Good stories this month. That makes it harder to write a review column. But I suppose there's nothing wrong with compliments, and I can probably find something to be nit-picky about.
A common theme for four of July's stories was jobs. Quite a variety of jobs, too: Emergency Medical Technician, Mailman, Insurance Adjuster (and former gambler), and Boulder Pusher/King.
In three of those stories the job was abandoned due to the influence of another. Israel Bissell decides to take a temporary leave of absence to deliver something other than mail. The unnamed narrator abandons his job because his boss, who he finally admires at least a little, dies unexpectedly, probably from exertion. And King Sisyphus bails on his boulder-pushing after encountering Midas and the two make a deal. Midas also abandons his similar quest.
Israel Bissell Rides by Richard Zwicker is a period piece that does not read sentimentally, but has sentiment as its center theme. Sentiment comes in many forms. In this story the obvious one is Sam's wish to marry Anne, his sweetheart from long ago. There is also the implied sentimentality of Sam and Anne being both widowed. But Israel is also sentimental over a past accomplishment and Sam manages to scratch that itch just the right amount to inspire Israel to relive a bit of that accomplishment, in deed and purpose. The offered payment probably doesn't hurt either.
A few times already this year I've been critical of authors' attempts to add non-standard dialect into their stories; the primary criticism has been that it's not consistent. This story is now added to that list, even though it's an extremely minor transgression: “It ain’t that warm in here,” John complained. “Don’t you think that fireplace of yourn could use another log, Sam?” That "yourn" simply isn't worth the effort; "yours" would do quite well, and there's no other lapse into that odd dialect anywhere in the story, not by John or the other two. If a writer wants to use non-standard dialect for a character, (s)he should make sure there's enough dialog by that character to make it worthwhile and authentic.
I've mentioned before that Lee Allen Hill is excellent at using this device. The July 10th chapter of Coffee House Chatter provides a really super example of when and how to spice up a story with dialect. Easy readability is set aside for the authenticity of the unique dialog. If you're going to go for that, then go all the way. Immerse yourself in the dialect, hear it with your inner ear (and outer ear, too, if available), and really work on getting it right. Anything half-way just detracts from the quality of the writing. Except for that one tiny detraction, this story is well done.
Sometimes a story is about a character. In classic literature, Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville) is one such literary portrait. Though in poetic form, Kipling's Gunga Din is another, and Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still another. All three of these have one thing in common. The story about the one man is told in first person by another man. Lucas Ahlsen's Solitaire in the Stairwell (good title!) shares those features. Another feature shared by these four stories is that the subject of the story dies. Solitaire shares even more similarities with Bartleby. Both featured characters are involved with mundane and sedentary work, both die of natural causes, and their deaths are discovered by the narrators. And in both stories, the narrator speculates about the subject's earlier life in a sort of eulogizing soliloquy. Lucas Ahlsen's story is different from the other three in that his narrator walks away from the situation. Kesey's Chief Bromden runs away after suffocating the body of the lobotomized McMurphy, but he is looking forward to where he's going. Ahlsen's narrator is looking backward to where he's been.
The author uses metaphor and simile well: "The white shrubs of his eyebrows," "his voice scraped my ears like sandpaper," and "The files resembled a waterfall of broken lives." He does not over use them, so they seem natural and do what they're supposed to do: add to the descriptive nature of the story without calling attention to themselves. Another good story written well.
A Day in the Life of Sisyphus by Peter Wood is a light-hearted take on a mythological undertaking. The punishment of Sisyphus is recounted correctly, while the punishment of Midas is the author's invention. The most chuckle-worthy part of the story is that the two kings unmistakably, to the reader, demonstrate hubris as they convince Zeus they have learned their lessons. But as the ending hints, Zeus may not be done with them after all. But at least the two kings are going to get a vacation. Try as I might, I can find nothing to criticize.
Life Flight by Sean Schulz is the one story in which the worker likes her job and wants to do it better. It is a coming of age story that spans about five minutes. Courage is at the forefront of the characters. The injured girl is frightened and suffering but bearing it with stoic determination. Rachel is scared to do what she must. She is beset by self-doubt and it would be so much easier to just back out and let Scout take care of it.
People often need help to overcome their fear of failure and fear of the consequences that the failure may produce. Rachel does finally do what she must.
