So long, 2016

Saying good-bye to 2016 was something I’d long looked forward too — even while the impending doom of what’s to come in 2017 is not without its own anxiety and worry. I realize that, technically, the date changing from December 31 to January 1 is no more different than the change from September 3 to September 4. But still. There’s something about changing one year for another that just comes with some bit of closure. And when it comes to 2016, I think we all needed a little closure.

I’m looking to 2017 with realistic optimism. I think the worst parts of 2016 were the ones that blindsided me, that exposed my own complacency and the complicity that resulted from it. I’m a big fan of acceptance and embracing the realization that I can’t change others, I only can change myself, is something I’m clinging to mightily these days.

Despite the various shitstorms that 2016 rained upon us, there were many bright spots. There were babies born and children (and adults) who continued to learn and grow. There were friends made and relationships strengthened and risks taken, for better or for worse.

In my writing, I accomplished a great deal. Of the 93 submissions I sent out (yes, 93), eight resulted in acceptances (and 10 are still pending). That might not sound like a lot, but two of those eight were competitions: one where my story placed first, and the other where my story came in runner up. Not to mention that five of the eight acceptances came in December. FIVE. Getting five acceptances in one month was quite a boon to my confidence, albeit short-lived (ah, the self-doubt is strong). I also put together my first ever short story collection, compiling 12 of my flash fiction pieces into a chapbook length collection. That’s been a goal of mine for several years, so making it happen meant a lot.

2016 was a disaster. And the hits kept coming right to the bitter end (New Year’s Eve night at the emergency animal clinic with two kids and a kitten is exactly as much fun as it sounds). But the clock struck midnight, and it ended like all the others, making room for the clarity and perspective that hindsight allows.

And I welcome 2017 — its challenges and all — with open arms and, more importantly, an open mind.

Good-bye to 2014

Near the end of 2013, I created a list of goals for 2014. They were all professional goals related to my career (writing goals, editing goals, teaching goals). Early in 2014, I check in on that list periodically, but somewhere along the line, I lost track of checking in on the items listed there in favor of actually pursuing them. A very good thing.

Of the fifteen items on the list, I accomplished eight. Of the remaining seven, four fell by the wayside because of some new professional opportunities that arose (thereby making the ones on the list moot). So, I consider those a wash. Another was something I made the conscious decision not to pursue in favor of something else on the list (they were really competing goals), and another was something that I decided to hold off until 2015 because of some other more time-sensitive commitments in 2014. That leaves one goal that was missed, and there’s no excuses on it. It was a simple one that I should have stayed on top of, but I just didn’t. Nonetheless, I’d say I did pretty damn good for the year.

A goal that I discussed here, and that wasn’t on the list, had to do with my reading: My Year of the Short Story, which I wrote about back in March. I’d say this one was a success; of the ~47 books I read in 2014, 28 were short story collections (and four others were writing/craft books). That means about 60% of what I read were short stories. And, back in March, I said that my tentative goal “was to just make sure I’m reading more short stories than non-short stories for the year overall.” Boom. Another goal accomplished in 2014.

In addition, the experience of reading more short stories in 2014 also exposed me to several authors I wouldn’t have likely found otherwise (because they have only published in the short form). In fact, I ended up reading multiple collections by a few authors because I loved their work so much. I also found myself identifying with what I was reading in ways I haven’t before. In the past, most of my reading left me saying to myself, “Why do I think I can do this?” But the books I was reading this year—at least the short story collections—left me thinking, “I think I just might be able to do this.” In what I was reading, I found similar perceptions. Similar language use. Similar ideas and concepts. It was inspiring and, surprisingly, empowering.

The experience also let me reclaim my love for short stories. Through “forcing” myself to read more short stories, I remembered why I loved them so much. It’s such an amazing form of writing. So compact. So powerful. It left me feeling really good about writing (exclusively) in the short form at this time, and it has even spurned me to push myself to write even “shorter” going into 2015 (more on that later).

All in all, while I don’t have a ton of publications to show for 2014 (only two, with five submissions still pending), I did do a lot of writing and reading. I accomplished the most important of the goals I had for 2014, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. My writing is improving, my confidence is growing, and I’m ready to make some more goals for 2015.

Go Read Something!

I love a unique idea.

I love a unique idea that is executed well.

In this short story, a woman gives up her family for lent. The realizations and fallout that result are surprising.

