Not much left to say, I guess

This was a weird one. Still is. Much like “You’re Allowed to Order Take-Out” there’s more left unsaid than said. Which people seemed to like. The thing is, and if you read my writing advice last week this will be familiar, it’s never a good thing to get comfortable with one type of writing. Just because something worked once doesn’t mean it’s going to work again, and, in fact, if you try and chase a certain type of writing because it worked so well before you can wind up becomming a parody of yourself. Screw what worked. Move on to the next story.

That being said there’s still a lot of the same mood lingering over me that was there for “You’re Allowed” so if that’s what is there than that’s what is there.

I don’t know.

All I know is I’ve been listening to Bill Withers singing “Ain’t No Sunshine” on repeat for almost the entire creation of this story.

Oh things are going just great, thank you for asking

Time is running short
I should be working. Instead?
I craft crap Haiku.

I probably have more important things to deal with but…

I just went to deposit a check and get some cash from the ATM.  I swiped my card, then deposited my check, at which point the little screen said something like, “What would you like to do next?” and had two buttons showing.  One for “End your visit,” and another for “Make another transaction.”  I thought, “Great,” and pushed the button for another transaction.  The machine then told me that for security purposes I had to swipe my card again.  Then I had to reenter my PIN number.

Can anyone explain this to me?  What is the point of letting me believe I could make another transaction when, really, I have to swipe my card again and reenter my PIN number, making it exactly the same as if I had started the entire process over.  If I had picked the button that said, “End your visit,” the results would have been exactly the same.  Was the machine teasing me?  Was that it?

I have precious little for this week’s story.  Precious little.

Oh, right, the story

I’ve got nothing.

Actually. I have a tiny whiff of something. I did the backpacking through Europe thing after I graduated from college. Me, my cousin, my friend, and my friend’s brother. My cousin peeled off kind of early in the trip to go meet up with some other friends, leaving my friend and his brother. My friend is a lot like me. His brother is a bit more…shall we say organized. While his brother was with us we were on this crazy pace. We’d arrive in a new city in the evening. Go out drinking. Wake up early the next day. Go out sightseeing. Go out again that night. Then wake up early the next morning, get on a train, arrive in the next city that evening and start the cycle all over again. Eventually my friend’s brother left leaving just me and my friend who, like me, we will describe as not so organized. The brother said his goodbyes after we had arrived in Antwerp. A week later my friend and I were still in Antwerp. A week after that? Still in Antwerp. The local wait staff knew us. We loved drinking a certain brand of Flemish beer called Duvel. People started referring to us as “The Duvel Boys” when we walked into the bar.

Eventually we made it to Dublin. We stayed there about as long. In Dublin housing was problem as we hadn’t exactly booked ahead so we had to constantly change hostels and find new places to sleep. We wound up boarding in some sweet old Irish lady’s house on the far north end of the city. The first morning when we went downstairs she asked us if we wanted a small breakfast, a medium breakfast, or a large breakfast. My friend and I both went with the medium option. There were some cold cereals on the table to begin with as well as some bowls of fruit. Then she brought out some breads and hot oatmeal as well as juice and coffee and eggs. Surely the cereals and fruit were the small breakfast, and the addition of some oatmeal and eggs then bumped us up to the medium breakfast. So, in our minds, that was it. Anything more would constitute the large breakfast. We began to eat and mostly filled up on what was in front of us when she brought out two of the largest plates of assorted sausages and meats I’ve ever seen in my life and set one in front of each of us. I don’t eat a lot, my friend does, we both stared open-mouthed. The nice old lady left into the kitchen again and without taking his eyes from his plate my friend quite simply asked, “The fuck is the large breakfast then?”

Okay, that story was a lot funnier if you were there but my point is that Europe holds a strange mystic energy in my head. It occupies that time after college ended but before life began. It will forever be equated for me with the final rusty sunshine of a waning summer twilight. When I picture it, moods are different, lighting is different, shadows are longer and everything has a bittersweet tone.

I might try to write a story about that.

And what the fuck could she possibly have pulled out of her kitchen to justify the large breakfast?