But Scout demonstrates courage also, for the life of the girl is her responsibility. If Rachel makes a tragic error, it is Scout's career on the line. Yet she never flinches, for she recognizes that she has a duty to Rachel as well as the patient.
This story did have a couple of flaws. The author tries to get a little too fancy. "The helicopter blades punished the sky with their deafening wind. The pilot, suave in his oversized helmet and black visor..." and, later, "Blades stormed above as she sliced between ribs and pressed the tube in." The descriptions are pretty good, but the helicopter blades and the pilot are only a barely peripheral part of the scene. In that second example especially, the picturesque reference to the blades distracts from the climactic action of Rachel meeting her challenge. A description of Rachel's expression or Scout's eyes, or even the breathing of the girl would make for better writing. These relatively unimportant (to the human drama) details actually detract from the primary focus of the tale. Had the story been a drama about hazards encountered in the flight, or the skill of the pilot, or even dangerous weather, these descriptive phrases would have added to the content. But in this story, that's not the case.
The other four stories are about dysfunctional relationships. The Shower by Rachel M. Barker is the only one of these relationship stories that offers hope for the future. I found it well written and engaging right up to the end. I found the last sentence incongruous and ill-fitting, like an angled two-by-four nailed carelessly onto the corner of an immaculate brand new garage.
"She felt clean." Clean of what, or from what? For that sentence to really fit, the author needed to use the "clean" metaphor, or its opposite, earlier in the story. Observations of how her urge to drink left her feeling dirty, or how the Rat King seemed to disseminate its dirt onto her, or even the irony of attending a shower that would leave her feeling unwashed and in need of a real shower. I did like the play on words, how the shower made Amy feel clean, but we just needed previous references to that theme to make that last sentence fit into the design, to have a purpose.
The Passenger by Stuart Turnbull is a literary piece with several subtleties fitted in to the narrative.
For starters, he mentions the radio hammering out Iggy Pop. One of Iggy Pop's songs was titled "The Passenger," so it gives at least a hint that that is the song on the radio. There's one thing wrong with that conclusion, though. "The local rock station is hammering out Iggy Pop and I bang the steering wheel in sympathy with the raw energy of a track older than I am." As we learn later, the narrator has been married for twenty-two years, which means he is, realistically, at least forty. "The Passenger," as of this year, is only thirty-eight years old. But Iggy was recording ten years before that, so perhaps it was a different song. I like the way the story is put together. The narrator's musings, full of metaphor and self-assurance contrast with the straight-forward complaints of the woman, and her words allow the reader to "hear" the sad anger in her voice and see the tears on her cheeks.
Another subtlety is that he is driving a muscle car, with a V8 engine: "...that ridiculous mid-life crisis of a car." But the man she leaves with is driving a Prius—the exact opposite of a muscle car. And with that last sentence it is revealed that she is the passenger.
I found Birthday Boy by Edoardo Albert to be slightly disturbing. That's a compliment. I'm sure the story was intended to disturb the reader. It is well done, with the revelation of James' true state of being revealed very gradually, until the truth dawns on the reader just what is happening, and what has happened in the past.
Chrissy is clearly delusional, yet she knows that she is. It is a delusion she holds dear and nurtures, yet it seems that it does not hamper her in her normal day-to-day life. Martin finds it uncomfortable, but tolerates it out of love for his wife. Besides, it's just one day.
A relationship can't get any more dysfunctional than the one shown us in The Ride by Jonpaul Taylor.
The first paragraph actually makes the whole story. "I knew it was a bad idea, leaving Susanna alone at home all pregnant and whatnot while I’m out looking for some new tail. If she knew what I got myself into, she’d kill me."
My first reaction was, "What an asshole!" The narrator gets no sympathy from the reader. Whatever he is getting, or going to get, he deserves it.
In between the self-recriminations he alternates between certainty that he can talk his way out of his predicament and certainty that he is going to die. The author builds the tension and then gives us a little surprise and a little revelation. But it is so logical! Who would be more likely to marry a drug dealing dirt bag like this than a mob boss' daughter? At first I thought that Susanna should be harsher with her words, more stereotypical of the wounded and vengeful woman. On further readings I changed my mind. Her continued use of a soft voice and the endearments was an excellent touch.
As I noted at the beginning, July offered eight excellent stories. They were just right for relaxing when you're home from work and not yet ready to venture back into the heat of the afternoon.
