Advice and Strategies for Submitting Short Stories

This post is specifically about submitting to literary magazines, so some of this would not be applicable for genre markets where things are a little different. 

Know the Markets: This seems obvious but apparently it isn't because I've heard multiple editors say they get submissions they wouldn't even consider (ie, poetry at a journal that doesn't publish poetry, a genre horror story sent to an uber high brow literary magazine.) So assume you're smart enough to not do that. Beyond this, there are different aesthetics to different magazines. You should have a sense of the differences between markets by reading the magazines. You can subscribe, read content online, or just go to the library and page through an issue or two. Some markets take stuff that is experimental, some take stuff that is more pop-culture friendly, some only take work with a specific theme. For example, I have a few stories that are kind of funny. I never see stories like these in what I think of the more old fashioned literary magazines (think university funded, white cover, with a picture of abstract art on the cover.) Some of the more quirky magazines do take stuff like this. I write some stories the straddle the line between literary and sci fi-- just because sci fi is in the equation that doesn't mean they're a good fit for Fantasy & Science Fiction. I think over time I've gotten to high rates of positive rejections because I have a better sense of the market--this way you're not wasting your own time, or the editor's. 

Submit simultaneously (sending the same story to multiple markets at the same time) when you can--don't when you shouldn't: I can only think of a handful of literary markets that don't take SSs--and some of them are very good--but weigh your options. If you're planning on pocketing a few publications while you finish your novel so you can possibly have some pubs when you start querying agents, you might want to avoid those magazines. (if the probability of being rejected is still 95%, there's no point spending extra time just to get rejected). But if you have time, or if there is something specifically desirable about that market, you could wait it out (as I mentioned in a previous post, if you're trying to place a very long story, you have fewer markets, so you might not have the luxury of avoiding no-SS magazines). If you submit to a magazine simultaneously when you're not supposed to and you get caught, you can get blacklisted from that magazine. There's a fair probability that if you did it you wouldn't get caught, but if you did, consider that the literary world is small. I know someone this happened to and they got an irate letter (it might have been a phone call??) from an editor. 

Tier markets: When thinking about what type of story you have, start putting together a tiered list of desired markets. You don't want to submit to Best Market on Earth and Meh Market at the same time and have the latter get back to you first. (Standard practice is to go with whichever market gets back to your first. You can't say "I'm waiting to hear back from Magazine X," -- you're going to come off like someone who doesn't know anything about the business and that editor would hate you.) Don't submit anywhere where you wouldn't, on second thought, want to be published. It's sometimes hard to do the calculus about where the top tier should be. You can submit to places that are extremely prestigious and hard to get into (<1% acceptance rates), but do so only if you think your story is that good, AND with the knowledge that it's going to take time waiting to hear back. In other words, if you're out of your league you may be waiting a really long time to get a rejection from a magazine you had no hope of getting into. Not a big deal if it's a mag that takes two months to get back to you. Definitely a big deal if they take a year (not naming names..;) 

A note about being timid for people who are timid: there are some people who won't submit somewhere because they assume their work isn't good enough. If you have enough feedback to suggest you are a good writer (feedback from people who are not loved ones), don't assume you aren't good enough for a competitive market. Back when I first started submitting in college, this was when all submissions were via snail mail, and if there was a substantial web presence of magazines on the internet, I had no idea of it. I certainly didn't know any other writers. If I had known that it's really desirable and hard to get a piece in Glimmer Train, I would have never submitted there. Glimmer Train was my first acceptance--I had no idea I was even in the ballpark because I only knew the magazine from actually reading it, not hearing anyone talk about it or reading statistics. The stories seemed accessible, there was a train on the cover, and from reading their rather generous "About the authors" section, it was clear they took emerging (read: never published before) authors. So on the one hand you have clueless, terrible writers who think they are amazing, and on the other you have good authors who assume they are bad. You need to have a good sense of what league each of your stories is in. 

How many simultaneous submissions do you send?: My standard was to have one story out at three markets at a time. Then I went to a writing conference where there was a roundtable of editors who said do five to ten markets at a time for a single story. That astounded me. I think ten is excessive because most people don't know enough markets where you would be targeting submissions well and you could be burning potential markets if you have multiple stories out at the same time. (Some markets only want you to submit once a submission period and will notice if you do more.) I settled on five and that seemed to work well from me when I was submitting aggressively. When I got a rejection I would send out to another market so I always had five active submissions per story. Now that I'm less focused on publishing stories, I'm not really doing five at a time, and I'm more patient about waiting for some markets. 

Stagger fast and slow markets: Say you're sending out a story to five markets. I like to have some of these be markets that get back to you more quickly (3 months or under, say) and to mix those in with those that take longer. Sometimes you get feedback (of some sort) from the faster markets that would influence your decision making, and also I like to keep things rolling. This gives you some time to research potential other markets. 

Calibrate based on feedback: If you sent a story to five different markets and got back five form rejections, and no positive rejections, you might want to think about if the story isn't working. (This assumes I'm not talking about five markets that are impossible to get into, in which case rejection isn't a reflection of how good you are.) A positive rejections is anything that says "No thanks on this, but please submit to us again/ we'd like to see more from you/ send to us at any time." Any positive personal note is a positive rejection. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say "well I didn't think they meant it" while also hearing editors say "YES WE MEANT IT." Assume that a welcome mat is a welcome mat. So anyway, when I'm getting positive rejections, I keep sending to other markets without changing anything about the story. I'm not a big believer in editing something when I don't have a secret gut feeling telling me there's something wrong with it. 

Keep meticulous records: I use Duotrope, which you don't have to, but by itself it isn't enough. I have an Excel file where for each story it will have every market it has been submitted to, when it was sent and when it was rejected, what kind of rejection it was, and the ratio of positive rejections to overall number of submissions. This is helpful for a variety of reasons: it's essentially a ledger of all your relationships with different magazines. Have another tab in the worksheet where you keep a dated list of all magazines who have sent you a positive rejection. These are good markers to hit again, but don't overstay your invitation. Unless you have specifically heard otherwise, I don't think you should submit more than once in the same submission period to the same magazine. An exception would be if the same magazine opens a themed issue or you received particularly encouraging notes from the editor. 

When to nudge: By nudge I mean send a "Hello, it's been several months and you have not responded about my submission." Don't do this unless 1) the magazine says on their website to nudge if you haven't heard in X amount of time or 2) an excessive amount of time has gone by with no response (and maybe you have info that other people have gotten their rejections back). What is excessive? One month of waiting is not, neither is six. If you're on Duotrope you have some sense of what is an abnormal amount of time for that market--it might be the case that your submission was lost, or it might be that you were shortlisted and they just haven't told you. 

Take what editors say at face value: I'm repeating myself, but if they said they'd like to hear from you again, they aren't kidding. They have specific form rejections that say "Thank you for your submission but no" and form or personalized rejections that say "try us again." They mean it. If you meet an editor or someone who works at the magazine who expresses an interest in your work, assume that they are not just being polite. 

Things that should be in your cover letter: I think people stress about this too much. Bare bones is fine. Don't include anything cute but don't leave out stuff relevant to forming an advantage. 

Dear [Editor/s / Editor's name],

I am submitted a short story, "Storyface," (1,200 words) for consideration at Bumbleboo Magazine. [If relevant include any of the following: You welcomed additional submissions from me last year after I reading a different story, "Whatever."  / A previous story of mine, "Whatever" made your shortlist last year / I spoke with you briefly at AWP and you encouraged me to submit. / This story was an honorable mention/finalist in the Some Story Contest in 2017 {obviously this is only the case when you received an honorable mention or finaled, but were not published by the other magazine} it is okay if you have nothing to put as a second sentence in this paragraph-- plenty of stories get picked up from no where]

My fiction has also appeared in Magazine X, Magazine Y, and Magazine Z. (list in order of prestige, not date of publication. listing more than 3 or 4 starts to get weird). My essays/nonfiction have also appeared in Magazine Q. (include relevant publications, leave off academic publications unless the content is related, leave off blog posts unless you run a very popular blog. If you have received honorable mentions or finaled in contests for other stories than the one you're submitting that did not result in publication, mention these. If you have an MFA or have been to a juried workshop, you can mention it, although this is a lot less relevant. If you have no other publications it is fine to have just one paragraph and maybe throw in a line of bio. Don't sweat this--everyone who ever goes on to get published at some point did not have publications). Thank you for your consideration. 

Name

Nothing cute. Nothing about your family or adorable pets. nothing about the themes of your work, a summary of your work, or what you think it is about -- let the thing speak for itself. From reading various blogs it appears that business correspondence often stresses people out particularly if they are detail oriented. It's not a query letter for a novel, it's a business letter-- it's okay to keep it short and simple. 

Submission fees: There are strong feelings about whether or not literary magazines should charge submission fees. (if you're not familiar with the debate, this and this show the general debate). There are markets that charge them and markets that don't, so if you really don't want to pay them, you don't have to. Some people think the fees are outrageous because writers often don't have much money, and if you send a story 5 places, that could be $15. Say you have seven stories-- that can add up. The part where I agree with magazines that charge fees: 1) it is about the same amount as postage used to be back in snail mail days 2) most of these magazines have people who either work for free or very little 3) there are way more writers that want to get published than there are writers who want to get published who support other writers by purchasing magazine subscriptions. With some exceptions, literary magazines are not money-making schemes. They are a niche market with not enough people support that market. Although it is interesting: consider a comparison to some of the top sci fi magazines: no submission fees, they pay professional rates, and turnaround time for submissions is ridiculously fast (at Clarksworld, something like 0 to 7 days). At that particular magazine, the readers are remote volunteers who pass good stuff up to senior editors who give a second pass. How is that so normal for scifi, but so uncommon for literary fiction? I don't know the whole story (and I'm super curious), but I think a main reason is that sci fi (and other genres like romance) have really really, strong, loyal fanbases. I think your average romance fan buys, consumes, and supports romance writing far more than a specific subset of literary writers who are more or less only interested in their own writing.

One thing about fees: a submission fee of more than 4 dollars is unusual and should be avoided. Contest fees make sense to be higher, but submission fees themselves don't need to be that high. 

Contests: Three things about contests: assume you are not going to win them, the entry fee should make sense, and time when you enter them intelligently. Maybe I'm wrong, but I treat contest submissions as slightly less viable than regular submissions. (You're also a lot less likely to get personalized notes for contest submissions). So don't spend a lot of time waiting to hear back from a contest--submit to multiple magazines and assume that you won't win, unless there is some extenuating circumstance. A decade ago, entry fees used to be 10 dollars, maybe 15, but they really have been creeping up lately. I almost never see 10 dollar ones, and rarely 15. 20 is pretty standard, but do the math: if they are charging 20 per entry, but only offer a 200 dollar prize, something is fishy. A 30 dollar submission fee for a short story or series of poems seems excessive (unless the prize is enormous and maybe they offer 1st through 3rd place prizes)-- however, that number is pretty normal for a contest submission of a novel, short story collection, or full-sized poetry chapbook. Don't enter a story that's been rejected by that same magazine already (even if it's been revised). Lastly, if you enter a contest with an entry fee, do so the last week before the deadline. If you've been sending that story to multiple markets, there's a chance you might get an acceptance from another magazine after paying the entry fee to the contest market, so basically you just wasted your money (because you will have to withdraw from the contest with no refund). And given how long the time lag is between when contests open and when they close for submissions, there's some chance you might want to change something in your work during that period of time. There's no benefit to submitting early (or at least one I can see). 

How long does a "try us again" invitation last? I include this because I found out that I'm not the only person that anxiously worries about this: Say you get a positive rejection from Market A. You submit to them again the following submission period (say 6 months or a year later) and you get a form rejection that doesn't specifically ask you to submit again. Does this mean you've been uninvited from being invited to submit again? I think it's okay to use the positive rejection a couple more times, but if you keep getting several consecutive form rejections in a row, you might want to rethink of the market's even a good match for you. (Also there are enough markets out there that you don't need to hit the same market over and over.) Editors do remember people in both positive and negative ways. I don't think it would be strange for you to submit to the same market once a year if you aren't get straight form rejections over and over--that said, there's enough markets out there that you should be able to cast a broader net. 

