fiction

A petty list of unrealistic things that frequently appear in fiction that drive me crazy...

1. Incredibly intelligent characters who lack basic reasoning skills.
There's a draw to having whip-smart characters, but readers get pissed when the aforementioned brilliant characters miss obvious clues or repeatedly make dumb decisions for no other reason than serving the plot.  This does raise two interesting questions: 1) How do you write a character who might be smarter than you? [hint: you need to have a mystery that is actually difficult to solve and have your smart character navigate through it reasonably] 2) Why aren't there more books about people who aren't whip smart?  How about Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights solving mysteries? (Billy can help... when he's not getting in the way.  Twist: Jason Street turns out to be the killer.) I am, by the way, writing a whole other post about the overpopulation of brilliant people in contemporary fiction.  More on that later..

2. Buff characters who never work out. 
Buff doesn't grow on trees.  You have to schedule a lot of your life around the gym. You book hotels based on whether or not they have a gym.  Active people feel uncomfortable if they go several days without being active.  Corollary to this: thin women who never seem to work out and eat a lot of junk food because they just happen to have a high metabolism--I think this is a feeble attempt at being girlpower by not wanting to depict a woman who watches what she eats. But if you want to be progressive by not having women want to change their bodies, you don't get to also default to always having thin characters. There are people of all sizes who go to the gym, ones that don't, people who watch what they eat for whatever reason, people who don't. Real women in America, or at least a lot of them, talk and think about food in ways that are deeply fucked up.  Some of these women are strong, intelligent, complicated, and interesting.  There's nothing wrong with showing that.

3.  Scholarships don't exist.
Non-rich teen has no money and/or screws up their chances for a single scholarship by winning the spelling bee/ sheep-shearing contest/ ironic beauty pageant, so now they can't go to college!!!!  Their life is ruined!  Actually, it's called a FAFSA.  You can go to college, but welcome to the world of student debt we all live in.

4. Character is a CEO / high-powered attorney / neurosurgeon but never seems to be working.
This shit takes time.  And often times, lots of schooling.  Son who inherits company from his father and is a lazy ne'er-do-well--? More believable that Mr. Career awesome who never works.  

5.  Characters don't use cell phones the way they are actually used.
That is to say, to look up just about anything.  Realistically, the introduction of cell phones and the internet in general is a massive game changer in any mystery, horror, or danger type situation.  This is related to why I've been disappointed in horror movies in the past 15 or so years: the villains got smarter but the protagonists didn't become more clever. 

6.  Lame excuses for not telling the authorities/ cops/ parents when a dead body is discovered. 
Please provide a reasonable explanation as to why these people wouldn't just tell their parents or call the cops.  Remember HBO's The Night Of? If that ever happens to you, don't run away from the dead body, then go back, break in, get your keys, and then try to keep it a secret. He probably should have just stayed exactly where he was, touched nothing, and called the cops.* Lots of people don't actually trust the police, for legit reasons, but too often the excuse is, "but we can't call the cops because we can't!"  (*On second thought, if your name is Riz Ahmed, maybe call your dad and a lawyer first, and I guess I would say when a chick wants to play that knife-hand game, it is time to say you're going to the bathroom and run far, far away).

7.  Newbies handling guns with amazing accuracy and no fatigue, often holding them with one hand sideways.  Guns are heavy and hard to handle and even people who are highly trained professionals miss their targets. 

8. Cities devoid of minorities. Actually, this isn't petty but serious.  I can't stand when I read a book that takes place in a city I've spent a considerable amount of time in and the actual racial makeup of the city is depicted as wildly off.  California has a ton of Asians.  The real Beverly Hills High, from Beverly Hills 90210, has a large population of Persians, as does Los Angeles in general.  New York City is not just filled with 20-30-something aspiring hipster writers having epiphanies. If you want to write about an all white city, pick one that actually demographically looks that way.  Writing and talking about race is super awkward; at least we are at the point in time that we are starting to have the conversation. I admit I'm cautious about bringing up race in my own writing, both because I'm afraid of getting something wrong, but also because even being explicit about it sometimes makes people uncomfortable. I'm working on this. 

