  I’ve particularly run into this trouble in more “literary” attempts; it comes up less in straight genre fiction, where you’re not usually doing anything too terribly fancy with the structure of your paragraphs or your dialogue attributions or whatever.  Right now I default to picking one punctuation mark as the end of the whole-goddamn-thing per sentence, be it never so convoluted, and double-spacing after that; everything else just gets one space even if it seems to be concluding a subcontained sentence.

Whether or not the title is entirely capitalized seems to be in debate as well.  My general feeling there is that no one explicitly says it has to be all-caps, and therefore it shouldn’t be, in case you get the one editor that really hates it.  A final pound-sign or the phrase “The End” is even more of a conundrum, since I’ve submitted to publications that specifically requested it and publications that discouraged it (or at least linked to the Shunn essay, which discourages it); my general feeling is that while the argument that the end of the story should be clear from context is perfectly reasonable from a lit-crit point of view, there’s something to be said on behalf of the guy that drops the bundle on the floor and has to make sure he’s got it all put back together right.  Especially if the last sentence comes close to the end of the page, a neat little “End” indicator is maybe not such a bad thing to stick in there.  I can’t see anyone really knocking serious points off for it the way I can for more egregious flights of formatting fancy, so I’ll probably keep doing it.

I realize this is perhaps not the most interesting subject, but — and I’m saying this for the people who skipped the links, both of which also spend some time explaining exactly why you follow formatting guidelines — it makes editors happy when you get everything right, and happy editors are more likely to publish your story.  I can’t even blame them for looking in askance on minor mistakes, if they do (though my guess is that mostly people will be happy with twelve-point, double-spaced Courier with one-inch margins and no glaring typos); I just the other day clucked my mental tongue and shook my metaphorical head at the misuse of semicolons in a Wall Street Journal editorial (guest, not staff, in their defense).  It’s not like it made the piece any worse, but I noticed, and that made me feel a little more superior to the writer.  And who wants to run a story written by someone they don’t think that highly of?

ADDENDUM:  Some day, I will post one of these things with all the tags and categories and things already properly in place.  Speaking of formatting.

Personal Pages: Some Slightly Scattered Thoughts

I feel like anything I post between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM falls into sort of a mystery zone — was it a bright-and-early start-the-day post?  Or was it scribbled before bed on a sleepless night?  I don’t know that the content actually changes much between the two sorts of post.  Today is an early start, which changes up the food schedule a little — instead of my normal 3:00 AM Fat Sandwich delivery, I got up for a 7:00 AM scrambler at the diner down the street instead, altering the overall caloric intake not very much at all.  The goal here is to increase productivity a little today, breakfast being the most important meal and so forth, but right now it’s mostly putting me to sleep.

This blog is maybe not always a good representation of my writing schedule.  I don’t think I’ve talked about it much, actually, other than occasional references to late nights.  But in general, if I’ve written it down, assume that it happened between the hours of 11:00 PM and 7:00 AM, after the lady love has gone to bed.  That’s about equal parts I don’t get to see her much and it’s nice to spend the time she’s home doing stuff with her and I’m a crazy artist who doesn’t like writing with someone else in the room; I’m a night person anyway, so that works out okay (not in the fun sense of someone who goes out to clubs and such, just someone that’s awake late).  Productivity starts declining noticeably around 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning (so if you’re reading something really bad, it was probably written then).

On a related note, I took down the “Works” section until I can make the formatting work better for multiple pieces.  Right now, I can’t make it organize itself into separate posts like the main blog page, and it automatically turns every line break into the same sized space no matter how many times I hit RETURN.  No huge lost, but it’s something I’m working on; I’ll add a few pieces that I’m not planning on publishing once I get it back up as well.  There’s a few just-for-fun stories and poems that aren’t totally embarrassing to share, if I can make the formatting work.  But that’s why that one’s gone for now — I didn’t suddenly get the excerpted story to work the way I wanted it to and send it off for publication, unfortunately.

