Data Dive: The Derecho

I've only had a couple moments of my life where I thought I might actually die, and the derecho of 2012 was one of those moments. I was driving some friends home and the weather was perfectly normal, until it suddenly got really windy.  In less than 60 seconds it had gone from "relatively pleasant albeit grey" out to violent winds, torrential rain, and pieces of trees and garbage flying around. We ended up trapped on a narrow road that lets into Massachusetts Avenue that is thickly lined with trees.  All the cars were at a complete standstill because a tree had fallen in the road.  Some people had gotten out and were trying (in vain) to move it--it also seemed like a dangerous move because trees were still coming down.  And this is exactly what happened.  A huge tree branch broke off and fell on the roof of my car, denting it significantly.  It felt like another one could drop at any second and I could neither move forward or backward.  It occurred to me suddenly that I was responsible for all three lives of the people in my car and that this would be a dumb, ridiculous way to die. After all the horrific ways I had pictured my own death, a tree branch hardly seemed a poetic ending.

NASA Satellites Examine a Powerful Summer Storm [video]

NASA imagery of the derecho moving east.

I am also, reluctantly, a huge fan of the MTV show Catfish. Something about the way it is filmed and the topic matter is really addictive even though each show is some permutation of the last. Also, the show is totally fake, and at this point they should push off into new territory--like actually investigating cases without permission from the offending party (ala the documentary Tickled, which if you haven't seen, you should because it is so batshit.) The one thing I do believe is that there are a significant number of people who engage in online relationships (even leading to engagement) with various absurdly improbable aspects. Your girlfriend is a super hot model who can never videochat but has an endless stream of Instagram posts. Your boyfriend meant to meet up with you three times but had an car accident each time. You have to wonder that these people actually know in their hearts that the other person isn't real. But that there's something they still get out of the relationship, and a fake relationship is always better than a real one.

Number of submissions: 7.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 57%.  Time from completing story until publication: 1 year, 1 month.

Data Dive: Grin and Bear It

This was my first and only piece of nonfiction.  It's been a couple years since I wrote it, and I've had a lot of time to reflect back about those events.  It was selected for an anthology of DC-based stories published annually by Politics and Prose, an awesome independent bookstore which is an establishment in this city.  I do feel this was the best home for this story and am pleased to be included in a collection with other DC writers.  They held a reading for the rollout of the anthology and I attended it with Sarah (the one mentioned in the piece.) 

If you're curious about the pandas, it really was a stupid big deal..

Becky Malinsky/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Becky Malinsky/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Pandas are so stupid.  Exception:

Number of submissions: 8.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 25%.  Time from completing story until publication: 1 year, 4 months. I make absolutely no apologies for the pun in the title.

Data dive: Every Ghost Story is a Love Story


"Ghost Story" was the first story I wrote after an almost decade-long hiatus from writing fiction.  (Grad school, life, etc.)  Psychopomp Magazine published it this fall (it did place, but did not make the cut in Fiction Desk's Ghost Story competition.) 

The story is very much inspired by the rowhouses that line many streets in DC.  If you've never seen one, they tend to be strangely narrow but deep, and they are connected directly to neighbors (leading to delightful noise issues at times).  They typically have an English Basement (which is more half underground than actually underground) with a walk up to the "first floor."  I found these houses delightful when I first moved here, but have since decided that I never want to live in one.  Some of the rowhouses in DC date way back, which on the one hand means sometimes long and interesting histories, but on the other can also translate into creepiness.  Creaking stairways, wooden floors that "settle," old pipes that make mysterious clanging noises.  The potential for ghosts seems high...

Logan Circle rowhouses, picture by  AgnosticPreachersKid

Logan Circle rowhouses, picture by AgnosticPreachersKid

As I've lived here for a while, I've become more interested in not-necessarily-politically-related history about the city.  Below is an old picture from the National Park Service of Meridian Hill Park (mentioned in the story).  Way back when the city was first created, all the land it was eventually built on was owned by one rich dude.  Then the hill was used as a vantage point during the Civil War before it was eventually turned into the park.  The image below is a bit idyllic; when I was here a couple decades ago, the park had a reputation as a place for anonymous sex, drug dealing, and getting stabbed and stuff.  It's a bit cleaned up now (probably all of the above are true, but its nice during the daytime and kids play soccer), but there definitely isn't neatly trimmed topiary or lily pads last time I checked.   One of the things I would love to do via fiction is highlight that side of DC that is not the DC you see on TV.  On the one hand there's House of Cards and All the President's Men. But on the other, there are tons of people that you never see on your TV or in your standard "The corruption goes all the way to the top!" thriller.  My friends are teachers and medical professionals, security folks and all kinds of lawyers, IT people, chefs, and artists.  There are people who never wear suits and people who sport them every day.  And you live in this weird city where occasionally you're stuck in your car and hangry because the traffic holdup is a motorcade, where you might bump into a Supreme Court justice, or where people say "well if we get nuked we'll be first, so we won't feel it."  Anyhow, add this story to my collection of DC stories that have nothing to do with politics.

