Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fiction Factor

I’ve often wondered if it’s accidental that fact and fiction share consonants.  Oh, the vowels are completely different, and fiction ends with that trickster consonant n, but don’t let that fool you.  Things aren’t always as clear cut as they say.

In some languages, I’ve been told, the meaning of a word lies in its root.  My friend Steve once told me that Hebrew words have “triliteral roots.”  That is, words based on the same three consonants, in that order, are closely related.  You can make a noun into a verb by taking the root and changing the vowels.  Maybe something similar is going on with fact and fiction.

Jorge Luis Borges, I have to confess, hasn’t appeared in my reading as much as he should.  Many of his story revolve around the indeterminacy of words.  They change, they shift, they mean something we didn’t mean for them to mean.  And he sometimes uses Hebrew as an example.

I don’t read Hebrew—English is difficult enough, thank you very much—but I wonder if Borges, and others, aren’t onto something here.  The language you think in determines what you write.

I once had a dream in French.  I’ve never studied French and I don’t speak it.  At the time of the dream I’d seldom heard it spoken.  In the dream I knew it was French and when I awoke the sounds were consonant with the little I knew of the language.  Maybe our hardware includes the Rosetta Stone.  All we have to do is tap into it.

I’ve often played with the idea of writing using nonsense words.  Dr. Seuss was a master at pulling that off plausibly.  Those who speak in tongues might have an advantage here.  Still, words don’t always mean what we think they do.  Those of us who write fiction know that words tame us, not the other way around.

So is it fiction or fact?  Can anybody really know?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Free Writer

I’ve been a bad boy.  I haven’t been posting on my poor, neglected blog lately.  You see, like all truly creative types, I’ve been protesting.

Call me simplistic, but I always thought America was about freedom.  I grew up writing fantastic (as in wild, unusual, not as in great) stories and nobody said anything I wrote was threatening.  I didn’t know any better—I was just a boy with a tablet and a pencil.  I wrote my imagination.

Now we have a president who’s trying to slash the National Endowment for the Humanities.  There’s no profit in it, you see.  And this after having W say just a few years back that freedom isn’t free.  What?  You have to pay for freedom?  Forgive me, but I’ve always been a live and let live kind of guy.

My horror isn’t gruesome.  It’s existential.  Maybe that’s why I have such a tough time getting published.  With nearly twenty stories in press I hope my writing’s not that bad.  I can live with people just not getting it.  But I protest a government that can’t support the humanities.

I’ve been a bad boy.  I went to Washington to join the Women’s March.  I may not be a woman, but half the people on this planet are and they should have the same rights as the other half.  And throw in an order of freedom while you’re at it, please.

All this fighting for freedom has taken its toll on my fiction.  Not that the ideas are fading—they’re not—but who has time to tweet their congressmen all day and then write stories?  Who thought politics would ever interfere with good, old-fashioned creativity?

I like my freedom free, just like my imagination.  There’s no places barred to it, and there’s no limit to the number of genders or races you might find there.  Is it too much to hope for a government that’ll just leave me alone to be free?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Editing Reality

One becomes inured.  That is to say, rejection letters are far more common than acceptances.  So it became clear to me while looking at my Submittable page recently.  The number of cheery blue acceptances is largely outweighed by those dreary gray “declined”s.

Look, I’m an editor.  I know how this game works.  Every day I see the pitches the hopeful send, wanting to be represented by my press.  Every day I try to think how to write rejection letters that are complementary, comforting, encouraging.  The point is, I see bad writing.

Some people see dead people.  Others of us see dead writing.  Books that should never have been born.  When you agonize over every word, and when you know that you’ve got some felicity with the pen (or on the keyboard) being classed with those who clearly don’t understand is painful.

Awfully gloomy for a positive post, I must say!  I just received the good news that my story, “Glass-Walled Cabin,” was accepted for publication by The WiFiles.  As is my custom, I will write a little about the background to the story after it is published.  For now it’s just a nice, cheery feeling in my chest and belly that I’ve received an acceptance letter.

“Glass-Walled Cabin” is my nineteenth story accepted for publication.  The WiFiles is the tenth magazine that has been willing to take a chance (and what’s to lose when it’s only electrons?) on my grappling with reality.  Stories, after all, are an effort to make some mark on the world.  However tiny.

As an editor I often wonder what you have to do to gain credibility.  In editorial board meetings I hear talk of authors you accept no matter what.  That translates into authors whose past books have earned money.  It’s all about the money.  Really, it is.

I’ve never been paid for my writing.  One story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won a contest on Calliope, which earned back the entry fee plus a few dollars.  I don’t write for the money.  I write because I must.  It’s who I am.

Not that I would object to having someone toss a few coppers my way for my efforts.  But I’m too realistic to hope for that.  I am an editor, after all.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Writing's the Crisis

Being a working writer means living with inherent contradictions.  For fifty weeks of the year daily life involves awaking between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m., writing for half an hour, and catching a bus to over eight hours of work in New York City.  Then riding the bus back home again in time for supper and bed.  I’m not complaining, just observing.  That’s what writers do.

That lifestyle—constantly tired, anxious, and pressed for time to get the mundane chores done (paying bills, balancing the checkbook, taking out the recycling)—wears me down like a grindstone.  When the weekend comes I sleep an extra half hour or so and, although refreshed, I awake without the urgency that frames five days a week.  It’s a crisis.