Exciting news that sort of proves my point

A short story of mine was just published by the Lullwater Review. To read a copy of this story you can send a check for $5 payable to “Lullwater Review,” and a request for the Fall 2007 (Vol. XVII No. II) issue to:

Lullwater Review
Box 22036
Atlanta, GA 30322

I wrote this story in 2004.

Is my point starting to show?

2004. Four years later you can see a copy, assuming issues are still available, for $5.

The last story I just wrote was available, for free, the day I finished writing it.

Before we go any further I’d like to point out that I’m not some embittered loather of the publishing industry preaching for change because of years of neglect and rejection. I love the publishing industry. It has brought me every book I’ve ever enjoyed reading. I’d be an idiot to hate it. I do, however, see great potential for improvement.

So here’s how I see it. In its simplest form it works like this. I write the stories I need to write, always trying to turn out quality work. That work gets put into the hands of people who enjoy reading it. The end. Passion meets passion. In the end that’s what this is all about. It’s important to distill that down every once and while so as not to lose track of the bigger picture.

In reality some roadblocks pop up. For starters, how a reader is supposed to tell what writers to read gets pretty confusing. I don’t know the latest statistics, but a titanic amount of stories and books get written every year. It is obviously not possible for readers to sample all works out there and the decide which one’s they would like to read. So you get a variety of “gatekeepers” as some people call them. I’m not a fan of that word as it connotes the idea that these people are guarding something or protecting quality. I don’t see writing (or any art) as a matter of quality versus non-quality. I see it as a matter of you’re either a member of an artist’s audience or you’re not. In a world where both Jane Austin and Quentin Tarantino are considered geniuses, clearly there’s room for difference of opinion. I’ll grant you that there’s a certain level of quality that has to be maintained, but after that I think it’s really a matter of readers finding the voice they like. So I don’t like the term “gatekeeper” but I don’t have a replacement so I’ll just use that, but I’ll keep it in quotes so it sounds self-mocking.

Anyway, the role these “gatekeepers” play is to take that titanic mountain of new works and sort through it, make it more accessible with a variety of classifications to the average reader. Good, bad, four stars, thumbs up, you’ve got to read this, Wolfe sucks, whatever. My point is that there are systems that arise which allow readers to find books and writers they might enjoy without having to sample everything. You with me so far?

Literary journals, such as the Lullwater Review, are such a system. The good people at these journals read an astonishing, an utterly dazzling array of submissions, pick the most loved, bundle them up inside of a cover, and offer them to the public, who for the most part ignores them. These things aren’t best sellers. But within the publishing industry they’re seen as important. Again, a story that makes it into one of these things has passed by a “gatekeeper.” It has been approved. That doesn’t mean it’s the greatest thing in the world, but it certainly means something. So publishers love to see that you’ve had short stories published when you send your books to them for submission. Makes sense. Heck, you probably think about me a little differently now that you know some prestigious college journal also likes what I write (while I’m waggling my eyebrows ever-so-impressively at you I’ll throw in that I had a previous story published in a journal called Lynx Eye).

Again, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that I wrote this story four years ago, that you have to pay five bucks to see it, that included with my acceptance letter was a letter telling me that Lullwater Review desperately needs my support and asking how many subscriptions I would buy, and that Lynx Eye is no longer in business. My other story was published in their last ever issue.

These people love stories, they love words, they love authors, and they produce these wonderful literary journals that play a huge role within the industry and they wind up spending a lot of time soliciting funds, applying for grants, and doing other rigmarole that seems to me to be a great misplacement of their passion and time.

I say we move the whole damned thing online. Websites are cheap. And they’re easy. I mean, an online literary journal could put out an issue a month. They could read tons of stories and, in the case of writer’s like me with a Creative Commons license, publish the ones they like right on their site. Or at the very least provide links to the stories they like. And they’d have wonderful wonderful amounts of time. They could write insightful reviews and critiques and have heated debates and…well you get the idea. They could spend more time doing what they love and less time asking me for money. And, yes, some would remain obscure, but believe me, journal editors love words and the more impassioned ones would garner an audience. Possibly even turn a profit. And writers like me could just mention on our blogs that we were accepted to Lullwater Review, and then provide a link to the site where you could see the story and insightful reviews and heated debates and such.

