Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To Kindle or Not to Kindle: A Holiday Mix

The editor of a literary journal recently asked me about my thoughts on emerging technologies such as the Kindle reader (the Kindle reader? Is that like saying CD-ROM instead of CD? High definition instead of Hi-Def? Home Box Office instead of HBO?). In response, I said I feel like an old man wrapped in a twenty-seven-year-old body, meaning I prefer the good old fashioned door-stop of a novel, want nothing to do with the Kindle, and if you put one in my hands I’m going to search it for the mark of the beast. Why do I fear the Kindle? I can’t say. Really. I’ll admit, my feelings are about as founded as those of a neighbor I once had—a real purist—who insisted on keeping his VCR around because, as he said, “he just wants the movie. None of that fancy fluff.”

Is that it? Am I afraid of the fancy fluff?

It’s not that I’m not technologically savvy. I mean, I can work a computer, can Google just about anything, do most of my research on Wikipedia, use YouTube as both a noun and a verb, and the moment I step out the door, you better believe I’m walking the streets in my own little iPod music video. So maybe it’s time I quit whining and get with the program. After all, authors are beginning to write exclusively for Kindle (Stephen King just wrote a novella about a pink Kindle that picks up signals from alternate universes, which will only be available for, you guessed it…Kindle).

And if I’m willing to, for example, give out an iPod as a gift (complete with my own special mix of songs, which, yes, I agree is a bit presumptuous), then why stop there? Why not pass out Kindles, pre-uploaded, of course, with “books” from my favorite authors, for everyone’s reading/viewing pleasure. To further this hypothetical—and to prove to myself that I am not an old man but a young buck who can text eighty-six words per minute—here it is: my gift of the Kindle (the Kindle? Or just Kindle?) to each and everyone, complete with a “mix” of books I found especially powerful this year:

1.) War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
This collection of short stories and poems is equivalent to that one song that makes you feel real tough and sensitive at the same time. Blast this from your Kindle and the (graduate school) girls will go wild.

2.) The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by Breece D’J Pancake
Only hardcore short story readers will know who this incredible writer is, and what his first, and only, collection (published post-mortem) is all about. This collection will gain you instant street cred. And like a Raymond Carver story, these stories are usually about nothing, until they are.

3.) A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
This beautifully-written novel takes place in a post-9/11 world in which the academic bubble has been popped, thus exposing all of its once safe, oblivious, and self-satisfied occupants to an ugly, indefinable world. It’s that one beautifully constructed song where you’ll hear something different upon each listen.

4.) The Space Odyssey Series, by Arthur C. Clarke
This cosmic magnum opus—though you could really read the first novel, 2001, and then skip right to the final installment, 3001—will either inspire night-long discussions on humanity’s role in the greater history of the universe, or weird looks and wedgies. But with the weight of the very final line of the first novel—a line even more memorable and devastating than, “My God, it’s full of stars!”—it should inspire the former, especially in these times.

5.) As She Crawled Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
This quirky little novel creates a love triangle between man, woman, and black hole, to the point where—metaphor or not—it doesn’t matter. It’s just too much fun. It’s that song that will make you feel light as air, young, hip, and oddly affectionate toward your high school physics textbook.

6.) The Women, by T.C. Boyle
This novel, penned by a man who writes in a hybrid style of Charles Dickens and Johnny Rotten, tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes of his many women, which, to make things even more complex, is a narrative re-created second-hand by a Japanese immigrant who worked for FLW. Boyle’s prose is flawless from a technical point of view—though his wordy, fast-paced, and often overwhelming style is better suited, perhaps, for short stories—and the novel itself is, like, multi-layered, man.

7.) Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett
This is the devastating memoir Oprah should have chosen way-back-when. It's about an extremely destructive friendship between two women and it likens to that one love song that sometimes isn’t a love song at all, depending on your mood, but a hopeless tragedy instead where you find yourself screaming at the characters to stop already--enough!--but then, somehow, it’s a love song again.

8.) All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma
This collection of short stories received the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. While at the Workshop, I remember reading this manuscript among a slush pile of over four-hundred and knowing instantly it was going to the winners circle. Buy it now. The title is only the beginning of all the funny, don’t-look-now-but-your-heart-is-broken family crisis content inside. Perfect holiday fare.

9.) Brownsville, by Oscar Casares
A monkey head! A fireworks stand! A boy’s pre-pubescent affair with an older next-door neighbor! The miracle tree! This first time collection of short stories by this Texas man will read like a macho manifesto, until you realize that it is this very machisimo that is the hairy antagonist throughout.

10.) Faithless: Tales of Transgression, by Joyce Carol Oates
What more is there to say about the Queen of Letters? This often over-looked collection of stories about, well, transgressions, is juicy, dark, sexy, weird, gross, beautiful, ugly, terrifying, and, like all of Oates’ work, plain old fascinating. It’s like that album you used to have to hide from your parents because, judging by the surface alone, they’d think you a pervert. Which you are.

There it is. And of course, just like a mix of music, someone can perhaps look at this compilation and come up with a general conclusion about my tastes (and what would I call this mix? What would they call this mix?). That’s fine. Maybe that’s what the Kindle can offer us that books cannot: a quick, scrollable glance of all that makes us, us. Without all that fancy fluff.

Monday, December 7, 2009

When in Doubt, Time Travel

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. No, not of the Roland Emmerich “Oh my God, the Mayans were right, save us, John Cusack, save us!” variety, but more in terms of our craft as writers. What can I say? Endings are tough. Especially when it comes to short fiction, a form that should, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, start as close to the end as possible. And since simply inserting the phrase “The End” no longer provides the same amount of closure it once did in the second grade, I find myself—as a writer—all-too-often fearing, well, the end.

Of course, everyone has their theory on how to successfully construct an ending. And while I’ve been in enough fiction workshops to realize that everyone’s an expert, I recall one in particular in which our instructor—a brilliant writer herself known for her ability to slap the norms of short fiction in the face with a leather glove—informed us, on the first day of class, of the four short story endings that were hereby forbidden from use, not only for that semester, but the rest of our humble writing lives, Amen.

