“The Housekeeper” is Published!

My near-prize-winning story “The Housekeeper” was published today on Flatmancrooked! (Find it here!) “The Housekeeper” was a finalist for FMC’s 2010 Fiction Prize and will also be featured in their forthcoming print anthology, Flatmancrooked 4, later this winter.

I’ve previously blogged on the roots for this story here, if you’re interested in the seed.

Pub Updates (and an Update to the Updates)

UPDATE: My review of Nadifa Mohamed’s novel Black Mamba Boy has been scheduled for the Summer 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner! This will be my second published review with PS.

It sounds like Flatmancrooked will be running my story “The Housekeeper” in their web journal next Wednesday, January 19.The story will also be featured in their upcoming print fiction anthology, Flatmancrooked 4, which is currently at the printers and should be hitting mailboxes before winter ends.

The first half of 2011 is shaping up nicely. My story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be in the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, in the next couple months I’d wager–no matter what Unadilla Bill has to say–and “The Current State of the Universe” will be published by The Cincinnati Review in May.

Weeks of Nov 8 – Dec 5, 2010

So, as of my last post, “The Housekeeper” was a finalist for the 2010 Flatmancrooked Fiction Prize, but I hadn’t yet learned if it had won or not. It did not win, but the story will be featured as an online feature and in the forthcoming anthology Flatmancrooked 4. With this acceptance and with “Kleinhardt’s Women” appearing soon on Fogged Clarity, I’m up to thirteen short stories that have been published or are forthcoming. Pretty sweet! It’s also the sixth time I’ve received honorable mention in a contest.

The seed for this story came from reading about how famous B-move director Ed Wood died. I’d seen the Tim Burton biopic many times and, wanting to learn more, came across the story of how Ed died, in which he supposedly lay in bed screaming for help for ninety minutes before his wife came and found him dead. (Of course, he’d been known to fake heart attacks on many occasions before, so it makes all the sense in the world that his wife would doubt him, tragically.) Anyway, this interested me and I tucked the idea away that I could use this in a story some day—a writer of lurid outré novels and other kinds of smut who ends up so isolated from his loved ones that he would die in a similar fashion as Ed Wood did. Nearly a year later Nicole brought to my attention a series of classified ads that was running in the Omaha World-Herald, all placed by a woman who was trying to start up this giant Christian charity based out of her house. She was advertising things like petting zoos, silent auctions, cherub choirs, parades. It was all very bizarre. She created her own system of currency for her enterprise (CC Bucks) and ultimately wanted to host a rally at the Qwest Center that would feature Sly Stallone. God told her to do all this in a vision. Once I saw these ads, I knew that I’d found a match for the Ed Wood character that I’d already sketched out.

-Also, do take a listen to Myfanwy Collins receiving the good news from FMC editor Elijah Jenkins. It’s always tricky accepting good news over the phone, I think, but Myfanwy does it exceptionally well. I always sound like a phony in those situations, unable verbalize my excitement and gratitude. Myfanwy and I have known each other, in an internet sense, for a number of years now. As an undergrad I often participated in the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, and had the pleasure of trading reviews with Myfanwy on several occasions. We both had stories in FMC’s 2009 anthology, Great New Writing Done During an Economic Depression, and our nominated stories will both be in the upcoming Flatmancrooked 4, due out late in 2011. Anyway, there are few people out there more deserving than Myfanwy Collins and I’m very excited for her victory here. If anyone was going to take the prize over me, I’m glad it’s her.

Dispatch from “The Housekeeper”

“Scott was a rational person, after all. It was just that being home made him panic. He’d moved on, he’d left the weirdness of his youth behind. It wasn’t fair that his co-workers might discover these things about him in the newspaper. If they knew his mother claimed to have visions of God it would ruin all of the cachet Scott had built in life, in his real life, the one that started the very second he moved out of this house. And if his friends knew about Peggy, it would only be a matter of time before they found out about Frank, the weirdo writer, the dishonorably discharged fairy who spent most of his bizarre life locked in an upstairs bedroom committing his wet dreams to paper. And if his friends at work knew about his father—if his church somehow found out—then it would be all over for Scott. All he wanted was to have his own life, to go on without being weighed down by the oddity of others, to be of and from nothing and no one.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Michigan Quarterly Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” and Alaska Quarterly Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Now Reading

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin.

Weeks of Oct 10 – Nov 7, 2010

-For my birthday this week, Nicole took me to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. We had a pretty engaging afternoon there and really enjoyed the experience. None of the exhibits had a ton of specific relevancy to the novel I’m working on—besides general period details—but it’s always nice to be immersed in the subjects and obsessions of the era. And for someone who loves history, it’s an awesome way to spend an afternoon.

Prussian field helmets and swords. The skull-and-crossbones one is pretty badass. A model of it was not, unfortunately, available for purchase in the museum gift shop.

