Hawkeye and I rose early the next morning. Our legs stiff with the desert’s chill and the previous day’s descent and climb. In the dark we fixed our oatmeal and our coffee. We stared in hard silence at the licks of blue flame from the stove while we waited for the water to boil. Dawn came over the mountains as we pulled on our packs. Though our limbs ached, our feet throbbed, we also felt rejuvenated and confident. We had water, plenty of water, at least for the day. And we knew we were close to the pinnacle of the week’s climb. Once we reached the top it would (mostly) be downhill.
And it was easily the best day of the trip.
At least for me.
We climbed to the crest fairly easily and soon. The sky still had some streaks of plum and nectarines in the horizon, and the air was still cool and fresh with the sunrise. Looking out and across the desert lay a land untouched by man. The cliffs and the rocks rose out of the ground as twisted statues of forgotten and lonesome gods.
We walked slowly and tried to breathe it all in. It wouldn’t be long before we’d be on a plane and back to our respected lives and jobs and all of it would just be memories. We didn't talk about it. But we knew we were both trying to remember every detail as best we could. The cacti, the rocks, the sapphire sky without end, even the pain in our feet. We found ourselves stopping a lot and gazing at the distance and listening to the silence, maybe the wind through the valley and nothing more.
The day grew warm.
We had several miles to go until we reached the next water spot, which was a water cache where people left jugs of water—some for themselves to find later, some donated by other hikers for people like Hawkeye and myself. I didn’t tell Hawkeye, but about two miles out I was out of water. I knew I would be okay, but I felt embarrassed for consuming it all after we’d gone through the dangers and the hassle of collecting water just the other day. My feet were killing me, but I tried to move quickly. I figured it was best to get to the water cache as soon as we could. When we crossed over the dry river bed and saw the brown iron box, we hesitated before opening the door. I think we were both afraid that we might open it to find it empty and then we’d be in trouble. But the cache was fully stocked with gallons and gallons of precious H2O. Hawkeye and I hugged each other in exhaustion.
We set up a little shelter using a tarp to shade us from the sun and refilled our camelbacks. For lunch that day we ate beef jerky, salami, dried fruit, peanut butter on tortillas, and cliff bars. I took off my boots and let my feet breathe. As we sat there about five people came by on horseback. We said hello and they decided they’d have lunch there, too. One gentleman approached us and asked us what was with the iron box.
“It’s water cache,” said Hawkeye. “People put jugs of water in there for anyone who comes along.”
“You mean like Mexicans?”
Hawkeye and I glanced at each other.
“More like hikers like us probably.”
“Are you guys packing?”
Hawkeye and I noticed he had a snubbed nose .38 strapped to his hip. Having grown up in Arizona I was used to seeing people open carry, but I think Hawkeye was a little confused.
“Nah,” I said.
“Oh, man, I wouldn’t be out here without a firearm. You don’t know who you’ll run into.”
The man started to tell us how undocumented workers wandered through the Tonto National Forrest on their journey from Mexico to Phoenix, but I stopped listening. I had met plenty of guys like him before. He had a thick New Jersey accent. He was riding a horse out in the desert without a hat.
“Where are you guys riding from?” I said trying to change the subject. I wasn’t sure how close we were to Apache Junction, but we’d encountered other horseback riders from there.
He shot me a look with a shrug.
“From the parking lot! Where else? Idiot.”
“Ah,” I said.
When he and the others got back on their horses and rode away, we all waved and wished them well. As soon as they were out of sight I turned to Hawkeye and said, “Well, that guy sure was an asshole,” and we broke out laughing.
TO BE CONTINUED
It was just after New Years that my buddy David “Hawkeye” Latham called me up and asked if I wanted to do a big backpacking trip. He’d been reading about the trails in Arizona, which is where I’m from. He said he wanted to see some saguaros with their arms stretched out like they were being robbed. January was shaping up to be a bad month, and I was losing my mind a bit. I needed something to look forward to. I needed to get away. I needed an adventure to shake me up. I was more than ready to hike back into the desert.
