When stories present obvious errors, poor expression, plot holes, deficient or cardboard characters, vague settings, and other assorted flaws, reviews are easy to write. Good and well-written stories present a tougher job. As this year has progressed, the editors of Page and Spine, and their authors, have made this job increasingly difficult.
November is the month for Veterans' Day, so it's no surprise that three of the stories involve military service in some way. None of those stories take place in this century.
The first, Chicken by Eric Ullerich, takes place sometime in the 1950's. The narrator, a WWII veteran, has a seven-year-old son who is currently fascinated with that war, and there's a certain pride he holds that his father was involved. He would even like to inflate his father's role by casualty counts. Failing that, perhaps his father at least saw some dead bodies? Anything that would make Daddy a more important cog in the war machine.
But Daddy wanted nothing to do with killing. He actually did all right in the war, from one point of view. He met his wife, did work he enjoyed, and it is implied that he did okay financially.
He never killed any soldiers.
He mentions only one date. The day he killed.
That incident has left a lasting mark. He starts the story by describing the chicken, calling it a once-alive hunk of meat. Then at the end the boy, just before he dies, puts his hand over his chest and the wrist collapses like a chicken wing.
But it is descriptive details of the dead boy and his son that drive the point home. His son: ...his milky face..., the German boy: ...the raw skin milky white.... Also, his son: ...his eyelashes touching both the underside of his eyebrow and the tops of his cheeks. And then the soldier: ...blinking lids with long lashes....
This is a good story. I did notice two little points that could be different. The lesser of the two is simply after the German boy is shot he falls on his face. Shortly thereafter it is clear he is lying on his back, and nowhere is there a mention of him being turned over.
The other inconsistency is at the beginning. At the start we're told that his wife is sitting on their outdoor couch. After their son goes back to play and the narrator goes into the back yard his wife is sitting on a floral patterned cushion in a wrought iron chair. Nothing says she couldn't have changed her seat, but without an acknowledgement of that change, it looks like a mistake.
The second story featuring the military is the post-civil war piece, The Long Walk, by Raymond Chilensky. This is a more philosophical story than Chicken and speaks to current events more than that one as well.
Unlike the narrator in Chicken, this man killed many and is untroubled by it. What troubles him is that it may have been all for nothing. And while he fears that the war has changed nothing for Caleb and James, he is nervous but proud of the changes it has made on him. I really liked the imagery here: Or would she see a man who, only months before, would casually kick the corpses of slain enemies off of the end of his bayonet?
Another good touch was his comment that he faced some of the bravest fighting men in the world while fighting the Confederacy. It shows that although he hated the idea of slavery, he had respect for the men that fought for that idea.
The irony of the situation is demonstrated in the confrontation on the streets of New Philadelphia. The narrator demonstrates his calm courage—and willingness to kill—that have been instilled in him by battle. Yet his friend—like a brother—has not changed at all. Fear still chains him. The narrator speculates that it will take many years for attitudes to change. The War was only the first step. We know now, of course, that while the fear and anti-Negro attitudes diminished slowly in the North, it would take over one hundred years for significant changes to be realized in the South, and then it took action by the federal government to enforce the changes in action.
It is clear still, one hundred-fifty years after the war, that attitudes in the South have stubbornly resisted the change.
Another good tale and I have no criticisms.
The last of the stories involving the military is The Thanksgiving Offensive by Richard Zwicker. This one does not involve fighting or killing. The actual push of the story is about the narrator's father and brother, the interaction between the two, and the consequences.
I liked the narrator's description of himself in relation to the Thanksgiving dinner. It reminded me of me at that age. I was always the last one to leave the table. And the family gatherings then and at Christmas were always important.
I have no complaint about the writing itself. But I do have a criticism of the history. The portrayed meal is in 1973, and the father wonders why Steve wants to "get your ass sent to Viet Nam." Also, Larry finds it insane that anyone would offer up his life to the Nixon war machine.
When I first read this I was bothered by the time. I'm just the right age to have served in Viet Nam, but I had a student deferment. And, in case anybody wonders, my draft number was six higher than the highest they called when I was nineteen. The timeline did not match my (often faulty) memory. So I looked it up.
In January of 1973 Nixon announced the end of offensive action against North Viet Nam and American involvement officially ended several months before Thanksgiving of that year. So Steve would not have been sent to Viet Nam.
A writer who is presenting a fictional story in a historical context must be meticulous about the historical facts. In this case, simply dating the story in 1969 or 1970 would have been historically accurate.
Brian Kayser's The Hoarder has no military reference, but there is still a battle in progress. It is a battle against the theft of time. I thought the title "The Thief" would have been more appropriate. Michael steals time from everyone he encounters.