The museum itself is pretty interactive for what is still largely an objects-behind-glass arrangement. There are life-size models of multiple trench scenes, from a well-engineered German one of concrete and lumber, to a French one of mostly sticks collapsing in the mud; a steady soundtrack plays in the background of what it would sound like in the trenches; and a walk-through crater show the devastation caused after a 17-inch howitzer shell explodes on a French farmhouse. There is also a special exhibit on display now regarding the experience of German soldiers in the war, which was interesting. In general, the museum is noteworthy for presenting a more balanced perspective on the war years—rather than tilting too strongly toward an Allies-centric point of view—and this is something I really appreciated. For anyone interested in the era, I highly recommend visiting the museum. And for anyone interested in antique elevators, the ride up in the Liberty Memorial is not to be missed!

A military uniform for belligerent children.

-One of the more pleasantly surprising parts of the museum was finding the Willa Cather novel One of Ours (1922) in the gift shop. For a long time I’ve been looking for sources that depicted the time and place I’m writing about in my novel, and for the most part coming up empty. For some reason it never occurred to me that Cather would have given some treatment to the Great War in her writing. And not only did she write a novel about a family of Nebraskans during the war years, but the surname of the book’s protagonist is Wheeler! Beyond that, I feel pretty stupid for not knowing more about this novel, as Cather won a Pulitzer for it too. I’ve read a few Cather books and some of her short stories–but have always suspected that this wasn’t nearly enough, and that my ignorance would come back to haunt me some day. I better get to work rectifying that.

Nicole and I outside the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. It was very bright.

Further: what other novels am I’m not thinking of that are set in Nebraska in the years 1916-1920?

-I’ve been meaning to post a reflective piece on here regarding my story “The Housekeeper” being selected for publication in the forthcoming Flatmancrooked 4 anthology. However, the story is still a finalist in their current fiction contest and I’m waiting on the results before posting anything more about it.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Jacob knew all the stops would be pulled here on the River Ward in the pursuit of a margin big enough to overcome the rest of the city. They had to win by a landslide here because the other districts were going to swing the other way. There could be no parity in this district that Dennison controlled. Voters on the payroll of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City would arrive throughout the morning to cast their ballots, along with others recruited for this purpose from towns in Iowa like Red Oak, Glenwood, Griswold, and Walnut. Every barroom in the Ward was rented and stocked with liquor. Bootleggers who owed their survival to Dennison saw to these private parties. The booze was reserved for those who held both a slip that proved they’d voted and a card printed with the names of the Square Seven. It was all about mobilization and efficiency, making sure that each and every favor handed down over the past three years was called in during polling hours. If a family received coal over the winter, if their grocery bill or bar tab was covered, if they were granted leniency from a judge—then a car would appear outside their home on Election Day to shuttle them to a poll.

Maddie before pre-school one morning this fall. She wears all pink, as often as possible.

“It was up to Jacob to oversee the operation on Clandish from a polling station in the basement of Mecklenburg’s Saloon. When he returned from Iowa, the barroom was already half full of voters and more were coming in all the time. Mecklenburg’s would be packed by 6am; nickel beer was discounted down to a penny. It was an amazing operation to watch, its controlled chaos exhilarating. Trucks lined up at the curb, back from Iowa in the middle of the night with two dozen voters packed on their hay-strewn flatbeds. The street cars were running already too, full of Pendergast’s men from the train stations, recent arrivals from Kansas City. Johann and Reinhold lined them up inside and meted out the booze. His suitcase still in hand, Jacob stood back and watched it all until it was time to instruct the voters. In groups of ten, Reinhold escorted them to the basement of Mecklenburg’s. Jacob and Johann followed them down the steps, into the dug out space under the barroom. There were two rooms separated by a narrow doorway. The basement had been an afterthought, one dug out roughly and bricked in. Jacob recognized the work, a former tunneler himself. A light hung from a rafter, its wire snaked in from a hole drilled in the barroom floor above them.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Cream City Review for “Attend the Way”; Painted Bride for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; n+1 for “Shame Cycle”; and Barnstorm and Camera Obscura for “You Know That I Loved You.” Florida Review and Harvard Review also sent nice notes along after I withdrew manuscripts that had been accepted elsewhere, which is very much appreciated. Plus, “The Housekeeper” was selected as a finalist in the Flatmancrooked Fiction Contest, and will appear in the anthology Flatmancrooked 4, and my review of Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy was selected to appear in a future edition of Prairie Schooner.

Just Finished

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca. A very strong collection. I plan on writing a review of this very soon.

Now Reading

One of Ours by Willa Cather.

Up Next

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin.

Contest Mania!

The good news continues! My short story “The Housekeeper” was today named a finalist for the 2010 Flatmancrooked Fiction Prize!

The prize winner and runner up will be announced later this month–wish me luck–but all ten finalist stories will be published in the forthcoming anthology Flatmancrooked 4. Benjamin Percy will judge.