If you get an acceptance: First re-confirm that the market is definitely taking the piece. Sometimes the editor will ask "is this story still available?" or say something like "We love Story X and would like to put it in Issue 47" in their first email to you. I don't consider it formally spoken for until I've emailed them back and they've confirmed with me. (It's never been an issue, but just in case the editor flakes out). Once you've confirmed, either use Submittable or email to contact the other editors to withdraw from the other markets the story is also at. Just say that you're withdrawing because it has been accepted elsewhere, be polite, and that's it. You're a dick if you forget to do this. If there's a contract to sign, (often there isn't if payment isn't involved), make sure you read it. There are several decent places that describe the typical rights discussed

Factor the Summer in: This only matters if you are concerned about getting publications quicker, but realize that a lot of magazines are university-affiliated and shut down over the summer. There are markets that are open during the summer, but there are definitely fewer. Make sure to submit handsomely in the spring because if you keep putting it off and then all the sudden it's June, you may have limited options for several months. 

Don't edit while submitting: Submittable now lets you do this, but you shouldn't. I have used Submittable both as a writer and an editor--you can't always tell when editors are actually looking at your piece (sometimes it doesn't say "In Progress" when it actually is). You should be sure it's done before sending it out. 

Don't respond to rejections: Not politely or rudely. You get nothing from either (well, you get a reputation for the latter). Editors are not running an advice service--they don't owe you feedback. 

Throwing in the towel: When should you give up on a story that you keep sending out but no one is taking? If you keep getting positive rejections, I would keep sending it out. If you are tired of the rejections, put the story away for a while and then read it with fresh eyes. If you still believe in it, keep sending it out. Publishing is really subjective--getting a rejection doesn't mean it's a bad story. 

Happy submitting!

Review of A Quiet Place

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This was a solid horror movie, very much not about the thing at the center of it--whatever beasts they may be--but much more about how humans would attempt to survive such a thing. It isn't a It Comes At Night sort of movie (literary horror movie where nothing much happens) but there is more heart to it than a standard horror movie where the characters are more or less cannon fodder for whatever hunts them. It's both well-filmed and acted. This was like the movie Signs was trying to be with some of the better elements of Don't Breathe (except without that extremely fucked up turkey baster part). 

The background isn't so much important: creatures have arrived that are blind but apparently very good at hearing. You make a sound and that is enough to bring them (quickly) to hunt you--and there's no fighting them. One of the most interesting parts of this movie is the inclusion of a deaf character--the daughter. I'm very curious to hear what deaf people think of this movie. The family already knows how to sign because of her and there are some interesting shots that contrast how the other characters perceive the world vs her. (In some ways, she has an advantage: if she can't see it, it doesn't frighten her into making sounds, so she's safe as long as she's quiet.) One of the horror tropes I love is the "hiding from the beastie but you're terrified and have to keep from breathing too loud or screaming." There's a lot of that here, obviously. 

While this is a great movie to see in a theater, it is NOT a great movie to see in a theater if people are talking, whispering, or crinkling wrappers. Like at all. It is largely a quiet movie--there's very little dialogue and long stretches without any loud sounds. (But when there are loud sounds, they are definitely loud.) I actually wish I could have seen this in a theater but with noise-cancelling headphones. (On the one hand, I don't want to be That Guy who shhhhs people, but on the other hand, STFU.) 

Sidenote, whenever I watch something dystopian I can't help "but couldn't they have...?" In this case, placed a speaker in a quarry or large hole, surround it with explosives, turn the music on remotely, press play. Beasties run there, then get killed. Explosion sound draws other beasties who are killed by the secondary ring of explosives. 

Anyhow, I definitely would recommend this movie--I'm frequently disappointed in horror movies because they're the same dumb thing over and over (Insidious, any knockoffs of Japanese horror movies--although I will say I have a soft spot for Paranormal Activity, even though it isn't actually good). I do think something new was brought to the table. 

Recommended watching: 

Don't Breathe

Hush

Who is writing what now..?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Specifically what would have happened if that book came out now, and not in 2002. The book received high praise and won the Pulitzer Prize that year. I read it a long time ago, thought it was well-written, and never really thought much about the identity of the author, other than the fact that he seemed looped in with Greek culture. If this book came out now, there would be open questions about a non-intersex person writing about an intersex main character. On the one hand you have the "anyone can write about anything, otherwise this isn't free speech"sombrero camp and on the other side you have the "should he be the person to write this story?" camp. (Some in the latter camp don't write it at all, while others in the latter camp aren't saying don't write it, but"if you do write it, prepare to be scrutinized," or "write it, but should this get preference in terms of publication?") My gut feeling about this of late is something like, Eugenides can probably write about a variety of things really well, so why write this particular thing, and we can consider that having an actual intersex author writing about an intersex character does two things: it checks the "representation box" in terms of diversity but also--and I wish people talked about this more--they would bring value-added that no one else can, even a smart person who is a great writer and how is really empathic. I'm not arguing that any minority writer writing about their own group--regardless of level of talent--is better than an incredibly talented writer writing outside his group. I'm actually making a point about due diligence, taking up space in a market that has limited space, and just plain demographics. 

I think anyone can write about anything as long as they are willing to do the homework.* Did he do the research? Did he read stuff by and about intersex people? Did he get intersex readers? Did he write responsibly (ie, not falling back on lazy stereotypes) and with good faith (ie, not assuming automatically that he already knows everything there is to know)? If you're writing outside your own group, particularly if you are writing about a minority group, obviously the answer to all these questions should be yes. (*Apparently this isn't yet obvious, given that we continue to see truly cringe-worthy instances of stuff getting through multiple hoops of the publication process with serious issues). 

My take on this is that if your elevator pitch of the book includes the identity, the question isn't "Can I write about this?" but "What do I add to this conversation?"  The elevator pitch of Middlesex literally revolves around the main character being intersex. Does the value-added of Jeffery Eugenides go above and beyond what could have been provided by an intersex author? It's the difference between someone writing about their own real world experience and the very real hardships of their life, and someone who is just imagining it. Someone who is thinking, "Ooooh, you know what would be neat to write about?" Identity as a jacket that you can put on and take off when you're done. But some of us can't take off our jackets. I'm not saying an author shouldn't do this at all--the guys that wrote The Wire were often writing about people who were not like them. But they were writers who really, really knew the environment (one was a former homicide detective and the other a former police reporter), and wrote the characters with multiple dimensions. The problem with making this call--Do I know enough?--is that people who are not competent often have no idea of how incompetent they are

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Here's a completely arbitrary diagram about writing outside your identity about other people's groups.

Given that we continue to live in a world where people say "I already have a [insert minority] client" and "I already have a [insert minority] book," I'm going to look at the top left corner here and think, no. I was recently listening to a podcast of people who work in the publishing industry and the hosts were really excited about ARCs of some new books they had just gotten which had diverse characters (they had specifically wanted to read more diverse books). Then a few moments later they realized that they were not books written by people from those groups. It's fine to write about people from other groups if you do it well, but it's not fine for us to be pleased about increased diversity in books if it doesn't mean actually making publishing more diversely (accuracy [sensitivity] readers make money being accuracy readers for other people writing books about the groups they belong to, rather than the industry actually publishing books by people like the accuracy readers themselves). If a book is fundamentally about identity, there's still an issue of "There can only be X number of books about that" in any publisher's given catalogue for year. Are you taking space away from someone else? Is it the case that your book about--I don't know--blackness, written from the perspective of someone who is not black, is a little more palatable to non-black gatekeepers, because maybe there is content from actually black people that might make them uncomfortable, that might be a bit too dark, that might be a bit inaccessible?  I'm not here to read a Toni Morrison book to have everything be accessible to me--it doesn't have to "speak to me"--it's not about me. (Incidentally, there seem to be a lot of fantasy and scifi books where there is some arbitrary category that serves as a stand-in for race wherein the reader, often so someone who doesn't belong to a particular group can learn an important, ham-handed lesson. But at least right now I think there are some very real lessons about real groups in the real world that not enough people know about.)

More importantly, at least consider the question, what is your value-added as an outsider? I am unabashedly a huge fan of all the Rocky movies. So when I heard Creed was coming out a few years ago I was super excited. I didn't want any spoilers so I consumed no media about the movie whatsoever. I'm someone who, when I'm watching a movie, completely gets absorbed in it (as long as some asshole in the theater isn't chewing loudly) and forgets about my own existence. But then something happened that completely broke me out of the reverie. It's a scene where Michael B Jordan is talking to Tessa Thompson and they're flirting. I was completely pulled out of the movie because I suddenly realized, Oh, a black person wrote this. I had assumed that Sly Stallone had written it, because he's written all the other Rocky movies. This isn't a dig about the movie--it's just that I saw the movie with the expectation that Stallone had written it and there was a cadence and feel to the dialogue that was so distinct to me that I suddenly had that realization. The writer was Ryan Coogler, the same guy that just made Marvel nine babillion dollars with Black Panther. Maybe having black people write about black people works? As the child of parents who immigrated to this country from the Subcontinent, there are parts of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss about leaving home and immigration that were so acutely accurate that they were painful, and in a specific way that I think non-immigrants might have just felt "that was sad" and not "you're poking an awl straight into my soul in a place where I can't even articulate." There is stuff about being female in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels that just describes the intersection of all the roles you have to play as a woman so perfectly, I don't think someone who wasn't female could have written those books and I don't think any man reading them would have shouted "Yes!" when they got to those parts. I can always, always tell if an author actually has a dog because they will write about a character with a dog where either the dog does some weird, very specific doggy thing, or its human interacts with them in some particular odd interaction--verisimilitude-- I guess that is the word I'm looking for. There is a peculiarity to verisimilitude, a specificity you can't hit sometimes unless you really really know that life. 

So if you're not in the group, and your work is focused on identity... I have to ask, what is your value-added to this conversation? If the group is small on top of that, who are you displacing? 

The population of America is roughly 325 million. Let's just say arbitrarily that 10 million are writers. Most traits fall into a normal distribution (bell curve) where the bulk of people are average, and a small percentage are exceptionally good. Note I said percentage, not number. Let's take the top 10% of talent and say they are the contenders for publication. (In reality, it's probably more like the top 30%. You have people who are almost universally recognized as talented way at the top, but then you have people that are just good enough to tell a story and sell airplane books.) 

So you have 1 million writers who are exceptionally talented. Let's consider a small population-- Native Americans, 1.3% of the population according to the Census. Assume (for the sake of argument) that they are randomly distributed in terms of talent (ie, that there is no reason to believe that Native Americans are exceptionally good or bad writers.) That leaves you with 10,000 Native American writers who are exceptionally good. So for the 990,000 other exceptionally talented writers, you're good enough to get published anyway, do you need to tell a story that focuses on Native American identity? But then go back and consider that they might not be proportionally represented in the population of writers because of lack of access to good education, health care, etc., which would take some out of the pool of potential writers. So there's even fewer of them. Consider that Native American writing about identity might literally be focused on displacement and erasure. At least consider it. 

The larger the group gets, the more absurd it seems to question whether or not people should write outside their group. Plenty of men write women well, and vice versa. I'm more likely to roll my eyes or laugh when they get it wrong than I am to be offended. (Unless they do a shitty job and people congratulate them on how good a job they did--not naming names here ;) I write male characters, but have no interest in writing a book that fundamentally revolves around maleness. Probably just because I'd be asking myself what I would be bringing to the table. Different if you are literally an expert in that thing: I had a friend once who got her doctorate in history about a very specific period in Vietnam's history on the interaction between the French and the Vietnamese. She spoke French and Vietnamese but was of neither descent. She read historical texts about that time period in three languages. She had lived in Vietnam. Had she been a writer, I'm convinced she would have both done a good job representing the culture and--because she is reasonable--would have gotten herself the appropriate readers. She wasn't saying, "Oooh cute!" and pulling on a jacket. She had her doctorate in that jacket. She did the time, that is to say. 