Number of submissions: 44.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 27%.  Time from completing story until publication: about 3 years.  Lesson to be learned: if you keep getting positive feedback on a story, keep sending it out. I'm happy this one found a home. The title actually is a reference to the David Foster Wallace biography, but the story isn't about him.  (My friend came up with the inverted title, which I thought was clever, so I kept it.)

Data Dive #3: The Bleeding Room

The Bleeding Room was just published in Glimmer Train in Winter 2015, but I originally wrote it more than 10 years ago in the fall of 2002.  I submitted this story a few times nonsimultaneously in the early 2000s, stopped sending it out for 10 years, and then, on a whim, submitted it to one of Glimmer Train's Fiction Opens.  It placed second, and was published with no revisions from the original finalized text.  All of the journals I submitted it to are really well respected, but submitting to them one at a time was a silly thing to do.  Then there was a 10 year period where I literally forgot about this story and I wasn't really writing much because Iwas busy with grad school.  One day I thought to myself, you know, maybe I should get back into that writing thing.  I never expected to place in the contest, but once I did, it gave me a confidence boost that launched an incredibly productive period of writing and submitting for me.

If you look at the below graph you see something moderately interesting.  These are the acceptance rates (according to Duotrope) of all the journals I submitted the story to. These fluctuate in general right after something gets accepted and gets input into the system, and who knows what percent of submitting writers actually use Duotrope, but some data is better than none I guess.  Bottom line of the below chart: this story was rejected by several magazines that are "easier" to get into than Glimmer Train is.  You can never account for subjectivity.  I still believe in tiered submissions, but ultimately, it's somewhat arbitrary which specific journal picks up a story. 


Acceptance Rates at Submitted Journals (%)

H was a contest, but the reported rate is for general submissions

Number of submissions: 9.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 22%.  Time from completing story until publication: 13 years.  This was my first acceptance.

Data Dive: "Twelve Years, Eight-Hundred Seventy-Two Miles"

Photo of the Arizona desert from the National Archives.

Photo of the Arizona desert from the National Archives.

Woe is the writer who happens to write a story that runs from 8,000 to 40,000 words!  The dreaded novella.  Dreaded only for the reason that there are so few markets who take them (I will shortly be adding another post detailing a non-exhaustive list of literary magazines that take novellas).  This is why you have to be twice as persistent when it comes to shopping novellas, and maybe come to the realization that some may only get to live on in a collection. 

"Twelve Years..." is a story about two brothers taking a road trip from LA to Arizona to see their father executed on Death Row.  That makes it sound darker than it is, as it's really a comedy with some dark undertones.  A road trip offers a unique setting where the characters are essentially trapped in a car for hours.  They will talk, and shit-talk, and argue, and tell stories. 

The idea for this story originally came to me when I was in graduate school in California.  I had driven across the desert to Las Vegas or to San Francisco more than a few times during my time on the West Coast.  There is something eerie about the desert.  When you stare out the window at this totally uninhabited land, it isn't too hard to think back to a time when it hadn't yet been explored.  It's beautiful, but desolate and terribly lonely.  I wasn't writing during that long stretch of time in CA, but some ideas for stories stuck with me, and I ended up writing this in 2013 when I was living in DC.  It was actually during that odd period of a few weeks of government shutdown when Congress was, you know, being Congress.  I was inhabiting coffee shops on the weekends, and would occasionally hear an odd tidbit like, "I'm just gonna break into that park man--what are they going to do, stop me?"  (They did stop people, incidentally.  I tried to go to Great Falls during that time and was turned away by a park ranger.) 

Day One had given me positive feedback about a speculative science fiction novella I had submitted in the spring of 2015, so I thought "Twelve Years" might have a decent chance.  I was surprised when four days later the editor sent me an email asking if she could call me.  (Call me?  Why??  To tell me that she liked the story, but that it was too long which is such a shame because she sorta liked it, which is what a couple other journals said?) 

