Tag Archives: short story

Snail Mail Submission Angst

TypewriterI just got a snail mail submission together for one of my short stories that’s making the rounds. I’m sending it off to one of the big science fiction markets, a holdout that still doesn’t accept electronic submissions.

It’s amazing how much more complicated snail mail is. The cover letter feels far more formal. It must be printed on something that resembles letterhead. The “fast draft” print that I use to edit stories won’t do. It’s “best print” mode all the way, which both uses more ink and took half a century to finish printing the story. It does look rather spiffy though.

Then there are the envelopes that need to be filled out, addresses double and then triple checked, and appropriate postage attached. My morning will begin with a wait at the post office. All around it looks like this submission will take about an hour… and it won’t be free. There is the postage, paper, and ink costs of actually sending the physical story out.

This isn’t a gripe though. It made my story feel much more solid. It’s real now, sitting out there on the dining room table awaiting its fateful trip to the post office. That baby is going places!

I also wonder if this market has chosen to not accept electronic submissions, in part at least, to cut back on their slush pile. They’re okay with PayPal for a magazine subscription, so they can obviously handle e-mail. But how many of us have become so lazy that we’re no longer willing to print out and mail short story submissions, even for a top-tier market? I definitely debated about sending this story to this market, wondering if instead I should move directly on to a less noteworthy one that does accept electronic submissions.

That’s amazing, especially when I think of how things worked for Roald Dahl or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Ray Bradbury. Those guys had to actually type out a clean draft of a story before submitting it. That would have taken the better part of a day. How did paper, especially squeaky clean word-processed paper, ever become such a pain? Have I really become that addicted to instant submission gratification?

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Short Story Writers

I first encountered Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. when it was published a decade ago. It collects his short stories that didn’t make the cut for Welcome to the Monkey House. Most were originally published in magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post, back in the enviable days when writers could work through an apprenticeship by crafting short stores.

Having already read almost everything by Vonnegut, I devoured these previously lost stories, comforted by the fact that some of the cracks in the plaster showed. These aren’t the best stories. Even great talent needs time to develop, but the stories in some way showed how one might set off on such a path.

Something in those stories must have stuck with me through the years since. I’ve been working on an entirely new story, and feeling a bit lost. It’s a different sort of tale from those that normally come to me, and reminds me of the ideas that Vonnegut explored. I’ve been hankering to go back and reread Bagombo Snuff Box, which I borrowed at the time so would need to track down a fresh copy.

In the process, I came across his rules for short story writers. It’s amazing these aren’t more well known. Here’s a video of Vonnegut reading his advice, which almost makes the accompanying montage worth watching:

And here they are written out so they’ll stick in my head:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where, and why that they could finish the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I like the last one in particular. (I’ve been a sadist for ages now.) One of the things I keep coming back to with my writing is clarity. It should be crystal clear to the reader each step of the way what’s going on, and for the most part why it’s all happening.

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No More Hardy Boys, Enter Golden Age of Kid Lit

The day I realized that my stories are best suited as middle reader fiction was perhaps the only true epiphany I’ve ever had. I was working on short stories, all of which naturally emerged as quirky tales that soon grew to novella length, populated with creatures and other characters who were characters in both senses of the word. Kids popped up often too. Then one day I read an interview with a kid lit author in Writer’s Digest, whose name I’ve since forgotten, and the proverbial light bulb went on. They’re not short stories. They’re kid’s books.

Then I realized that I hadn’t read a kid’s book in decades. Easily fixed, in the years since I’ve read a huge swathe of kid’s literature. I discovered a world of amazing books, often with challenging subjects all of which are simply told and clearly written. While I have my gripes with Harry Potter, there’s no denying that he has indeed done much to make this a grand time to be scribbling for kids. The Los Angeles Times recently went so far as to proclaim our day a golden age of young adult fiction. The numbers back up this assertion. While adult hardcover sales dropped 17.8% during the first half of last year, kid’s hardcovers are up 30.7% in an otherwise stagnant economy.

Kid’s books quite obviously appeal to a lot more than just kids. Why?

There’s no pretension. The literati claim that it’s lowbrow to read mystery, nerdy to read science fiction, and downright inexcusable to be caught reading romance, but they no longer offer any such restrictions on kid’s books. This is one of the appealing things about writing kid’s fiction, and probably why so many adults enjoy reading it. There’s no literary scene where the beauty of the words alone is expected to carry the novel. No one blames the readers for failing to be smart enough to recognize “good” books. The pages turn quickly; sense of accomplishment builds.

Kid’s fiction needs to have strong characters, gripping plots, and exotic settings. The same elements we find in the classics. If Dickens were to publish Great Expectations today with dear Pip, we know what shelf it would end up on. This is also why the classics and kid lit make great movie fodder. And there’s no need to break books down by genre. Kid’s books are kid’s books. They can all sit quite happily next to each other on the same shelf. Twilight, which has sold more than 85 million copies, doesn’t need to figure out if it’s horror or romance. It can be both.

Perhaps this is even the answer to obesity in America. If kid’s books have become fashionable for grownups, how about we make the kid’s menu next in line. Mac and cheese anyone?