So double good news with the possibility of more to follow. Not bad for a Columbus Day.

Month of Sept 14-Oct 11, 2009

“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.”

-Anton Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky

Novel Work
I’m usually a bit leery of prescriptive revision techniques, maybe because they seem like a hard way of doing something I might not want to do in the first place. However, there’s one such strategy I’ve really come to rely on in revision. I’m unable to track down whose idea this is, but the basic idea is to cut 10% of the length from what you think is the final draft. This is generally a pretty hard thing to do but it puts a lot of pressure on each and every word and description to pull its own weight. Typically it starts off cutting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, as Chekhov advises above, although there usually aren’t enough of these to meet quota, so it becomes clearer that a certain paragraph is kind of superfluous, or that the third flashback is a bit indulgent. The rule seems a bit too arbitrary on its face, but it’s never really done me wrong. It requires a lot of hard work and difficult decisions, of course, but that’s the point. You can’t be soft anymore: you have to kill your darlings. And assuming the core of the story remains, it almost always will be better as at eighteen pages than it was at twenty.

For most of the past four months I’ve been at work revising the first part of my novel. This includes many different styles of revision, from writing freely within the document on the computer to expand scenes and explore point-of-view in new ways, to writing new scenes with brand new characters in order to find ways to recast the emotional feel of characterization and scene, to using crude statistical measure to rethink structure, to letting the ink flow freely on a hard copy edition. At one point Part I had grown to 160 pages. This was much too long, but I wanted to lay all my cards on the table, so to speak. Coming into last week I’d pared it down to a much more manageable 112 pages, which is where the 10% rule came into play. You’ll have to excuse me, because I only made it down to 104 pages, four short of my goal. But it still feels pretty good, I must say. There’s more to do, but I don’t want to get carried away at this point.

I’ve been plugging away at Part II as well, mostly revising the first forty pages or so to present in workshop for the class I’m taking right now. I really like how this part is coming together. I’ve been working here with a much looser outline and feel like it’s a better strategy for me. Instead of plotting out each move, I set a goal to meet in each chapter (something like getting a character to a certain place physically and emotionally) with a group of benchmarks to achieve throughout. (This is how I outline short stories as well, by the way.) This way I can follow the characters more, let them move more freely, without too much of a constrictive superstructure. All’s well that ends well, but the overly specific outline used in Part I will probably have to be scrapped for the most part. It will be useful for setting goals and benchmarks, as most of my ideas are in there, even though it seems stupid to stick so closely to something when the story wants to go elsewhere. Yes? Hopefully this will save a lot of time in revision if I’m not fighting things in the drafting stage.

Dispatch from The Open City
“It worried Esther, the way Michael was terrified of cars. She’d seen him walking many times (anyone who drove in midtown with any frequency would have seen him, a constant pedestrian of city streets) and she had an idea of the misery he struggled with. Esther had secretly watched him jump back from the street for no apparent reason, startled by the rumble of a passing truck or the screech of bald tires on an oil slick road. Or how he was sometimes compelled to walk in the grass strips that fronted small businesses when he sensed the dark energy of an impending collision, dreading that moment of terror when an oncoming motorist jerks their wheel suddenly away, remembering almost too late that they’re not the only one on the road. Michael only rode with Esther when absolutely necessary, angled tensely in the passenger seat. It wasn’t healthy, this behavior, but Esther didn’t know what she could do to help.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Near Misses
Opium for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Cream City Review for “The Man Who Never Was”; South Dakota Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; and Copper Nickel for “From Indiana.” And as previously noted in this blog, my review of Lydia Peelle’s short fiction collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing was accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner!

Just Finished
Exiles by Ron Hansen. I wasn’t into this so much at first but the final eighty pages or so were really quite good. Hansen spent an awful lot of time on the history lessons of the novel, something that pushed me out of the story. Much of the Kulturkampf stuff was pretty interesting, however. Once we actually got into the action of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland and the tragic series of events that led to the early demise of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins the book became intensely engaging. It surprised me how much I felt for Hopkins and his plight as a Jesuit priest, being transferred around and misunderstood.

Now Reading
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Just started this one yesterday and read nearly a hundred pages, which is pretty good for me, a slow, slow tortoise reader. Aside from some questionable exclamation point usages, this one really has me on the hook.

Up Next
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

Link of the Week
Duotrope’s Digest. An unsurpassable database of literary journals, magazines, webzines, and other publications looking for submissions. This is a must for any writer looking for new markets, and was how I found homes for my work in Flatmancrooked and Johnny America. The random market feature is kind of fun too.

Featured Market
Prairie Schooner. Since we’re going with Duotrope up top, lets go with an old standard here. And since I’m now a Senior Fiction Reader at PS, go ahead and send us your very best work soon. Our reading period is currently open.