Saturday, July 20, 2019

Caterpillar Pain

Every great once in a while something extraordinary happens.  As I mentioned in my last post, I really hadn’t submitted fiction for publication for almost three years.  (I had a couple of non-fiction projects going.)  About three weeks ago I began submitting again.

I have a backlog of stories ready to go.  That backlog is now one story less.  “The Pain of a Caterpillar” was accepted, to my great delight, by Ghostlight: The Magazine of Terror.  I’ve finally broken the magical number of twenty short stories accepted for publication.

The truly remarkable thing, however, was the alacrity with which it was accepted.  I have been writing fiction for over forty years and never had a story accepted on the same day it was submitted before.  I was absolutely thrilled.

As a writer, fewer things make you feel as validated as acceptance.  You have to go through an awful lot of rejection to get there.  This particular story was one I was particularly fond of.  It ties together several aspects of my own experience and my own fears.

I know quite a few editors, and one truth that may sometimes lie hidden is just how much power they have.  My Medusa novel was accepted by an editor who left the press where it was contracted (Vagabondage) before it could be published.  The new editor didn’t like it, and killed it.

Editors, obviously, are people too.  Your story (or even non-fiction) must strike them as a good fit or it goes nowhere.  As much as my self-pity tells me it’s my fault, it’s really not.  There’s always an element of chance involved.  But you have to try otherwise your work will never get accepted.

I’ve read of writers getting first drafts published.  I tend to edit, and edit, and edit again.  Thousands of words fill bloody trenches with my sacrificial cutting.  Appropriate, I suppose, for a writer of scary stories.  As usual, I’ll post on the story once it appears.  Until then, I’ve got a backlog to replenish.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Spreading the Sheet

I used to tell a young friend interested in writing that there’s no right or wrong way to do it.  While I write in some form every day—lately it has been non-fiction—I have been wondering if I go about my fiction the right way.  I wonder this because I keep a spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet contains information about every submission I’ve made: the date sent, to which magazine, word count, and response.  I color-code everything so I can tell at a glance if a story’s still awaiting a publisher or not.

While looking at this spreadsheet recently, I noticed that it had been two or three years since I’d tried to get any fiction published.  Well, apart from my novel (which is also on the spreadsheet); I sent it to an agent who turned it down earlier this year.  What I noticed about my submissions is that they tend to happen in June.

I’m not a student and I’m no longer a teacher, so June has no special connection with free time.  I do, however, tend to send out lots of submissions in a manic way, when my courage is running high enough to take rejections.   I guess June is good for overlooking rejections.  I also noticed that many of the journals on my target list had folded.

Literature, it seems, is a temporary phenomenon.  I don’t believe there’s a wrong way to do it, however.  I don’t think it helps to forget what stories I’ve edited, though.  Problem is I have too many ideas and sometimes they take years to find completion, even in short-form.  On a long drive yesterday I had three short story ideas.  Who has time to write them all?

On one of Michael Stevens’ Vsauce videos he mentions the published notebooks of an author I’d never heard of.  As he held up the book (published by Penguin, no less) I thought of how those of us who write are focused on the future.  Yes, I dream of getting some money from my writing, but in the long term becoming moderately famous after death would be okay too.  There’s no wrong way to do it, after all.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Agent Secret

Just yesterday I found out another academic colleague is a wannabe novelist.  Unaware that I had written six novels and more short stories than I can count (I don’t have that many fingers), she asked me if I knew anything about getting an agent.  My response: I know a lot about NOT getting an agent.

You see, a friend of mine knows an agent.  He introduced us via email.  The agent kindly agreed to consider my Medusa novel, even though two weeks later he forgot who I was.  At least he read it.  No other agent has.  Didn’t sway him, though.

I spend some time on  They have some great stuff about writing.  They won’t care to read much of your stuff unless you’ve had more success than I have, but then, I’ve got a nine-to-five and I take my writing way too seriously.

Hearing from my professorial colleague got me excited about my fiction again.  Problem is I’ve got a non-fiction tome under contract and a deadline nearing.  If there were 36-hour days on this planet I might be able to get some fiction in edgewise.

Writing a book—any book—takes more time than you might imagine.  If you want to do it well.  Agents don’t want to hear it.  They want it to sparkle.  And by that I mean they want to see commercial potential.  They’re not interested in getting you off to a start.  It’s a shortsighted outlook.

My Medusa novel has movie tie-in potential.  I would say that, of course, but it’s true.  Circe is still hitting the readers’ fav lists.  And I taught classical mythology for a couple years at a state university.  I have edited, reedited, and rereedited that novel.  It sparkles.

Do I know anything about getting an agent?  Yes.  I’ve contacted several.  I know their standard rejects by heart.  If your soul’s not been sold to this craft, however, you might consider taking up knitting instead.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Courting Agency

So I finally got an agent to talk to me.  That doesn’t mean he’ll represent me, but he knows, at least a little of, who I am.  This didn’t come about through a web search and cold call.  He agreed to talk to me because we have a mutual friend.

This friend I have never met.  He contacted me after reading a blog post.  We subsequently talked by phone.  He emails me often.  He’s a real booster.  Turns out he’s a writer too.  Those of us who write need one another.

My friend doesn’t know my pseudonym.  In fact, most friends to whom I’ve revealed it have forgotten.  They grow weary of waiting until I break through.  Until they can say “I knew him when.”  Of what does breaking through consist?

Twenty of my short stories have been published.  My fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award (Silver Pen Writers Association), and the Best of the Web Award.  I won the Danse Macabre 2009 prix d’écriture de Noël in Fiction, and third place in Calliope’s 20th Annual Fiction Contest (2014).  Where’s the confetti?  Where’s the champaign?

