February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

http://bygonebureau.com/2010/12/08/best-books-of-2010/

http://robaroundbooks.com/2010/09/afterthoughts-kapitoil-by-teddy-wayne/

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

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

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Weeks of Dec 6, 2010 – Jan 6, 2011: On Going First-to-Third

(Note: This isn’t a baseball entry.)

For the past month or so I’ve been toying with point-of-view in my novel, first going from a close third-person to first-person narrated by Jacob Bressler, my lead character. I’m not really sure what my goal for doing this was. Something just didn’t sound right with the “voice” telling the story and I wanted to try something different. Some of the feedback I’ve received from potential agents spoke to Hyphenates being a book focused on history and setting, rather than story and character, and I’m trying to break that hold. So I figured that Jacob could tell his story more succinctly, since it’s all he would care about. He wouldn’t obsess over Omaha history or factoids of the era as much as I do, certainly, and sometimes it’s easier to slip those lovelies in while in third-person. I needed a more discerning eye. It’s like how you don’t realize how embarrassing something is until you say it out loud to another person, or post it in online. But once you open your mouth, you can see things so much more clearly and objectively.

The experiment didn’t really work. Conventional wisdom says that novels shouldn’t be written exclusively, or even largely, in first-person, and I think that’s probably good advice. Around page fifty of the rework, it got pretty annoying to keep seeing and hearing that “I” all over the place. To be unable to break out of Jacob’s voice even for a minute is a problem, especially since he’s the focus of the book. But, even though I’m now in the process of reworking it back into third-person, I do think the exercise was worthwhile. It helped me see cuts and edits, and gaps where new work is needed, that weren’t apparent before. While it seemed acceptable to have a third-person narrator go into a page-and-a-half diatribe on the condition of organized labor in Omaha in 1917, having Jacob do the same was absolutely ridiculous. There were more than a few instances of this, where the scholarly, professorial voice would dominant for longish periods—and they all needed to be cut. The writing is much cleaner now, more focused and edgy in a way similar to my contemporary-set fiction.

I’d only made it through about a quarter of what I have drafted in the transition to first-person rework, but it may be worthwhile to push through the rest of it, even though I know that I’ll want it in third-person eventually. (I’ll probably want this.) I have used this technique in spots for the last year or so anyway, in fact, trying to tie the narration as closely to Jacob’s experience as I could. So much of the writing, especially in Part II, has already been rewritten, for my own benefit, in Jacob’s first-person. There’s just so much good that comes from writing around things like this. I imagine it’s similar to filmmakers shooting a scene from ten different angles, hoping to get one that looks and sounds and feels right. The dispatch below is a part I wrote new while in Jacob’s first-person, and it’s something I don’t think the third-person narrator could have come to. So there’s that.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The bank was open when I left the saloon, it was two o’clock, but I still didn’t go there and ask for a job. The weather was nice. Again I walked downtown, but it was boring this time. No women brushed against me. My clothes disgusted them, my face was filthy. I waited out the day and then returned to the Courthouse lawn in the evening to sleep. It was warm and I’d been safe there the night before. I knew at what time to cops would come to roust me, and would make it a point to leave before they came out with their cudgels. It seemed simple. But I was arrested anyway, after midnight, for vagrancy, and put in the overnight with the drunks and other indigents. I wasn’t disappointed to be arrested, however, after I was released. At least there was black coffee this way, and in the morning a bowl of white beans with a couple pieces of fat. Otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten that morning. The whole night I wished that I’d gone to the bank that day, however. There was plenty of time for regrets in the overnight, because the drunks couldn’t keep quiet. I thought of everyone I might have wronged in my life up to this point. Any pocket of guilt that had been waxed over was reopened. I thought of you that night, Evie, and why it was you had to leave Jackson those many years before. I thought you took off on your own. It never occurred to me that they’d run you and your mother off. Not until they ran me off too.”

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

Southern Humanities Review and Hayden’s Ferry for “Attend the Way”; Electric Literature for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; and West Branch for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Now Reading

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky.

Just Finished

A cover for Fortune designed by Chris Ware, by request. The magazine rejected it, of course. Pretty incredible nonetheless.