It took some planning. Lots of e-mails and phone calls. Lots of lists. But in mid-March we met up in Phoenix and headed east toward the Superstition Mountains. Having grown up in the Grand Canyon State, I knew that those mountains had a lot of bad mojo—lots of folks died in those hills. Some people went missing looking for treasure, others claimed to have seen giant Lizard People. Most of the men and women who never came back alive were the hikers who tried to walk across the desert in July and August with little water. Anyone who has read Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway will tell you that’s a bad idea. But March was wonderful for hiking the hills and valleys of the Sonoran desert. Never too hot, never too cold, and with a bit of color in the cactus flowers and a faint mist in the mornings.
Our first few days went wonderfully. It stayed overcast and sprinkled a bit as we trekked in the mornings. We were miles away from everything. We followed the Gila River for miles before turning north and into the Tonto National Forrest where we wandered by steep cliffs and rugged paths of stone and sand. My legs and back were strong. David and I carried probably between forty and fifty pounds on our backs—maybe more. We aimed for roughly ten miles a day and kept a moderate pace. But it wasn’t long before my feet were killing me. I didn’t know my feet could hurt that bad. And then, as if being alone in the desert wasn’t enough, we ran into our one fear: We ran out of water.
We’d finished the day’s hike without coming across any of the water spots on the map—or those spots had been dry as a barrel of dust. Latham and I sat down on the narrow trail and looked out across the valley and the scarred mountains around us. We caught our breath and talked out the scenario. We could abandon ship. We could try to press on and hope for the best, which was the most risky option.
But Goonies never say die.
We waited until dark. We got a little sleep but then, at 2:00 AM, we got up, emptied our packs in the brush by the trail and descended five miles back toward the Gila River. We took our Camelbacks and anything that might be able to hold water. Plastic bags, bottles, jugs, and cans. A person can go days without food. Water was more important. It wasn’t too bad a walk. It was cool in the early morning, our packs were now super light, and we were going downhill. We made it back to the river by the dawn.
It took us a while to fill up everything. One of our water pumps broke on day one. But we were not in any rush. We sat by the cold rushing stream and filled everything we had with precious H2O. We rested and ate a simple breakfast of tortillas and dry salami. By the time we returned to our stuff at the top of the mountain we were exhausted from lack of sleep, adrenaline, and pushing ourselves to retreat and return through the desert. But we’d done it. We had plenty of water. That night we ate our freeze dried dinners and treated ourselves to scalding black coffee for desert. We slept under the stars ready for the gravy of the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED
And I've got more good news!
My short story "All Ye Faithful" will be in the upcoming issue of Manzano Mountain Review. I wrote this story a while back and read an early draft of it at the Western Literature Association in Montana. MMR is a newer journal, and new journals like these need readers, so I urge you to check it out. I'll include a link once the story is published.
Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter already knows this, but I'm thrill to say that my short story "Witness to Everything" will be in the upcoming issue of Tinge Magazine based out of Temple University. This story may be the best thing I've written--the type of story I've always wanted to write. But for some reason I could never find a home for it. I wrote this back in 2012. It's been rejected 62 times. So to all you scribblers out there: Never, never, never, never give up.
I'll post more once the story is up.
I’m just a few pages away from finishing Ted Geltner’s amazing biography of the writer Harry Crews: Blood, Bone And Marrow. It is an incredibly in-depth book about not just a man, but an artist who had more demons than he could handle. Some parts are incredibly sad, others are pretty hilarious. In other words, the life of Harry Crews was a lot like his books. Harry Crews isn’t as popular as he once was, which is a shame. A good amount of his books are not even in print anymore. I’ve never been able to find a copy of his second book, Naked In Garden Hills. I once had to pay an arm and a leg for a paperback copy of The Hawk is Dying, which I sadly lost in a flood a few years back. To be honest, it has been a while since I’ve reread any of his novels, but for a long time Harry Crews was an inspiration to me. And reading Geltner’s book has been a bit like stepping back in time for me—all the memories of the man’s books, me reading them and wanting to write like him, reading his essays and other people’s accounts of him. Harry Crews was a man larger than life. A cliché for most but plain fact for him.