However, despite the first sentence, I have to wonder if Jason isn't the real focus of the story. The narrator never takes us into Michael's thoughts. We are told what Jason thinks, what Jason sees, how Jason feels, and not just about Michael's hoarding. We know how Jason feels about his divorce and his focus on getting over it. He is trying to get past it, yet he nurtures his thoughts about it, and his ex. It seems that he wants to brood and Michael takes that brooding time away.
I found the story depressing; perhaps that was its intent. I do think the author missed an opportunity. These words: ...his love handles hanging out gloriously in his tucked-in workout shirt... is really vivid. The word "gloriously" really gives it an impact. And he gives us a pretty good description of the bag boy, too. Mr. Kayser could have used more descriptive gems like that both for Michael and Jason.
But this is a pretty tightly-told story, so I really have no complaints....except that it was depressing.
The Letter gives us a first person look at one side of a battle—a battle for independence. This is the same battle the majority of children fight at some time in their early teens, and one which most of them lose. Unlike The Hoarder, though, this story by Glendaliz Comacho is just sad. The fourteen-year-old girl is caught in the prison tower of Mami's love. Great metaphor there.
There is no mention of another parent here; apparently Mami is raising her daughter by herself, which of course adds to the protectiveness the mother displays. She has no one else, and, worse, she has no one to help her if trouble finds her daughter.
The mixing of the Spanish with the English is good, too. It is realistic. And as for Ms Giulio, I wanted to slap her for using "like" so much in her speech. This story is pretty short, and so is my commentary. It manages to make the reader sympathetic to the girl and want to find a solution for her. It seems real, more like an article excerpt than a fictional presentation. That's good.
The Tiger's Abyss by Brad Perry inescapably reminded me of James Thurber's The Unicorn in the Garden. But this story is quite a bit longer and not at all humorous. It is reflective. The comfortable life "you" have led is suddenly fantastically, interrupted.
The use of second person to tell the story is unusual, though it is becoming more common. Some editors, at least in the speculative fiction markets, won't even consider such a story. But it is done well here.
Upon first and second reading I had the impression that "you" was a woman. The frayed brown slippers hugging your feet, and the nostalgic look into Brian's bedroom all seem womanly. The memories of the piano lessons and cooking dinner to Heart and Soul and falling asleep on the couch to the sounds of scales all struck me as motherly.
The complete and carefully crafted lack of any mention of a spouse helps keep "your" gender indefinite. I think the reflection that the frying pan was a wedding gift from twenty-five years ago, and wondering why "you" hadn't replaced it really nailed down, for me, the idea that the character is a woman.
But the author is male, so, on the third reading, I specifically looked for something that might reveal gender. Sadly, there was one: Just the sliding door now separates man from beast. So, despite my earlier assumptions, based on my own subjectively received clues, it is a man.
I would like this story better if that clue was missing, keeping the gender totally subjective to the reader. “Just the sliding door now separates you from this...” plus however he chose to describe it would have accomplished that.
It seems certain that the author has viewed a full-grown tiger up close, in a zoo, probably, and the impression it made upon him he has shared with us. I, too, have been only a glass-width from a full-grown tiger, and noted the huge power the beast possesses. But I've never managed an eye-to-eye.
Thank you, Brad, for sharing the tiger's abyss with us.
Besides Veterans' Day, November is home to Thanksgiving Day and we had a Thanksgiving story, a teen story, a hoarding story, a wild animal story, military stories, and not a turkey in the bunch.
What presents will the Christmas month present?
Lewis Carroll drills rabbit-holes in my brain. Charles Bukowski raids my liquor cabinet. Papa Hemingway bullies me from Pamplona to Purgatory. And I'm sure Jack Kerouac laces my tea with LSD. I know all of this to be true, but in reluctant compliance with certain familial (and official) persuasions, I deigned to enter into therapy anyway.
Alas, my therapist is a poorly-read institutional scholar. Even worse, he couldn't read my mind with the aid of a telescope. His conclusions stink like bait-shop sushi.
So, I stalk my librarian. Ms. Ravenpoe. I know where she lives now. She lives alone. I'll have a quiet chat with her. She'll know what I should do.
Fey Dr. Zarkov insists I suffer from Eater-Reader Neurosis.
"Ya," he assures me. "Zhis is a recognized, bona fide zsychological condition, first documented by zhe eminent Dr. Zigmund Freud."
Freud. I've read him. Dirty-minded bastard. He made me pack away all my snapshots of the only beloved mother I'll ever have. Dirty-minded bastard.
Dr. Zarkov goes on to say, "You ingest literature like a zource of zseudo-zocial nourishment, but fail to fully digest zhe contents, zo it builds and ferments into a toxic brew, ya? Like Heineken. Improperly digested nourishment can often turn unhealthy, lethal even. Put zimply, it is unhealthy to ingest, vhat one cannot digest."