Obviously I haven’t quite got all the details worked out, but this makes sense to me. You build up an audience, slowly, over time, gaining support and credibility along the way. That’s how it always goes but it can happen so very very much faster online as well as happen smoother and with more time spent doing what I love and less time spent putting together mailings. I suck at putting together mailings. I used to have to stop after a story and spend weeks not writing in order to put together a mailing.

Two side points before I go. Yes, that is what “26 Stories in 52 Weeks” is all about. Or half about. Seeing what I can stir up online. That’s what the career minded side of me was interested in. The author side became curious about what I might produce over a year with a two week per story deadline. And, yes, both sides know that there’s a touch of gimmick to all of this. I wouldn’t expect other authors to do exactly this, but I would like to see more of them opening up their own web-pages to showcase their work.

And second: money. I don’t know how the financial side of things would work out. I don’t believe in giving my work out for free. I know that sounds funny since I’m sitting here giving my work out for free, but you have to keep in mind that in the publishing industry short stories have zero monetary value. Hell, this site is running at a profit in some weird way. Mailings are expensive. Copying twenty page stories is expensive. And when you keep in mind that the average story that has been accepted for publication has been submitted thirty times (sort of made that number up…I’ve come across hard data on that before but can’t find it now. I know it was way up there, though) well it gets expensive. I’ve estimated that each short story I’ve written has cost me an average of $120 to submit for possible publication. And when you do get published the payments aren’t exactly astronomical. This last story earned me a couple of copies of the Lullwater Review for free. The story before that earned me $5.

There are exceptions. There are contests with a thousand or so dollars given to the winner, and if you get accepted by The New Yorker you might make similar money, and if you’re an established author who has found their audience you can probably publish a collection of short stories for profit, but on the whole short stories are primarily used to build up your resume and that is done at a loss. These stories should have cost me $3120 in total. Even with buying some Google ads I’m ahead of the game. So, no, I don’t believe in giving my work out for free. And I can assure you that if I gain a large enough audience online I would then begin to work on monetizing it. And with the rather nifty tools available online it seems to me that I would succeed at monetizing it. But right now I’m still carving out an audience and with short stories “free” is actually profitable.

So…there we are.

The name of my story in the Lullwater Review is “Lemons are Lemons.”

And I’m nowhere with next week’s story.

Why you should almost never get your writing advice from a writer

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve gotten some e-mails from reader/writers asking various questions about this project. And, as I mentioned yesterday, I’m having hard time answering those specific questions. So I’m just going to babble for a bit about writing.

Let me start by emphatically stating the one thing that you have to grasp as a writer as stated by William Goldman: Nobody knows anything.

If you feel like you’re on the right track and you don’t think my angle, process, or advice is right for you, then ignore it. In fact, go further than ignore it, rip it to shreds and write a great masterpiece while flying in the face of all of it just to prove me wrong. Writing is a wildly personal thing, from the incentives that make us do it, to what we’re aiming for, to what we want out of it, to how we want to do it. It all varies from person to person. Heck, it varies from story to story. There’s basically no way that I can tell you how you need to write or what you need to write. That’s on you and it is always going to be on you.

I can try, though, to talk a bit about what I do, try to calm you down some, and try to offer some general advice that has proven helpful in my experience. Most likely I’ll fly way off topic and none of this will be useful, but here goes.