Jonathan Franzen once gave this interview to Slate where he said something ridiculous and people got so spun up about the ridiculous thing that they missed some peripheral things he was saying that were really really important. The part people got spun up about was JFranz saying that he wasn't well-placed to write about race--blackness, specifically--because he doesn't have very many black friends and has never been in love with a black woman. His lack of diversity in friends aside, he also said this: "I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America." This, exactly. Good intentions are not enough. But I also think both of his comments are basically saying this: Don't write what you don't know. And the more controversial the thing is, the more likely you are to make an ass of yourself. All eye rolls aside, I think he's right about the friends thing--not that "I have a gay friend" gives you license to write a gay character, but that you might not know what the fuck you're talking about if you've never had a gay friend. I'm comfortable writing about characters that grew up in mid-Atlantic suburbia, live in a handful of cities I've actually lived in, eat the things I eat and read the things I read--anything else and I'm going to be anxious enough to be doing a lot of research. It takes a certain level of audacity to presume you can write about an identity without actually knowing it. In the literally limitless universe of things to write about, why is that one specific thing the thing you have to write about? I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying ask yourself the question why. 

But going back to the two by two box--the bottom row specifically. I want to make an argument for diversity for diversity's sake in stuff that isn't about identity, even if it's pretty thin. In a perfect world, all characters would be three dimensional. The reality is that some books are airplane books that are fluff fluff fluff and aren't going to talk about serious and controversial issues, and some characters--major or minor--don't have a story about identity to tell. But about that idea of verisimilitude: I have lived in several major cities that writers often write about, and I think it is unconscionable when these cities are depicted as entirely white (or entirely wealthy, for that matter). New York City is insanely diverse across every possible dimension. DC is a black city. A version of LA that does not acknowledge the existence of its massive Spanish-speaking population is absurd, and the same can be said of east Asians in San Francisco. I'm not saying just throw in a minority neighbor or something, but think about what it means if you've written an Asian-less San Francisco. Imagine writing a novel about an NBA player who is white--sure there are white NBA players, so this is fine--but imagine you depicted the NBA writ large as all-white. Why would you specifically choose to do this? 

If a minority character's main purpose is finding the treasure, killing the bad guy, whatever, their minority identity isn't really relevant. You don't need to write some deep treatise on race. I can think of two good examples where racial identity of minority characters was pretty thin and I didn't care. I read a good chunk of "James S. A. Corey's" Leviathan Wakes, which is the first book in The Expanse scifi series. James S. A. Corey is actually a pseudonym for two ostensibly white dudes. Anyhow, they have a multiethnic cast of characters, which makes sense because when the distant future is depicted as all one color, you wonder if a bunch of genocides happened (or at least I do). So there's brown people but they lack race consciousness (IMHO), which is fine because it isn't really necessary to tell that particular space adventure story. This isn't a story about the implications of race played out in the future ala Octavia Butler. 

Sleepy Hollow is a ridiculous but fun show with a very mixed cast. The main female lead, Abbie, is black, but the show isn't about blackness. It focuses on her chasing down various ghoulies with Ichabod Crane, who has been pulled out of pre-Revolution America into the present. This results in some fun fish-out-of-water scenes (eg, Ichabod is outraged by men wearing hats indoors!) At one point Abbie is sent back to Ichabod's era where even walking around is inherently dangerous for her. She could be rounded up at any moment as a random, unaccompanied brown woman, and possibly sold into slavery. The show didn't have her stay there too long--I thought there were a lot of other interesting things they could have explored but didn't. I wasn't annoyed, but if there were some nuanced nod to race, I would have been impressed with the writing. But I'm not expecting to be impressed by the writing on a show like this. 

A note about research and getting readers:

I strongly believe that we should get rid of the term "sensitivity reader." It brings to mind someone rolling their eyes and saying, "Quit being so sensitive!" I'm not being "sensitive" when I'm annoyed when a popular author, writing through the POV of an Indian woman, references the fact that she "speaks Indian" (sidebar: they speak hundreds of languages in India, none of which is called "Indian." A quick Wikipedia search could tell you that.) This pulled me way out of the story in a bad way. It made me think about how the author's readers, agent, editor, copyeditor, and god knows how many other people never bothered to Wikipedia that shit. This is a petty example, but there are worse ones out there. It's the lack of humility and intellectual curiosity to at least wonder, "Hey, did I get this right? Maybe I should ask someone who would know..."

I wrote a novel that takes place in Boston. I visited a few times, took pictures, looked stuff up, poked around MIT. It's called due diligence. If you're writing about cops, you should research ops. For some reason, saying "don't be sloppy writing about cops" is okay but if you're accused of being sloppy writing about race or disability or whatever, suddenly it's censorship and an infringement upon your rights. We all have permission to be sloppy, we just don't have the heart to be criticized for it and talking about these really awkward things is something America is not good at. In fact, we are catastrophically bad at it. On the other side, right now I don't think people have the emotional energy or patience to be kind in their criticism sometimes. Malicious intent is often assumed; I'm not a believer in the "intent doesn't matter" argument because this likens manslaughter to first degree murder. This makes for a lot of skirmishes.

Repeated rejection can be soul crushing, resulting in even exceptionally talented writers giving up. Imagine if on top of that standard level of soul-crushingness you were told "Black people don't buy books" "This book is too gay" or "I already have an Asian book." (Yes these are all things that have actually been said to people.) All of these things are either factually incorrect or subjective judgments not backed up with meaningful data. Not only are they offensive to people in those groups, but offensive to the assumed straight white reader. Straight white people bought The Kite Runner, The Hate U Give, and Sing Unburied Sing by the millions. Are we to believe that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would never sell because there aren't enough bed-ridden eyeblink people to form a market?? 

This failure of imagination is the same reason why we keep having the same dumb movies rebooted over and over while for decades people didn't have faith that a woman could direct a big-budget action movie (like Wonder Woman), or that audiences would be willing to get behind black leads (like Black Panther). Think of all the original material we could have consumed, and that people could have made money off of if they hadn't had that failure of imagination. 

Further reading: 

Kaitlyn Greenidge's essay on this, if you haven't already read it. 

Two articles on this cluster: Vulture and WaPo

One of the most bizarre hoaxes and a case of appropriation, the story of "JT LeRoy" also made into a good documentary you can stream, Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Humorous article about women responding to how men write about women.

Review of Ready Player One

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It took me a while to articulate exactly why I thought this movie was dumb. (spoilers)

Arriving to the general conclusion wasn't hard: I felt myself thinking this several times during the movie itself, sort of cringing in vicarious embarrassment for everyone sitting in the theater. Some particular things that piqued this: The cartoonish villain. The shoe-horned in romance with a John Green-style "cool girl." (The "hideous secret" of her true appearance outside of VR is, eek, that she has a birthmark.) The fact that a massive corporation funding professional full-time game players can't seem to get any players who are better than cannon fodder, or can solve mysteries that a teenage boy can despite all their resources and the fact that some working there might actually have been alive during the 80s--critical for understanding the mysteries. That Wade's aunt gets murdered along with dozens or perhaps hundreds of other people and it's sort of his fault and he has zero reaction to it, moving quickly to the next scene where all he can think about is this chick he likes. 

Yeah I guess it is fun to see a bunch of references to pop culture . . . but nothing particularly clever was done with them. I'm a huge fan of The Shining and yup, it was fun to go into the Overlook Hotel. But like, why? Living in the references felt like bad fan fiction like "We're here for the sake of being here" rather than "we're here because we have something interesting to say about The Shining." Here's some glitter--I'm going to throw it directly into your eyes. 

This is exactly why the movie felt really off to me: it was a middle grade story, starring teen actors, with tons of references to things from my childhood (and I'm almost forty). It didn't have the complexity or emotional depth of young adult/ teen fiction, or even more complex middle grade, so you were left with this weird sense of being at middle grade simplicity but with older actors. But then there are all these references that older people would get--The Shining, Child's Play, that would totally be lost on people who were 8 to 12. Actually, maybe even 15. Naturally, the good guys win in the end. And they share their wealth . . . across the five of them, and everyone else continues to live in abject poverty in stacked trailers in a world that pretty much feels like Idiocracy? Sure, we'll turn off the virtual reality two days a week, but not address anything about how life is so terrible that people want to live in fantasy worlds instead. I don't really expect something intended for middle schoolers to deal with complex issues like class or how corporations hurt culture and government in and endless quest for profit, but I do expect that to be addressed in works for slightly older people. 

Is this depth asking too much in movies that are just supposed to be fun? I don't think so actually. In the past month I just watched Toy Story 3 for the first time, in addition to the Lego Batman movie (for the 4th time). It's really hard to do what these movies did really well: tell stories with heart that are funny and enjoyable for both kids and adults. Nothing in either of those movies made me roll my eyes, despite the former being pretty sentimental. Why exactly is Toy Story good? Well, its unabashedly earnest. It really tries to imagine what it would feel like to be these toys. And seeing their secret world is fun and clever. Any adult watching that movie knows that the toy paradise day care center they end up in is of course going to turn into a hellscape--it was funny anticipating how this would pan out. Lego Batman is a perfect example of how you can reference things, but do it in a meta way that ends up being cute rather than thin. The Joker acknowledging that his longtime antagonistic relationship with Batman is in fact a relationship. The whole "it works at multiple levels" thing. 

Highlight of the movie: Philip Zhao. Lowlights: For the love of god, why would you have the Delorean from Back to the Future and never drive it to 88 miles per hour, throw off sparks, and activate the 1.21 gigawatts of energy needed to travel through time??? (And yes, I know that the answer to this is addressed in the book, but it isn't in the movie). 

Review of Unsane

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TLDR Review: Don't bother--not even sure if't it's worth a 3 dollar cable rental. 

Unsane is a study in how certain people can make mediocre work, have it funded and mass distributed, and have it peacefully go away when it turns out to be unremarkable, not even leaving a blemish on their career. 

The movie's main point of interest is that it was filmed on an iPhone. Um . . . so? the basic heart of storytelling--character and plot--will always be more important than how it's filmed. If Steven Soderburgh's main interest was playing with the iPhone idea, he could have easily plucked a better screenplay of the pile of hopeful manuscripts. This movie is pretty disappointing if you saw Soderburgh's Side Effects and were expecting something of that caliber. 

Unsane focuses on a young woman, Sawyer, who is settling into a new job in a new city. She's fled a stalker and still remains jumpy, frightened that she'll run into him just around every corner. She goes to a psychiatric facility for therapy, only to unknowingly sign forms to voluntarily commit herself. 

What follows it basically a higher-end Lifetime movie. Sawyer is trapped in a hellish hospital written as fairly unsympathetic to anyone who might be in such a hospital for any reason. The patients are played as standard koo-koo extras (violent, laughing and talking to themselves--why do portrayals of institutions never include self-aware people who check themselves in because they're suicidal and want help?) Everyone is consistently unreasonable, from the nurses to the orderlies who seem to think it is appropriate to put men and women in the same collective bedrooms and lock the doors. Everyone, that is, except for the handsome black dude patient, Mark, who turns out to secretly be a reporter. 

Mark provides the plot with a good excuse for a hospital to lock up "sane" people: it wants insurance money and spits out patients once their coverage ends. (This could have been the more interesting focal point--the horrors of the American insurance industry. We trust Mark's story until--twist--we find out with Obamacare half destroyed, there is no insurance coverage for mental health anymore, and Mark is just a crazy patient who thinks he's a reporter pretending to be a crazy patient. )

I digress. Instead, the movie plods down more familiar paths. Is Sawyer crazy, or is her stalker now an employee at the hospital? I never hemmed and hawed about whether she was crazy--I always assumed the stalker was in fact there. There have been a lot of stalker movies but I'm not sure I've seen any that really dig into the most fundamental issues that are the most psychologically interesting. That is, man's entitlement to women and how frequently this leads to violence. (I could be wrong, but I could have sworn I read a review of the movie in The New Yorker right when it came out and it erroneously referred to David, her stalker, as her ex-boyfriend, which he most certainly is not and it is blatantly clear in the movie that they never dated and she had no interest in him whatsoever at any point. I wonder if someone corrected them.) He is a near-stranger Sawyer meets when she is volunteering at a hospice and he takes a liking to her. We don't see a lot of the stalking, but it's clear: she doesn't like him that way and he doesn't know her, but insists that he loves her. This last part often appears in stalker narratives whether real or imagined. The love interest constructed to some extent, which is how she can be the perfect love. The construction is easier to deal with than the reality of a flawed, imperfect woman. 

