Thursday, August 14, 2008

How to Win Friends and Influence Writers

When writers congregate around drinks, as they often seem to, one of the topics that is often tossed around is the rejection letter. Many have their special horror story about the worst, most off-handed, or downright insulting rejection they've ever received. You can tell a lot about a market from their rejection letters.

As of yet, I don't have much to add to that conversation. And the people at Dark Recesses Press are not helping. They sent me the nicest rejection letter I've ever received. They've given permission for me to repost the letter, so here it is:

Good evening John,

Thank you for submitting your story, "Death on the American Family Farm" to us at DRP. We enjoyed reading it and even pushed it for further consideration; however we have decided to pass on it. Ultimately the ending was its downfall. Most of the readers felt it was rushed and a little flat.

That aside, the opening characterizations are magnificent and a lot of fun to read. You did a great job of filling the story in with small details that others may not have included. Instead of feeling wordy, it felt colored in.

I don't need to wish you luck in the future placing this story, I'm sure you will.

Keep writing,

Shanna Wynne

Dark Recesses Press

The dark recesses of your mind are our playground... and we don't play fair.

What I get from this is that they really did like my story. It made it into the second round of reading, which is good, and they are very specific about what they liked and didn't like. Rejection is most bearable if I get a sense that they really did take time and read the story. Sometimes, I get a form rejection and I have to wonder if they really read my submission, or even if they understood it. Clearly, DRP did.

And hey, good advice! I'll polish the ending on this one and send it to another market, but I definitely will keep Dark Recesses in mind next time I have a good story.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Southshire Pepper-Pot author Shawn MacKENZIE Nominated for Short Fiction Award

Congratulations to Shawn for her Spectrum Award Nomination for "Lost Among the Tuna Trees" included in the Roundtable's anthology Southshire Pepper-Pot. Read more about the Spectrum Awards and vote!
The Spectrum Awards, 2008

A Bird Wearing a Brown Polyester Shirt

by Marie White Small

I’ve been waiting for years to edge past mid-life; a seemingly odd goal in a popular culture that reveres youth and painted beauty. I joke that I was born to be an old lady, not as an antidote to death - but to be white and wizened. As a child I was always fascinated with older folks. I was transfixed by their white fly-away hair, soft near-translucent skin and a kind of humor and patience that few had for my solemn questions: why is there water? Why can’t I fly? I was a kid bound to thoughts I had no words for- who knows why, perhaps a natural wistfulness and an aptitude for flashing thought.

The idea of flight, soaring just above the treetops, or slithering through the water on the back of a wild salmon was the thing I craved. It seems a longing born to humans, descended as we are from finned and winged creatures, be they flying fish or angels. I dream of flight in nighttime wanderings, and remember lying in the tall grass on a warm day and watching the swallows turn and swoop above my head. It was curiosity and a childish arrogance that drew me too close. A concept Daedalus understood.

But where does this calling come from? Answers may be found in literature, folktale, and myth; some are well-known, others more obscure. All of them speak to flying like angels or slithering through the oceans.

From the Inuit mythology comes Sedna, goddess of the sea, who spurned all other suitors to marry a bird. Fish to bird and back again; it was an alliance that did not last. Mixed marriages, as that bigoted coinage warns, are prone to failure.

In African American folklore there are tales of the people who could fly. Slaves in field up and disappeared; their ability to fly away comes from ancient and secreted wisdom passed from one African to another. On the surface it is a story that explains death or runaways to children in a magical way that gives hope, courage and a sense of peace to small ones left behind.

Literature too, is filled with allusions to flight. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, insurance agent Robert Smith takes flight wearing home-made blue fabric wings from the top of Mercy Hospital on February 18th, 1931, Morrison’s own natal day. Mr. Smith descends to his death, and later in that same hospital a black child is born, one Macon Dead. At the end of the novel, Macon, too attempts flight. “Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees - he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, too, speaks of flight: “But what a point, my lord, your falcon made, And what a pitch she flew above the rest! To see how God in all his creatures works! Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.”

These passages bring to mind freedom, escape, a wider view of the world, godliness; a reality few know as we stumble along our earthly paths. As Emily Dickinson said, “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

The enchantment of air and water are similar in connotation only. But what of these definitions, because after all, the meaning is the thing, isn’t it?