One of Ours by Willa Cather. A really great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set mostly in Central Nebraska and Lincoln, in the late 1910s. I was lucky to pick this up at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City this fall and it’s become a fantastic resource for me. The focus of the book is even a family named Wheeler! (I’ve gone over this before, I know. Indulge me.) The final third of the book, when Claude goes over to fight in the war, is pretty sentimental and Cather panders more than a little bit to jingoistic reactionism in these parts. But overall I really enjoyed the book. Cather has never disappointed. Plus, as an added bonus, there are a bunch of good old-timey ideas for home gardens in Nebraska, for all you green-thumbs out there. We’re going to try growing gourd vines up our pergola trellis this summer, and we have Cather to thank for that.

 

The Best American Comics 2010, edited by Neil Gaiman, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. My favorites include “The Lagoon (Hiding in the Water)” by Lilli Carré, “The Alcoholic” by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazzucchelli, “The War on Fornication” by Peter Bagge, “The Flood” by Josh Neufeld, and “Fiction versus Nonfiction” by Chris Ware. Ware also had a lengthy section of his ongoing series “Acme Novelty Library” reprinted, which I had seen some of before. In 2007 he gave a standing-room-only lecture at the Sheldon in Lincoln that Nicole and I attended, and a comics pamphlet featuring some of the comic reprinted here was given out as an example of his work. It was pretty cool to get the work then and is outstanding to see the longer version reprinted in a Best American. To make it even better, the comic is set in 1950s Omaha and uses the old Omaha World-Herald building (where Nicole worked when as first moved here) as a backdrop. There have been quite a few notable artists who have come out of Omaha in the last decade, but none of them have really attained giant-status in their field like Chris Ware has. It’s something that should really get more local recognition than it does.

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin. A solid literary thriller with meta-fictional treasures abound. I’m currently writing a review on this now.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

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.

Weeks of July 3 – Aug 4, 2010

This last weekend we spent some time in Niobrara, Neb. at the Blankenfeld family reunion. As you may know, I’ve been working with my Grandma on some ancestry projects over the past year, and it was nice to share some of the fruits of that labor. I’ve also been using some of the Blankenfeld family lore as a model for Jacob Bressler in my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County. In this regard, the trip was especially significant for me.

On the Blankenfeld homestead with my Grandma Cleo and Mother Marta.

We were able to visit the original Blankenfeld homestead site, where Jacob and Maria settled in 1885. Although no structures remain—there was a hill where the original dugout had been—it was pretty cool to just stand there and appreciate the terrain. The area hadn’t seemed especially rocky and hilly before, in my previous trips to the area, until I imagined trying to cultivate it by hand. Later, we stopped into a museum of sorts that was made from the preserved farm of my Great-Great-Grandfather Henry Blankenfeld. He’s the model for Jacob in the novel–visually, and some of his history as the son of immigrants–so it was really exciting to walk through the house and barn he built himself, to eat an apple from a tree he planted, to descend the staircase his wife descended on the day they were married.

It’s always difficult to appraise how valuable experiences like these will be to my work. For one, who knows where the writing is going to take me. Will I need to know what the grass smells like? The flora? The fauna? Or how the sky there has its own unique blue, the air a particularly humid cloyingness? Also, in Hyphenates, Jacob comes from a different part of the state, one with a terrain closer to Omaha’s than Niobrara’s. So it isn’t like I can just sit down and make a sketch of the landscape to use in the novel.

The Blankenfeld homestead, originally settled in 1885.

Mostly it’s just helpful to be there, to be put in a spot that’s loaded with memories specific to my family, and where events took place that were crucial to my very existence. I’ve always had the kind of memory that retains periphery details well, so it’s a great benefit to just listen to stories, especially while smelling the grass and listening to the leaves in a tree. It isn’t that I necessarily came away with anything specific that I can add to the story—and I’m not saying I didn’t, I just don’t know yet—but it feels like I’ve gained a much better appreciation of what it was like to be alive in a time other than my own, even if it isn’t the exact era I’m writing about. And that’s something that can’t really be replicated in an archive or by looking at old photographs. It’s getting caught up in other people’s memories, and not just that, but doing so while standing on the very ground where things happened.

Dispatch from “Shame Cycle”

“Anna was sixteen when she approached you at a downtown record store and you began seeing her not long after that. This was the summer before your freshman year of college, when she invited you to a party and claimed possession of your body, parading you around the smoky rooms of parties. You considered it a move up in social scene from the part-time Nu Metal rebels you knew in high school to this career class of punks. The hard-drinkers, veteran sludge rockers, and sometimes transients who pocked the city so visibly in those days. These were people Anna exposed you to, her friends. They hitchhiked to New York and ran drugs from the Mexican border for South Omaha gangs, they bought a tattoo gun to save trips to the parlor, they had shaved-in mullets and handlebar mustaches, they screamed swear words into ice cream parlors as protests against capitalism. These people were the real deal as far as you were concerned then—or as close to it as one could get in Omaha.”