How quickly things go from I love you I love you to I'll kill you. Sounds a bit like borderline personality disorder to me--funny because people tend to think of that more as a "female" personality disorder. I think women, when humiliated, turn their hatred inwards more often than not. Men don't sometimes. Sometimes the rejected man turns from "I hate myself" to "I hate myself and you're all going to go down with me." (insert reference to any one of the hundreds upon hundreds of shootings that have taken place in the past two decades.) 

The struggle continues on fairly obviously in the movie. Could Sawyer's elderly mother turn out the be the knight in shining armor? No--god forbid and elderly person be portrayed as anything but a victim. 

Sawyer manages to get a weapon and stab David when he traps her in a padded room and then there is an extended chase scene. Why is it that in these scenarios the would-be victims stab once, leave the knife behind, and then scramble away in an uncoordinated run reminiscent of a drunk, newborn giraffe? They never think "this person is actively trying to kill me, maybe I better stab them repeatedly in the brain just to make sure they won't get up with a knife sticking out of them and still run pretty quickly after me, because I am, after all, a newborn giraffe." (The only one who ever handled this right was Jamie Lee Curtis, the original final girl:

Recommended reading:

Loner, by Teddy Wayne

Enduring Love, by Ewan McEwan, or the very capable film adaptation staring Daniel Craig

 

Scientific-ish ways of dealing with rejection

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Lately I've been thinking a lot about something I heard at AWP. One of the panelists, who had gone to the MFA program at Iowa, said that a few years after he graduated, about 70 percent of his class had stopped writing. I had heard stuff like this  before, but it was still surprising.  There's life, and day jobs, and everything else, but there's also the fact that dealing with rejection is a separate skill than writing is. I don't find producing, editing, or the admin part of writing hard-- all of these are doing skills, but I'm not good at the rejection part because basically it is dealing with a ball of unpleasant emotions. So these are some strategies I use to deal with rejection, some of which are at least remotely associated with something science-like. 

1. Label the emotion your feeling right when the stimulus comes (eg, when you first receive the rejection letter.) I'm talking about using very specific words (ie, not "I feel bad") but really try to articulate what you are feeling with the caveat that you are articulating how you feel right now about what happened, but not making an evaluative judgment about who you are as a result. Feelings only --no associated cognitions. Maybe it would be something like this: I feel really disappointed. My heart is heavy. I thought that press was a perfect match for me. I was really hoping it would work out, and how I feel let down. This is okay-- but what is not okay is then drawing radical conclusions: "I must be a shitty writer. I'm a bad person. Nothing good will ever happen. This is just another piece of evidence that I'm a failure." 

Imagine that the emotions are like a giant teabag that has been soaking in water. You have to sit with it. It's sitting on your lap with water seeping out of it and the fact that the water is seeping might be uncomfortable, if you're the sort of person who likes things tidy. This is really a form of mindfulness, where essentially you are saying, "I feel sad and this is where I'm at right now." What goes along with this is the temporal nature of that feeling-- you feel sad right now, you're letting yourself experience it, and it won't last forever. There's nothing evaluative about it. You're supposed to be sad sometimes. Maybe you're like me and you spend a lot of time trying to tamp down on your emotions--or you bad cognitions that run away and you spiral downwards into those evaluative judgments like "...therefore, I am bad." I'm a big believer in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)--where you combat negative and illogical cognitions. But there's other ways of dealing with negative emotions and some ways work better depending on who you are. The "sit with your feelings" thing is closer to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which has some elements of mindfulness to it. I've been doing it for a couple months now and am finding it surprisingly insightful for me. So give it a whirl, but remember--sit with the feeling, but don't jump into evaluations.  Beyond the therapy stuff, there's some evidence from social and clinical psychology that suggests that labeling emotions is a critical part of both understanding them and lessening the pain associated with them. If you're interested you can check these out. 

2. Have an arbitrary trigger for your next move. This is something practical you do right after receiving the rejection. It could be going for a run (I remember sprinting like a crazed idiot after the third consecutive time of coming this --> <-- close to getting an NSF fellowship). It could also be something you do automatically related to your project: get something rejected, send out another submission. Every time you pull back from putting yourself out there, you're one step further out the door. But one thing to note: Do something that has a finite end within one session. "Go for run" has a finite ending in one session; "work on book" does not. The point is to give yourself something productive where you feel completion. 

3. Create a tag or folder in your email. Mine is called "props." When I receive a meaningful complement about my writing, I send it there. No, not positive things editors said in rejections--stuff not attached to rejections at all. My folder includes (each as a separate email) things like: a note from a friend of mine (not a writer) who was a beta reader for my novella who said that it made him awkwardly sob at the gym, notes from my critique partners that were complementary and made me think "I've conveyed what I wanted to convey." Also included are emails I send to myself as a deliberate form of note taking: something someone said verbally at a workshop. An offhand comment someone made at drinks. Anyhow, the point is to have a folder that you can go through and say, oh hey, this is why I do this. This is to take the focus off "success" and put it back on reaffirming a value that you have--that creating something is worth doing. Focusing on publishing, or awards, or fellowships can take away from this. 

4. Stop daydreaming it about making it. This includes imagining other people you think have made it swimming around in their money bin Scrooge McDuck style.  Do you remember The Secret? It was an awful self-help book that came out in the 90s that said if you want something, you just have to visualize it really well, and this helps it manifest somehow. This is very stupid. It is a waste of time and seems outrageously classist. There's even some evidence that visualizing saps away the energy you'd use to actually achieve your goal. Part of the problem with such daydreaming is that there's a part of you that might be thinking "If I just had this one thing everything will be all right" or maybe it's "if I just had this one thing, that'll show them." Or maybe it's about proving your worth. Art isn't a meritocracy, so don't hang your self-worth on it. That thing you just applied to won't make you whole. If you're going to daydream about anything, daydream about what your characters are doing. Or Michael Fassbender. 

5. Side projects, obviously. Always be working on something you care about, that way everything doesn't hang on one thing. 

6. Stay off social media. When it isn't filled with things exploding on the news, it's filled with friends with wonderful news and well-behaved beautiful children and perfectly curated lives seen through Instagram filters where nobody has ingrown hairs. It isn't always a good time for social comparison. 

And for your viewing pleasure, my absolute favorite clip about how to deal with emotions "effectively." 

"The Second Shelf," "domestic" writing, and who gets to be the literary darlings.

First, if you could stop what you're doing and read these articles by Lili Loofbourow and Meg Wolitzer (the former is new, the latter is an oldie but a goodie):

http://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2018/03/male-glance

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html

Both touch on how the artistic works of women are viewed differently (less seriously) than those of men. They present good examples I won't rehash here. I have seen this happen before: I have read a novel by a male author who is a darling of the literary community and thought, "Really?" Not that it was a bad book, but definitely a "meh" book. (This is not to say I haven't ever been underwhelmed by female literary darlings). But a book written by a female author that focuses on plumbing the depths of familial and romantic relationships is treated as "only" writing about relationships or is labeled as "domestic;" a male writer of the same book (say, Jonathan Franzen) is praised and danced around with critics bowing wildly for a masterful portrayal of suburban relationships in modern day America. I recall reading an interview with a (female) editor at a publishing house where she said she was less interested in women writer's novels because they seemed "small." I don't know what frustrated me more: that she said this, or that the interviewer (or any of the commenters on the article) didn't think to question it. 

I was in a peculiar situation a couple years ago. I had written a literary novel that very much focused on a romantic relationship. Politically, I find myself bristling at the idea of "Women's Fiction." I get that the industry uses the term because it serves a purpose in terms of understanding the market and the fact that women buy more books. But I agree with Meg Wolitzer's commentary about women's fiction being relegated to a second-class shelf, one where on the covers, women in wispy dresses walk in fields of flowers or sassy fonts tells us what sort of book we are in for. My peculiar situation was that my novel was through a male POV--which automatically disqualifies it from women's fiction and puts it into literary. I'm a literary writer--so this wasn't weird--but had I written about the same exact relationship from the POV of the female love interest I could have either pitched the book as literary or as women's fiction (and also run the risk of pitching as the first and being relegated to the second.) It's the same quality of writing, the same writer, the same relationship. Why is one more treated as qualitatively different than the other? 

Because I love gossip, trash, and comment's sections, I was following some of the drama about male writers behaving badly in this SCBWI scandal (the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Some of the comments were from people who had attended SCBWI conferences who were saying that while the industry is heavily female dominated--not just in terms of the authors, but the people who work in the publishing industry and the organizers of the conference--but the few males who were there would disproportionately receive attention/ awards/ fawning praise from the women in charge of the conference. 

I was reminded of this notion that men will apply for a job that they meet 60% of the qualifications for, but women won't apply unless they meet 100% of the qualifications (alternatively, I've heard this as 80/20). This goes hand in hand with when I hear editors of lit mags saying that their inboxes are flooded with submissions from men. People often view this as men being presumptuous; I'm not sure it is--it could be women not being presumptuous enough. But not only do we not think we're good enough to apply for that 60% job, and "well that magazine would never publish me anyway," but apparently we are also fawning over the dudes at SCBWI and hiring guys who are 60% qualified and shitting on women who are qualified for being bitchy, or unlikeable, or "ambitious" (said with a negative tone of voice.)  

I put this into my calculus whenever I feel like crawling under my duvet and not trying anymore. Everything I've ever gotten has been slushpile style, which requires the crazy assumption of "I'm just as good as anyone else in this pile." 

Further reading: 

Siri Hustvedt's take on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and the wide-eyed fan who once asked her if her husband (Paul Auster) writes parts of her books for her. 

Editor and writer Kelli Russell Agodon's essay on why women should submit (to magazines) more like men. 

Podcasts to sleep to

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This post is in now way, shape, or form insulting the podcasts I list below (I'm not saying they're boring, because they aren't!) But as someone who has had insomnia that ranges from wretched to occasional-but-mild, I'm willing to do pretty much anything that gets me to sleep. Normally reading can wind me down, but sometimes that doesn't work. 

What does often work for me: listening to certain types of voices speaking in particular types of ways. These are some of my regular podcasts I listen to--on very light volume--when I'm trying to get to sleep. Typically I use the my sleep timer on my phone on for one hour, then it automatically turns off. 

1. Reveal

My top choice. This podcast is from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which does fantastic in-depth stories on important issues. Two recent really good episodes were about racial disparities in lending for mortgages and one on a contraceptive implant and how a company and the FDA responded (or didn't respond..) to serious health issues it caused. The host has a soothing, smooth voice, and there is never any abrupt music or sharp sounds (loud laughter, etc.) 

2. Generation Why

This one may overtake Reveal as my favorite. Not good if listening to stories about murder disturbs you.. so disclaimer there. Each episode focuses on a murder or serial killer. The two hosts handle the content from a research angle that is dead serious (no jokes) and they clearly do a lot of research for each episode. Both the hosts have incredibly soothing voices and both, weirdly enough, happen to talk with this rhythmic cadence that just lulls you. 

3. Teen Creeps

I wish I had discovered this one sooner. The two female hosts are comediennes/ writers who read one teen YA pulp horror novel a week and rehash it on the podcast. I was a huge reader of Christopher Pike and RL Stein-- both of whom are strongly represented. I had fond memories of these books, but boy do they not age well. They rehash the plot but also provide commentary and go on tangents. There is some laughing (quite a bit, actually), but no music or abrupt noises. You don't need to have read the books to follow the podcast. They both have softer Millennial-ish voices that never bother me. 

4. Here to Make Friends

So yeah, this is a podcast about the Bachelor franchise. (They cover both the show and all its spinoffs). Which of course means it's only running when there is a current show, with a new one released about a day after each airing of the show. The show approaches the Bachelor from exactly the same perspective I have on it: it's ridiculous, but often riveting. 

5. This American Life

Only the non-humorous episodes, which occasionally have weird sounds. The ones that cover only one story per the entire hour are best. Just to note that there is some music which occasionally pops up. 

6. Someone Knows Something 

This Canadian podcast covers one incident for an entire season, doing a deep dive into murders and disappearances. It's soothing and understated, never intense despite it's content. 