In flight through water or air the mythological and symbolic become supernatural: the deities, oracles, tricksters and mediators. They point to transformation, knowledge, eternity, and creation itself. The great mother of sexuality and reproduction is symbolized by Ichthys, the offspring son of the ancient mermaid-goddess Atargatis and is in time turned sideways, away from it’s fecund depiction of the vagina and womb to become a Christian symbol of salvation; the parable of Jesus and the fishes. It is no accident that the twelve who followed him were fishermen.

Yet, I still wonder: how does a child born mid-twentieth century share the same longing, the same daydream cave dwellers did seven million years earlier? Cave dwellers did not have books, or humankind’s rich history at electronically enhanced fingertips. Well that’s easy - yes? What early man had is what we retain - the ability to dream.

Ah! you say. That’s it. All tied up - a comfortable easy to understand sound-byte twenty-first century explanation; easy to look-up in a pocket guide to dreams On to the next task. There is always more to do…
But are you satisfied?

Indeed, we can begin by reading about our dream images in guidebooks. We can study ancient fables, or examine keen and witty literary interpretations. All of these models may serve as guideposts, but no more. It is only the deeper look within that can provide valid understanding: it is the task of modern man to see, to learn old wisdom and to find therein explanations that resonate with substantial personal truths. The undertaking is not to imitate the feathered and finned, it is to become them.

Ah - A Zen thing, you say. Becoming one with the birds and fishes.

Maybe. But I think it is more a matter of acceptance and not interpretation. Modern man misses out when he explains and defines. We are an ancient people and have forgotten knowledge that had been oral tradition. There are no Africans in the fields of modern America who can give us flight instructions or the wisdom and responsibility inherent in that.

Though someone in the world must know.

I cannot yet fly because I have not allowed myself to become the bird I long to be. I cannot swim for days and weeks below the surface because such a journey would bring a death I do not wish.

My hair has whitened and I get closer day-by day to that soft translucent skin all the while becoming increasingly bewitched with mythology, fables, tall-tales and the like. Fiction itself is an enchantment - a willingness to suspend tangible reality. Did Macon Dead really fly?

It is a sunny day here in early April. I just talked with my eighty-three year-old mother from her hospital bed; she had knee replacement surgery yesterday. She is doing well, all things considered, and I will spend a few days next week taking care of her and my elderly father.

This is what I can do.

The sunlight streams through my window as I daydream and write, listening to a Ben Folds Five song, “Still Fighting It.” The song begins:

“Good morning sun. I am a bird wearing a brown polyester shirt…”

©2008 Marie White Small
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Wasn’t Bitten by a Radioactive Novel When I Was a Kid

by John Goodrich

There are many ways to divide up heroes, just as there are many ways to divide up people. My most recent thought is to go back to the classics: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Achillies (yes, I understand that he was nor invulnerable until Roman times–unfortunately, that spoils my analogy, therefore, I’m going to ignore it) had a skin that could not be hurt by any weapon. He was a real badass, one of the major players in the siege of Troy. The Iliad is primarily about him. Odysseus was known as the Sacker of Cities. He was eventually the man who won the city of Troy, not by force of arms, but by trickery. He later got his own poem, the Odyssey.

Now here’s the thing. Achillies is a hero with gifts. He didn’t arrange to be dipped in invulnerability serum; someone else did it for him. Thus people who are given special gifts are Achillean heroes. Whether Luke Skywalker, Neo, Gilgamesh, Anita Blake, Superman, Heracles, Hellboy, or Harry Potter, the Achillean hero got some cool mojo. They are set apart from other people by virtue of something they inherited, or were given as a child, or by happenstance. This gift allows them to perform feats beyond that of most individuals. Their stories are of individuals learning to use their specialness on order to right wrongs, or bringing order to the world, often in ways that they are uniquely suited to do. The task is appointed for them.

Odyssean heroes, on the other hand, are self-made. What sets them apart from other men is their drive, their intelligence, or their ability to endure. Examples include Batman, Frodo Baggins, Indiana Jones, Conan, Sam Spade, and Fallout’s Vault Dweller. The Odyessean hero is still special, but lacks a magical breastplate or special gift to distinguish them from the rest of humanity. They must rely on their own natural wit, intelligence, and whatever else they can come up with. Certainly Batman’s wealth as scion of Wayne Enterprises helps him out, but the Darknight Detective is best known as an investigator and a martial artist.