It’s a beautiful story. Check out Kelcey Parker’s “Lent,” published by Image.

Writer’s Reading Review of “We Live in Water”

Basic information:

Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water marks his first collection of short fiction, but not his first published book. The stories collected here were mostly published elsewhere in publications like Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, etc. Most of the publications that have previously published his works are high quality, and this quality is reflected in the collection of stories, which mostly are located in the Pacific Northwest, where Walter resides.

Reaction/review:

I adored this collection. I enjoyed each and every story to some degree, and that is rare. The characters were realistic, the situations were interesting, but not far-fetched (well, except for the one “zombie” tale “Don’t Eat Cat,” which was surprisingly delightful despite its genre departure from all the others). Most importantly, I felt something for each of the characters that were the main focus of each story. I identified with their plight and, while I shuddered at their poor choices, I also sympathized with them. To me, this collection represents authentic American experiences, and most of them focus on the disenfranchised fringe of society.

Take away for my writing:

I need to read through some of the stories again with a “writer’s” attention to detail. Walter does a great job of creating characters who resonate with a reader. He paints vivid portraits of who they are without “telling”( i.e., excessive exposition). He also finds a nice balance between an interesting premise and something that feels too contrived or gimmicky. These are all factors I would like to showcase in my own writing.

Strengths: Strong characters, resonating descriptions, authentic plots/premises
Weaknesses: Perhaps sentimental for some readers, limited exploration of female characters (all the stories are male-based)

Favorites: “We Live in Water,” “Thief,” and “Helpless Little Things”
Least favorites: “Can a Corn,” “Please,” “Brakes” (a trio of connected flash pieces)

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Writer’s Reading Review of “Battleborn”

Basic information:

Battleborn is a debut collection from writer Claire Vaye Watkins. In this collection of stories, Watkins explores the western landscape that was the home of her youth. She creates vivid pictures of life in the “desert” of Reno, Las Vegas, and nearby areas. She also considers and reinvents her own history and its (tenuous) connection to “Helter Skelter” and Charles Manson.

Reaction/review:

I struggled to finish this book. I feel horrible even admitting that, but I did. I’m going to preface this by saying that I hate (really, truly hate) writing this review because (1) who the hell am I to criticize something this renowned and well-received? and (2) I really wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I also feel particularly harsh in my criticisms because this is the author’s first book. It’s her first published collection and, as such, it shouldn’t be compared with some of the other works I’ve been reading by authors who have numerous (numerous) books under their belts. But, alas, my reaction is my reaction.

My issues with the stories is that they felt too much like writing. They felt like they’d been “workshopped” to death. Both of these are things I never thought I’d say because I never really understood what these complaints meant. I’d heard people say them, but I’d never really noticed something that “felt” like writing. (My question was always, “Shouldn’t writing always feel like writing?” But the truth is. No. No it should not.) I also got the distinct impression that the stories were trying to please too many audiences, too many readers. It left each of them with a distinctly schizophrenic and undecided flavor that ultimately fell short. I’m not sure how to explain this other than to say that there was distinct lack of unity, cohesion, and focused voice in them. I felt like I was reading a debut collection because it felt like the writer is still deciding who she is as a writer. And I think that’s why I struggle so much with my feelings. Because I have no idea who I am as a writer either.

I was reminded of a criticism I remember hearing regarding an American Idol contestant years ago (stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this). The singer was technically proficient and her voice was beautiful, but the critic said that when she was on stage it was like she was saying, “Hey, listen to my beautiful voice and what it can do,” rather than her being on stage saying, “Listen to my song. Listen to the story I have to tell through music.” This book felt like that to me. It felt like a showcase of some beautiful prose that had no true, essential, unique message. The fact that the author included a reimagining of her own history and it’s connection to Charles Manson was said to be her attempt to “get it over with,” but I have no idea why that was necessary. That particular story (“Ghosts, Cowboys”) had numerous beginnings, never really deciding where it should begin and where it should focus, and that same feeling permeated the whole collection.

Some of the stories drew me in and carried me throughout, but then, as they approached their end, it felt like they went on a bit too long. Like they were attempting to make some grander proclamation or statement than was possible. Like they felt this impending pressure to be so much more than they’d intended. In actuality, they should have just continued the path they’d started and been content to simply be a good story. Like I said, it was like the attempt was to showcase writing, rather than share a solid story.