No one would have predicted Harry Crews to become a novelist. He was born into the poorest of poor sharecroppers in Georgia during the depression and grew up in a house where the only book was the bible. He suffered through a childhood bout with polio and later fell into a cauldron of boiling water. For years his body was scarred from the scalding water. After a long recovery and hard work, he became the first member of his family to graduate high school. And he barely graduated.
It was in the Marines that Harry Crews discovered that each base had a library, and he described that as like throwing a turkey to a starving man. He went and read everything by Mickey Spillane, and eventually he read everything by Graham Greene. After his discharge, he enrolled in the University of Florida (though the college discouraged him) and decided he was going to learn how to write. I’m not going to go on and on about the rest of the man’s life—you can go read Ted Geltner’s book for that. But reading Mr. Geltner’s book is testimony that writers are MADE! Harry Crews learned how to write the way everyone learns: reading everything, and writing and failing and trying again. The blank page does not care how much privilege you come from, how tough your childhood was. The blank page is there to be filled. And it is only the most determined who can put down word after word after word.
I can’t really remember how or when I first heard about Harry Crews, but I would have been a teenager. I remember seeing a picture of him and thinking, “Holy shit!” This guy wasn’t robed in corduroy and tweed. He had a sleeveless L.A. Raiders shirt, big biceps, sunglasses, and a huge tattoo of a skull on his arm. He looked like he was going to kick my ass and then beat up anyone who messed with me. And he wrote books! Lots of books, too.
Most writers, when they’re young and starting out, look for folks similar to them. As a kid in Arizona, this was difficult for me. All the writers I found were either from Europe and dead or from the Northeast and old: Salinger, Updike, Cheever(he was dead, too). I think this is why I drifted toward southern writers. Even if they were describing places as green and humid with ghosts of the civil war and slavery everywhere, they also got at a lot of harshness that I recognized in my own splotch of desert. Pick-up trucks, guns, car crashes everywhere. I latched on to not just Faulkner (the king of southern literature) but Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Tim McLaurin, and, of course, Harry Crews.
All of Harry Crews’s novels deal with outsiders—the freaks and the strange. One man dedicates himself to literally eating a car. A town goes mad with the annual snake hunt. A man makes a living by knocking himself out. But while many may be shocked (or even disgusted) by Crews’s writing, his books are truly tragicomedies where everyone is trying to get by despite the problems life has handed them. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t. Ultimately, Harry Crews remains the dark prince of grit lit—the balladeer of the broken and the bruised.
Recently one of my friends brought up how music influences her writing. I think it is something pretty common with writers, yet it doesn’t get discussed much. At least not in great length. Author Rick Moody once said that he writes his first drafts with headphones on with music on full blast so he can’t hear his own inner critic, and he would have to have complete silence when revising. Jack Kerouac listened to jazz as he slammed the keys of his underwood typewriter as he wrote On The Road. Richard Yates listened to classical radio as he wrote his first drafts in longhand. And I’m sure there are tons of other stories of novelists and poets going through CDs, MP3s, and vinyl as they write one word after another.
Music is a big part of my life. I played saxophone in school band, and I’ve played guitar since I was thirteen. The first albums I owned were by Charlie Parker, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, and my first CD was Prokofiev’s score from Peter and the Wolf. I’ve gone through phases of discovering blues, rock, classic country and western, funk, doo wop, and various eras of classical music. When I write I almost need to find the perfect music, I know some might view that as a type of crutch, but if I can get the right song then everything else becomes easier to see, hear, taste—music can open up my imagination better than anything else. In fact I think a lot of my ideas come as I listen to music—almost like my brain is making up flashes of music videos.