Now, I’m not going to say that one is bad and the other is good, although I tend to favor the Odyssean hero over the Achillean. Ultimately, it depends on how the hero is handled. Hellboy was born with abilities beyond that of ordinary mortals, but that’s not what his stories are about. Hellboy generally has fights with things, but that’s not how he triumphs. His major character arc has been his inner struggle, in which case, his supernatural gifts are actually against him. (See my next essay for more on this).

Gilgamesh, the original action hero, is another Achillean hero that I greatly love. For while half a god, Gilgamesh finds that being unchallenged in the world brings him no joy. It is only when the gods send Enkidu to be his near-equal and friend that Gilgamesh discovers the value of life. And that existential quest of love and loss is something that no amount of strength can help with.

However, I will say that there has been a lot of abuse of the Achillean hero in the past twenty years. I blame the countless imitators of Star Wars. From Neo to Anita Blake, people in stories have been given some pretty damn amazing things, just for being in the right place at the right time, being born of the correct parents, or boffing the correct combination of vampire, werewolf, and whatever other supernatural creature might be in the area. And sure, whatever, but what is the lesson there? That some people are better than others, and if you aren’t born special, then you never will be? What kind of message is that?

What really bothers me is that Achillean heroes don’t have to work for what they get. Batman had to bust his ass to become The Bat. He trained, he failed, he learned, he suffered, he overcame. Superman? He learned to fly one day. What does that teach us?

There seem to be a lot of people just waiting to hear that they are “The One”, secretly hoping that someday, someone will discover something special in them, that they are the last scion of Christ, or the King of Gondor and Arnor, lost all these years. That someone will come and sweep them away, and make their lives wonderful, rather than setting about doing so themselves.

The reason I like the Odyssean model better is that I don’t believe much comes to most people in this world without work. If I want opportunities, I’m going to have to make them. If I want to sell a novel, I’m going to have to sweat over the damn thing and produce it, and then sweat as I polish the shit out of it. Because if I wait for it to just happen, it’s just never going to.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


by Stefano Donati

A friend recently told me he never reads a book twice. As an English teacher, he quickly amended his statement by saying “Except for the books I use in my courses.” Still, the comment surprised me. I’ve completed several novels three to five times apiece, and I’m a much slower reader than he is. He appreciates fine writing and a good plot. He laments infelicities of language and two-dimensional characters. Yet once he finishes the last page, he doesn’t return to the first. Not a year later, not ten years. I certainly don’t fault him, any more than he would fault me for breaking apart story after story and putting each one together again. We’re good friends. But he reads as a reader, and I read as a writer.

My approach has its drawbacks. There are countless fine books in the world, and the hours I spend on rereading can never be used to discover a new book that might have become a treasured favorite. Amid a great novel, I can respond in two ways: by planning to seek out another book by the writer, or by keeping mental notes in the margins, tracking the tossing away and retrieval of plot threads, charting why a full page of description somehow heightens my interest. If I seek out the other book, my esteem for the writer might soar: possibly he or she has produced two great works, or three or four, using disparate themes or settings. And by exploring them, I could --as a human, if not as a writer-- learn far more than by dissecting the first book over and over.

Another virtue of reading as a reader, and not as a writer? The chance to slip fully into the created world. Certainly I miss the excitement I felt when first discovering fiction. Deep into my teens I could still get swept up in a plot without deconstructing it, marvel at a wonderful turn of phrase but not envy it.

And yet...this week I reread one of the most splendid of a certain novelist’s many splendid works (yes, I do manage to read multiple works by multiple writers. Like anyone else in this field, I read all that I can; it just doesn’t come as easily). In the book, Sweet Women Lie by Loren Estleman, a detective must inform a young woman of her boyfriend’s murder. The detective is pretty sure the woman played no part in the crime, but as a pro, he must balance his condolences with a twinge of suspicion. Standard fare on the surface, yet Estleman expertly conveys the hero’s mix of black humor, bluntness, compassion, and self-loathing. You can sense this character keeping his emotions at bay; you can also sense those emotions overwhelming him. I must have dissected that scene twenty times, as I have done with other scenes in other novels. Other writers do the same – even when caught up in the story. We feel our readerly emotions overwhelm us, yet we also keep them at bay. Because we have to. Like it or not, we must read from a distance.

At least, that’s my take.