We’ll start with this, a combo move that will hopefully dispel what I see as one of the bigger myths that blocks up new writers while putting across the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. The truth is this: writing sucks. I mean, it’s awesome at times, but at other times it’s freakhog horrible and excruciating. Two things I’ve tried to get across with this project are that a lot of plain old boring work goes into my writing and that it is by no means always enjoyable. As a new writer I was under the impression that it was all about the rush I got while writing, the juice, that if that wasn’t there then I was being untrue to the art, and that if I didn’t have that sort of mind-meld flash of insight where I could smell what the characters were smelling then something was wrong, that I had to be brilliant and capture everything with that same energy whenever I was putting words onto the page. And I think this notion, that there should always be angels singing hosannas in your ear while you write, that the juice is what it’s all about, is one of the bigger stumbling blocks for writers everywhere. It’s not true. It is, to be certain, one of the largest draws at the outset of this craft, it’s a wonderful feeling, but it fades. It won’t sustain you through an entire story. You will not get quite the same rush of insight and discovery and puzzle solving that you had at the start of a story all the way through that story. And that’s okay. You are not doing something wrong if, in order to finish a story, you sit there bored and not very engaged and just type the rest of the stupid thing out. Which brings me to the best piece of advice I ever received.

A few years ago I was floundering with a book and was having beers with someone who had been reading a first draft and I was going on about how something didn’t feel right and how I was forcing certain things across and things weren’t clicking anymore and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and my friend looked at me, sort of confused, and she said: “Joe, just finish the book.”

Astounding advice. Revolutionary really. For a lot of you out there this might sound blasphemous. And for some of you who I’ve e-mailed with this might sound hypocritical (I constantly advise relaxing and not forcing things and letting the story guide you).

For the first group, I’d imagine it sounds blasphemous to use phrases like “not feeling right” and “not getting things across” and end with the lesson that it’s okay to have those feelings and write anyway. Again, as a new writer if I had felt these things about a story I would have stepped back and tried to fix myself before moving forward with the writing. I would have wanted to know what was wrong before I moved ahead. Everything had to be perfect. I had to feel the juice. Because the juice equaled insight and without it I wasn’t doing good work. Then I got that piece of advice from my friend and things started changing. I relaxed a bit. And that made a huge difference. And here’s what you’re probably thinking, “So you decided to just plow ahead without being inside the story and let yourself write badly?” The answer is sort of yes and sort of no. That statement is fundamentally backwards. The truth is you can write awfully damned well without the juice and with the juice you weren’t writing nearly as well as you thought you were. The juice is addictive but that feeling doesn’t make or break the writing. Again, I think it’s very important at the outset of a story, but really it’s just the doorknob, and after you’ve used the doorknob you have to open the door, then you have to walk inside. And if you’re still holding onto the doorknob for dear life you’re not going to make it very far. Just finish the book. Just finish the story. Writing sucks. Sit yourself down, continue typing. Do the same thing tomorrow. And finish something.

In other words, everything you write is your best, just let it happen.

This isn’t a science, it’s an art and a skill. There aren’t formulas, there’s only the process. And there is no way to learn a skill except through experience. You can prepare and study and read up on it but until you have written a story, you aren’t actually writing. Finish, then rewrite, because here’s what happens. You, slowly…very very slowly, begin to gain faith in yourself, and faith in the craft. Your first-draft-self begins to learn that it can trust your rewrite-self to catch some of the more blundering sentences you spit out. And your rewrite-self learns that it can trust your first-draft-self to do pretty good work, so rewrite-self can delve deeper with its edits and cuts. And slowly you become okay with letting a character stray from your intended path, and slowly you stop getting so blocked up trying to craft each sentence perfectly the first time through, and slowly you start to trust in yourself that by the time you finish your piece, you will be proud of it. And that is a very good thing. Because being relaxed while writing is the final goal. When you’re relaxed you let your characters be who they’re going to be, and so they’ll ring true. And you’ll let your story go where it needs to go, and so you won’t tack anything on. And you won’t worry about being artsy, you’ll just write clearly with your voice and so your readers will drink you words like cool water.

I’m not there yet so that last part was mostly conjecture, but I do know that the juice is overrated and my work turns out better when I’m not constantly trying to wrestle it for control. Also, there’s this. The more you write the less you’ll worry because you’ll slowly build up a library of work you can look back on and be proud of. The clunky stories will seem less clunky when standing next to a row of good stories. Hell, for that matter, the clunkers will be less clunky the better your fundamental skills become. But a library of work is what it’s really all about. Not just one story. The more you write, the less pressure there is on any one project.

And, now, we have come full circle to the question I get asked most often: “Where do you get your ideas?”