So. While I won’t attempt to formulate the perfect ending to that story you’ve been working on about the time you spent an entire summer carving babies out of blocks of cheese while the rest of the kids at camp actually got to second and third base, I can provide, in no particular order, four endings you can sure as hell rule out:

Forbidden Ending #4: And They Were All Cows

Fooling us readers into believing we’ve been following a group of lost souls as they wander the lonely country side in search of love, hope, hatred, pain—some form of human connection—only to reveal on the very last page that they were all, in fact, cows looking for nothing more than some grass to chew is just not cool. Unless your Donald Barthelme—then you get a pass.

Forbidden Ending #3: The Big Explosion

There’s a pretty phrase in Latin that alludes to the moment that the writer has clearly hit a wall in plot, and so he must bring in an all-too-convenient—not to mention often loud, messy, and completely random—occurrence to go BOOM!, shake things up a bit, and provide his protagonists (not to mention readers) with some kind of consolation . And while the phrase eludes me each time, there is an unofficial American translation for this phenomenon: The Stephen King. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of Mr. King, but c’mon, he says it himself when providing background to one of his earliest novels.) So unless you’re sitting on The Return of Cujo--or better yet, It 2: That--just don’t do it.

Forbidden Ending #2: Hospital Bed Death Scene

Or any variation thereof. It’s weepy, melodramatic and, well, easy. But let me clarify: some brilliant stories have been—and will continue to be—written about death (read Sherman Alexie’s short story, War Dances, now). The difference, however, between the good and the bad, is that the good will never use death as a way to neatly wrap up any and all prevalent themes; but instead, as a way to crack open the much more complex behavior of the still-living. In other words, if you must kill off grandma, do it with that big explosion. We’ll forgive you this one time.

Forbidden Ending #1: And it Was All a Dream

Maybe we’ve all used the dream sequence before in our writing—that one colorful scene where we get to throw from the window all that pesky logic that’s been holding back our story from the beginning. And while dream sequences are fun in that anything goes (not to mention it’s a sure-fire way to bring any lurking psychosis to the surface) the problem is, when the story itself can be dismissed as a mere night of tossing and turning, well, then us readers are going to want to throw something else out the window as well. And that’s completely logical.

So there you have it. But it doesn't all have to be bad. There are, of course, those techniques that certain writers have been bold enough to actually encourage. I’m thinking of another instructor—this one at Iowa—who was very clear about what to do should you find yourself at that moment when the story is calling for an ending, but you have no idea where to, uh, begin. His advice? Flashback. Go back in time. Return your character to a moment in childhood, a simpler time, a first date, a first fall, a first kiss, a first heartbreak, a first anything—just return, I say, return!

Since hearing this, I’ve actually come to notice the countless number of famous stories that utilize this method, which makes me wonder: will the flashback ever grace a forbidden endings list in a creative writing workshop far, far away? Maybe. But until then, I have yet to spot a chink in the armor (I blame Tobias Wolff for making it look so easy) and so in honor of the literary time travelers before me—and because I now sit at the very moment in question—I offer you this:

When I was five or six years old, my dad read me a bed time story and I remember complaining about the ending, to which he said it wasn’t the ending—not really—but merely the moment the writer got tired of telling the story. So if I didn’t like it, he said, I should feel free to find a better one. He turned off the light and I lay there, imagining the Berenstain Bears sitting around a table, not doing much of anything, not even talking, just staring at one another—Mama, Papa, Brother, and Sister—waiting I guess, waiting for me, and I realized then that endings were easier said than done. But if I closed my eyes, maybe I’d dream up a real good one.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Best of Our Stories in Print!

Dear all,

I'm proud to announce that we are now in print at long last.

The Best of Our Stories combines all the stories and interviews and essays from each volume bound in a classy looking paperback.

Find more information here at

Thank you all for your support and help!

Friday, December 4, 2009

another workshop success story

Our Stories workshop student Townsend Walker writes that a story which we worked on this past Spring will be published by Pine Tree Mysteries in February. Keep your eyes open for this twisty little tale of double murder. Any other former students out there holding out on us? Do let us know when you publish the stories we workshopped--I, for one, get a huge rush knowing that all your hard work paid off.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Alice Munro

Alice Munro is much revered in MFA programs, including my own at Emerson College. I think it may be law that every MFA graduate read and analyze at least one of her short stories, if not several of her collections.

This annoys many. She's not edgy. Her language isn't flashy or fun. She's not experimental. She's often melodramatic and her plot lines can feel heavily constructed. Plus, her stories mainly take place in her native rural Canada---how unsexy is that? (Sorry Canadians. But really.)

I fell in love with the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage even before I began studying writing at Emerson. "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (which was made into the film Away From Her ) is the best love story I've ever read. It gave me a new appreciation for what it means to grow old, and what it means to be devoted to another person. I think of it often. Stories that stick with you are great stories.

I like Munro. She chose the short story form because she wrote while she raised children, and it was what she could fit into her life, around nap times and later, the school day. She writes about women, families, and aging. Again, not always sexy material, but material with depth. And she mines it for all its worth.

Her new book, Too Much Happiness, was reviewed in the NYTimes yesterday. I suspect it's worth a read, even if its not her "best work" as the reviewer suggests. Were my best writing Munro's worst, I'd be a happy writer.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Best of Our Stories coming soon...

Dear all,

We have been squeezing in extra hours for the past two months to create the Best of Our Stories volumes 1 & 2. Jo Hsu, our publishing intern this summer was instrumental in getting this done. Today I ordered the final drafts of proofs and I should receive them this week. Baring no additional errors in the volumes they will both be available to order by next week.

On the cover we feature the art work of Saint Louis based Colin Michael Shaw. He was generous enough to lend us the pieces and I am proud to showcase his work. Find more about him at

Stay tuned on ordering instructions!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A View from the World of Book Publishing

In September, Daniel Menaker wrote an illuminating essay about trade publishing from the publisher's perspective. Menaker is the fiction editor of The New Yorker and was the former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House so he's got some power and experience on the subject. Go check it out.

Really. Go ahead.

I'll wait.