Every year I save up enough vacation days to take off between Christmas and New Year’s.  As a former professor this is a no-brainer.  In my industry (publishing) there’s no such thing as an emergency.  Nobody dies if a book is released a week later than scheduled.  Even so, publishers don’t get this natural caesura of the year off.  My first year in the biz, I sat in the office with no one answering emails or calls because everyone else has this time off.

I save five of my precious vacation days every year to take this time off.  To write, I think, to finish projects.  To catch up on all the things I don’t have time to do.  Then the expensive break comes and inspiration flees.  I get enough sleep and can’t think of a thing to write.  My half-finished stories collect at my feet.  There is no crisis. 

Every year’s end I come to realize that the writing’s in the crisis.  The stories dwell in that frazzled mindset of never having enough sleep.  The constant financial worries.  The looking ahead to no retirement because who can afford retirement when the rent is so damned high?  The moment I put my foot on that early morning bus, the story ideas begin to flow.

I won’t have time to write them down, though.  Not until next year at Christmas.  So the working writer’s life goes.  They’re called holy days for a reason.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ember Days

The ghost story, as we know it, was originally associated more with Christmas than Halloween.  That makes sense, since the solstice is darker than the equinox.  Both days stand as transitions—Halloween is the beginning of the darkness, and Christmas is midnight.

If you’re like me you may have comfy memories of childhood holidays.  That snug and warm feeling of being at home, well-stocked with food against the cold outside.  The hope of presents and a day of not worrying about the realities outside.

Nightmares, however, know no holidays.  I awake in the dark and the light is but a mere sliver of the day.  Long before dinnertime the sun has set again.  Breakfast and supper are in the dark.  Is it any wonder the ghosts linger around the Christmas tree?

My first published story, now on a defunct website, was the 2009 winner of the prix d’écriture de Noël in Fiction in Danse Macabre.  A scary Christmas story?  This was what gave me the courage to continue to try publication.  Note that I didn’t say to continue writing.  I’ve been doing that non-stop since I was a kid.

Few editors get what I’m trying to do.  I don’t care for blood and gore.  I prefer that feeling of someone else in the room that you can’t see.  That soft hand rapping on the door in the middle  of the night.  The feeling of trying to go to sleep when you’re all alone.  Quotidian horrors.

Violence need not be part of the picture.  I’m afraid our culture may have lost its taste for subtlety.  Implied frights can be more effective than severed limbs.  What you don’t see is scarier than that which you do.  That’s been the human condition from the beginning.  There is a darkness on the edge of town.

The holidays are candles in the dark.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful for the light.  It’s just that I remember there’s still a whole lot of darkness out there.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Time Bandits

It’s always something.  At the beginning of November it was depression over the results of the election.  Creatives everywhere mourned.  Then I had to be out of town.  Then last weekend I had to put the plastic over the windows.  Weekends are endangered species.

The first casualty of this loss of time is my creative writing.  I tend to spend my weekends trying feverishly to catch up with the ideas that have flitted through my head all week long.  The mesh on my mental butterfly-net is too loose, however, and they tend to get away.

Saturday comes and goes.  Sunday quickly follows.  Monday I’m back in the office wondering how a human being can put up with such pressure of unexpressed ideas.  I carry a little notebook in my pocket everyday and am so busy on weekends that I don’t even open it.

I’m not complaining here.  I’m also sure that I’m far from unique when it comes to working writers who spend their days commuting, working, and generally trying to make a living.  These are the things that give ideas, and indeed, texture and verisimilitude to fiction writing.  Otherwise we’d be spending all our time locked up in our rooms writing.

Still, it does seem that those who are paid to write fiction have the edge here.  A healthy advance can buy time off waiting tables or asking “may I help you?”  My job, at least, allows me to whip out my notebook and try to swat an idea before it gets away.

Putting it all together, however, takes time.  I write from the time I get up until I run out the door to catch the bus.  At the other end of the day, all is lost.  Sleepy, irritable, and uninspired, I stumble through the door anxious for bed.

The ideas, though, aren’t respecters of fate.  They come and they invite their friends.  My head resounds with them demanding to be let out through my fingers.  “Wait until the weekend,” I beg them.  When the weekend comes I keep them locked in their pen.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Manic Submission

Every year about this time I begin to panic.  The myth of perpetual growth suggests that each year should lead to more publications than the previous one, and by November it is clear that I’ve started to slip from my previous lofty goals.  I have reached a total of 18 published stories now, in a total of eight different venues.  Have I grown as a writer?

September saw the panic start.  Some journals, particularly those run by college or university departments, only open for submissions with the start of the school year.  A family crisis the first week of September set my plans off kilter for a couple of months.  Now that I’ve regained my footing, it looks like I’ve fallen behind.

Over the holiday weekend I was able to send out five of my multiply rejected stories for yet another sortie against the established publishers.  I’ve been working on building my Twitter following in the meantime, but my fiction writing has been suffering.  Every now and again I need a bit of good news to buoy me up.

The election of Donald Trump feels like a blow against the creative lifestyle.  We artists draw our inspiration from unorthodox sources sometimes.  Shuffling about in depression for two weeks also takes its toll on the ability to string words together in an ambience of muted optimism.  It looks like a long way until we’ll be able to be openly creative again.

Spending the day anticipating a feast can mean many different things.  I know simultaneous submissions are the way to get ahead but it still feels slightly unfair to me.  I’d like to think that my work would be accepted on its own merit.  Not only that, but there seem to be few places that publish my brand of whatever it is I write.

I’ve missed a couple of weeks posting on my blog.  Now I’m back and as manic as ever.