Maddie and Cocoa up on a Missouri River vista.

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

BOMB for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Zoetrope: All-Story for “The Current State of the Universe”; Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Indiana Review for “The Housekeeper”; Caketrain for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.” My story “Shame Cycle” was a finalist for Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Awards, but it did not end up winning. There was no consolation prize.

Just Finished

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. An outstanding collection. Highly recommended. I liked it so much that I’ve written a glowing review of it, one that will hopefully be published soon.

Windmill at dusk.

Now Reading

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.

Up Next

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Weeks of Jun 7 – July 2, 2010

Big Sky

Since returning from AWP in early April, I’ve been preparing to query agents, and I’m happy to report that this week I’ve finally reached the end of this process—and the beginning of the next phase of actually finding new representation. It’s taken much longer than I anticipated, mostly because of a few rewrites that became necessary in these middle stages of editing. (With big thanks to my wife Nicole for helping me to see how the shape/plot arc of Hyphenates Part I was not all it could be.) My first-choice agency requested full manuscripts almost immediately and is now deliberating. Wish me luck! Coincidentally, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a pretty big-time agent at the end of last week requesting some work. That was pretty cool. Maybe I’ll be sending him something before long, depending on how my first-choice responds.

It’s been somewhat of a weird process the last six months. My first agent left her agency right before Christmas last year, which left me without representation. It was kind of jarring at first, to be let loose like that. I’d probably put too much stock in having an agent, let my sense of self-confidence become too large based upon the fact that, like Don DeLillo, Al Pacinco and A-Rod, I had an agent out there stumping on my behalf. We worked together for over a year on my story collection and, what turned out to be failed, first novel. There were a lot of good things that came from the relationship–such as the idea to switch focus to the historical thread I’m telling with Hyphenates–and I feel much richer for the experience. But it was nice to move on, frankly, to have some free space to work out exactly what I was doing with my books, to dig deeper into myself, and to do so as a writer, rather than as a producer of potential market share. It reminded me of the reasons why I really love doing this, having the chance to indulge daily in the small acts of creation and destruction that eventually tease out a story. These six months have given me the opportunity to refine my projects considerably. And I’m thankful for them. But now, it’s time to get back in the game, to pursue book publication with all I’ve got, and to provide for my family as best as I’m able.

Next week it’s back to work on Part II, which is nearly completed in rough draft form. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have it in some kind of acceptable shape and can move on to actually finishing the book by the end of this year. Not to jinx myself or anything.

Thanks a ton to all my readers who helped work my manuscripts into shape before I sent them off, sometimes on very short-notice. Amber, Bill, Mary Helen, Nabina, Nicole, Travis—you’re the best! And likewise for Jonis, Brent, Gregory, Justin, and Timothy, for giving advice and being advocates on my behalf. All of you are also the best.

-Nicole, Maddie and I were off in Fort Collins last weekend at a wedding. The photos in this post are from the trip.

Maddie really loves weddings.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“She was in the same clothes as before, the heavy red dress, torn and dirty by then. Her hair was thin, unpinned and breezy about her face. ‘Is that her?’ Strauss asked. ‘That’s the one you were on about last week?’ Jacob said, ‘Yeah,’ still with his hand on the Pfarrer’s shoulder, their faces close together as they stared at the girl. She was only twenty yards away from them, steadying herself against the trunk of a locust tree, one of the trees Jacob had slept under his first night in Omaha. ‘Her betrothed skipped town,’ Strauss said. It was obvious that the girl lived on the street now, that her family had turned its back on her, or she’d gone crazy and willingly exposed herself to the mutilating fractions of a city.”

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

Electric Literature for “The Current State of the Universe”; Alaska Quarterly Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Nashville Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Just Finished

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak. The first novel of a beloved Creighton professor, this one is highly enjoyable. A kind of folksy post-modern historical novel that seems largely drawn from family history and deals with the tumultuous love lives of our parents and grandparents before we knew them. MHS has a second historical novel coming out this fall, by the way.

We drove up into the mountains in a thunder storm and didn't run over any of the many bicyclers!

Now Reading

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman.

Up Next

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.

Books That Came in the Mail

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Novel History by Mark C. Carnes. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. Three Delays by Charlie Smith. The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.

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.