Fine, fine. I know it's a long piece. So here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Most trade books do not succeed, financially....Many books that do show a profit show a profit so small that it only minimally darkens a company's red ink.

Not particularly sunny news for those of us hoping to land a book deal, is it? So what books are successful?

[M]ost of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list -- "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet -- even sturdy vessels -- founder.

Not so helpful either, is it? How does one become the author of a surprise hit? Menaker doesn't know. No one knows. Much of success is chance. There are too many books published (Menaker guesses 75 "half-decent" ones) per week, and not enough review space to accommodate them.

Okay, now I'm depressing myself. How about something on writers?

[T]his is a business fuelled largely by writers' need for attention, and no one wants to crush any writer's dreams before a book is even published. Especially since every now and then they actually come true....

Usually, writers, like anyone else who performs in public and desires wide recognition, no matter how successful they become, have an unslakeable thirst for attention and approval -- in my opinion (and, I'm embarrassed to say, in my own case) usually left over from some early-childhood deficit or perception of deficit in the attention-and-approval department. You will frequently find yourself serving as an emotional valet to the people you work with.

Great. He thinks we're all nuts and require great coddling. Hmmm. Probably a little true for some of us. Maybe even most of us. So maybe the buried advice here is to get thee into therapy and leave your baggage at the door when you land your book deal and leave your poor editor alone.
Despite their often intense neediness, writers are often fascinating and stimulating company.

Ahhh. Much better. We are stimulating company! And producing thought-provoking literature from us is what Menaker loves most, and wants the reading public to crave, even if he does think there are only "about a million very good -- engaged, smart, enthusiastic -- generalist readers in America."

I'd like to think that the Our Stories audience factors into that million, and that our passion for excellence in the written word will keep the publishing industry from crumbling.

But if not, I guess we'll have online literary magazines to write for and read.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Welcoming our new staff

At Our Stories we seem to increasing our waist line. We started off quite small, there were four others besides myself. It's amazing watching Our Stories grow and increase its pool of talent. This most recent recruitment brings the staff size to 15 staff members.

I'd like to welcome the following staff members into the fold: Cheri Johnson, Steven Ramirez, Kseniya Melnik, MK Hall, Want Chyi and Jennifer Ruden.

They all were thoroughly tested to ensure they would meet the challenge of reading and critiquing your stories.

For now that's all. I've asked them all to chime in and maybe post their bios, otherwise you can find more information here on the staff page.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Makes it all worthwhile

Not often I jump in on the blog, but I have to give a shout-out to writer Dani Raschel Jiménez who completed a workshop with me in May.

Here I sat in my desk chair, still adrenaline-high from my own reading at KGB (it went great, thanks audience, I was even surprised by my current Deluxe workshop student showing up, delightful!) and into my inbox pops the notification that the new issue of Fickle Muses is up, featuring "Reasonably Unforseeable"--a story by none other than our own Dani Raschel Jiménez! "Reasonably Unforseeable" was a really twisty, very magic-realism, practically slipstream story that Dani worked hard. And hard work, as they say, pays off: she made it happen. Read "Reasonably Unforseeable" at! Congratulations Dani--it's fantastic, and all of us at Our Stories are proud of you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inspiration, Courtesy of WC Vasquez

A few weeks ago, I shamelessly solicited inspiration from Our Stories readers in exchange for a free copy of Musical Chairs. You know, I did this because I feel a sort of separation anxiety, after six years of my life going into one project, it can be an intimidating prospect to begin again.

Our Stories readers came through. In fact, I might try to work this in to our blog more often because personally, I needed a quick shot of inspiration. I think all writers do at some point. There is a certain cathartic experience we all share as storytellers.

I'd say the following quote pretty much sums it up, and better, it makes me want to write. Writing is a tough profession, but, as Vasquez states, we do it for a reason. After countless hours of our time: typing away or poring over notebooks, exchanging critiques, revising and reworking, cutting an pasting and worrying over word choice, structure, and voice all comes together just right, there's nothing like it.

So... Why Do You Write?

The right words at the right time with the right audience: bliss.

-WC Vasquez

This quote struck me because it's short, sweet, to the point.

About the Writer:

WC Vasquez first noticed that her words had an affect on people when she was seven years old: after listening to her confession, her priest paused for a few seconds before saying: "Wow. You express yourself really well. You should think about a career in public speaking." Several thousand Hail Marys later, she has begun speaking to a wider audience. Her work has appeared in Writer, Writer's Digest, and The Sun. She lives in Berkeley, California where she is writing a collection of short fiction.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fall 2009 Issue has arrived

Fall 2009 has gone live. We're proud to publish these outstanding short stories along with an amazing interview with Dorothy Allison:
"Saving Instructions" by Maragret McMullan
"Finding Perfect" by Adam Smith
"Catcher's Say" by Adam Smith
"Leaving" by Greg Girvan
"Forecast" by Ira Sukrungruang
and "Winter's Coming" by Mark Wolsky

I share the story of how I got into Mason's MFA program as well in my essay "Labor of Love"

Enjoy ya'll.

The Art of Defying Death

Everyone should damn well go out and read Elizabeth's piece in the New York Times. The Art of Defying Death. Her writing is something of a treasure and her frank openness leaves you emotionally raw. We are lucky to have her as part of our staff.

Thank you Elizabeth.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our Stories ~ Book Giveaway

The moment every author dreams of, works toward and gives up on time and time again only to return to, dream of once again and work toward all the harder has arrived for me. Musical Chairs is now available. No take-backs. And, now that my five long years of work is contained, with its own cover and ISBN, I am thrilled. In the spirit of Our Stories, the journal that gives back, I'd like to give a copy away.

So, I'm soliciting inspiration. I want to know why you write. For those readers who are interested, please email me at with a single sentence that illustrates why you stick with it, why you feel compelled to put pen to paper, to share your words with the world.

That's one sentence, expressing your love for writing. It seems easy, right? Well, it's not. Go ahead and try it.