No, she wanted to publish it.  I must have been grinning like an idiot during that phone call.  I love all the things I write in different ways, but there's something about "Twelve Years" that's always made it close to my heart.  Or maybe it's because each of my novellas is like a tender duckling with little hope of seeing the other side unless I tend, tend, tend to it to find it the right home. 

When this baby goes out--in mid-September, I'm told--it will have been the longest thing I've published, but not the longest thing I've written.  It will mean I have a product on Amazon that could be reviewed--yikes.  It will mean disseminating an awesome joke I once made about traffic in LA to an entire population of readers.  Score. 

Number of submissions: 12 (3 of these were contests). Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 35%. Time elapsed between completion of story and publication: 1.5 years.

Data Dive #2: Whatever Happened to the Six Wives of Henry the VIII

I love the New Yorker's fiction podcast.  On each podcast, a New Yorker author reads another author's short story, and then discusses it with the fiction editor, who has the most soothing voice ever.  I really like this part at the end because it includes a mixture of analysis, editorial notes, and interesting tidbits like "I don't know what he was thinking or even what that means, but I always loved that part."  One author selected a Donald Barthelme story that I originally read when I was an undergrad.  I remember how much I loved it back then, and how awesome it was that you could take facts and then completely make up stuff about those real facts because ultimately, it doesn't matter. 

So I thought about Anne Boleyn on the cover of Forbes Magazine with the stitch marks of where they had reattached her head.  This became a short story about all 6 wives of Henry the VIII converging in one location for a reunion of sorts.

"Whatever Happened.." was ultimately a perfect match for Southern California Review because they were doing a themed issue on "Remnants."  At its core, it is fundamentally a story about the wreckage left behind after a relationship ends (either by divorce of beheading, in Henry the VIII's case). 

Number of submissions: 13. Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 38%. Time elapsed between completion of story and publication: 1 year.

Data Dive #1: "Crushed"

Cover art by Gary Golightly

Cover art by Gary Golightly

I was reading the author's contribution notes to Best American Short Stories once and one of the authors said something like "This story was rejected 20 times before X picked it up.  Now it's in BASS.  I just wanted to put that out there for other writers."  A writing professor once told me that the students from his MFA that went on to be the most published weren't the best writers, but were the people who were the most persistent.  I'm willing to guess that a publication record is some combination of talent, luck, persistence, and submission strategy.

I'm interested in the metrics behind publication--from the writers' end, not the publishing end, particularly because people often don't talk about it.  I started making submissions was I was incredibly young and clueless and basically didn't have a writing network at all to compare notes with.  This was before every journal had a real working website, and way before online journals.  This was when Duotrope was free.  I think something like a decade passed between my two logins--one a few years ago, one when the USSR was still a country or something.  I know some folks are angry about Duotrope not being free anymore, but I will happily pay for anything that gives me data.  Because data is my precious.

"Crushed" was published in The Pinch in 2014, but I actually wrote it more than ten years ago for a college writing workshop.  I submitted it a handful of times back in early 2000s--nonsimultaneously, cringeworthy, now that I think about it, but my recollection is that back then that a lot of lit mags didn't allow simultaneous submissions.  (I'm extremely happy that almost all journals have since changed their minds on that issue.)  Back then, the only "data" I had available was the actual literary magazines I could physically get my hands on at the bookstore or at college libraries.  Bookstores didn't carry a ton of them back then, so if I could get my paws on it, I would submit to it, which often meant I was submitting to magazines that were super prestigious.  The problem was that I had no idea of what was prestigious--I didn't really know anyone who was seriously involved in the writing world, so as far as I knew Missouri Review and Podunk Quarterly could have been equally as good.  I don't even think I regularly used the internet back then to find journals--I had a ricochet modem in my dorm room (yup, that was a thing) and I'm pretty sure I wrote papers by looking up topics using the Dewey Decimal System.  I'm probably exaggerating.  But maybe not.  While this was a terrible submission strategy there's one thing psychologically interesting about it: submit to journals without knowing how hard they are to get into.  It's the equivalent of not being scared off of asking out a girl because she's really hot.  (I mean, she's probably busy, right?)

This story got rejected 6 times when I was initially sending it out and I thought this meant the story was terrible.  There was this whole grad school thing and I stopped writing for almost 10 years.  Then a decade later I started sending it out again, and on the 9th submission it was taken.  So a story that was first sent out in the summer of 2001 was eventually published more than 10 years later, with basically no revisions. 

Number of submissions: 9.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 20%.  Time from completing story until publication: 13 years.