Take away for my writing:

Keep a story’s message and point in focus. Great and beautiful writing is wonderful, but only if there’s a premise that works underneath it. Otherwise, it will feel like writing.

Strengths: Beautiful prose and detailed description of a specific landscape in America
Weaknesses: Lacking in premise, unity, and focus within each individual story

Favorite(s): “The Archivist” and “Virginia City”
Least favorite(s): “Ghosts, Cowboys”

Writer’s Reading Review fo “You Know When the Men are Gone”

Basic information:

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon was a random read. I came across it in the available e-book selections for my public library and the title caught my eye. I read the synopsis and was intrigued.

Fallon is a former military wife whose husband experienced multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, while she (and their child/children) remained stateside. Her collection of stories depicts life for the women behind the men in service (and a few dips into the experiences from the soldiers’ perspectives).

Reaction/review:

Fallon’s stories were diverse in that they explored about every imaginable scenario for a military spouse or family. There are widows (both figurative and literal). There are rebellious children. There are struggling marriages. There is infidelity. There are wounded men and women struggling to cope with a variety of challenges that this particular life path has thrown at them. While the breadth of situations was impressive, there weren’t really too many surprises. The emotions were genuine and candid, but the plots felt fairly predictable.

Take away for my writing:

The author here definitely writes what she knows. I hadn’t read the author’s bio prior to reading the stories, but by the end of the first story, I knew that she must be a military wife herself. Her depiction of the emotions and experiences (of which I admittedly have no familiarity or knowledge) were raw and authentic. She also threw in a few tiny twists here and there that I didn’t see coming (although not nearly as many as I would have liked), so that was something to remember. The stories were their strongest when the emotions were frank and straightforward. The stories became weak when they devolved into sentimentality, and often the conclusions felt canned or formulaic.

Strengths: Realistic experiences with effective emotion
Weaknesses: Predictability, sentimentality, and languid endings

Favorites: “Leave” and “Gold Star”
Least favorites: “Camp Liberty” and “Remission”

My Year of the Short Story (aka, Reading What I Write)

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing. Of course, every writing book you read tells you to read. It tells you to read and study what you’re reading so that you can emulate the writing that you read (still with me?). I’ve even read some writing advice that tells you to find a passage or story that you really admire, something similar to what you hope to write, and to type it out. Repeatedly. The theory is that the typing the words, the cadence and style and rhythm, will seep into your subconscious while you’re typing, teaching you how to structure and pace your writing in a similar way.

While I’ve not attempted that particular strategy, I have tried to be more of a “writer-reader” when I’m reading. Normally, I’m more of a “get lost in what I’m reading” reader. If it’s something I enjoy reading (and I try to avoid reading things that I don’t… obviously), then I end up losing myself and I don’t often think of what I’m reading as “writing.” I forget to pay attention to structure and character development and imagery. I don’t observe ideas about how to integrate similar patterns in my own writing. I just don’t read that way. But I’m trying to change that a bit.

My first step in trying to read more like a writer has been shifting a bit in what I read sometimes. My reading interests over the past couple years had shifted toward a lot of YA literature and a smattering of dystopian/science fiction works. When I started thinking of how to be a “writer-reader,” I realized that I probably needed to start reading what I want to write. And the truth of the matter is, I have zero interest in writing YA literature or dystopian/science fiction lit. I just don’t. I don’t know if I’ll always feel that way, but right now, that’s not what I write. Even more, I haven’t had any interest in writing a novel. Not at all. I used to think there was something wrong with that. That I couldn’t be a “writer” if I didn’t aspire to write a novel—to write the Great American Novel. But I’ve started to be okay with not having that desire. In fact, the summer workshop instructor last year said he was in the same boat. He’s simply a short story writer. That’s what he is, and he’s okay with that. He said that he tried to write a novel once and his agent smiled and laughed and said, “Oh, dear. This isn’t a novel.” (in a completely loving way). So, he’s a short story writer. And that is totally okay. (Case in point: Alice Munro. Period.)

I used to read short stories like crazy. I used to seek out new short story collections and the “Best of” compilations every year. I scoped out anthologies on Amazon or in Barnes and Noble like a madwoman. I loved the form so much. But then, during graduate school, I became immersed in so much novel reading that I lost touch with my short story love. Then, I taught a course on the American short story and it became so much (grueling) work teaching the form that I pulled away from it entirely. In recent years, my reading trend has leaned in the direction of “escape” (hence, the sci-fi, YA interest). I was reading to explore worlds as far removed from my own as possible, which is fun and enjoyable.