8. People die for literary sweeps week.  Remember on TV when you knew good shit was going to go down because it was sweeps week?  Similar to this, I hate how death is always a plot device in books.  Someone only dies if it serves some dramatic purpose.  In reality, sometimes death is a random wrench thrown into a machine that was originally headed in a different direction. I think this would be a really awesome way to get rid of Frank Underwood in House of Cards.  All this intrigue is going on where the journalists are closing in on all the shady stuff he has done. Chess pieces are being moved. Then, in the middle of everything, he up and has a heart attack, or his fucking rowing machine breaks, sending the fan part directly into his face and impaling his brain. Claire becomes president. All Claire all the time!!!

9. "As you know Bob" dialogue in general. NCIS is a perfect example of this. One biologist explaining to another what DNA is. One thing I loved about The Wire: there was absolutely no hand holding. 

10. No one ever has their period. Or almost never. And it's too often used for comedy rather than this thing that is there for a huge segment of the population. 

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: Every Ghost Story is a Love Story

FullSizeRender.jpg

"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.

NPS.gov

NPS.gov

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.)

In which I am on the top 100 Bestselling Kindle Singles list

I had to take a screen shot because I will probably never get to be on the same page as Stephen King (my idol), Jennifer Weiner, and Alexander Mccall Smith, all who have insane numbers of fans. This is for fiction Kindle Singles.

Proof that this actually occurred!

Proof that this actually occurred!

I actually have no idea how this happened.  "Twelve Years, Eight-Hundred and Seventy-two Miles" was published last fall, but there's been a bump in interest in the past few months.  I'm currently waiting on the data to see how many copies were actually sold/ downloaded.  What chicanery goes into calculating these ranks?  Who knows.  Being the obsessive person I am, I have been checking it a lot the past few days.  Within an hour of posting this, it will probably hop down to 400 or something.  But hey, for the next hour, this is where I'm hanging out.

World Building: Draw a Map in Your Awful Serial Killer Handwriting

At one point, I was writing about a small liberal arts school in New England that had been taken over by an armed cult.  When I was in high school this was the liberal arts college I had in mind—an amalgamation of every New England liberal arts school (minus the armed cult part).  Brick buildings with ivy growing on them, huge fields of green grass, a more or less enclosed space.  Somehow every single school I went to ended up being a city campus which probably is the best match for my personality, although when I was in graduate school and had a brief flirtation with becoming a professor, it was those campuses I was thinking about.  Small, enclosed, green grass.  Quirks I saw during a brief stay at Middlebury: the aggressive sign in the cafeteria which said “Please do not take the lunch trays—THAT’S NOT SUSTAINABLE!”  (Presumably people were taking them to go sledding.)  Also there was one main street “in town” that had one bar that everyone would go to. 

For the book I was writing, why bother going with a real school when I would make up my own and therefore have all my own rules (they can take the lunch trays whenever they want!!)  Particularly in stories that take place in an enclosed space, knowing where everything is—and having your characters know this intuitively without them figuring it out on the page—is critical.  How big is campus?  Where do people live?  Where do they eat or congregate after class?  Where did that kid get caught having sex in the bushes by the campus police?  Where’d they find the dead girl?  Where would you hide a gun where no one would find it?  How far do random pairings of characters live from each other? 

Yup.  That's a croissant stain.  Deal with it.

Yup.  That's a croissant stain.  Deal with it.

I’ve been working on a lot of things at once recently, but have wanted to get going on this speculative fiction thing I’m writing which is sort of like a literary/scifi retelling of the Jonestown Massacre.  So I more or less know the beginning and the end.  Our heroes arrive at a commune where family members have claimed that abuse is occurring.  It’s an enclosed space.  I know that things start out fine—the commune seems idyllic and people play volleyball and have plenty to eat.  Then things go horribly wrong.  How and where do they go wrong?  I didn’t have a pre-set idea of things already arranged in my head like I did for the college story so I figured I would start to draw a map and maybe fill things out.  I mean, if I were building a commune, where would people eat?  Sleep?  Where’d they bury the dead girl?  Where’s the fence weak?  Isn’t that an incredibly small area to grow crops for a commune that is allegedly self-sustainable..?

Points for anyone who can actually read this.

Points for anyone who can actually read this.

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.