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Fannie Hurst: Highest Paid Writer in Her Day, Now Mostly Out of Print

Fannie Hurst in 1932, portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

Fannie Hurst in 1932, portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

I first heard of Fannie Hurst through a Zora Neale Hurston television biography. She was mentioned briefly as someone who encouraged Hurston to write early on, when she was the highest paid writer in America.

Who?

A quick search revealed Fannie Hurst to be quite the character. Her first short story “Ain’t Life Wonderful” was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1908, while she was still in college. She went on to write seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, and three plays. Her stories, many of which appeared in Saturday Evening Post, were adapted into 30 movies.

The list of interesting tidbits only begins there. Hurst was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1915, she secretly married pianist Jacques Danielson but lived separately from him, insisting on a woman’s right to maintain her own name and residence. A radio show that she hosted was one of the first to openly discuss homosexual issues and concerns. And yes, at one time, she was the highest paid writer in America. She’s rumored to have received $1 million for her novel Great Laughter from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, and went on to leave that amount to Brandeis and Washington Universities upon her death in 1968.

Yet today, her books are almost entirely out of print. How could an author once so popular be virtually unknown today? Shouldn’t a figure with Hurst’s radical political views be particularly of interest to a contemporary audience? A quick eBay search revealed no shortage of her books. I popped for four purple library hardbacks, which arrived a couple weeks later with a distinct musty odor.

I dove into Lummox from 1923. The novel follows Bertha, a Scandinavian immigrant who is a bit too big boned for her own good and who constantly gets in trouble through no fault of her own. It’s a gin soaked story set in the back alleys of New York, contrasting the lives of the working class with that of their upper class employers. Bertha becomes pregnant by one of her employers, and is forced to quit her job. All good so far, a slice of America that was washed away with furniture polish in the 1950s. Perhaps this is why Ms. Hurst was forgotten? Her stories dealt with subjects that the post war era would rather forget, like those forbidden movies from pre-code Hollywood.

Then, I stumbled over this metaphor: “To Bertha, who felt but could not say it, the lovely ellipisty of that head was like putting an egg whole in your mouth and then feeling it slowly come out.” Okay, kind of works. But then a few pages later the head-as-egg-in-mouth metaphor returns. And then it does again.

And then this:

The climb was rocky and the running back and forth, from the hampers in the van to the remote spot on the knoll, twisted her ankles and strained her back and once, scaling the top, she fell and barked her shin and passed sandwiches over gay shoulders with her eyelids stung with the heat of the held-back tears.

I’ve read that sentence–yes, it is all just one sentence–20 times, and still have no idea what’s going on. Yes, picnic. Sandwiches spilt, it seems. Tears, and happy shoulders.

I trudged on though, finally stopping at page 172. Admittedly this is a climactic moment where Bertha has tracked down her son, who she gave up for adoption a few years earlier. She is outside the large, stately house of his adopted family. And gets caught up in what I assume is a parade, very convenient to have a parade around when you need one:

She stood wedged, her elbows pinned to her hips. The window. She could not, could not look, but the tail of her eye kept tattling. There were heads and halves of bodies out of it. Flutterings. One head was very bright. It caught the light in pools, like the silver ball of the major domo. She fainted a little standing up there. Just let go, and the crowd sustained her of its denseness.

The pulse of the living wall that held her–it sang against her–it wakened her–she leaned out–the major domo was walking past. Roosevelt then, standing up in a motor car and flashing and bowing, with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones. There was a man who felt the little vibratory messages run in and flashed them out again, broadcast! He was like a magnet with them and the nap of the crowd rose up to his passing! Cheer! He stood as he rode, always smiling, and always with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones.

Smiling! Bowing! Bowing to the window! Bowing to the window! Her eyes would not lift, but the tail of her glance kept knowing. The Colonel bowing to the window. The Colonel and that very bright head that caught the light in pools.

The crowd began to loosen. A disintegrating snowbank. It was frightening to feel the support withdraw. The Colonel had passed. It was easier to move. She was going to look. She had found the strength to look. It was hard to breathe and to swing her heavy burning eyes just a little upward–there!

But the heads were withdrawn and someone was jerking down a shade. The window stared over at her blandly. A slap in the face.

I’m not sure whether to be thrilled that such writing can lead to riches–even my own terrible scribbles can be no worse–or dismayed with how arbitrary fortune is in the writing business. Fannie Hurst remains a fascinating figure though, and who knows, one day I may muster up the courage to come back to her purple books with my tattling eyes. Could look. Look!

More on Fannie Hurst:

Wikipedia | Jewish Virtual Library | Jewish Women’s Archives

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Short Story Writing Tips from Ray Bradbury

It’s a Friday and the sun is actually out in Seattle, so cutting straight to this Ray Bradbury video that’s chock full of tips for the short story writer. There’s three that jump out at me. One, keep a large blow-up dinosaur in the living room. Two, don’t wear pants (or at least very big ones). Three, and perhaps most important, drink a six pack of Coors straight from the can. These tips aren’t specifically called out, but they are shown–and we all know that the real art of the story is in the telling, not the showing.

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