I will be collecting submissions until October 20th, 2009.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Sure, now I am a proud member of the Our Stories staff, working for an online literary journal that offers everyone who submits a personal response in the largely impersonal publishing world that greets beginning writers. Before I was introduced to Our Stories, however, I wasn't so sure about the merit of an online journal. To my mind, print journals reigned supreme, and those that were easy-access were not as discriminating.

That said, after being introduced to the world of e-literature, which has burgeoned over the last five years, allowed those from a wider demographic to have access to the same work, and likewise, allowed those from a wider demographic to submit work, I have changed my mind. Moreover, I now have become a dedicated reader of many online literary journals, from which I find inspiration and entertainment. That said, I am still only a fan of the online literary journal, not the online book.

I have read a few e-books, and though I was able to get through them, I have to admit, I felt the experience lacking. I craved the actual feel of a book in my hand--the ability to underline and dog ear pages, the very act of flipping a page. For novels and memoirs I have read this way, I found that a good book is able to transcend experience. I still enjoyed disappearing into the vast worlds suggested by a good writer; but there's something about having a physical book...

Today, I was forwarded an article on Vooks. I won't burden readers with my largely biased thoughts about the eminent Vook. Have you heard of these things yet? Well, according to a recent New York Times article, Simon & Schuster will soon release four Vooks. They hybrids, in a sense, part book, part movie, "which intersperse videos throughout electronic text that can be read — and viewed — online."1

I would love to invite any feedback on this new wave of publishing. To me, it seems to suggest that the literary industry is slowly dying, leaving a larger market for film. Oh, but I said I wouldn't burden you with my thoughts, so forget that last comment. Will anyone miss the act of imagining characters? The unique feel of inventing the imagined worlds a novelist creates or the vivid scenes of a powerful peice of nonfiction?

Or, do you think it's fantastic? The visual and literary worlds were bound to merge and we only benefit from the hybrid entertainment?

I'd love some perspective. I'm feeling a bit obstinate (perhaps old fashioned?) here...

1. BOOKS | October 01, 2009
Curling Up With Hybrid Books, Videos Included

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Into the Morloch Hole

Always intrigued about that place where pop culture and literature intersect, some of us at OS took time out from our onerous and heady reading load (we were deep into HG Wells’s The Time Machine) to tune in to the premier episode of the new sitcom set in Brooklyn piloted by lit-world fixture Jonathan Ames, Bored to Death. We ourselves were in fact bored by the proliferation of trite one-liners and bizarre scatological humor, which didn’t quite resonate with us for some reason, and decided to retire to our electronic armchair. Here Ames’s oevre in text could be found. Being the old fashioned sort, we were much more illuminated by the material in his new book, The Double Life is Twice as Good. Perhaps it’s even thrice as good.

Something that caught our eye

We thought this was a pretty cool article in The Believer, partly because it follows a kind of journalistic impetus while at the same time breaking most every rule we ever learned in grad school about form, function and flow. How one (aka Rich Cohen) might get from a cultural history of the Model T to a day on the used car lot with his hard-sell dad in the mid 70s, well all we could say was Snoopy couldn't have done it better flying through the sky his Red Baron uniform. Vroom.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Summer 2009 Issue has arrived!

So, it usually takes me a few days to shake the cobwebs out of my head after I've finished an issue. We have though, as you can tell, published another round of great fiction and an amazing interview with Stuart Dybek. Bravo. Bravo.

The winners of the Emerging Writer Award are as follows:

First Place:
Shane Kraus for the story "Negotiating the Truth"

Second Place:
Caroline Bailey Lewis for the story, "Gutter"

Runners up:
Erik Hoel for the story "Big Cats"
Cynthia Hawkins for the story "Hope before 3:15"

This year we had a number of exceptional stories that deserved honorable mention and I'm proud to list those stories here.

Donna Walker-Nixon "Other Toys"
Jennifer Lee "Cobra"
Jim Miller "Frequency of Failure"
Taylor Brown "Manatee"
David Breitkopf "No Problem"
Daryl Morazzini"When They Come"

It is my hope that these authors will think of us (as will all the rest of you who submitted during this contest) when they work on their stories through another draft and decide to send them out again.

Thanks to everyone who submitted to the contest and we look forward to another great round of fiction in a couple of months.

anthology seeking submissions

The Main Street Rag (an indie publisher) is actively seeking good stories about "Coming Home"--so if anyone has a really great story they sent to us and have edited that suits that theme, even loosely, do send it on. Be aware that this is an anthology, so the submision guidelines are very strict: read the fine print and follow the instructions. Nothing gets you rejected faster than ignoring an editor's request on font size.

Please be advised that Our Stories is not connected to Main Street Rag, nor do I personally know more than what's posted on their site:

This is just an informational post to those of you who are ready to see your names in a book. Good luck! And drop an email if you get placed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

just something interesting

A good friend of mine asked me over coffee recently what I look for in a "good" story.

"Something interesting," I said, "right from the beginning."

Without question, every story's different, since every story's meaning and purpose differ from others. Still, revising stories to ensure something of interest awaits readers in those earliest passages can sometimes guide writers to pinpoint a story's meaning and purpose and even more fluidly unfurl a story with those goals in mind.

A story we published in our recent issue, Erik Koel's Big Cats caught my interest from those opening passages. Something strange happens, and that strangeness conveys to me some emotional weight Daniel, the story's main character who walks with invisible tigers his entire life, seems to feel.

Reflecting on other stories that move me, I'd say other ways to make interesting opening passages involve tones with cunning metaphor, sardonic intellect, or vivid imagery pregnant with implicit meaning.

In the end, the best advice anyone can give is probably what Stuart Dybek just gave in the interview we did with him, which is read a lot and write every day.

Friday, August 7, 2009

great story to read

Since many readers of the blog will have read the interview we just did with Stuart Dybek, I´ve decided to praise one of the best stories I´ve read this year. Dybek recommends that writers READ, and this is a story worth studying.

Appearing in Blackbird, Molly Giles's "Ghost Dog" gives the first person p.o.v. of an abused, hopeful vagabond living on the island of Kaua’i. The hope is the man she loves, Les, will build the Center--where an ancient Asian ritual of visualizing energy will apparently heal sickness.