 

Literary Markets for Novellas and Long Short Stories

As someone who has had the misfortune of writing longer short stories/ novellas, I sympathize with anyone who has tried to publish them because I have spent so much time scouring the internet screaming WHY WONT YOU TAKE MY MASSIVE TOME THAT ISNT QUITE MASSIVE ENOUGH TO BE A NOVEL. Below is a working list of literary magazines, contests, and small presses that publish longer short stories and/or novellas. This is a list for literary fiction, not genre fiction and of course those lines can be blurred but if you've written something that can be considered genre you should probably familiarize yourself with the magazine because these markets are indeed different than the stuff I see in genre magazines. This is not a exhaustive list, it is a working list I will update, and mainly includes magazines I know to be well respected and presses I have seen with my own two eyes. (I have submitted to many of these.) 

Magazines and Small Presses

Alaska Quarterly Review, up to 50 pages. One of my white whales! A great magazine that has been beloved for so long. They only take hard copy submissions. 

A Public Space doesn't list an upper length limit, and specifically says "novellas and novel excerpts are always welcome." 

BatCat Press takes stuff of any length. They publish weird, beautiful books; this is not a standard market--I think they are looking for stuff that is "out there." 

Blackbird is a well-respected online magazine. If you have a piece that is 8k or over, you can query first to see if they're interested. (that said, the magazine sometimes is on the higher end of how long it takes to get back to writers.) 

Boulevard takes stories up to 8k

Conjunctions is one of the most well-respected magazines out there. It has no official restriction on length, but does not take simultaneous submissions and submissions are hard copy. 

The Collagist (a magazine run by Dzanc Books) takes stuff up to 8 k

Online magazine failbetter says they publish novellas, but given that it is online, I would page through to see how long their stories actually run. 

Fiction is old-school respectable. Their website says they prefer under 5k, but would consider longer works. (read: long shot)

Gettysburg Review up to 10k. Interpret as you may: "We do not publish genre fiction—mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and the like—but are certainly not opposed to considering work that self-consciously employs the tropes of more formulaic writing for more sophisticated literary ends." They take about half a year to get back to you, but are a great market. 

Malahat Review up to 8 k, Canadian lit mag that discourages simultaneous submissions. They also run a novella competition every other year for submissions 10-20k

Massachusetts Review takes stories up to 8 k, but they also have a digital release program called Working Titles that has a 7-25k limit. 

Missouri Review "While there are no length restrictions, longer manuscripts (9,000 to 12,000 words) or “flash fiction” manuscripts (2,000 words or less) must be truly exceptional to be published." Extremely competitive market. 

One Story 3-8k, this should be one of your top markets. Given that they only publish one story per issue I wish they would take longer stuff :( 

Paris Review does not have length restrictions; that said, they take hardcopy only and I don't know anyone who ever got in there off the slush pile. 

Ploughshares Solos 7,500-20k, extremely competitive market

New England Review 20k

Nouvella Books 10-40k. They publish beautiful little (literally) books. This isn't run like a standard literary magazine (because it isn't one), but they view their novella line as a way of investing in and launching emerging writers. 

Puerto del Sol, up to 10k

Seattle Review is specifically looking for longer works--stories over 40 pages--yay! The bad news is 1) they don't take simultaneous submissions (BOO.. although they did only take 1.5 months to get back to me), and 2, they go out of their way to say they won't take genre. Clearly there are stories that are intended for Clarkesworld but there's also literary writers out there that write weird stuff, and seeing restrictions like that makes you hesitate to submit. 

Tin House up to 10k. A top market but I don't know anyone who's ever got in off the slush pile. (for the magazine- for the blog, yes.) You can submit, but it's one of those "submit it and forget it." Seriously. You might not hear back for more than a year so it's not a "they're taking a while so I must be making it up the decision chain!" thing. 

Incidentally, and I'm thinking of one magazine in particular, don't submit anywhere that has a $20 or higher submission or reading fee. Magazine submission fees and contests are two different things. Submission fees are controversial, but a few bucks doesn't seem unreasonable to me given how literary magazines are struggling. For more than a few bucks--you do the math, it isn't ethical.

Prizes

All of these prizes are yearly or close to it and have entry fees. There are of course more contests than just these, but these are the ones I know of that I would call good. (ie, the entry fee/ prize ratio isn't eyebrow-raising, the judges are well known literary writers, the winners go on to do well in their careers). Maybe this is an obvious tip, but if you're submitting to a contest you should wait until a few days before the deadline. When submitting simultaneously, if you submit to a contest in January that doesn't have a deadline until March, there's a chance your piece will get picked up somewhere else first and then you can't get your entry fee back from the contest when you withdraw. Submitting early doesn't help you in any way. 

Big Fiction Knickerbocker prize 15-40k

1888 (formerly Black Hill Press) Plaza Literary Prize, 10-40k (you have to dig through their terms and conditions page to find the word count). They publish beautiful books--I love the artwork they use. 

Black Lawerence Press  small press that publishes full length novels, poetry, collections, anthologies, etc. The Big Moose prize is for "novels" but their submission guidelines say 90 to 1,000 pages--90 pages would put you within the range of a novella. 

Miami University Press novella contest 18-40k

Texas Review Press Clay Reynolds Novella contest 20-50k

AWP is like being in a human slushpile

This was my first AWP and I felt like moderately sleep-deprived lost child during much of it. There were some ups and some downs and very very long days and a hotel room where the AC kept rattling. I heard someone say that 12,000 people were there--I'm not sure if that's an exaggeration, but officially speaking, it was a shit-ton of people. For some reason, just seeing them all this made me feel vaguely threatened. All I could think is "every single person here is a writer...?" with the overall feeling of, well, I guess you're not very special are you. It seemed like every single person had a book coming out and tons of awards and fellowships, although a friend pointed out to me that everyone feels that way at AWP. I definitely feel better when I'm in an active writing phase (mine go fast and hard) rather than and admin period (time between projects where I send things out and apply to things) so maybe that contributed to it. I don't feel this way at psychology conferences, some of which are even larger, but perhaps that's because I feel more settled in my other career. 

The panels were hit and miss--some people are just more engaging speakers. A couple standouts were a panel on failure and another on diversity (or lack thereof) in publishing. The best point of the former: that the Thing that you think is going to make you might not be the thing, some other side thing might actually be the thing. Don't write a book for the sake of writing a book, a couple of the novel writers said--write it because you love it. In the latter panel, there was a lot of discussion about increasing diversity in publishing houses and literary agencies via hiring. This is perfectly reasonable and should be done. Two of the authors there referenced god-awful things they had been told by editors that were extremely cringeworthy. At the Q&A I asked if anyone in the industry circled back to talk to editors when they make comments like these. What I didn't add, for lack of time, is that this ends up feeling like it's your burden to deal with, and maybe you're tired of doing this, or don't feel that you should have to, but then again if you don't do it, who will. (The question was answered with interest--that perhaps the method that makes sense is to be informal about it, given that writers don't have any power in these situations.) 

The two best highlights: One was a reading from Nafissa Thompson-Spires from her upcoming book Heads of the Colored People. I went to this reading because I was exhausted and lazy and it happened to be in my hotel's bar and maybe I didn't want to be in my room for that much time (there was a millipede situation--a story for another day). I have never laughed so hard at a reading. I might have even clapped (singularly, at particular jokes), which is somehow encoded in my DNA as an Indian person.  Really looking forward to her book coming out. 

The other highlight was the bookfair, which I think is 50% of the reason for going to AWP. It is a booklover's greatest dream and nightmare combined into one--so many books and at healthy discounts. I like to support small presses but don't necessarily like ordering online, so this was a great opportunity to get my hands on books from a bunch of presses and to awkwardly make eye contact with people I "know" from Twitter. I came home with about a dozen new books making my carry-on painfully heavy, including stuff from Small Beer Press, Press 53, Red Hen, Sarabande, Vandalia, Louisiana State University Press, and ECW Press. My first go around (it takes several sessions to go through the whole fair) I noticed a book which had a blurb likening the book to The Children's Hour, a play about two closeted lesbians at a private school. I noticed it because I have a friend who is obsessed with The Children's Hour. I wanted to take a picture of the book to send it to him asking if he wanted it, but the bookseller was hovering (there is a lot of hovering..) and I didn't want them to think I was taking a picture to go buy it on Amazon or something. So I left it, but then it haunted me, causing me to return and to hurriedly search for the book during the very last hours of the fair. (To no avail- I still don't know what book this is, and I haven't been able to Google it). Ah, the lack of closure is painful. (on the off chance that any of my .7 readers know what this book is, drop me an email.) 

One thing I could not help noticing that made me want to gouge my eyes out. (Okay, two things if you could the millipede). The vast majority of women asking questions at Q&As were unable to ask a question without a significant amount of apology or preamble. Least offensive version of this: "Um, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" worse version: "Um, so one of the things I was thinking about listening to you is how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" eye gouge version: "Um, so, this panel, listening to all the panelists, and thank you for being here, it's been so great, so I was kind of thinking about like um, with my novel I've tried and I've done things, and, you know, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" 

Um, ladies. For the love of god, stop apologizing for existing. (also there's a limit to Q&A time). 

What Bubbles Under the Surface of MTV's Catfish

Why do I continue to love this show? Despite the fact that it's formulaic--and continues to be after years of being on the air. Despite the fact that it's fake. Despite the forced moralizing that occurs at the end of each episode, wherein the catfish is supposed to feel bad for catfishing but often doesn't. Despite the hokey "hosts being adorkable" thing (I like Max, but not a fan of Nev). 

It's the same story over and over. A youngish person ostensibly contacts the show with a story about how they have been in love with someone for several years that they met online, but they have never met in person. The other person--the catfish--refuses to videochat/ has a broken phone/ lost their truck and therefore can't meet the catfishee. Nev and Max arrive with their high tech investigative skills (ie, they look on Facebook and Instagram and do Google image searches, which apparently no one else has figured out). They contact the catfish when they've collected enough "evidence," and the catfish always miraculously agrees to not only meet up and be filmed (show spoiler: typically the catfish actually contacts the show, which is why they never run into a catfish who refuses to meet). Despite the fact that it's the same thing over and over, I find myself completely riveted during act three, the moment when they're knocking on the catfish's door and you have no idea of who is going to come out. I will run out of the kitchen in order to not miss the reveal. (NB: I am never sitting in front of a TV and just watching it, so when I actually have my eyes on the TV for more than 3 seconds, someone has done something right.) 

Forty percent of the time, the catfish is someone who is LGBT but closeted, often in a small town where no one ever says, "Wait, which gay bar with the roofdeck and the bartender with the arms?" (#DCLife). Forty percent of the time it's just someone who used the pictures of a (culturally-dictated) more attractive person because they're insecure. The remaining 20 percent is a grab bag of more interesting cases: pure sociopaths, best friends who were secretly in love with the victim for years, and one recent rarity: and old gross dude trolling for young women. (sidebar, why doesn't that happen more often? And I can't even think of an instance of the catfish turning out to be married.) 

The show often sends the hosts to meet victims in places where reality TV typically doesn't go: Oklahoma, small towns where one can apparently be the only LGBT person in their entire class. You see small houses and trailers, and tons of people of adulting age that live with their parents and yappy dogs and work regular jobs. It seems a stark contrast from the constant parade of TV/movies/books that focus on New York City, LA, London, places where people who would be poor in real life live unrealistically opulent lives (not to use a dated reference, but it's beyond laughable that we're supposed to believe that Carrie Bradshaw can afford all those designer shoes when she's a freelance writer). Every so often on the show when the host takes the victim to meet the catfish, they find out that the victim has never actually been on a plane before. In some cases, they've never even left their hometown. The hosts often respond with a chipper, "You've never been on a plane before?" How quaint! Median income in Oklahoma is (let's ballpark it based on this dated website) is $45,000; in my hometown of DC its $93,000 (to be fair DC has one of the highest median incomes in the US, and using the median rather than the mean glosses over the income disparity the city has but whatever). There's even been cases where it clearly seems that both the catfish and the catfishee were faking just so they could meet each other (maybe just to get on TV, or maybe so someone else can pay their airfare.) 

I wish the show would get more in depth about the psychology behind this incredibly weird phenomenon. In between the movie and the TV show, the concept of catfishing is so well known that they added the new meaning of the word to the dictionary over at Merriam Webster. People on the show know what this is, but still fall for it. Or maybe they don't fall for it at all-- maybe they know the whole time that these relationships aren't real. Sometimes the people involved are somewhat isolated--just in general, not just in terms of not being willing to pursue other romantic relationships because they are spoken for. Sometimes they are approached by other would-be mates, but turn them down in favor of a relationship that is purely electronic. In either case, they've settled for an electronic facsimile of a relationship: no physical presence, not even videochatting, just a stream of texts, phone calls, emojis, and maybe an occasional picture stolen off Instagram. 