Sometimes it isn’t so much the music that fits the mood, but the music that would be playing in the background. If I’m writing a scene where some truckers go into a cowboy bar, I might need to play some Waylon Jennings. A while back I was working on something I eventually threw away, but the one scene I liked was where a guy got his wrist broken by a bookie, and I knew there was a song playing in the background, but I wasn’t sure what it was. The trouble was I couldn’t finish writing the scene until I found the right song. I scrolled through everything on my iTunes, I searched YouTube videos, dug out my CDs. But once I realized that Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 You” was the song, the rest of the scene fell into place. Similarly, when I was working on my novel, I knew the characters would be listening to the oldies station most of the time—so I found myself cranking the hits of Harry Nilsson, The Left Banke, The Byrds, and Scott McKenzie. Those songs helped me make my characters and descriptions becomes true.
Some pieces of music come back to my writing again and again. The song “Criminals” by Uncle Tupelo is one that springs to mind. I think that song can sort of play with anything I’ve written. Various film scores have served as inspiration along the way, too. I used to write all the time to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, but I haven’t listened to that one in a long time now. These days I’ll lean toward the more ambient styles of Thomas Newman.
But then comes the struggle of starting a new story or book and there doesn’t seem to be the right music. I’ll put on some Beethoven or some James Brown. I’ll close my eyes and listen to Guns n Roses. Maybe I’ll try some Philip Glass. And after a while, I’ll realize that the piece doesn’t really fit with any music (and/or vice versa) because the bit I’m writing just isn’t very good. Bad writing doesn’t have music, just noise.
I have set up a giveaway for my novel, Cities of Men, over at the Goodreads website. I will give out three copies of the book, AND I will sign those copies to the winners. And if you're not on Goodreads already, I strongly urge you to check out their website as it is a great way to meet other readers and discover new books and new writers. The Giveaway lasts the entire month of June. So spread the word: FREE BOOK!
I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
Even when I was a child I knew I wanted to write stories and novels. I wanted to put words together in a way that moved readers. I wanted to create characters and worlds. Books were cherished in my house growing up, and I would spend hours going through my father’s mysteries and my mother’s classic paperbacks even before I could read, and the weekly trip to the library was like going to church. When I was younger I wanted to write big page-turners like my father read. During my teens I wanted to write lush and complex prose like Faulkner or Joyce—my heroes for years. And as time went on, and as I wrote more and more, I discovered my own voice and the stories only I could tell.
I received my first rejection letter when I was sixteen. I didn’t get an acceptance letter until I was twenty-nine. I would say I’ve written about a hundred short stories and about five novels over the past twenty years. And in a few days my debut novel will hit bookstores and go out into the world.
Writing is incredibly difficult.
Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a fool.
It took me five years to write Cities of Men. The first draft took me about a year, and then I revised and rewrote it and added on and cut stuff out and reimagined it again and again and again. That was a lot of early mornings and weekends dedicated to a manuscript that may never have been read. I lived with the characters and their problems for half a decade! And I think people forget that part—they may read a book in a few days, but that writer was involved with the same book for years.
Publishing a novel has pretty much been my dream for as long as I can remember. And now I’m not sure where to go besides trying to write the next one. But that is where the fun and joy are. Sitting at the desk and trying to write good sentences. I mean it feels like HELL when the words just aren’t working, but when you find the right note, the right verb or noun, that’s electric.
When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature, he said, “Writing, at its best is a lonely life.” Those are words I think every writer should remember—hell, maybe get tattooed on their bicep. You sit alone at a desk, you spend all your time with your imaginary friends, and you find yourself avoiding real people so you have time to scribble one word after another.
So now Cities of Men hits stores on Tuesday, May 23. I hope people like it. I hope it sells a gazillion copies. I hope it wins awards. But right now? I really want some time to work on the new book and start the process over again.