Check out the way the story uses metaphor indirectly, through description and modest but trenchant prose. That first scene encapsulates the meaning and purpose of the entire story without interrupting the fictive dream.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Workshop Success Story

Big kudos to recent Standard Workshop participant, Dani Raschel. She submitted her edited story to a national literary contest and won for the young adult division! She gets to meet with an agent from New York who really enjoyed her story--and is working with Dani on a few revisions before submitting the story as part of a YA novel to big publishing houses! Here's to Dani for all her hard work in the workshop, and her extraordinary efforts at making her writing the best it can possibly be--see? it does pay off.

Keep writing, folks!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Farewell to Our Stories

Dear Our Stories,

It’s time for me to say goodbye, but I thank you for what has been a wonderful experience.  It has meant a great deal to me to work for a journal that values writers the way you do.  Sending work out into the world with hopes of publishing can be a daunting process.  At best, it’s a lonely one.  So I have appreciated the opportunity to work with a group of people who do it differently, people who strive to communicate openly and honestly about the endeavor.  As I’ve sat with stories, responding to them moment-to-moment, commenting on what I’m perceiving, or sharing my experience of the work, I have felt much less like a “reader” and more like someone engaged in a conversation.   To feel myself in a dialogue with other writers is all I could hope for at a journal.  It renews my hope for where publishing is going, and for the ways in which writers can acknowledge and support one another as we travel this path.

Thank you to Alexis, the Our Stories staff, and all the writers who’ve shared their work.

 All best, 

Ashley Farmer

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Narrow Escape of the Desk Monkey: Or, How I Came to Intern for Our Stories

The morning before I emailed my resume to Alexis E. Santi, Editor-in-Chief of Our Stories, I had a devastating interview with a magazine I had long admired. It wasn’t that the interview went poorly, or even that I didn’t get the job; it was that I learned I didn’t want the job. I was the moment that I realized that, in this first tentative conversation between potential employer and employee, the interviewee is also searching for the right match. Up until then, I had always gone into interviews as the desperate supplicant needing a job. But this time, in a two-part interview with Magazine X (renamed for the purpose of this blog post), I found myself unconsciously evaluating them as much as they were evaluating me

In my two separate conversations with the chief editors, they both informed me that this position would involve little more than deskwork. I would be packaging issues and sending off rejection letter after rejection letter, never forwarding anything onward to the editors. I was told: “A lot of people have this mistaken belief that working for a literary magazine will involve lots of sitting around a table talking about fiction. It’s not like that here.” If I took their offer and moved 1,400 miles to work unpaid, I would have little contact with the editors themselves, and never see the pieces that went into print. Not to sound ungrateful for the opportunity, but the job just wasn’t for me. Not only could I not afford the flight, the housing, and the transportation just to get to work, I also couldn’t envision doing all that to be a desk monkey. Even for a magazine for which I had long dreamed of working.

That’s where Our Stories came in. That evening, still crushed about my conversation with X, I went prowling around the internet for other magazines that were looking to hire. I was struck by the amount of consideration Our Stories gives to its submissions. Whereas X showed me exactly how impersonal the entire business can be, Our Stories proved that there were people out there still thinking about the struggling writers behind every painstaking piece. It was almost unfathomable to me that a professional magazine even had the time to make a connection with every single author.

After I emailed Alexis, I received a startlingly prompt response, and we quickly got to work. From day one, interning with Our Stories has been a unique experience. I have been granted major undertakings—such as designing the layout for the two upcoming printed volumes (exciting!)—and I have been allowed the perfect balance of guidance and personal freedom. Even better, I do get to have conversations about fiction—about the art in general, about fiction printed in Our Stories, or even about my own work. I’ve been able to see what goes into making a literary journal, and how pieces are selected for publication.

Recently, I have begun learning the art of reading fiction—debatably the most exciting part of this internship. Though I’ve edited for magazines before, it’s hugely beneficial to see how it works in the real world—when you’re staring down hundreds or thousands of submissions instead of fifty.

By the time X sent me the job offer, it was weeks later and I had already mapped out three months of interning with Alexis. Needless to say, I thanked them for the opportunity, made my excuses, and haven’t looked back since.

Monday, June 29, 2009

When out Bingin' Stuff

So I was just using "Bing" the new Microsoft foray into the search world and after "bingin" Our Stories (just doesn't feel the same as "googling" now does it?) I found a great review of us written by Chuck Campbell. I believe that this is the same Chuck Campbell who we published a few moons ago (in an effort of full disclosure) but just sayin' when you "bing" stuff is gonna turn up. Hear me? Cool. Now go off and read what the nice man had to say about us here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Change Happens: You Have a Say In It

In the past month or two I've been bombarded with a statement that seems to be taking many areas of publishing by storm: Change happens; you just have to go with it.

I've been asking myself a lot of questions about what changes I do indeed want to go along with.

Last month I attended two panel discussions. At both events it seemed that different generations of writers and editors were clashing.

At an evening titled, "What's Happening in Chicago Publishing?" held at an old clubhouse of a bar in Lincoln Park, three classic Chicago literary personalities took the stage. Each talked about their own feelings about changes happening in the publishing world, specifically the increase of digital and online reading. They talked about what it would mean to lose material books, newspapers, magazines. They talked about the decline of professional reviews in favor of Amazon Customer Reviews. They talked about whether writers would continue to be paid for the work they did, if they continued to offer their opinions and knowledge in free forums like blogs. One younger editor of a Chicago Literary championed the benefits of online communities. When one of the three big-wigs on stage voiced his anxiety over the loss of face-to-face communication, the younger editor shot back, "Well, that's why I'll have a job in ten years and you won't." It seemed to me, that while that may be true, there was a certain lack of respect for all that publishing has accomplished in the course it has already mapped out. While the prediction might come true, though I suspect it won't, the question could be asked what that jobs benefits might be. Will there be a salary or any sort of pay at all? Will the job of writing and editing be a career for anyone but Audrey Niffenegger and Gordon Lish?