And here’s my answer: “I haven’t got the slightest freakhog clue.”

I really don’t. Or rather…aren’t ideas everywhere?

Ideas are all over the place. Take any classic story and tweak it and you’ll get a dozen new ideas. Romeo and Juliet. What would have happened if:

They had met, he had fallen in love, but she hadn’t.
Other way around.
Things had gone as they had but she had gotten pregnant the first time they slept together.
They had been gutsy enough to go public with their love.
Someone in one of the feuding families had learned about them and (subset): been jealous that they had found happiness and wanted to break the hearts of Romeo and Juliet; seen opportunity because they wanted nothing more than to bring the families into all out war; seen opportunity because they wanted nothing more than to bring the families together; been in love with Juliet themselves; etc
Romeo had met someone else.
And on and on.

Ideas are everywhere. And in the end they don’t matter so much because, again, there’s how you get into your story and there’s how your get out of your story. And those are two very different things. And when you’re relaxed enough to listen to a character, you can get a story out of nearly anything. And I started the last four sentences with the word “and.”

If you have faith in yourself as a writer then the “big idea” at the beginning of the process isn’t as important. They’re still great, and they still come along, but you’ll come to realize that after the big idea comes a whole bunch of work of all different kinds during which the big idea sometimes has to be ditched for something else. And you will trust in yourself to do that work. You can have great ideas that don’t turn into stories, and you can have stories that didn’t come out of great ideas. The second is probably better.

Then again, what do I know?

Look, it’s very simple. You just do whatever it is you need to do in order to finish your story. And, secondly, what worked for one story will not necessarily be right for the next story. So you need to just put one foot in front of the other and figure it out as you go.

Now stop reading this and go write something.

I drink your milkshake

I saw “There Will Be Blood” yesterday.  Quite enjoyed it and have been walking around with four words going through my head ever since: I drink your milkshake.  If you’ve seen it you probably know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t seen it, you really should.  It’s still sinking into my head, which is praise enough, and of course Daniel Day-Lewis doing his thing on the big screen is worth the ticket price.  Something else that struck me was the use of the movie’s score.  I haven’t seen music used like that since…I don’t know when.  It’s a character in its own right.  Anyway, I drink your milkshake.

I’ve received a couple of e-mails from people asking for writing advice and I was planning on writing a post or two this week answering those questions.  The most common of those questions has been, “Where do you get your ideas?”  And, in a fantastic bout of irony, I’m having trouble coming up with anything to say on the subject.  Hopefully I’ll get after this tomorrow.  I’ve got the day off and by all rights should be able to come up with some coherent way of explaining what’s been going on in my head the past nine or so months.

For now, I’ve got absolutely nothing for story 17 and am just puttering along like it’s still the weekend.

I drink your milkshake.

Apparently my entire fan base is composed of stressed out insomniacs

I loved the response that last story got.  Mainly because it was completely unexpected.  I had nothing going into that and Neil was in charge the entire time.  It’s a nice feeling to surrender entirely like that, take a chance on a short little piece with no real plot, and then get word that you had an impact on some people.  Hooray for me!

On the other hand, my post-deadline breaks are becomming longer and longer by necessity and it’s harder and harder and harder to drag myself back to this project.  I think this is at least fifty percent the mid-winter blahs.  I”m pretty sure Spring will get put some jazz in my trumpet; it always does.  For now, though, I’m begrudgingly coming back from my weekend to put another story together.

Seventeen.  That boggles my mind.

More Flying Monkeys

Time for my somewhat regular Friday-after-a-story call to arms.  I haven’t done this in awhile.  I wasn’t exactly on top of this project for the past month and some of the extras slipped away.  I still need to go back and add more pictures to Mindy & Barkley.

At any rate, if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please tell a friend.  I know that a lot of you are already doing this (thanks, Amy); you people are off the hook.  But for you new readers it’s time to invite more friends into the cult.  I’ve written love stories, children’s stories, mad scientist stories, plus I’m halfway through a serialized novel.  Surely something in here is worth sending along.

Happy reading.