I always told myself that I’d celebrate the publication of my first novel by hiking around Scotland, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I guess I’ll settle for Six Flags instead.
I didn’t see Twin Peaks when it originally aired. I heard about it from some of the older students I knew, but I didn’t watch the show until I saw re-runs on cable back around ’94 and ’95. I rushed home from school to watch the Log Lady’s introduction before being transported to a place both “wonderful and strange.” It quickly became my favorite show of all time, and it made a lasting impact on me.
I had always been attracted to the macabre and the strange. While other kids watched Disney, I wanted Max Schreck in Nosferatu. When my friends wanted to be read Dr. Seuss before they went to sleep, I wanted Kafka. I liked things weird, creepy, and unnerving. Now, I’m not trying to say I was some super intelligent little boy, I think I just wanted the adrenaline rush that came from being shocked and challenged. I’m sure I would have loved the Dadaists. When I discovered Twin Peaks, I was blown away. I was in a small town in Arizona where everyone thought, talked, and dressed the same. Suddenly my afternoons were spent with David Lynch and the Black Lodge, trying to figure out what happened to Laura Palmer.
I loved how the show changed gears so quickly. I would be laughing at the oddity of Deputy Andy one second, terrified by the spirit of Bob the next. I enjoyed being tested as a viewer: my expectations of narrative were constantly rattled. The humor was off-beat, the terror was no-holds barred, and the visuals were all their own. The show had such a mash of themes, I could never really describe it to anyone. There was melodrama, echoes of Beatnik-cool (I discovered Kerouac around the same time) and influences of American horror ranging from urban legends and folk tales to drive-in-picture type terror. Each episodes delved deeper into a mythos that I wanted to know more about. And, of course, I had horrible teenage crushes on all the show’s girls.
But it is easy for people to forget just how ahead of its time Twin Peaks really was. This was about a decade before The Sopranos, twenty years before True Detective and American Horror Story. There hadn’t been anything willing to be totally surreal on American television before. Networks were dominated by family sitcoms and soapy serials like L.A. Law and Dallas. David Lynch brought insane non-sequiturs and the occult into every living room in the country. Looking back, it is surprising the show even got on the air.
In a few days there will be a revival season on Showtime. I have no idea if the old magic will be there. But even if the lightning isn’t there, no one can take away from original seasons that introduced the world to Special Agent Dale Cooper and the town of cherry pie and damn good coffee.
You may not be able to dig your way out of debt by selling short stories to The Saturday Evening Post as F. Scott Fitzgerald used to do, but now is a great time to be writing short stories! Today there are more opportunities to publish micro, flash, and short fiction than ever before. There are literary journals, online magazines, and anthologies that are actively seeking new material, and you might just be the writer they’re hoping to find. But the questions remains—how do you get out of the slush pile and into print?
Now, this particular blog isn’t about HOW to write short stories. That’s another beast entirely. I’m blogging about how literary journals work and why some stories get accepted and others don’t. Keep in mind that even if you are writing brilliant pieces and you follow every bit of my advice, you still may not get published, at least not immediately. But don’t be discouraged. Like anything else, persistence is key. I received my first rejection letter when I was sixteen. I didn’t get anything accepted until I was twenty-nine when I sold two stories to two places within twenty-four hours. If I could endure thirteen unlucky years and still break through, I’m sure you can find a home for your creative work, too!
The worst mistake writers make is submitting without thinking. If you’re writing men’s adventure stories, don’t submit to the feminist literary journal. If you write exclusively about New York City, then please don’t send your stuff to a regional journal that focuses on the deep South. You would think this is obvious, but I promise you a lot of writers mess this up. The secret fix is easy: read literary journals. It’s just that simple. You can find quality print journals at your local library, and most of the online publications are free. Explore and read the places before you submit to them—buy the journals if you can afford them. Not only will you be saving yourself a lot of time and heartache, you’ll be supporting a good cause.The more you read the small magazines, the better idea you’ll have of who publishes stuff similar to you. Some journals are all about dirty realism. Others are looking for experimental flash-fiction. Some like to mix literary with genre and want humorous but intelligent science-fiction. And a lot of places vary issue to issue. Regardless, you should know why you’re submitting to that publication and not just shotgunning away. The shotgunners aren’t really writers—they’re just posers desperate for attention. For more information about journals, subscribe to www.duotrope.com--highly recommended.