The second discussion I attended was held at my bookstore, Women & Children First, and featured Jane Hamilton and Elizabeth Berg in discussion about the increased presence of humor in their writing. At one point the conversation drifted to Jane's experience teaching writing on a cruise ship. She said it seemed like people were more interested in being published than in writing. She talked about the advent of self-publishing companies like Lulu. She talked about how important it was for people to record their stories, but wondered why wondered how many adoption memoirs needed to exist for the public to consume without any support or marketing whatsoever.

I will be the first to admit that I, myself, was temporarily fixated on publishing. The fast pace of online publishing, especially, can allow one's priorities to shift. All of the sudden it seemed like every time I finished writing a piece, I had to send it out right away, to keep my name on people's radars. Once this obsession had been satisfied an arbitrary number of times, I relaxed a little. Perhaps it was that I could feel myself existing in an online community of sorts. My attention narrowed or widened, depending on how you look at it. Either I knew more what I was looking for, or I was able to gaze beyond the megalomaniacal myopia of making sure people knew I was out here working my butt off. I was able to give more time to writing, allowed myself to work on longer projects, which didn't promise the instant gratification of sending off a story after the 48 hours it took to write it.

The attention span of a reader online is clearly shorter than a paper reader. With the glare of the screen and a minimum of a dozen other buttons to click on the same page you're reading, a story has got to be good to keep a reader's attention even for a short while. This is not to say that a handful of very dedicated readers have not trained themselves to read longer amounts on the screen. It can be done, but I think credit should be given to the way these limitations have created a space for a different brand of work, which is typically short and compact. Stories and poems which can be swallowed whole. I have to say, despite my commitment to reading online in addition to reading paper publications, I've yet to return to a longer story or article to finish reading after I've paused and traveled elsewhere. I will go out on a limb and say without the material reminder to carry on, I easily forget or leave behind an interrupted online text.

The world of publishing is in an enormous state of flux. Advances to new writers are nearly obsolete. The large publishing houses are falling or consolidating. The catalogs our bookstore uses to order are shifting to a strictly online presence. How long can it be before the products are virtual as well? before the space for gathering to buy books, talk books, browse is completely unnecessary?

Amazon has a virtual monopoly on e-books, with the Kindle, and while I champion the physicality of a book to the bitter end, people appear more and more open to experiencing their literature through another machine. Despite Sherman Alexie's cries at book expo that the Kindle is a elitist, making knoweldge and literature available to only the people who can afford the electronic devise, I'm sure people in the music world voiced similar fears about ipods and the internet before that. For years I delayed getting an ipod, for financial reasons and because I wasn't willing to give up album art, the physical presentation which accompanied the music, but I was broken down on that front quite easily.

Several months ago, I didn't know what dominos would be set to fall when I went on a blind coffee date. Most of the things I've already discussed had just been fleeting thoughts I hadn't taken very seriously. One of the first topics Eric broached, knowing I was a writer who worked in a bookstore was the fact that he'd given all of his physical books away, and now owned a Kindle. In my mind, I'd already made decisions about how this date would go, there were tattoos of spears involved and consistent look of pity for me the artsy ne'er-do-well who flipped her sentences inside out with passion, so I wasn't about to tread lightly. In the next hour or so it became known that we worked for Amazon, at which point I vocally declared him my mortal enemy. He said, "We can still be friends. I think it's okay that you work at a bookstore." To which I responded, "Well, you're not the one who's dying are, you?" Eric chuckled and chimed a chorus that I would come to know too well in the next hour and then subsequent months: "Change happens; you just have to go with it." I tried to hold my side and argue that there was a lot worth fighting for in physical books and the public space of the bookstore, in interacting with other human beings to get your needs met rather than the anonymous and detached act of buying everything you need online from a massive, anonymous conglomerate. Eric repeated his refrain: "Change happens; you just need to go with it." Eric, who apparently read science fiction novels on his dreaded kindle, as if they were fact, went on to talk about how soon we would have the capability of living forever and how he would choose to live in a pod and experience a happy life virtually instead of a true, physical life full of the pitfalls of reality. I expressed horror at what he was willing to give up for some generic and manufactured version of the experience of a life. When I tried to remind him that we are just animals who need to nourish themselves and move around and interact with other animals, that our nature is defined by us ending at some point, and not living forever, that we are not owed any flawless experience of happiness, I felt certain that he would see the light and agree. Why I cared, maybe illustrates my own utopic visions of humanity. Eric simply repeated his mantra: "Change happens; you just have to go with it."

I don't have answers about what's right or wrong. I'm not even entirely sure what I'm most committed to preserving. I do know that indifference isn't what brought these shifts on, and it's certainly not what's going to protect the elements of this area of culture which we value and are not willing to discard. My hope is simply that everyone will be deliberate in the decisions they make; that people will think carefully about what they support actively and passively. That when the time comes for changes you have decided are important and valuable, you will not just go with them, but care about them deeply enough to support them and take part in the way they develop.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Five Star Literary Review

Dear all,

Some great news here. Jo Page's story has been reviewed by the folks over at Five Star Literary Stories. TJ Forrester runs the site which in their words:

Five Star Literary Stories combines three integral facets of the writing life: publisher, story, and reviewer. Here's how the site works. I invite the editor of an online magazine to nominate a short story or flash fiction from his/her archives. The editor writes a blurb about his/her mag and a blurb about the nominated story. I provide the reviewer.

I selected Page's story to represent OS this quarter and am seriously impressed by the review by Donald Capone did of her story. He had this to say:
This story will stick with its readers for a long time. It will for me; I still wish she had kicked him where it counts and made a run for it, though.
I do too Don, I do too. Bravo Jo, you're turning heads. Here's a link to the review, check it out!

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Strategizing Writer

The current economic crisis has hit the publishing world hard. There are even murmurs about publishing companies hesitating to take on new writers until the economy improves. And for those lucky enough to find an agent and publisher in this uncertain milieu, there’s the unlucky prospect of smaller advances.

So, what’s a writer to do? Simply waiting for the economic crisis to blow over isn’t an option, but there are a few things that may be worth trying. First and foremost, you have to put yourself out there – be proactive at every step. By this I mean several different things.

