Writers I’m Sleeping With

Writers I am Sleeping With

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Sometimes it’s good to cuddle up with a writer in bed. Better yet, it’s good to cozy up to several. For now, I’ve decided to sleep with Stephen King, Etgar Keret and William T. Vollman. I tried to sleep with William Faulkner too, but he and I just weren’t seeing eye to eye, so he’s sitting on the bed but we’re not really together. (And I’m not holding it against him that he’s the one who’s dead, either.)

Each of these guys has something different to offer me as I get my brain back into “writing mode” (otherwise known as I made that up so I can trick myself into writing more.) Eh, reading helps me write.

In re-reading parts of King’s On Writing, I’m reminded of how funny some of the stories are in the autobiographical section of the book. The precision of King’s language amazes me, the images are powerful, whether he’s dropping a cinder block on his baby toes, or nearly getting electrocuted by his older brother Dave. The read creates so much pleasure; I could re-read that book many times and never tire of the stories.

I haven’t cracked open The Girl On the Fridge yet, but I’ve read other Keret story collections like The Nimrod Flipout and Suddenly, A Knock On the Door and really enjoyed them; they’re fun. So Keret and I were friends first, now he’s been promoted to a sleeping partner. I’m hopeful that “Girl” will be a worthwhile companion.

Finally, the complicated Mr. Vollmann. I began reading The Atlas earlier this year and explored the strange emotional landscape Vollmann inhabits in that collection of stories. I never finished the book, but I’m ready to spend more time with Vollmann again and given the nature of the content, the best place to read that book is in bed. (No, I’m not going to tell you more, you will have to find your own copy and explore the terrain on your own.)

Yes, blogging about my reading is another mechanism to get my writing juices flowing again too.

Another baby step forward.

 

 

 

Gearing Up to Write

As I’ve admitted previously on the blog, this year has not been as productive as I’d have liked from a writing standpoint. There are “things” I am doing to help gear myself back up to write short fiction again.

First, I’m making more of an effort to go to my Jersey City Writer’s Group. Every other Tuesday and Thursday they do a “Writing Prompts” night, where writers get together and three people give prompts. We all write to the prompt for 10 minutes, then read whatever we came up with to the group. I find the more I don’t want to go and do prompts, the more I need to make sure I go and do the mental exercise.

Second, friends are asking me for feedback on their work and I’m reading their work and doing what I can to help. When I’m asked to give feedback, I often go to writing advice books I like and re-familiarizing myself with the guidance from the best. I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s On Writing, and I’ve been re-reading passages from it. It’s tough to give honest feedback to friends, because I care about them and when I see issues I want to bring to their attention, I want to do it in a way that they can “hear.”

Third, and this was a surprise to me, but reading poetry has been a pleasant mental bath in all kinds of imagery and finely wrought word craftsmanship. I’ve read widely, from Rumi to Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks (The Bean Eaters), and Jack Kerouac. I am also reading passages from books I love. I dusted off Faulkner’s Light in August and began reading a few pages, not with the intention to read the whole thing, but to enjoy the craftsmanship and the language.

Fourth, I am participating in a writer’s retreat this weekend. I am forcing myself to spend Friday night and all day Saturday in a cabin with nearly a dozen other writers and I WILL spend some of that time writing. Frankly, at this moment it still seems like it could be torture and I haven’t drafted a plan of attack for the time I’ll be there. Yeah, it’s a scary proposition, and I’ve put myself in the situation on purpose. Hopefully something good will come out of it.

Fifth, messing around on the internet looking at the daily routines of writers. Just for fun, but also as a reminder that whatever torture I’m going through isn’t the first time it’s happened to a writer and won’t be the last.

On the Brain Pickings website, here’s something to chew on from William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

[…]

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

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Sixth, okay, uh, I haven’t sat down to write yet.

This post is called Gearing Up to Write, right? It’s not called “I’m not having trouble writing” or “I’m a virtuous writer” or “My daily writing routine” so, yeah, I know, I know…………………….

 

 

Short Stories – Submit It or Quit It Presentation and Press Coverage

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation at the Jersey City Writers group titled Submit It or Quit It: Short Stories, followed by a panel discussion with two other writers, Nancy Mendez-Booth and Meg Merriet. The panel was hosted by Adriana Rambay Fernandez.