Let’s pretend that you’ve found ten journals that are up your alley—you write splatterpunk horror stuff, and now you’ve found a bunch of magazines looking for the goriest stories out there, talk about a match made in heaven. But here’s the thing: even if you’ve found the right place, you still have to remember the reader. I know I already blogged about this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. When you submit a story, you’re submitting it to a lot of overworked readers and editors who have to slog through a lot of bad stuff. Think about those poor guys for a second. They’ve had to read so many submissions about moody teenagers and mousy housewives that they want to rip out their eyeballs and run away from their MFA programs for good. And out of all those submissions, they can only accept one, so they’re always looking for a reason to say “No!” I’ve read submissions and edited literary journals for almost a decade now, and I promise you that boring stories with sloppy sentences get rejected so fast that they sound like F-4 Phantoms taking off.
A lot of writers forget that they’re telling a stranger a story. And sometimes they forget to tell a story at all. Now, I know that fiction is pretty subjective, but I think most slush-pile readers want to know that the ten-to-twenty pages in front of them will actually go somewhere. I think good short fiction gets in late and leaves early. I know I said I wasn’t going to discuss craft here, but I will say this: the sooner you get to trouble, the better. Don’t spend the first three pages describing a couch before you bring in the crazy, alcoholic step-father with the chainsaw. Get there ASAP. Since you only have a few pages to tell your story, I think you should get to the main conflict in the first paragraph if not the opening line.
Look at these two different openings:
She carefully and delicately taped the shiny and glossy flyer of the grumpy puppy on the telephone poll. She did this every week, rain or shine and she loved her routine around her tiny neighborhood. She only wished the kids would stop tearing down her advertisements.
Three days after Thomas buried his wife, he bought a pistol and started walking around the city at night. He wasn’t sure if he would ever use the gun, but he wanted to feel prepared in case anything ever happened.
Which one grabs your attention more? Which one confuses you? One knows that there is a person trying to make sense of the words and sentences. One is just rambling. Don’t confuse the reader.
Similarly to remembering the reader, you should also make sure everything about your submission is professional. This means you need to correctly format your submission. Your manuscript should:
After you’ve tightened your story, put it in the correct format, and mailed it off to the journals you admire, you wait…and wait…and wait…AND THEN YOU STILL GET REJECTED?
You know what you do then?
You submit again. And you keep the faith.
I encourage you to send to the places you think are out of your league. The worst that will happen is that you’ll be rejected. Keep track of where you’ve submitted, who has rejected you, and especially note those journals that sent you encouraging and personal rejection letters. You’ll have other stories to send them later!
Ultimately, you should write the type of stories you would want to read. I believe that. The rest relies on you being intelligent about submitting. Send only your best work and only submit to the journals you enjoy. And believe in yourself. If you get discouraged (and you will) you can always revise the story! Not every editor will want to publish your story about a homicidal frog, but so what? Keep that story in the mail. Write other stories and submit those, too. Subscribe to literary journals, discover new writers, see where they’ve been published, seek out those magazines, get involved, talk to other writers, celebrate one another’s successes and drink to your losses. Writing can be incredibly rewarding, but it is only rewarding to those who really put in the blood and the sweat and the time. I had a story get rejected twenty-seven times before it found a home. One of my best stories ranked up forty rejection slips before being accepted at a journal that had previously rejected it. You have to stay hungry. You have to want it. You have to get in the ring and go the distance. The bell just rang. Go take your best shot!
Writer living in the hill country of Texas