  • Enroll in writing workshops and conferences (to the extent that you can afford them). If there are special events for writers where you live, attend them whenever possible. Volunteer to help the organizers. Print business cards for the occasion and hand them out when appropriate. And don’t be shy. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to strangers. When you’re competing with thousands of others in the same situation as you, you need to stand out. These are some of the easier ways to get people in the publishing industry to know who you are and – more importantly – give you a chance to win them over with your writing.
  • Expand your writing platform, venturing into genres such as travel and food writing, poetry, and even journalism. While it’s true that having loads of fiction publications will help you land an agent for your new novel, agents and publishers are keen to see whatever spells success. Clips from newspapers and magazines, for example, are proof not only that you can write, but also that you can identify a specific audience/demographic and write something they want to buy. It’s my opinion that too many fiction writers do too little genre crossing.
  • Network with as many serious writers as you can. Put yourself in a position to meet other people who are doing the same thing as you. Perhaps they’re struggling, or perhaps they’re basking in success. If they’re of the former group, which is exponentially larger than the latter group, there’s something comforting about knowing you’re not the only one struggling to get recognized. If they’re of the latter group, it’s likely that you’ll find something inspirational about their success, and perhaps receive a useful piece of advice – or, even better, a nod in the direction of their agent.
  • Volunteer with local publications. If you’re a fiction writer, then try to find a fiction journal to intern with. Even if all they’re willing to let you do at first is affix stamps to envelopes, do it. It’s a way in. After proving yourself to them, you may get a shot at something more interesting. And with that you may begin to develop relationships that prove valuable to your writing career.
  • Blog. That’s right, blogging can get you noticed. While I’m working to develop a writing blog of my own right now, I already have my own travel and food blog. I’ve actually met a number of talented, ambitious writers this way, and I’ve recently had a national magazine contact me about my writing. Your job as a blogger is to make sure your writing is good enough to attract visitors and then keep them coming back. Word of mouth is a powerful tool. So is the phenomenon of linking. And guess what else? Many successful writers have blogs. If they have a comment feature, don’t be afraid to leave the occasional positive (not fawning) remark. They may drop by your blog as a result of your comment, and any agent who happens to be lurking may spend some time on your site, too, poking around your writing – a one-on-one meeting in cyberspace between an agent and your fiction. Another bonus about blogging: you can start a blog for free.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies to get ahead with your writing. With this in mind, I welcome readers’ thoughts on this challenge that many of us are facing in the current economic climate. If you have different suggestions, or wish to add to what I’ve said, feel free to share here. I think it could prove helpful to both new and seasoned writers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dzanc Best of the Web 2009

Our Stories is pleased to announce that Lindsay Merebaum's story "Cannibal Love" has been selected for the Dzanc Best of the Web 2009 anthology. In addition, her story has also been selected as a finalist in the Million Writers Award for 2009 along with "The Old Challah Radio" by Adam Shechter. For a full list of all the Best of the Web stories please check out the following link. This is the second year in a row that a story has been been selected from Our Stories for the Dzanc BotW anthology, in the 2008 anthology Cara Hoffman's story, "Waking" was selected for publication.

HTML Giant Takes up the Narrative Conversation

Dear All,

If you've been following us for the past couple of months you know I've been engaged in the Narrative Magazine discussion. Our friends over at HTML Giant has taken up the conversation and the discussion is very thought provoking and lively. They have already posted Narrative Magazines 990 forms from 2007. I am posting links to these same public forms as follows: 2005 | 2006 | 2007 the forms are in downloadable PDF formats. I urge you all go check it out the conversation at HTML Giant here.

Alexis Enrico Santí

Friday, May 1, 2009

In Praise of Reading Widely

Back when I was a grad student at the University of Arizona, one of my Creative Writing professors asked me what I liked to read. 

“I’ve always been a fan of Japanese fiction,” I told her, “and I like a number of other Asian writers, too.” At the time, I had just started reading Romesh Gunesekera, Arundhati Roy, and Michael Ondaatje, and had recently been impressed with Nguyen Thi Hiep, Duong Thu Huong, and Bao Ninh. I’d also read everything translated into English by Mishima, Kawabata, Oe, and Tanizaki, not to mention various works by dozens of other Japanese authors. The fact was, if I hadn’t applied to graduate programs in Creative Writing, I would have applied instead to programs in Japanese Literature.

When I shared with her my affinity for Japanese fiction, she shook her head and laughed at me. 

“A serious writer,” she said gravely, “reads real fiction. If I were you, I’d stick to American writers and hope something rubs off.” 

Of course, I had been reading plenty of them, too, and by that point in the term it was apparent that she really didn’t like me. I never did determine, however, if she was merely trying to put me down or if she really believed that nothing good could come of reading Asian fiction. 

Last year, when Horace Engdahl, an official of the Nobel Foundation, publicly dismissed American literature as being “too isolated, too insular,” and said that Americans “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are therefore ignorant, I heard an echo of my professor, though it was Eurocentrism rather than Americentrism speaking this time. 

I’m not about to say that fiction from one part of the world has more merit than fiction from another part, and the Nobel Prize, though laudable for its intentions to reward outstanding work, seems rather subjective in the end. To me, it’s dangerous to condemn all writing (and those who read it) from a shore not one’s own. 

Just as it’s essential for writers to read widely between literary genres and periods, it’s no less important, in my opinion, to read widely across literary traditions. Not surprisingly, Japanese writers tend to have a different aesthetic than their counterparts in the West, and their focus – traditionally, anyway – on nature, understatement, the profundity of silence, and the perception of beauty in the possibility of things, offers much to learn from, and – dare I say it? – perhaps even incorporate, in some small way, in our own work. (Just think of the artist Hokusai’s influence on European Impressionists in the 19th century.) 

Atop my list of Japanese fiction are five novels in particular. Each is unique not only to Japanese fiction, but to fiction anywhere in the world. The first is Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. The second is Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima. The third is Dark Night’s Passing, by Naoya Shiga. The fourth is The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. And the fifth is The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe. Rather than review or even describe any of these novels, I’ll leave it up to you to find these and, I hope, relish them for their fascinating novelistic qualities and their superiority as some of last century’s most engaging works.