We don't really talk about loneliness in this country. Usually we're kidding when we are: making fun of cat ladies and "Oh no I'm going to die alone LOL." Even for introverts, the desire for companionship is so fundamental to what it is to be human that being denied companionship can often be lethal. Suicide is the tenth largest cause of death in America--it's right up there with cancer and heart disease. Even amongst people who can both articulate their feelings and are willing to do so, they're far more likely to say they are "sad," "bored," or "depressed" than to say that they are lonely, or lacking in human companionship. Some turn inwards toward depression (self-directed hate), some turn outwards. We always talk about lone wolf mass shooters. They're "lone." I don't feel bad for them, but I wonder about the power of the sickness that is loneliness, not feeling part of a community, or not feeling validated. 

Last week I was at a speakeasy (#DCLife again) with some friends and one lamented that he wanted to move into a commune in the woods and just not deal with anything. Easy to feel that way when the news is pretty stressful, but we were also talking about how the very structure of life--at least here and now in America--is isolating, overly focused on work, overly focused on nuclear families. In this scifi thing I'm writing, there's this character from a planet that has been destroyed that is often described as a utopia. People sitting on porches calling out to each other, a town where everyone knows your name. One thing I based it off of (here's a knife in your heart) was something one of my Arabic teachers told me about her childhood growing up in Damascus: a large house that is more like a compound, shaped like a square with a courtyard in the center, the whole extended family living in the same house so closely that the cousins are like brothers. So . . . not sure what it says about me that I had this planet destroyed. 

 

Money, that awkward part of the MFA vs no MFA argument I wish more people were talking about.

When I'm rubbing elbows with writer types at conferences and the like, sometimes the breakdown feels like 80% "full time writers" and 20% "other." The full-time writers include no one who writes full time (as only the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world actually sell enough to do this.)  More likely, these are typically MFA or PhD students; people who teach creative writing full time or part time as adjuncts; people who work in publishing in one form or another; or people who are writers but are more or less subsidized by family wealth. The 20% "other"--of which I am a part of--is a motley crew--some are people who hate their "day jobs" and are just doing them to pay their bills, some are people who have a career that they like or love but who also write. I'm in this last category.

I lean pretty strongly towards the "Don't get an MFA" camp. It's not that I don't think writing can be taught--I definitely learned a lot from the workshops I've taken. But generally speaking, I think such classes can make a good writer better, but not make a bad writer good. I also think there are diminishing returns from workshopping. After you've done it enough, I'm not sure how much you're gaining from it. For me, going to a workshop/conference/retreat is more about making connections, reading and critiquing others' work, shoptalk, etc. But mostly where I'm learning at this point is by reading a ton, consuming media in all forms, and writing, of course. I also find that sometimes people take workshop (or the advice of their mentors/teachers) too seriously: at some point you have to be able to send a story out without workshopping, at some point you have to be able to completely disregard something someone smart said after reading your work because there's a voice inside you that just knows they're wrong. Don't keep going to workshops because you don't trust your own judgment and need some validation.  

People who are smarter and more well read and a whole variety of other things have already written about attending an MFA program while being a minority, so I will skip over that. But some of those arguments tie in to things I'm about to say about money. 

There are two main arguments (other "I want to be a better writer") for people who are considering getting an MFA. One is that they are imagining a career track in academia, and the other is that they are specifically not imagining a career in academia but just want the time to focus solely on their craft/writing. Let's take this conversation away from the arts to the sciences for a sec: I finished my doctorate pretty close to when the Global Financial Crisis reared its ugly head. Tenure-track jobs that had been listed started getting pulled. People were panicking. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I went to a top-rated doctoral program for my field. This is how it shook out for my cohort, and I can tell you with hindsight now that a good number of years have passed.  None of my friends from my program are unemployed and destitute. All of them found something one way or another. But what happened was that the hierarchy of candidates shifted down and was spread more broadly across time. Golden students who normally would have gotten tenure track positions--maybe even a choice of them--ended up postdoc-ing, then looking for a job afterwards. Postdocs sometimes did more than one postdoc. Then the freshly graduating PhDs couldn't really compete for the tenure track jobs because they were being compared against people who had been postdoc-ing for a while and therefore had better publications and connections. So everything got shifted back, timewise. What also happened is that tenure track positions that wouldn't have been appealing to top candidates a decade ago were now desirable. If this was happening at a top-rated program, imagine what was happening far down the line at programs that weren't as competitive, didn't provide funding, and didn't have as good connections. What I told undergraduates who were thinking about getting a PhD in psychology was this: If you can get into a well-rated program that's very competitive and has good funding, go for it. There won't be a pot-of-gold/ tenure track position waiting for you at the end, necessarily, but your prospects are reasonable for something if you're going to a competitive program. Sadly, academia has continued along the path of offering fewer tenure track jobs and just hiring adjuncts and lecturers that they don't have to provide benefits for or who sometimes do not even have the right to unionize. I've seen people in both the arts and sciences struggle to piece together their finances with adjuncting and no health insurance. I feel for them. 

Here's my bit about the "I just want the time" argument. After leaving your MFA program, you are never going to have "the time" in your life for writing--you might as well start learning how to write without the time right now. Having the time to focus solely on your writing is romantic and lovely, like taking a gap year to travel the globe. It also exists on an economic plane of existence that does not make sense to me. Worst case scenario: you go to a program that doesn't fund you and rack up 30-60k a year for 2 to 3 years. Teaching afterwards will be super- competitive (if that's what you want to do) and you'll be competing for jobs against people who went to programs that funded them. Best case scenario: you got funded--great. Most people think of this in terms of gained benefits-- you gained "the time" for free and got 2 to 3 years of time to focus on your craft and the connections you make there. ***

**slight tangent. Notice that the benefit of going to the program is the time to improve your craft, but one thing I did not mention is anything related to the business side of writing. Yes, there are grad degrees in publishing, but I'm talking about MFAs in writing. Not a single person I know with an MFA says that they received decent training or guidance in submitting or selling their work, getting or dealing with agents, business networking, marketing, or paying taxes and the financial side of the publishing world. In fact, several of them have complained that they wanted their program to cover these topics and were annoyed that they didn't. I guess this is based on the idea that one does not want to sully one's art by thinking of how one will pay the bills. Here's the reality: we all have fucking bills. For some reason, the artistic world likes to pretend that money does not exist. Female writers do not want to acknowledge their corporate income husbands. No one talks about money management. There's a lot of hullaboo about the small percentage of writers who get six-figure advances, but not much about the cost of being one of the people who don't. end tangent ***

So let's say you got funded and went away for 2 to 3 years and had a great experience. But there's an opportunity cost associated with that time. My incredibly unsexy proposal: you could have spent those two or three years getting a degree in something else that would result in stable (or at least more stable) work in another field, one that would get you jumpstarted into a career in a way that an MFA might not. (hold on a sec before I get to the "artist as a singular sole-focused thing" argument). 

An adjunct lecturer could have a 2-year masters or a 6 to 8 year doctorate (and may or may not have 5- or 6-figure debt) and make about 24 k, likely with no health insurance. An editor at a New York publishing house is probably someone with a BA, but possibly a Masters as well. According to this article, the average salary for an editor at a a New York publishing house can be about 55 k-- the editor in chief positions are in the mid-70s. Here are some other salaries for people with Masters-level education (these are medians): Electrical engineering 121 k, Economics 114k, Com Sci 109k. All my degrees are in psychology, which people think of as a "soft" science (maybe it is, but I've done well for myself and minored in quant.) 

giphy-downsized.gif

 

You can hope to be James Patterson, but, statistically speaking, you probably won't be. It would be nice to get a tenure-track teaching job, but are the odds in your favor? (they might be! they might not be.) If you're going to teach piecemeal, or freelance, or work in the publishing industry, you had better really really love the work. The people who do it, do it because they love books, and from the sounds of it editors and agents are taking home stacks of manuscripts with them at home at night and working long hours. Editing and agenting aren't writing though--you would be working in a related field, but one that is demanding of a lot of your "free time" outside of work to catch up on reading. 

When I first started getting interested in speculative and science fiction, several people told me I had to check out the Clarion workshop. It sounded like a great opportunity... except it costs 5 thousand in change (not including travel). They offer scholarships, but they average at 1,500. Beyond that IT'S SIX WEEKS LONG. Yes, I love the dream world were you could go off on a six-week eat, pray, love, sci fi thing, but who the hell has six weeks off work to spare? People who don't work but have a lot of money I guess from being independently wealthy? People who are being financially supported by a loved one? People with unstable work who can squeeze the workshop in between one contract or gig? But very few people with a standard 9-to-5 in a country where we don't even get maternity leave are going to be able to swing six weeks away from work to write sci fi. It's a dream. Thus, you end up with a really specific population of people who can attend. 

Like many second-generation Asians, I was pressured by my immigrant parents to pick a career which would involve a graduate degree followed by relatively high income work. I didn't fit into the standard doctor/lawyer/computer science mold, but I did make my way to getting the Asian parent stamp of approval. This did not result at me toiling away at some soulless job that I hate. It didn't result in my giving up my hopes and dreams of becoming a writer--I have a genuine love of psychology and methods and there is a certain satisfaction I get from solving high-level problems that, as much as I love writing, I do not get from anywhere else. I've noticed that when I'm at writer's conferences there's very little conversation about people's "day jobs." I get the sense that this is because the "day job" is not considered a career, and the thing that truly defines you is your identity as an artist/ writer. There's an unstated feeling--at least in my opinion--that the art is the higher thing, and the other thing is just the unseemly thing you do to pay the bills. Work is what takes away from your ability to be a writer. I really strongly, ardently disagree with this idea. 

First let's talk about the thing that's terrible. We live in a country that does not have a good social safety net and what little safety net we have is increasingly being taken away. Like the adjuncts I mentioned above, more and more stable work is being transformed into contracting work that's less stable and offers few if any benefits. For some reason millions of people in this country don't think that health care is a basic human right. The cost of this lack of safety net is debilitating. Do the thing you love and the money will come?? The people writing those inspirational articles have apparently never had to pay for cancer treatment. They are, I guess, unlike the average American, who is  one $2,000 emergency away from serious financial problems. 

So when I hear someone contemplating whether or not to get an MFA, or whether or not to "follow their dream," I can't help thinking, no, do the thing that puts you in a place where you are financially secure, and you'll be all the closer to that dream. You are not a lesser artist because you decided to become an accountant. Consider the financial cost of "taking the time." The longer you delay being at the point where you can save for retirement, or for that $2,000 emergency, the more of a bind you might find yourself in down the road when that social safety net is increasingly eroded.  

Here's the part about "the time" I find mystifying. There's this notion of your day job taking away from your life as an artist. In terms of time and/or energy or, I don't know, artistic street cred. I would argue that it isn't an issue of time so much as efficiency, and the very fact that you even have a day job adds to the richness of someone's writing, rather than taking it away.  Say you work a 9-to-5. This means you more or less have from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm to find some time to write. Okay, take some time away to take care of the dog, cook dinner, go to the gym, whatever. Writing does not actually take that much time.  I write pretty quickly. I'm not on drugs and I don't really drink coffee. I don't wake up before the sun rises, I don't write during lunch breaks or stay up until 1 am. Generally speaking, when I'm working on a project I finish my work that day, watch about an hour of the crappiest TV possible (The Bachelorette, for example), then I write for an hour or two before heading out to the gym or to social engagements. I write some on the weekends-- ranging from half an hour to maybe 4 hours total, but definitely not more than that. 

How long does it take to write a novel? Say you type 50 words a minute. If you wrote for half an hour every day, you'd have 1,500 words a day--that adds up. How much physical strength does it take to write a novel? You know, because you're exhausted when you get home from work. It's sitting down at a table.. It's not as exhausting as cleaning the house, cooking, or lifting weights or any variety of things one does after one comes home from work. Toni Morrison was a single mother. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working full time as a teacher in addition to doing laundry at an apparently disgusting hotel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy wrote a motherfucking book by blinking. Might it be a reasonable argument that having a separate career might help you manage time more efficiently? (Let alone, in the case of literary fiction, if more of us had jobs there would be fewer books about English professors having affairs with sexy manic pixie undergrads, because we would have a broader world to write about.) 