L - R, panelists include: Meg Merriet, Nancy Mendez-Booth and me

L – R, panelists include: Meg Merriet, Nancy Mendez-Booth and me

Our panel moderator, Adriana Rambay Fernandez

Our panel moderator, Adriana Rambay Fernandez

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We were lucky enough to get press coverage for the event, and The Hudson Reporter published us on the front page yesterday under the article title A Gathering of Scribes.

http://hudsonreporter.com/view/full_story/25085939/article-A-gathering-of-scribes–Jersey-City-Writers-talk-about-how-to-get-published–?instance=latest_story

To begin my presentation, I did a reading from Etgar Keret’s Suddenly A Knock On the Door; specifically I chose to read The Story Victorious, which was well received and got the laughs it deserved.

Making a funny face while reading The Story Victorious by Etgar Keret

Me making a funny face while reading The Story Victorious by Etgar Keret

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Me hugging Rachel Poy, the co-organizer of Jersey City Writers for all her help on setting up the event

Me hugging Rachel Poy, the co-organizer of Jersey City Writers for all her help on setting up the event

Then we had an excellent panel discussion facilitated by Adriana, followed by questions from the audience.

My message on submitting short stories was simple … if you work at your craft and are persistent and put in the time to submit to journals, you will be rewarded by getting published eventually.

I offered suggestions on how to stay organized by maintaining a spreadsheet / submission tracker. I mentioned Duotrope and Poets & Writers as places people can go to search for potential journals where work can be submitted. And I also told folks that many journals use Submittable, and that setting up a Submittable account is easy and free for writer-submitters.

None of this is rocket science, but it does take time and effort to cultivate a pipeline of finished pieces you want to submit, then select multiple markets, read submission guidelines and send your work around… then track all the results.

I’d been meaning to put up a posting covering the event, and now that we’ve gotten local press coverage I realized the time is now to post a few photos and to say thank you again to Rachel, Jim, Adriana, Nancy and Meg for all of their support in getting this event together and participating.

My talk on short story submissions – 4/30/14

Hi everyone,

If you are a “local” reader in the Jersey City area, I wanted to let you know I will be giving a talk at the Jersey City Writer’s group (http://jerseycitywriters.org/about-us/) on 4/30/14 at our “IndieGrove” location. (http://indiegrovejc.com)

The presentation is called Submit It or Quit It – Short Stories. It’s an encouragement and challenge to the writer participants of our group to commit to submitting their work this year.

I’ll be discussing my journey as a published short story writer, sharing information on how to find markets to submit your stories, and providing materials to help keep you organized during the submission process from pre-submission, through response and post-submission.

After my presentation, there will be a panel discussion with 3 or 4 writers and a moderator. The panel participants haven’t been finalized yet, but from what I’m seeing so far, it should be a very exciting group of people.

To attend the Submit It or Quit It presentation, you can go onto the MeetUp website, and sign up. There are lots of events hosted by Jersey City Writers, so if you are a writer in JC… please join us!

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Jersey City Writers – An Inspiring MeetUp!

I want to give a shameless plug to the Jersey City Writers MeetUp, that I joined this evening for a “writing prompts” session. It was my first time sitting in with the group and it was a great experience.

The Thursday group meets at a cool space called IndieGrove on Newark Avenue. There is a Tuesday night group that meets at Tachair Bookshoppe, also on Newark Avenue, which I plan to visit in the future.

Tonight, fourteen writers got together for this session, which as far as I’m concerned, is phenomenal turn out. It was an eclectic mix of people with a variety of literary interests, which kept things lively and fun.

We cycled through three different writing prompts, with ten minutes to write on each prompt and then we went around the table and everyone read their work.

Jim, the host of the Thursday group, brought yummy snacks and a welcoming approach to me as a newcomer, for which I’m grateful. As it so happens, Rachel, the lovely hostess of the Tuesday group also attended this evening, so I got to meet both facilitators my first time out.

Clearly it was my lucky night.

Actually, tonight was the first time I’ve written something “new” from a short story perspective in many months.

I’m so excited to have a group of local writers I can rub shoulders with to push me to keep creating!

Gotham’s “A Very Short Story” Contest – Free Entry

Gotham Writer’s Workshop is an institution in New York City offering writing seminars on different topics like short story writing, novel writing, etc.

This year they are holding A Very Short Story Contest, with no entry fee. The deadline to enter is April 23rd.