For anyone interested, Junichiro Tanizaki also provides brilliant insight into Japanese aesthetics in his long essay, “In Praise of Shadows.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitizer Prize goes to Elizabeth Strout

Another kick ass short story writer takes the Pulitzer Prize, Strout is the author of the collection: Olive Kitteridge, described as a novel in stories.

From the LA Times:
Elizabeth Strout has won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, it was announced today, for her book "Olive Kitteridge." Set in rural Maine, the book is woven from short stories in which Kitteridge, a strong-willed seventh-grade teacher, appears.
Read the rest of their article here.

Suggestions for Narrative Magazine

I've been having some great conversations offline with some friends, colleagues and fellow writers lately about Narrative Magazine. Here are some suggestions I've come up with for Narrative:

1. Narrative should promise X amount of space in every issue to those who submit fees. Is it once a week a new writer will be published or is it once a month? Tell your readers up front. Couple this with an open breakdown of where your money goes to from submission fees. There's a contradiction between what you say the guidelines lay out and the staff members who say they work for free. Narrative could make these changes to their business tomorrow.

I might add that since they are a 501 (c) (3) their 990 forms are public record and show what their take and expenses are every year. With a little digging someone could publish these figures, maybe we will.

2. Narrative should give something--anything--to those who submit, extra access to their website, discounts on future submissions, partner with another business like P&W and get discounts there. Narrative does not appear to have a positive exchange with their customer's hard earned dollars. This would positively effect Narrative's bottom line dramatically. And something like this could easily be done in a few months.

3. A reading fee should include a statement of feedback when a rejection is sent; this feedback would affirm that the piece has actually been read. This may require hiring more staff but heck they can afford it and if they can't afford it--I know a few dozen readers who would work for the experience.

These suggestions are in order of what can be done immediately and what may take a bit more time. I welcome your own comments, suggestions or criticisms as well.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

E. L. Doctorow "The Writer in the Family" ~ & conversations with Margaret Dawe at Wichita State

One of the benefits of going to an MFA program is meeting writers. Margaret Dawe, the Chair of the English Dept. at Wichita State and author of the critically acclaimed novel Nissequott, will always be one of the most influential teachers I've had. Her workshop and a class I took with her on plot (in which we memorized all cryptic lines in Aristotle's Poetics) left indelible marks, and when she called my thesis (which was later published as Ash Dogs) "wonderful," well, you've just got to take one of her classes to understand this means a lot.

In a conversation with her (me from China, using email), she recommended I check out the following Doctorow story since one of the things I learned about being a writer from Margaret has to do with the role a writer plays in a family, a role that is not always pleasant.

E. L. Doctorow's story "The Writer in the Family" appears as the first story in ''Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella" and is one of the most moving stories anyone can read.

It follows a youth named Jonathan, whose father Jack has died, but whose paternal side of the family, in particular Jonathan's Aunt Frances, lies to Jonathan's paternal grandmother that Jack, failed salesman, has moved to Arizona.

In truth, Jack, Jonathan the narrator's father, has died.

“Years ago his life had fallen into a pattern of business failures and missed opportunities. The great debate between his family on the one side, and my mother Ruth on the other, was this: who was responsible for the fact that he had not lived up to anyone’s expectations?”

Aunt Frances, to appease the whims of Jonathan's grandmother, asks Jonathan to write letters--in the name of his dead father. Jonathan does.

Though published twenty years ago, here is one of the best stories anyone who loves fiction, and who is wondering about the writer's role in a family, can read.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Update on: Nepotism Defined

I recently received an email from Reese Kwon, author of Superhero. As a refresher her bio is above. She is a gracious and kind person.

She has made me aware that she was hired by Narrative Magazine after her story was published. In her words:

Some time last year, I submitted a story to Narrative; it was accepted; a few months after that, the editors asked me if I'd like to come on board to help them as an assistant editor, and I said, sure.

So, there you have it, she was hired after her story was accepted. In my response to Kwon I said that I understood but that Narrative should consider clarifying the issue on their website. She then went on to state:

Like most literary magazines--maybe like yours, too--they depend on having some free labor to function, and they tend to ask people whose writing they like if they're interested in contributing in other ways to the magazine.

And we do depend on staff to help work on the journal. The big difference with us--during contests--is that everyone who reads a story works the submission fee behind the story. The staff members put between two and three hours on each submission, providing a page-by-page analysis of the story's strengths and weaknesses. Each staff member makes 83% of every dollar that comes into Our Stories. During the other 6 months of the year, yes, the staff volunteer their time but are only asked to read 5 stories a month and provide some short feedback to every author, usually a paragraph or two. At every other contest in the country your submission fee does not guarantee your work will be read thoroughly, the best you can hope for is a subscription to the journal.

I want to make another correction though. In my previous post I stated that Narrative Magazine used to charge a reading fee for all submission. That is not the case. For 2 weeks in April and 2 weeks in August Narrative does not charge a submission fee, for the other 48 weeks out of the year they still charge you $20 to read your story. They still charge a reading fee and you still do not receive anything for your fee.

So I am escalating this with Narrative. What does your reading fee go to, if Renee Kwon does not get paid for working on your staff? Is she not an administrator that their guidelines are referring to? In their words from their Submission Guidelines:

However, for unsolicited submissions, we do charge a nominal fee, which helps cover the basic administrative costs related to receiving, reading, and responding to submissions. Also, a portion of the reading fee helps fund our annual Narrative Prize. .... You may read the magazine for free. If you enjoy reading it and wish to submit, we hope you will feel that the reading fee, which is lower than most literary magazine subscription fees, is more than justified by the quality of the work the magazine offers.

Kwon closes her letter to me by saying:

So you're right that I help them out; the chronology of events, however, was reversed.

It is our policy that we do not hire anyone who we have published. That's just us.

I want to apologize publicly to Ms. Kwon for insinuating that she was published because of a personal connection to Narrative Magazine. However, I urge Narrative to change her bio to accurately reflect the chronology of the events and to drop their dubious reading fee.