For any of that you need an agent for the Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God, so I’ve been told.  (Not by a Lowell or Cabot, for they do not speak to the un-agented.)  

Over the years I’ve sent many agent queries, for both fiction and non.  To get attention you have to have already made some serious money by your writing.  Or maybe, as in my case, you have a friend who’s willing to share.

You see, my Medusa novel, for sentimental reasons, has to be the first one published.  Will it make money?  Yes, I think so.  Even if it doesn’t it is the labor of my earlier life.  All authors, even Steven King, have a backstory of rejection.  Editors can be a thick-headed lot.

I’m dithering now whether to send said friendly agent my novel.  He said I should.  There’s got to be a word for this: getting so far that you hesitate to go further because the next step could be a break-through, or it could put you back at Go without collecting your $200.  If only I had an agent to handle the money part...

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Holy Horror

My friend Steve likes horror movies.  It’s something we share in common, and it’s one of the things that brought us together back in college.  He recently published a book that some horror fans will enjoy—Holy Horror.

The idea here—Steve used to teach biblical studies—is that you can learn quite a bit about the Bible from watching horror movies.  It’s an interesting idea because a lot of conservative Christians believe horror is evil.  From the Devil, even.

I find this kind of book interesting because it bring two unexpected fields together.  I write horror stories.  (I’ve got one ready to go, if I can only find the time to get it through Submittable.)  I watch horror movies.  Who would think of finding the Bible in such places?

His larger point, I think, is that horror and religion are closely related.  That I can get!  Have you seen the how the evangelicals behave lately?  How they rally around Trump?  There’s horror right there!

Reading this, what struck me is how often the Bible shows up in horror films.  At first I thought this book was simply all the movies where the Good Book appears in horror.  Clearly it’s not.  Steve hasn’t watched as much horror as I have and he missed a few obvious examples.

Horror will likely never become mainstream.  The reason is that many people don’t like horror, but also many people don’t understand that horror deals with existential issues.  Many horror films are great movies.  Every time I watch The Shining (where Steve starts) or The Exorcist (where he lingers) I say to myself, “That was a great movie!”

Religion has been part of horror perhaps from the beginning.  Most clearly, however, it entered the scene in Rosemary’s Baby.  Holy Horror starts in 1960, and comes up to pretty much the present.  It’s a fun read.  A little on the pricey side, but for my money, it was worth it.  It’s what I call guilty pleasure.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dust or Rusty?

My, is this thing ever dusty!  The problem with dual identities is that they’re, well, dual.  The working writer has to make a living.  Making a living interferes with being a writer.

It’s no secret that I write under a pseudonym.  In certain professions writing is discouraged.  The only way I can get away with writing the fiction I do is by saying “It’s not me!”  I know I’m in good company here.  The average person can’t identify Samuel Clemens.

No, I don’t mind the nom de guerre per se, but I resent a work life that doesn’t value the writer.  It’s not just editors, either.  There was a guy in my company who wasn’t an editor.  He quit to become a writer and the general attitude to his leaving was a smirk.

Yes, it’s difficult to make a living as a writer.  Unless you get an agent you won’t make much in royalties.  You can’t quit your day job.  And aside from the many hours sapped from your life-force by work, some jobs declare that you shouldn’t write.  It might be mistaken for the voice of the company.

While I’ve been engaged in two non-fiction books, my fiction has been suffering.  The ideas bubble up rather consistently, but the energy it takes to find publishers is draining.  You know how it is—you find a perfect fit for your story, but the editor of the journal doesn’t agree.  They’ll be glad to take your money, though.

I was recently reading about Mark Twain.  He had trouble getting published.  Even had to do what we call “vanity publishing” these days.  Now he’s considered an American original.  My guess is that he wasn’t an editor for a jealous press.  Otherwise nobody would’ve ever heard of him.

Now that a new year has dawned, I’m redoubling my efforts at fiction.  I still have a non-fiction book under contract, but that won’t bring in any royalties.  Time to get down to business.  Time to dust this thing off. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Gotham Writing

Life is plenty complicated without writing.  Life’s impossible without writing.

You see, I’ve got tons of fiction here.  Well, it be tons if I printed it out.  I’ve been writing every day for decades now.  Long past the limit Neal Stephenson once told me, the 100,000 words you throw out before calling yourself a writer.  The problem is, life’s complicated.

I happened into a New York City bookstore.  On the same shelf paperbacks by the aforementioned Neal and Robert Repino.  I know them both.  I returned home and fired up the laptop.  Hundreds of stories.  Half a dozen novels.  Amid all of this, just one story of mine that one small journal thought was worthy of actual ink.  It won third place in a contest.

There’s no way to count pre-computer writing.  I was born before the advent of the household CPU.  Before electronic calculators.  We thought the TI-30 was a big deal, little red lights and all.  I’d been writing for years already.  How many words?  Who can count that high?  Who has the time?  Life, remember…

So I fire up the laptop and start counting.  I quickly lose track how many individual stories I have in Scrivener.  At various stages of completion.  Many finished, sent out, and rejected.  Many more being polished and awaiting the click of the “send” button.  Even many more not yet done.

I click through some of the older stories.  I can’t remember where I was going with them.  When I started, the idea, I know, was pretty clear.  Beginning, middle, end.  Characters so real they could be sitting in this very room.  Now, however, I don’t recall their names.  Backstories.  Why was that character suicidal at that particular time?  What do I know about whaling, beyond Moby-Dick?  Perhaps one with flashes of intense emotion like me should be a poet instead?

It’s raining in the city and I recall one of my published stories about Bryant Park, just outside this plate-glass window.  That window’s like time.  You can see through it, but you can’t change it.  Not without breaking the law.  And life’s already complicated enough without doing that.