Let’s see, what else about my life this morning.  I drink a lot of tea — I think this is partly because I really like tea, partly because the caffeine is often helpful, and largely because it’s a sort of complicated process or ritual that I can right just about every time, which is a real pick-me-up when writing is going badly.  I don’t put my kimono on and bang a gong or anything like that (my metaphorical kimono; I don’t actually own one, don’t worry), but there’s all sorts of details about getting the water to the right temperature and giving some leaves a first rinse but not other ones, that kind of thing.  And when you get it right there’s this nice, tangible reward you can take a sip of and be like “yus, not a failure today,” which can count for a lot depending on how the writing is going.  Very easy browser games probably fill a similar niche for a lot of people, I think, but I like having to get up and stretch my legs a little bit.

I also have (well, my girlfriend has) this super-cute flamingo-shaped teapot with matching mugs, and that just cheers everyone up.

The flamingos at our local zoo have this indoor enclosure that’s basically a never-ending beach party; they’re always chilling out.  They’ve got a 24/7 sun lamp and a heated pool and probably some beers stashed somewhere.  It looks like a pretty good life.

What?  I wrote about teddy bears on Monday.  Give me a break.

I’m going to work.

Personal Pages: Addendum to “Storytime”

Twelve or so hours after the last post, and with a visit count that’s about triple what I’m used to (neatly invalidating my claim that basically all my readers already know my sleeping habits intimately, mind you), I have to ask — what magical combination was it, that suddenly struck a chord in the blog-reading audience’s heart?  The presence of a teddy bear?  The phrase (and tag) “story,” rather than “writing”?  For many years (and still occasionally) I updated on my life under the handle “spokenstory” to emphasize my preference for oral and performance-based narrative; was I onto something there?  Or are guys in their twenties with teddy bears just funny?

I mean, I’m okay with either answer, here.  If people want more about teddy bears, I can do more about teddy bears.  I like them, obviously; “write what you know” won’t be a problem there.  But really, soaring readership after I talk about an insomniac shower-and-shave?  This is why I hate these damn things; the things I think I should be writing about are never the things people want me to be writing about.  Barring better advice (there’s a “comment” button there, if you have it), I’ll just start throwing more teddy bears out there.

Cheers!

Personal Pages: Storytime

This was going to be about four different posts, all of which are half-finished in a Word file somewhere on my desktop, and now it isn’t any of them.  Instead, storytime!

Once upon a time, like three weeks ago, I was going to head down to Chicago for New Year’s Eve and see some friends, have a beer or two but overall take it easy, and slip on back home in time for work the next day.  Instead I got violently ill and stayed where I was, changing nothing significant to this story except that my razor — which I had left in Chicago when I visited for Christmas — stayed where it was instead of rejoining me.

Now, I sleep with a teddy bear, nights when my girlfriend doesn’t want to snuggle.  I don’t know that this blog has a whole hell of a lot of readers outside of my old and predominantly female friends, most of whom have slept at least a night with me, so that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise — I, unlike her, am very clearly a snuggler, so there’s gotta be something there when she needs her thrashing-space.  Teddy bear, problem solved.

Only, what with the days of lying sick in bed plus not having a proper razor anyway, I’ve been letting the face-fuzz grow.  It’s that time of year anyway — keeps off the chill.  And tonight, as I lay in bed awake after a second futile just-close-your-eyes-and-sleep-goddammit, I decided that I didn’t like the way the beard felt when it rubbed against the teddy bear’s fabric and got up to shave it all off with my girlfriend’s largely-unused razor.

Now, I want everyone to pause and consider the climax of our story, here.  I got out of bed at five in the morning one chilly day to shave my beard with a chick razor so that I could snuggle better with my teddy bear. And now, on the heels of emasculation supreme, I’d fight a man and win.

At the end of a bad day (which today/yesterday was), when I’m wondering what made me think I could handle this self-imposed life of hard work for uncertain reward, that’s what I bring to the table: self-confidence you can’t touch with a seven-inch drag queen bootheel.  And it just don’t quit, and neither will I.

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