"So, zhat's your diagnosis, Doc?" I asked. "Constipation?"
He shrugged. "Of ze brain, ya. Conztipation of ze brain. Close enough for zsychology, anyvay. Ve must treat zhis aggressively, before your condition becomes complicated viss Randomania."
"Ya. Imagine all zhose books poisoning your noggin are TV programs. Now imagine your remote control device does zhe cuckoo-cuckoo-bird, and keeps changing channels vissout you being avare. Zhat's Randomania. Believe me you, you don't vant your Eater-Reader Neurosis complicated by Randomania."
Ms. Luda Ravenpoe has been my librarian since I was a boy and began reading those Dr. Seuss horror stories. In fact, Ms. Ravenpoe recommended them. Such innocent-looking fare, masking such deeply troubling and ominous doings.
When I returned the books, I expressed to Ms. Ravenpoe how much I appreciated her recommendations.
"...and the Grinch, and the Cat in the Hat? Such sharp-honed metaphors for the nihilistic world in which we struggle against everything and nothing."
Ms. Ravenpoe gasped. "Gilbert, I don't think you read these delightful stories as they were intended to be read. And wherever did you pick up the word 'nihilistic'?"
"From a biography of Friedrich Nietzche I've been reading at the same time."
"You've been reading about Nietzche at the same time you're reading Dr. Seuss?"
I beamed at her, proud to be a libraryee. "Uh-huh. I like to read. Books are neat."
Ms. Ravenpoe appeared troubled. "But you're a little boy. Dr. Seuss and Friedrich Nietzche? I'm not sure that's... compatible reading material."
I waved away her concerns. "Don't trouble yourself. Take away the scary, ill-informed drawings, and Seuss is almost as much fun as Nietzche."
Ms. Ravenpoe slowly cocked her head to the right. "Are you saying, Gilbert, you prefer Nietzche over Dr. Seuss?"
I thought a moment. "Well, they're both entertaining, but Nietzche's name is funnier."
She shrugged. "I'll give you that one. But do you understand what you're reading about Nietzche? The philosophical jargon? I mean, his . . . discussion, the terminology, is way beyond your grade level."
I nodded. "As well as I understand 'Sam I am'. What kind of cockeyed syntax is that?"
"Yet you understand 'nihilism'?"
"Sure," I said, showing off, "everything we believe is made up, and none of it matters."
She crossed herself. "Lord have mercy."
A few weeks later, I was back at the library, returning Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment.
Ms. Ravenpoe raised her eyebrows. "Gilbert, you've wandered out of the children's section again. Have you really read these books?"
"And you understand them?"
"Enough so I'm never taking a bath again."
"He's lurking for me. By thunder, the white devil hungers for me other leg."
"Gilbert, you have two perfectly good legs. And the white whale isn't real. Melville is using it as a metaphor. Do you understand, metaphor?"
"I understand everything I read," I boasted. "But I can't tell if Tropic of Cancer is supposed to be funny, or biological. It's kind of like a Moliere bedroom farce except, I don't know, stickier."
"Good heavens, Gilbert! Moliere? And where did you come across a copy of Tropic of Cancer? It's supposed to be banned."
"On my father's bed table. Can you imagine people really doing stuff like that? Sticky, know what I mean?"
Ms. Ravenpoe sighed. "I can only imagine."
Dr. Zarkov is right about one thing. I am a voracious reader. And sometimes the books seem to seep into me. I've read Catch-22 so many times, I crave chocolate-covered Egyptian cotton, and have filled out the papers to have my name legally changed to Milo Minderbinder. When I read Dickens, I yearn for porridge--but never enough. When I read Twain, I can't bear to wear shoes. If I read Dickens and Twain together, it's like I'm adrift on a splitting raft destined for two different cities.
Ms. Ravenpoe will know what to do.
I lurk in a shadow darker than Raymond Chandler's dialogue. Ms. Ravenpoe's house is a ghostly galleon resting on a ribbon of moonlight--it boasts seven gables, and was once owned by the family Usher. Or was it the Joads? The Corleones?
Actually, it's late afternoon on a sunlit day when I approach Ms. Ravenpoe's modest bungalow. Her doorbell tolls for me ... all the way to Adano.
"Why, Gilbert, what are you doing here?" she asks through a barely cracked-open door. The chain is still attached.
"May I come in, Ms. Ravenpoe? I've got something on my mind. A lot of things, actually. Too many things."
"No, no. I don't think that would be a good idea. We can talk tomorrow--at the library. Now please go away."
"But I don't think I can go to the library anymore. The doc says I have book constipation, and it's poisoning me."
"You have what? I've never heard of such a thing."
"The books I read get inside me, and they get all twisted up, and I can't, well, poop them out. I thought you might be able to help. You sure I can't come in?"