The winner of the contest will get a free 10 week Gotham class, which is pretty sweet. (They offer in person classes and online, so don’t worry if you don’t live in the NYC metro area.)

The guidelines are simple: write a 10 word story, and those 10 words includes the title if you have one.

Here is the link if you are interested:

http://www.writingclasses.com/ContestPages/10W.php

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Enjoy and good luck!

 

Learning something new about your characters

I recently had an interesting experience. I asked a friend of mine to read a piece I’ve been working on for three years, on and off. After countless revisions to the piece, workshopping it with a group, and many teeth gnashing attempts to re-write the ending I had to admit it: I was stuck.

The overall flow of the story was fine, and I thought the characters were in good shape, but I just couldn’t figure out why the story didn’t have a natural conclusion point to resolve (or not resolve) the dilemmas the characters face in the story.

After hanging onto the story for about a month, my friend sent me the piece back with extensive notes. One of the notes mentioned why the husband and wife were so different and how that was probably the key to the story and its conflicts.

When I read my friend’s comments, I was struck dumb. I couldn’t believe it – he broke the whole story open for me again in a way I hadn’t previously considered but which made perfect sense. Thankfully, he really liked the main character in the story and gave me encouraging comments about keeping her as ‘troublesome’ as I was portraying her to be.

As my regular readers know, I struggle mightily with longer form stories and this story is now about 2600 words, over 10 pages, which is absolutely the longest story I’ve written to date – and I’m nowhere near finished.

Readers are so important for critical feedback. I’m hesitant for anyone to see ugly drafts of my unfinished stories (my writerly perfectionist tendencies) but I’m glad I invited this person to read and give me the sober advice I needed to make some essential changes to tone and tension.

What’s so fascinating to me is that I feel like I’m writing a new story. After three years of working on this piece, it was extremely challenging to go back to it time and again knowing I’d be facing the same issues. Now things are flowing and falling into place with these characters. Their motivations and inter-relationships are becoming clearer to me.

I still don’t have the ending, but at least I’ve got many more options for an ending than I had before this reader gave me the insights I was lacking on my own characters.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you believe in getting feedback from trusted first readers?

The Duotrope Dilemma

Writing and placing short stories may be fun and gratifying, but it’s not a way to get rich. Short story writers  write their work and submit to journals without expectation of payment most of the time. That may be unfortunate, but it’s the truth.

And it used to be true that the whole process was free from looking up your market in Duotrope to submitting via Submittable (formerly SubMishMash) as long as you didn’t submit to a place that charged reading fees, or contest fees (something I’ve discussed on the blog previously. In short, I don’t believe in paying reading or contest fees.)

But beginning Jan 2013, the Duotrope database has started requiring payment – either $5 a month or $50 if you sign up for a full year. Here’s what Duotrope says about what you can no longer access:

If I don’t subscribe, what will I miss out on?

  • You will no longer be able to run searches or browse the index of listings.
  • The information shown on individual market listings will be limited.
  • You won’t be able to access our calendar of deadlines, statistical reports*, or RSS feeds.
  • You will lose access to your control panel, including your submissions tracker

I have mixed feelings about it because I think Duo is a fantastic resource and I’ve enjoyed using it over the years, however, I think $50 for a one year subscription is too steep for most writers who are not getting paid for their work. If it had been half that I would have grumbled but signed up. At $50, I’m not signing up on principle, for now.

Also, I don’t see how the statistics on Duotrope will improve if they have a much smaller number of users reporting their submissions. I suspect the veracity of those statistics will plummet in usefulness unless they achieve a critical mass of people willing to pay. For the sake of Duotrope’s long term viability, I’d suggest they report on the number of paying subscribers they have in order to make clear the total population available to report their subs, but that’s my opinion.

And as for tracking my submissions on Duo, I was doing it more as a service to the editors of the journals where I submitted my work. I keep a separate tracking spreadsheet on my computer that has many more notes and information I find relevant. But individual markets — especially new markets — will potentially suffer from being under-reported due to a lack of user base for Duo because I strongly suspect the majority of users will not pay that fee.

Here are some alternatives for people who need to be able to browse listings to find small press markets to target.

Alternative small press literary magazine listings:

I’d like to hear from people on this one. Have you signed up for Duo, and if so, what was your thinking? If you decided not to use it, was it because of the expense or some other reason?