When you write a story, are you able to make facts interesting? Do your descriptions and dialog breathe life into people you’ve only met in your imagination? No? Maybe you need a ghostwriter.
Do you have a story all plotted out but can’t seem to get past that middle that’s dragging on forever and boring even you? Is your protagonist stumbling down too many blind alleys on the way to your mind-blowing conclusion? Maybe you need a ghostwriter.
Fact is, some people are great storytellers but don’t have the writing skills to create publishable work. Maybe you don’t have adequate research or organizational skills. Maybe you focus so hard on not making a punctuation mistake that you can’t put your thoughts on paper. Or maybe you’re just too busy with other tasks to do a good job on this one.
Need has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with investing the time and work necessary to master an exacting craft. Great copy sometimes needs a pro to express ideas to advantage. A ghostwriter.
Can you be a ghostwriter?
Chances are, in one sense you already are. Ever write a letter for someone else’s signature? Ever write down a story told to you by someone else? Ever write a school paper for a classmate? While the last example is unethical, it’s all ghostwriting. Someone else is choosing the subject and point of view, often supplying a rough draft or outline, but you’re bringing your specialized writing skills to the project in an anonymous capacity—for pay.
Have I caught your interest? Good.
What, exactly, is ghostwriting?
According to The Jenkins Group, a publishing company specializing in ghostwriting, a ghostwriter “is a writer who authors books, manuscripts, screenplays, scripts, articles, blog posts, stories, reports, whitepapers, or other texts that are officially credited to another person.”
I found several such publishers/agencies with a quick internet search. They match up the genre of work required with a published writer who has experience in that genre. They vet the writers in advance so you’re sure you’re getting top quality service.
The classified sections of trade magazines and various writers’ guilds are also good places to find potential ghostwriters. In these cases, the customer must do his/her own research into the writer’s credentials. Don’t skip this part. Not every writer is qualified to ghostwrite every project. Read something published by that writer in the genre you’re interested in producing. Writers, expect to have samples of your published work ready for inspection.
Write it all down.
No matter which side of the table you’re on, make sure you have a written contract which requires payment of a third of the writer’s fee at signing, a third after a specified time has elapsed and the customer has examined the writer’s progress, and the final third when a cd/memory stick-saved manuscript is delivered to the customer on a contract-specified date.
The ghostwriter is not going to make substantial changes to the original project without renegotiating the contract, so don’t expect to be a writing partner. The client has farmed the work out and has a single opportunity to comment at the time of the second payment.
All rights to the finished work are owned by the customer, who is listed as the author on the title page. A ghostwriter is an anonymous private contractor. Payment substitutes for accolades.
Keep in mind that a ghost writer delivers an editor-ready draft, not a print-ready manuscript. They’re not responsible for editing beyond basic spelling and grammar nor for publishing or promoting the work.
What kind of money are we talking about?
Publishers/agencies charge anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 for a 100 to 250 page book, approximately three to nine months’ work. Much of the fee is dependent upon how much research and organization the writer needs to do to complete the project. Non-agency writers may well work for less, but be sure you know exactly what you’re buying. Ask for references from past clients. Ghostwriters, be prepared with contact information from satisfied customers.
Whether you’re a businessperson with need for specialized copy, a storyteller who needs professional support, or a published writer who is looking for extra income, consider ghostwriting as an elegant solution to your writing needs.
I have always enjoyed sharing my life experiences with my family and friends. And at 88 years old, I have had a lot of them!
My daughter Sue is the writer in the family. She has been published in more than 70 magazines. I secretly wondered if any of my stories were worthy of being published, but I never mentioned it.
A few years ago, I was sharing a story with Sue about the time I was nearly mugged in the gift shop I owned. It was closing time. I had already turned off the lights and was cashing out the register but had neglected to lock the door. A man poked his head in and said he just needed to buy a card. I allowed him to enter. But the man didn’t browse through the cards. He slowly walked toward me. My heart beat fast as I realized I had made a foolish mistake letting him come in. God intervened, however, by sending a frequent customer to the shop at the right moment. When she walked into the store, the man ran out the door.
Sue immediately said, “Mom, you have to share this inspirational story with readers!”
I didn’t know how to go about trying to get something published, but Sue volunteered to write the experience for me as an “as told to” story. She submitted the piece to Mysterious Ways, a publication of Guideposts magazine. They bought my story! My byline appeared with the story, and I received payment along with 10 copies. I was a published author!