"Quite sure, Gilbert. I think you should go now. And please don't ever come back here. Good day."
I can't remember where I left my ray gun. I think the hunchback took it. Maybe it was Rico, or Watson. Ishmael will know. Or I'll borrow Queequeg's harpoon. But I have to find Captain Queeg's strawberries first. Jean Valjean stole them, and traded for grapes of wrath. I must Kill Dr. Jeckyll Zhivago, and his librarian raven. Ah, but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird ...
Folks, this conversation is a few weeks old, but it answers questions many of you may have if you’re working on, or considering working on, a first novel. Brad and I thought you might be interested.
Quick question: I'm currently about halfway through writing my first novel (I know, I know - definitely counting my chickens, here), and I'm already stressing about what to do when it's done. Do you have any suggestions? Any resource where I find info (online, the 2015 Writer' s Market, etc.) seems to conflict with another. Agent? No agent? Publishing houses? It's dizzying.
Sorry for the inquisition. I'm just honestly stumped about what I'm eventually going to do. If you get a free moment, I'd love whatever advice you're willing to give. Thanks again - not only for publishing two of my stories (can't wait for "The Tiger's Abyss" to hit in November!), but also for all the insight you've provided.
- Brad Perry
Brad, the first thing you do is find at least 3 readers--no one who won't be absolutely honest-- who read what you write. Ask them for story comments. This will help you determine where your story is solid and where it needs work. The "average reader" is who you're looking for. They're your market. At least make the changes they all suggest.
Even if you run a program like autocrit to do your copyediting, you will still need a story editor. This is an expense, but you're going to be too saturated to tell if what's on the page is any good at this point. You're likely to have paragraphs moved around, be told to add to or omit certain parts. This is normal--and invaluable if you want to show your work off to its best advantage.
Now you're ready to contact acquiring editors at small publishers who say they're accepting submissions in your genre. Be sure you have a strong inquiry letter. Don't send anything without getting a positive response, and follow submission guidelines like your book’s life depends on it. It does.
Until you've received an offer on your first manuscript from a publisher, you don't really need an agent. When a publisher makes an offer, ask them to recommend 3 OUTSIDE agents they're comfortable working with. The agent you choose will hold your hand through negotiations and publication. (If they work for the publisher, they're not working for you). An agent works for a percentage of your royalties, no upfront fees. No reading fees. Not a percentage of the gross receipts. An agent can introduce you to a worthwhile publicist, whom you will have to pay yourself, so make sure they have a sound sales strategy. Ask for references. You want to be sure they deliver what they say they do. If you find this agent easy to work with, you might have them shop your next book around to various puplishers until it's sold. Once you have a track record, an agent should be able to open doors for you that might otherwise remain closed. Just be careful that any contract you sign has an escape clause for each of you.
Could be, you’ll decide to self-publish. There are advantages and disadvantages to both paths. To learn the ins and outs, check out theliterarymidwife.com/ Mary Rosenblum is a well-published second tier author and founder of LongRidge Writers Group. She'll give you the straight story. Tell her I sent you.
Now get back to work and finish that book!
I have written a novel and I must say when an agent told me that she did not like my heroine, I was miffed. When she said she did not do enough and I should read children's literature, I got angry!
In fact it has taken two years but I have looked at what she said more objectively and unfortunately she was right.
I started to think about what an editor or agent goes through with us wanna-be authors and I remembered working in a craft store as a framer.
People get obsessive about their art. There was a guy who would insist on inspecting his work. He had this ongoing project he was working on that took a year. What he wanted was impossible to do. Finally he went to our computer, sat down at it, and then agreed. I gave him a solution, however, and he walked out happy.
Then there was the customer who said, "I know that this looks straight with the naked eye but it is 1/16th off." She had produced her own tape measure and insisted I completely redo it. I told her it was all custom and that it would take two weeks to reorder. That was fine by her. Needless to say, with orders piled up in the back and our policy to frame while customers waited, this was going to take up a lot of time.
When the two weeks were up I called her. She came back glanced at the work and pronounced it was perfect and walked out happy. I was happy too. I hadn't reordered anything. I had taken the backing off and had simply shaken it. It slipped a tiny fraction. I secured it, cleaned the glass, and smiled.
Then there was the lady who would special order cut glass. She screamed at me when it wasn't ready for her to pick up because she had a client waiting in her office. She was a psychiatrist! Her poor patient was paying by the hour while she ran out to secure art supplies.
I say this to explain that a novel is our baby. We have gotten up nights with it when it screamed for attention. It is tough when someone removes the cover and says, "That's one ugly child!"
After two years I am finally ready to edit and rewrite and I'm thankful for the help. Just as an ebony frame looked so much better than the orange one my customer picked out in the frame shop, so my book will be better for that agent’s suggestions.
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.