Getting the rust out of my submissions process

This summer has been a slower time for writing new stories and making new submissions. Over the past few weeks I started looking at what pieces still hadn’t been placed, and some of those items wound up getting posted to the blog.

Creative Non-Fiction pieces The Car of Your Dreams and Call Me Pookie were declined by 22 markets collectively and I decided, the heck with it, I’ll share the pieces with my known readers here rather than continue to wait and hope they get placed elsewhere. I’m glad I did because the responses on the blog were great and engaged people, lots of comments generated. It was all good.

Incidentally, Call Me Pookie was originally written in August 2011 and The Car of Your Dreams was born in January 2012. Yes, dear reader, those two blips on your radar that came across as blog posts were pieces under development for ages before you read them.

It can take a long time for a piece to get placed. Even short pieces, 200 words, 350 words…can take 6+ months to find a home, and their publishing date could be several more months after that. That’s why I try to keep a cache of stories on hand and circulating, once they are in good enough shape to get them out there. It’s an ongoing pipeline, where I’m creating and working on the stories, and when I feel the story is ready, I spend time figuring out which markets are most appropriate, send them out, wait for responses, and so forth. Many of you know this drill well.

Right now I have about 7 stories circulating in the pipeline. Only 3 of those were written early this year, 1 was written in 2009 (yep, still trying, re-writing, and re-trying) and another 3 are from 2011. (There is actually an 8th story that may be beyond repair, sitting on my list as “under revision” … but I think it might mean “not likely to re-emerge from revision.”) Wait a second… I’m lying. There is a 9th story, a fairy tale I don’t keep on that list because it’s unique enough only to qualify for very selective submissions.

Oh, I have a pre-pipeline ideation phase too. I’ve got a bunch of ideas scrawled electronically in various files where I knew what I wanted to write about and started off with zeal and vigor, but for whatever reason did not continue working on the piece. These are not “under revision” as the sad case above, these are …hmmm, let’s call them “under development.” Ideas which are funny, or poignant, or dramatic, but mostly still in my head.

In order for me to replenish my pipeline of completed stories, I’ll need to go back to my pre-pipeline works, or start from scratch and apply more discipline to the time spent on getting it all done.

The nice thing about blog posts is I can talk all day long about the hypothetical stories I’m planning to finish, and I get a zing of pleasure at the thought. Hey, I’m completing a blog post along the way, so, hooray for me. 🙂

But I’m left wondering if my lull represents a future gap in acceptances because I allowed my pipeline process to lapse? In the days when I was flush with stories, I’d swagger around knowing I had 4o+ submissions out simultaneously on 15 or more stories awaiting their homes. Lately I’ve been lucky to achieve 20 submissions sent on my diminishing pipeline. And of those 20 submissions, 14 of them were sent out in April of this year or earlier.

And while all this navel gazing about my rusty pipeline might make for an interesting read for fellow writers (at least I hope pulling back the veil on my process is interesting, helpful, or at a minimum amusing) the reality remains: just do it.

Get it done.

Ice cold diet cola beverage of choice at the ready, butt in chair, laptop humming, fingers tapping.

What is your writing process? Do you have a pipeline of stories or poems, or a pre-pipeline? How do you ensure you have enough material circulating or in development?

Brief thoughts on flash fiction

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d have about writing flash fiction so I decided to post on the topic. Since many of you are writers and write flash regularly, please comment and share your tips and tricks too.

Flash fiction, or Short-shorts, are 1000 words or less. Once you get to 500 words you might consider the work Micro-fiction. Pieces of 100 words are referred to as Drabble.

Nomenclature aside, flash fiction is a highly condensed form of storytelling. Flash fiction lends itself well to prose poetry and experimental form because of this extreme compression of the story.

One place I’d recommend a new flash fiction writer go for examples is the annual compliation from Wigleaf. The Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions (link for 2012 selections: http://wigleaf.com/2012top501.htm) are curated by a different editor each year and represent a broad cross section from lit mags all over the web.

Once you find some you like, notate where the story appeared. Put it on your target list for submissions.

Someone once said of writing… novels are easiest, short stories are harder, poetry is difficult. I agree, but since we’re talking about flash, I’d place it as a category between “longer” short stories and poetry.