Wendy J Fox, in an article in The Millions, writes:

We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

I'm a weightlifter and oftentimes I hear people say something like it's 10% lifting and 90% what you eat. Maybe writing is like 10% writing and 90% dealing with rejection. All I know is that I don't think there are frank, open discussions about money amongst writers, and that I'm eternally grateful that I'm not doing this to put food on my table. Being rejected over and over can be disheartening to the point of depression--imagine if your next meal depended on it. 

wow that was kind of a downer.. Next week: a primer on puppies!

Fiction is not nonfiction

  I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on.&nbsp;

I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on. 

I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately. 

It bothers me how frequently readers/reviewers assume that first person novels are actually autobiographical. I don't do this because I assume fiction is fiction and is very much deliberately fiction for a reason. Surely some novels are semi-autobiographical, but the author made a conscious decision to have them be fiction and not memoir. Last year I heard quite a bit of discussion from minority writers that people assumed that because their book focused on a MC that was [insert minority], that the book was autobiographical. 

It's puzzling to me that an author can be accused of being racist if their character is--all the more likely if the book is in first person. I've read more than one essay about how Lolita is problematic, misogynistic, patriarchical etc etc-- it seems to me that there's a difference between "you must be a disgusting pervert asshole to write this" and "author writing about a disgusting pervert asshole." The character views the world in a sick way, so the author has an obligation to depict him as such, unless of course we want all our MCs to be Disney versions of reality where everyone is wonderful all the time.

There is the distinction between "you must be the sickness you write about" and "a person writing about sickness." This distinction is sometimes hard to make, and sometimes people don't make it at all. Context matters, but often words are put into the authors mouth and sometimes they are the same words that they wrote. I have been thinking a lot recently about context collapse, and how this is a problem that is getting increasingly worse with social media. It denies nuance and ignores that the people we are on social media are not really us. 

As modern media increasingly pushes authors into being public/political figures, if your character does something racist, you will have to answer for it as if it were you who was the actor. This denies the space that should exist between fiction and nonfiction. In my opinion, all novels, regardless of person, have narrators and those narrators don't necessarily give you insight into the author. 

A 1st person novel should be imbued with the values and perspectives of the character (which aren't necessarily the same as the values and perspectives of the character). Two different 1st person novels with different MCs by the same author should not feel the same. A 3rd person novel, whether mainly through one POV or many, has a sort of ghost narrator. The author, behind the scenes, is the person moving the marionettes. Things are arranged into order and a snapshot is taken. If the story is about redemption, the narrative will hit on those themes--but this doesn't mean the author believes in redemption--it was just a redemption story. 

I have a story which, thematically speaking, is very much about the power of brotherly love and how it helps the characters transcend their personal trauma. It is earnest, funny, tinged with sadness, but ultimately hopeful. I have another story, "This Isn't Happening Again," which is the bleakest thing I have ever written. There is no hope. The narrator is cruel. It is the only thing I have ever written that is intended to make the reader feel bad. If you read the first story you might assume I'm an earnest hopeful person. If you read the second, you would have a completely different impression of me. Which is the real me? 

Neither really. Each story called for something different--different tones, different values. They are their own thing; just because I created them doesn't mean I am them. 

I was at a reading fairly recently for a 1st person novel that was very much about sexuality. A member of the audience (much to my dismay) asked how autobiographical it was. Did people do this a hundred years ago? Was I the only one who felt the question was salacious and kind of invasive? Part of me thinks that with increased access to authors, we want access inside them.

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" talks a lot about birding, and Jonathan Franzen happens to be into birding himself. Write what you know. The problem with this is the audience thinking that they know what I know. We only know Franzen likes birding because he's talked about it publicly. Birding isn't really controversial, so I don't think anyone got their panties in a bunch about the birding in that book (well I did because I find birding uninteresting.) 

I'm writing this because I've increasingly encountered this idea in reading reviews or cultural criticism where someone is upset about something. Here's a book about a serial killer who targets women because he's a misogynist (this is often true in real life). Some reviewers are outraged about how the book is misogynistic--not the character. Is this unique to writing? When a painter paints a dolphin, we don't assume the painter is  dolphin. WTF.

I feel like visual art gets more credit for being about something-- the distance between the artist and the art is respected. This week the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed. The artist, through his own unique style, says something about Obama--by the expression on his face, the nontraditional setting, the flowers. The portrait is about the person, as rendered through the style of the artist. The portrait is not the artist. It's Obama. 

As a slight tangent, a few days ago I read an article about memoirs of incest. I recall the controversy with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss. People attacked her in a way I find surprising. The book, they accused, was salacious--like she was mining her own trauma for gold. Who can call a memoir salacious?  Here's the problem with this--it's Harrison's story. She may or may not have wrote it during a period of time where she was messed up. Or maybe she wasn't messed up, but was writing about messed up-edness. Maybe she was trying to get a narrow slice of what her life was like back then. Not every memoir should have a "The More You Know" PSA message weaved into it--I guess there is pressure for memoir to be this way, because some people think "lessons learned" is the point of memoir. Less so for fiction. 

I have no point to round this out. Just that I've been talking with writers a lot lately who are having trouble writing because they can't get the hypothetical critical reader out of their head. The one that's looking at the author, not the book. 

The Absurd Economic Fantasy That is 50 Shades And Why Doesn't Anyone Ever Want to Write About Work?

I won't cover all the well-trod territory that has been written elsewhere about how ridiculous this series is. I just watched the second movie because, well, it was there and it was raining outside.  I wanted to talk about money, but first one small sidebar: how on earth do you make a movie about sex where Jamie Dornan is hotter as the serial killer in The Fall than he is as the male lead in the aforementioned sex movie (which is to say, not at all)? 

So here's the "economy" of these movies. You stumble out of college with ostensibly no real skills and accidentally come upon a job opportunity (unearned) interviewing this business guy. Despite you being exceptionally bad at this interviewing gig, business guy falls in love with you, and is of course fabulously wealthy (never mind the stalking and stuff). You would never have to work. You would never have to worry about making decisions--about what to eat, what to wear, how to have sex--because he likes to control everything and your only question is whether or not you're down with that. 

--Short interlude--you break up because you dislike and felt emotionally abused by his main way of getting his kicks. You've got a job at a publishing house--you go girl! Movies/book like these never seem to have any comprehension of what work, let alone work in publishing, is. Work is generally a topic that is often glossed over in fiction, which is crazy if you think about it. People in America work 40, 50, sometimes even more hours a week. We spend more time at work than we do at home, if you subtract the time we spend sleeping. Depending on the week, sometimes I see colleagues more than I see my friends.  Work, that is, what we do with the majority of our lives, is such a huge part of who we are. It is, at a minimum, the thing we occupy our minds with most of the time, and at a maximum, is heavily tied into our identities. I wish there were more compelling stories that were focused on work, rather than work being the background for "grander" stories--about romance, about mystery, or whatever else. I don't think there is a word for it in English, but I've noticed that people really enjoy watching other people be really competent at the thing they excel at--it doesn't matter what that thing is, but the level of expertise and interest of that person is for some reason fascinating. I recently watched The Post, and rewatched All the President's Men and Spotlight, three movies about journalism that despite their dark content, are a joy to watch. You see people at work, and the relationships they have with people at work, and it's incredibly compelling. 

End tangent, back to this bad movie: 

But in this thin fantasy, your job involves vaguely doing office work for an attractive and obviously about-to-to-sexually-harass-you older man. (No sense of the long hours of work that actual people in the publishing industry have to work.) You move papers around a desk, because the person who created you has no idea of what this sort of work is, or how someone might actually care about it or be engaged by it. Your paramour doesn't want you to have a job so he can control your economic independence. Your paramour buys the company you work for. 

That scary work situation? The sexually harassive boss? Don't worry, you'll barely have to deal with it, because your paramour will get him fired.  Somehow, you will just fall into the position of senior editor to replace him, because, gosh, no one else knows what to do with the empty slot, or with your untrained unqualified ass, for that matter. (Never mind that under these absurd rules of "well someone has to take this job lol" the black woman in your office was there for longer and has more work experience.) How terrible fiction sadly attempts to address the topic of work: newbie sits at the meeting with the big guys and makes a startlingly brilliant observation that NO ONE has ever had before. You mean we should publish the big sellers AND take a chance on new authors?? MIND BLOWN!  The other way bad fiction deals with work, specifically people who are supposed to be billionaires: they sit in fancy offices and they have very attractive female receptionists. You might get some jargon thrown at you if the author spent a few minutes on Wikipedia looking up "hedge fund." 

Work is there, humming in the background. There when you need a B plot. Your biggest problems will instead be relationship problems, which we all know are more interesting than all other problems in life. (This is not to say that relationship problems are not interesting, but that I would prefer to see a more holistic view of a human being.) 

You know what I would wish someone would write? A literary novel like The Office only not a comedy, a really character driven saga that follows however many unrelated people working in an office and how they change over time. Can someone do that--? Thanks. 

Is unplugging selfish?

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I try to pick something once a month to work on--either something about myself, or my environment, to try to make my life a little better. For January I worked on making my apartment look more like an adult lives there (getting rid of my college-era mismatched dinnerware, a minor renovation project in my bathroom, buying glasses instead of drinking out of cleaned out Classico tomato sauce jars. Pictures of the "renovation" are forthcoming! 

At the end of January I decided that my thing for February was to unplug more. I have a news addition which is pretty unfortunately: I can't not read the news because I need to be very well informed for work. On the other hand, I consume way more of it than I need to, in addition to "news" peripherals, like thinkpieces, and thinkpieces about thinkpieces. And tweets. And angry Facebook posts. 

I decided to take all social media off my phone--I still have the accounts, just no access on my phone. I'm also trying to cut down on how often I check the news when I'm at home. The first think I noticed, even within a day, is how often I just idly reach for my phone for something to flip through. Why? What's the point? All the major things that are going on in the world are going to go the way they're going regardless of whether or not you are obsessively reading about it or feeling anxious about it. This doesn't mean choosing to be ignorant: I'm still very well politically informed, and I still do what political actions I can and engage in long convos about stuff. But do you really need to know something right away? Do you really need to read a second, third, fourth article about whatever rage-inducing thing happened? 

And social media. Yeah, I liked keeping in touch with my friends. But right now a huge percentage of social media is people being enraged about something that I am more or less impotent to do anything about right now. (I did, incidentally, decide in January that every time I heard something that enraged me rather than posting about it on social media, I would just send some money to help with whatever issue.) And as someone who reads a lot of actual news, the amount of dubious information passed along on Twitter is more than disturbing. Just because someone says something doesn't mean it's true. Even if you want it to be. 

I guess we'll see how it went at the end of the month. There's a line somewhere between actively choosing to be ignorant about the world, and giving yourself an ulcer--I don't think it's a fine line that's hard to find. You just have to commit to it. 

Review: The Disaster Artist

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Every now and then you're at a movie and you can just feel the joy of the audience in the air. This was one of these movies. This movie currently has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes--beaten out only be Coco, which apparently makes people openly weep in their seats (I've been meaning to get to that one this week.) 

This was a movie that was clearly made by fans, for fans. The Disaster Artist is fiction, based on a nonfiction book, about the making of a movie called The Room. The Room, if you haven't seen it, is quite possibly the worst movie every made. It was written, directed, produced, and stars this guy Tommy Wiseau, who then featured a huge picture of his face on the movie poster. The Room is badly written with a hackneyed plot that doesn't really make sense, badly acted, awkward, bizarre, unintentionally funny--but strangely, has a high production value. It presumably was intended to be serious, but then turned into a cult classic. DC is one of several cities that has midnight showings where people interact with the screen ala Rocky Horror. You drink, you throw spoons, it's good fun because it's so ridiculous, especially after a few cocktails. 

The Disaster Artist tells the story of how the film was made, starting with how Greg Sestero, a hopeful actor, meets Tommy in acting class. Tommy has long black hair, a clearly eastern European accent that his claims is from New Orleans, and massive amounts of money with mysterious origins. Greg gloms on to Tommy's relentless pursuit of an acting career despite not having any talent, and the two agree to make a movie. 