But not very helpful to my writing.

After all, I write what I know. I should also be reading what I know. Or at least reading what I want to write.

So, I vowed to start reading more short stories in 2014. Initially, I was going to pledge to read only short stories in 2014, but that felt a little too obligatory and forced. Instead, I just approached the year with the goal of reading more short stories, getting back to what I used to love. My tentative goal was to just make sure I’m reading more short stories than non-short stories for the year overall. And I’m doing it! At this point, I’ve read twelve books (yes! 12!) so far this year, and of them, seven have been short story collections. Go me!

I’ve discovered that I fly right through short story collection. Without chapters to give me a stopping point, I tend to want to finish an entire story in one sitting. Sometimes this is easily done (some short stories are short, after all), and other times, it doesn’t work out (some short stories are long, and really should be called novellas, but I digress). But, overall, the collections have only been taking me a handful of days to read, and I’m starting to enjoy a compulsion for them again. I have a stack of “to be read” books on my nightstand, and of them, I’m picking up the collections over the novels every time.

The only concern I have with this speed of reading is that I’m not going to be able to remember the collections, or individual stories, well. Which, historically, has driven me nuts. There have been times where I can vaguely recollect the plot line of a short story I read at some point in time, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what it was called, where I read it, or who wrote it. Do you know how virtually impossible it is to locate a single short story with little-to-no information? So, I know that I’m going to have some of those struggles in the future, which is why I’m planning to try to review (in even a limited capacity) and document each collection I read. I’m hopeful that I stick with this, but we’ll see.

Here’s to my “Year of the Short Story”!

Where the heck did February go?

So, I didn’t write a blog entry of substance for the entire month of February. Crap. In fact, I didn’t even realize this until I went to post some entries on here.

I missed an entire month.

I wish I could say that I missed it because I was busy writing, but that would be outright lies.

I wish I could say that I overlooked it because I was so busy working, but the fact is, my work schedule was pretty much same ol’ same ol’ in February.

I wish I could say that the month blew past because of all the chaos of life in general, but, meh, life was pretty much ho-hum for the most part.

I could blame it on the fact that February is such a short month. And, really, the fact that I’m noticing this on what would be February 31st (you know, if there were 31 days in February) shows that I didn’t miss the month entirely… but I did.

I will say, however, that I did get some writing done this month, just as I had committed to doing.

I sent some stories to a few friends for feedback and, now that I’ve heard back, I’m going to refine a few and send them out. They’re pieces I’ve been working on for a while and I basically just needed a few people to chime in and tell me they were ready (with a few minor modifications). Of course, nobody else on the planet might agree that they are “ready,” but we’re not focusing on that right now.

I also revised a couple of stories from NaNoWriMo. I’m realizing that I really need some help in determining which direction to go with them. I’m at the point where I could either push forward and turn some of these stories into lengthy, full-blown short stories (of the 5,000-10,000 word variety). Or, alternatively, I could condense them down to their barest essentials and make them flash pieces (fewer than 1,000 words).

For example, there are two stories that I’m currently working with and they’re each in the 2,000-3,000 word range. One is much closer to completion than the other is … depending on where I go with it. I’m thinking that one needs to stay on the shorter side of things, but 2,000 words is kind of “no-man’s land” for short stories. It’s not a flash fiction/short, short piece and it’s not the typical length of a publishable short story. The other, however, is already close to 3,000 words and really (really) needs some additional development… but I can’t decide if I should make the one shorter and the other longer. Or make them both shorter. Or make them both longer.

Go long? Or go short? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

I’m enrolled in an online writing course that, as far as I can tell, focuses on revising and refining. It begins in a couple of weeks, and I had a credit with this institution, so it’s “technically” not costing anything. It’s a workshop format, so I’ll get feedback from other course participants and the instructor (a published author, whose work I admire). I think hearing some feedback and thoughts will really help me to begin making better determinations about which way to go with my editing and revision. I’m a little nervous about the ten weeks that I’ve committed to this workshop (ten weeks!), but I think that will be good… (I’ll read this back to myself when I’m stretched thin and sleep-deprived come mid-April).

So, all of this is to say that I might have missed writing a blog entry for the month of February (the whole. damn. month.), but I did accomplish some writing, or at least I did determine that I need to make some decisions about writing. Whatever. I’ll take it.