Poets ensure every single word counts and apply a high polish. There is nowhere to hide in a poem, each word has a life. Flash fiction takes after poetry, you must make every word count and the words selected need to be strong and support the structure of the piece.

When I write flash, I take a critical look at my use of adjectives and adverbs and do my best to replace them with descriptive nouns and “muscular verbs” (my phrase). But it won’t be enough. A good flash locks together like a puzzle; many hours can be spent rearranging the placement of words and sentences.

If one bit of a flash is out of synch with the whole, it sticks out. Those bits need to be removed, and the re-arranging will continue. Let your work rest and re-approach it with fresh eyes. You’d be amazed at what jumps out at you the next day, or a few days later.

What are your secrets to writing flash fiction? How do you ensure the piece is the best it can be?

I look forward to the discussion…

Writer resources and amusements

In my travels around the interwebs recently I’ve come across some sites that I thought I’d share with you in the hopes that they are useful to you … or perhaps are just an amusing diversion from your writing/editing or avoidance of same. (Never underestimate the value of a little procrastination, right?)

Literary Rejections on Display – http://literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/

This one is a doozy. If you go into the archives under Dear Commercial Magazine Editor (http://literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/2008/04/dear-commercial-magazine-editor.html) there are some heated debates about getting paid for writing vs. n0n-paying lit magazine markets.

I also enjoyed a more recent posting The Finest Fuck You Prose At The End of the World, about how Norman McClean, the author of A River Runs Through It, tells off an editor at Knopf. http://literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/2012/04/finest-fuck-you-prose-at-end-of-world.html

Some of the paid writers post anonymously so as not to alert the editors of commercial zines, who they simultaneously get paid by and despise, that they have writers on staff who are inciting a revolt from within. It’s fascinating reading.

I’ve talked about the whole “pay” issue here before and you, my fine readers, haven’t necessarily voiced strong opinions either way. On Lit Rejections on Display, there is a heated debate (or was….) The issue continues to be unresolved in the lit mag community.

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Fiction Contests and Other Opportunities — http://fictioncontests.info/

This is a handy reference guide to fiction contests broken down by deadline month.

Also, I found Lit Rejections on Display in the “Invaluable” Blog Roll on the right hand side of this page. There were plenty of other blogs listed there too, and I plan on going back and reading through others.

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Enjoy!

A few words on editing

Just when you think it’s done with you – it pulls you back in. No, I’m not talking about the Mafia, I’m talking about the manuscript you just finished for your short story or novel.

A brief word on Strunk & White’s Elements of Style: Get it. Use it.

The best advice Strunk & White ever gave? OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. Here’s the quote:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

If it was easy to follow we’d all have perfect, tight manuscripts but that’s not what we’ve got kids, right?

As a rule of thumb, cut 10-15% of your manuscript (yes, even for flash fiction pieces!) when you edit. Be ruthless. That section where the main character recedes into the background, and it’s not moving the plot forward? It’s got to go. It doesn’t matter how great the phrasing is or how much you love those sentences. They aren’t doing anything for the story.

From the feedback I’ve gotten from editors over the last few years, it’s safe to recommend removing all adverbs from your work or the vast majority of them. Think of words ending in LY, like admiringly, or frustratingly.

As Stephen King says in On Writing (a great, amusing reference book to own…) cut any adverbs used to modify the word SAID.

Never write this: “Does my butt look fat in these jeans,” she said cheekily.

King’s point is adverbs weaken the writing. When a writer is insecure about their writing, they can hide behind adverbs to emphasize a point. It’s a way of directing the reader when the writing isn’t clear enough. Anyway, King says it’s a weak-ass move, and I agree.

Who needs an adverb when you’ve got verbs like smash, tickle, illuminate, and love?

Right behind the clean-up of adverbs is the removal of adjectives. I’ve found this challenging because you’ll no longer have a blue dress. But you could have a frock, or a gown. You won’t have a gigantic bowl of pasta, just the linguine remains. When you stop relying on adjectives, you find a new way of using more descriptive nouns, which strengthens the writing.

There are other bad habits to avoid, and I refer you to my other post This About That for your reading pleasure. https://cdeminski.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/this-about-that/

Here’s what we covered today:

– Have a good reference library, especially Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

– Omit needless words

– Get rid of adverbs

– Remove adjectives

Good luck with your edits!

Feel free to pass along your editing advice in the Comments section – you know you want to share those gems so go ahead!