©2007 Stefano Donati
All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Seanachaí

by Marie White Small

Once upon a time there was girl. An apt beginning for a fable, possibly of Faëries, trickery and magic, or maybe a parable; for none turns from unmerciful truth. But yes, a girl - a small child walks through a field on a pure late-summer morning. She is five years old and dressed in her mother’s worn acetate slip, the silky garment belted at her waist. Still the hem drags behind small red tie-up shoes, her favorite red shoes. She carries a well-loved doll tucked in the crook of her chubby arm. It came by post in a narrow box, paid for in coupons clipped from baby food jars and one crisp dollar bill, a gentle price for this treasured Gerber baby-doll.

The avenue of childhood is long, and peppered with a million innocent moments that appear to hold little consequence. As she walks under the brilliant sky, our small, once-upon-a-time girl is now enchanted, donned in her expected future. She cuts through the field, walks along the road to play with neighborhood children, all the while beguiled by the smell of her mother, the feel of her, the sheer fabric, the sensuous lace.

Who would know of this transformation, you ask, surely not this child? She has no script, no words, no hand at runes. She is marked in symbols, and it is the Seanachaí (pronounced "shan-a-hee"), the storyteller, who translates tales of wee ones who peer into their mothers’ wardrobes, tiptoe into bedchambers where they know there is mystery. They touch all of it and are imprinted here: the lace edges, the perfumed powder and scarlet lipstick that mark their mothers in ways they feel but do not understand. Not yet.

There are games in the field; the doll, the shift, each is tossed aside for red-rover, breaking open silky milk-weed pods, and a trek to some kid’s mother known for slices of buttered white bread sprinkled with sugar, forbidden in her own mother’s kitchen of shiny, red apples and tall glasses of milk.

By mid-afternoon nap-time, the plaything, the acetate slip are both gone, missing forever. The five-year-old is truly heart-broken. She has lost far more than her mother understands. In this mother’s work-a-day world of dishes and diapers, there are bigger fish to fry. At bedtime prayers or the story-hour, it is her father who sooths this cailín and takes her under his wing. The split has occurred, imperceptibly.

The Seanachaí knows this and sees through the wider world: a young father and his daughter gone for a day of fishing. She learns to thread a worm on a hook and knows to hold her breath as she squeezes a trigger on the rifle range. The currency of competence and courage is exchanged for tasks well-regarded, though she is seldom without fear, without terror. The prize is great: lavish affection and approval from an awkward father unversed in the enigmatic, his gentleness and wonderment ground out of him years before.

There are larger issues for the chronicler of this narrative: the loss of innocence, distant and distracted caretakers and death: worms, fish caught on hooks, deer gutted and hung in the back yard to be butchered. All of it coded as pragmatic survival, a harder nurturance the child learns to accept as a distant second best.

Weeks or months later a package arrives addressed to our once-upon-a-time girl, a brand-new Gerber doll, wrapped tightly like a newborn in a satin-edged blanket. The girl, now proud of her tom-boy title, bears skinned knees from jumping off tree limbs. Nevertheless, she turns again; for a time she is re-enchanted by pop-beads and high-heels.

Why, you ask, why tell this tale? The narrative of this child becomes the turning back and forth: fidelity, loyalty, side-taking. At first, the struggle is a wrenching one. This girl feels, quite erroneously, she must choose: which parent, which way of life? It is the Seanachaí who well knows this journey, and can tell its real truth, in layers like a well executed water-color; fluid but put to paper in water and pigment nonetheless.

Still, you may wonder, why do people do what they do? Why is such a harmless moment so striking? A head-scratcher, for sure. Nothing is small or white, simple or plain. The depth of a character, of a life in leaves, is built, word-by-word in subtly as much as active voice. You question, it is necessary to tell the details of this story? Perhaps not, but before a fully blood-letting human creation can lift off the page and become embedded in the mind and the heart of a reader, a past, a childhood and conflict are required. The storyteller should know the secrets of this past, thus weave them into the warp and woof seamlessly.

This child may grow into a woman addled by indecision, or maybe she abandons her own family. There is a satchel of possibilities. Fun to guess and for some, a pastime to ponder. The classic bard’s remedy was to speak; ours is to pen tales rendered from the truth of these curious souls. We hope to spin words and worlds, we invite you to leave yourself behind, and enter here. We offer a glimpse.

Again you ask why? Ah- that. Tis a universal lament invoked in darker hours by nearly every human being at some crossroad. I say, ask the Seanachaí, though it can never be fully answered.

© 2007, Marie White Small
All Rights Reserved