Now besides sharing stories with family and friends, I keep in mind if my experiences seem like they would be something readers would enjoy. Sue recently helped me write a story about when I was three years old and my mother sewed my dresses without using patterns. She made the dresses from memory of the darling, little dresses she spotted in a department store window. I had two photos of my mother and me to accompany the story. Sue submitted these along with the story, and I’m hopeful it will be accepted for publication.
I never would have imagined that I would be a published author—especially in my 80s! I’ll continue to share my stories with readers as long as I’m able.
Why is it some writers have no trouble getting published while others of comparable talent receive rejection after rejection?
The successful writer takes a moment to define his goal—to be published by a specific publication. He gets a feel for the editor’s preferences by reading the publication and gives her what she wants. He doesn’t send Shakespearean sonnets to a magazine specializing in Japanese poetry; he doesn’t submit a romance to a publisher of who-done-its. It’s not the writer’s job to expand the editor’s horizons. It’s the writer’s job to address a topic in an unusual manner, or give an unexpected twist to an old saw while still conforming to that publication’s editorial style.
I shouldn’t have to say that, should I? I mean, how many times have we heard that advice in every writing class and read it in every writers’ magazine we’ve ever picked up? Yet editors still receive submissions that don’t come close to anything they’ve ever published—or ever will publish.
I have no doubt these writers are using a shotgun approach to marketing. They send the same piece to every magazine or website on whatever list they’re working from with the hope that someone, somewhere, will like what they’ve created.
As a writer with time constraints, I appreciate efficiency. As an editor, I appreciate it even more. Taking time to research the requirements of a specific publication is an efficient way to get work into print without acquiring unnecessary rejection-slips.
That’s right. As an editor, I appreciate it when a writer’s submission actually matches what I publish. Even if, for some reason, I find I can’t accept that particular piece, the fact the writer has researched Page & Spine’s needs before submitting makes a favorable impression, one I remember next time I see that writer’s name.
Other editors feel exactly the same way. We're all time-crunched. And none of us particularly likes saying no.
So save yourself an inbox full of frustration. Research your markets before submitting your work. It will make your experience much more fun.
Like most writers, when I finish a story, except for running through Spell Check and formatting my manuscript according to publisher requirements, I tend to sit back and enjoy my accomplishment. However, the twenty-four hour pause between completion and my final reading often makes me far more self-critical, and almost always reveals another flaw that needs correction.
There was a time when I was so excited about my stories that I’d send them off as soon as I typed the last period. As I languished, waiting for the acceptance notice from the publisher, inevitably I would reread my submission and break into a cold sweat. “How did I miss that? It’s so damn obvious.”
I quickly learned to put some distance between completion and submission. We become so intimate with our words that we are often blinded by our own errors, easily passing over the flaw.
“Even an editor needs an editor.” These wise words belong to N. K. Wagner, the publisher of Page and Spine, who graciously suffered through my revisions. Having someone else read our work offers a fresh perspective and a critical eye, but not all of us can afford the cost of a professional editor, and quite frankly, few of my friends would know the difference between a comma and a semicolon. I learned rather quickly that the only way I could ensure that I was sending off my best work was to give it a rest, walk away and come back another day to self-edit.
Even looking at my writing with refreshed eyes, I still manage to miss some nits. I’ve discovered my fingers automatically type form when the word should be from. This dyslexic habit has yet to be overcome, but my awareness of the issue makes me look for the word to confirm proper spelling. One trick that works for me is to change the font. It may be a self-delusion, but it helps me actually read the words instead of anticipating each sentence from memory.
Many publications include a proviso on their release form that states the work may be ‘gently edited.’ When I see this statement, I audibly sigh with relief knowing they will be forgiving of a missing comma, but more and more often these days, submitted work must be publish-ready, allowing a copy/paste, one-step process. Some publications will disqualify submissions for something as inconsequential (in the writer’s mind) of the incorrect font size. The twenty-four hour mandatory pause I impose as a personal rule, allows me to read the submission guidelines again and check my work for compliance.
We put blood, sweat and tears into our work. Our stories become our babies, and we tend to be protective and often defensive, but what is needed is personal pride and adherence to submission guidelines. We need to treat the product we submit with respect.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.