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Ultimately, the film is about the friendship between a relatively normal guy trying to make it in the acting world (Greg), and a bizarre, emotionally needy, possibly borderline possessive friend (Tommy). There is real emotional content in the movie--about friendships, about how hard it is to make it as an artist, about what happens when your friends pass you by--but really, it also explains how this incredibly weird movie got made and it's just so funny. It's probably funny even if you haven't seen The Room, but my theater in particular (this was a limited release screening in DC) was filled with people who clearly had seen it and could quote from it. 

The film has tons of throwbacks (stay for the clips at the end!) and a surprising number of celebrity cameos. James Franco is amazing and needs to win all kinds of awards. He embodies this person in total--the weird unplaceable accent, mannerisms, even physically (I can't tell if Franco was squinting one eye for the entire movie, or if maybe they injected him with something, but in either case, damn.). After a rough weekend, this movie was just pure joy. 

Review of Justice League: "It's not that bad."

The couple next to me in the theater said this just as the credits began to roll, and I agreed. 

If you walk in with the expectations of seeing a mediocre big budget movie where not a lot of care went into planning it, you'll be fine. The movie had so many things working against it that I almost feel sorry for it. It's not the movie's fault it has to live up to these enormous expectations set years ago when people read the Justice League comic books. Related to this, one of the issues I continue to have with superhero movies is that sometimes things just don't translate well from the pages of a comic book to the big screen. (eg, Apocalypse in X:Men Apocalypse was ridiculous in every way, but mostly in the way he looked).  I don't know how they could have rendered parademons in a way that didn't look stupid. We're told the end of the world is coming and it's in the form of mechanical demon fairies? Um, okay. The Big Bad--Steppenwolf-- is rendered entirely in CGI. And not good CGI, but the distracting kind. Probably a better decision that having a person with tons of prosthetics on their face, but maybe they could have went another direction. In contrast, Hela in Thor has full blown antlers but somehow pulls it off. 

Elsewhere I saw a reviewer say that the movie seemed tonally off and I agree. Barry Allen (the Flash) is mainly there for comic relief.  There were one-liners that took away from what should have been a darker tone for a movie which is about the destruction of the world after its protector has been killed, plunging the world into darkness. Sidebar: actions/adventure movies in the past ten years have grown consistently bigger so that every single movie is about saving the entire world. It starts to be meaningless as an individual act if that's always the scale. Often because it's missing that component of heart: when the stakes are "save the person you love" we get it, maybe even the city you love, but saving the world over and over, especially when we know that of course it will be saved, then threatened in the sequel, starts to feel meaningless.  

Everyone got some time to shine here, but Aquaman and Cyborg felt somewhat incomplete. The former barely had any backstory and the actual concept of Aquaman is so ridiculous that I don't know how it can be sustained for more than 5 minutes. (Fundamentally Jason Momoa serves as a strong guy who can fight with a trident, rather than having any specific power related to the fighting). Cyborg's back story is jammed in--we don't even see how he dies, and YES there is a scene where he says Bu-Yah.

I've never been a Batman fan and Ben Affleck plays him sort of passively. Occasionally, it seemed like the movie was trying to tap into the current zeitgeist of "we're all going to die and there is so much inequality in the world" . . . except that doesn't quite work when one of your characters is Bruce Wayne. His superpower is being a rich white guy, which maybe would have been a funny joke 5 or 10 years ago, but not right now when Congress is voting to raise everyone's taxes but Bruce Wayne's. He also highlights the same problem I have with the Avengers: heroes that are grossly uneven in their powers. Diana is a god right? So, can she die? Does she ever actually get hurt? Wouldn't picking up a nuclear weapon and flying into the bad guy be more effective than a sword if you can't really get hurt? If you think hard enough Barry Allen is a person who could be nearly unkillable. Anything that could kill him would never get to touch him if he would always be faster. (almost)

TOTAL SPOILERS FOLLOW: 

Superman's death doesn't have any real meaning. One because we know he's going to come back, and two because Batman V Superman was so terrible. I wish they had done that moment better.  I remember when the comic book came out with Superman dying when I was a kid and it was a huge deal and there were segments on the news about it. Death in fiction is always handled so briefly that it never has the depth and sharpness that it does in real life. And it certainly doesn't when we know they're going to come back. 

BUT: what made this movie totally worth it for me is the five minute segment when Superman comes back and for 5 minutes, evil and shirtless, kicks the shit out of the entire Justice League.  So satisfying to finally have it acknowledged that Batman is in no way shape or form capable of taking Superman down. Particularly satisfying: Barry Allen tries to get the better of him in his everyone-else-is-in-slo-mo and Henry Cavill turns his head at normal speed and smiles at him evilly. It's unfortunate that this movie was mediocre, Batman V Superman was terrible, and most people didn't seem to like Man of Steel: I like Cavill as Superman. I do hope we get more evil Superman though. (It was also fun back when Christopher Reeve did it). 

Preview corner

Pitch Perfect 3: not sure what this is doing at this movie. I do love a cappella though. Not that I would pay to see this in theaters. 

Star Wars Episode Whatever: apparently I'm the only regular moviegoer that doesn't go ape over these movies. I'll go see it, but I'm not more excited than I am for any other movie. I wish the preview had actually gotten to some of the plot. 

Roman J. Israel, Esquire: A Denzel Washingtion vehicle that shows the entire plot in the preview, which I hate. 

A (Writing) Year in Review

Someone once pointed out to me that I never take any time to celebrate my accomplishments because I am always anxiously, frenetically focused on the next thing I'm supposed to accomplish. The end of 2016 and first half of 2017 were pretty bad for me-- I was sad and didn't quite realize it, and I worried that my obsessively reading the news or working was going to cut into my ability to be creative. I don't think that turns out to be the case when I look back at what I did this year. 

In 2017 I queried two different novels, both of which continue to get requests. Regardless of what happens with them, I still love them both and they're both an accomplishment I'm proud of. 

Although I wrote a sci-fi novel last year, in 2017 I started writing my first sci-fi / speculative fiction short stories. (er.. novellas/ novelettes). Terrorcry is sci-fi noir I wrote as part of the Jenny McKean Moore fiction workshop at GW. Shortly after I finished Guava Summer which I can't really say is a sequel, but has the same characters and gets into some themes about totalitarianism. When I was at Breadloaf I attended a seminar on "Tell, Don't Show" which was SO UP MY ALLEY. I was tired of the parroting of "Show don't tell" in workshops, because sometimes telling is awesome. I became obsessed with the idea of having an entire story that was all telling, no showing. (to be fair I think the line between the two is fuzzy). I wrote Even the Precession of Earth Must Come to an End, which is all telling and takes place over about 7.5 billion years. Then one day I went to brunch and left a little drunk, wanting an ice cream sandwich. I went to this place that has good ice cream sandwiches but when I got to the counter she said they were all out. For some reason I can't explain, this is exactly the sort of thing that would embarrass me, so I ordered a cappuccino which I didn't really want. I don't drink caffeine that often (maybe once a week) because it makes me batshit, and because I don't drink it that often, it has an even stronger effect on me. So then I was pretty drunk AND really wired, and came home and wrote an entire story just based off the title which popped in my head, I Saw Goody McDerry With the Devil. 

Another awesome thing that happened? I went to VONA this summer, a writing conference for minorities. My class (genre fiction) was all girls AND THEY WERE ALL AWESOME. I had so much fun getting to know them and had so many conversations at that conference that I haven't had anywhere else. Black poets continue to blow my mind. I ate an entire Philly cheesesteak myself. I had some beers. We talked about how we were or weren't addressing race in our works and I hadn't really thought about it before. We danced really late into the night. Fun was had. 

A story that was accepted last year, The Derecho, got published. It's about a catfish catfishing a catfish, and is part of a growing pile of stories I've written that take place in DC. In other DC news, through contacts I made at various conferences, I started to meet other writers and go to readings in the area. I knew there were writers here, but for some reason hadn't tried connecting with them before. 

On the submission front, I started sending out my speculative stories, and judging from the response I'm getting from them, I'm confident they will be getting picked up soon. I wasn't sure if being a novelist (published, anyway) was necessarily in my future, but when I got back from VONA it occurred to me that I had enough short stories to form a collection. So I did that! And I like it! I'm starting to send it places! For some reason I never thought of putting them together before, but now that I have, it's interesting to see that 1) I have enough for an entire book and 2) how they fit with each other. Some of the themes are the same, even if the content is radically different. Some fit snugly into the standard literary realist tradition and some involve people getting their detached heads reattached. 

Then in the fall came the equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I must have been thinking of the Goody McDerry story. Or this thriller I had written a third of but put down for a while.  It took place in college and I continue to love books that take place in college.  My friend from Boston was visiting and we were walking home and I said, "What if there was like an entire school filled with psychopaths?"  I suddenly wrote a novel. It just appeared, like an unplanned pregnancy, and forced itself out with a really short gestation period. I write really quickly once I have plot figured out. The characters and voice lent themselves to a plot that seemed to write itself. I have to say, it was my first time using Scrivener, which I was initially really skeptical of. (Kind of like how I was super skeptical of anyone who bakes but doesn't mix things by hand. Only last week I bought my first Kitchen Aid). I liked the ability to move scenes around without it being a pain in the ass. The visual representation of scenes and chapters made plotting easier. I'll try it for my next book and see how I feel. The program isn't that expensive, and I definitely don't use all the bells and whistles, but I guess I would say it's worth the cost. 

So now that I think about it, I did get a lot accomplished this year. I plan on chilling out for the next two months. Doing some baking, some editing, maybe beta reading for someone. Relaxing, I guess. 

Review: The Dinner

TLDR: Don't bother. 

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This was a surprisingly bad execution of Herman Koch's novel The Dinner, which I read a few years ago. I enjoyed the book--this even despite it employing one of my least favorite tactics. The novel centers around two couples going to a fancy dinner--a former teacher and his wife, and a promising candidate for governor and his wife. I liked how the book rolled into the scene, quickly making you think that the main conflict is between Paul (the teacher, who is antagonistic towards his brother), and Stan (the politician). As the seemingly unendless dinner unfolds, you find out what the real conflict is: that the couples' children have done something really awful, and now they must figure out what to do about it. There are some reversals here which are interesting. 

Both the portrayal of the characters and the dinner itself are very good. Sad when you have a really competent cast and then give them crappy material. Steve Coogan plays Paul so effectively that I don't think I've ever wanted to scream "Shut the fuck up and let him talk!" at a TV more. He is the obnoxious relative that just can't keep his mouth shut when he has some political opinion, or wants to distract the argument from the point someone else is trying to make. You start out almost being sympathetic with him--a more humble man that thinks going to an ostentatious tasting menu (and then asking for a better table) is what's wrong with society. But then he spirals down from there. The other three actors are also good, Richard Gere in particular. 

The dinner itself is appropriately portrayed in a way that is infuriating. Occasionally you glimpse these super-bougie dishes and have to sit through the long explanations of the dishes. (This reminded me of the incredibly tense scene at the Mexican restaurant toward the end of Breaking Bad--where threats abound until an oblivious waiter pops in to offer guac.). You kind of want to pull your hair out because no one attending the dinner can actually sit in their goddamned seat for more than two minutes: someone is always taking a phone call, storming off, or just wandering away. (I hope they left a very, very large tip.) The dialogue is also good-- people talk over each other, things are alluded to but not explained for the sake of the reader. 

But the movie definitely falls flat when it comes to the fundamental skeleton of the story. For one, it's too long and there are parts where you wonder "why is this here?" There are also parts where I wondered "why did they cut this out from the book?" (SPOILER: mainly, they definitely made it seem like Paul had some mental health issues, but did not explicitly draw the connection to his son via the test results. Also the movie version of his wife says that his medication makes him "numb" and that she prefers the real him, but in the book this definitely comes off as more sinister/ fucked up, and less like "maybe we should try a different prescription. Also the ending, ie, the book had one). There's some scenes about the Civil War that were so long that I fast forwarded. 

Then the end, where it falls flat. It literally ended in such a place that when the credits started rolling I went back and rewound, thinking there was something wrong with my TV. A movie with no ending is worse than a movie with a bad ending because at least you feel like you got to a destination.