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!
Now that my novel is about to come out, a lot of people have asked me about the business side of things—specifically, how did I get an agent.
I am not going to lie, landing an agent is difficult: you not only need a completed manuscript, but your novel has to be attractive. What I mean is that agents are looking at your book as a long-term investment. As soon as he or she signs you, that agent is spending time on you that may never pay off—that is why it will always be easier (and safer) for an agent to say “No thank you.” Just as you’re passionate about your book, agents are passionate about their clients. They want to be excited about pitching your novel and working with you. So give them something to be excited about!
As much as I dreamed about having martini lunches with a New York agent, I knew I couldn’t query anyone until I felt my novel was as good as I could absolutely make it. I know the stories about writers querying agents and publishers while their manuscripts are only half-completed, and that may have been true back in the 1940s, but it is not the case now. The manuscript has to be finished, polished, and ready to rock. Don’t worry about anything else until you feel you cannot improve on it anymore.
By the time I reached this point, I had one agent in mind. He and I had corresponded a while back over a previous novel. There’s nothing wrong knocking on someone’s door again—assuming you were not an asshole and burned your bridges. DON’T BURN BRIDGES! That agent wasn’t interested, so I went back to basics.
Before I contacted anyone else, I sat down and thought about what I wanted in an agent. I knew I wanted to work with someone younger. In the debate about youth vs. experience, I wanted to work with someone who would be as hungry as I was, and I didn’t want to worry about my agent retiring in a year or two. Then I did several months worth of homework. First I went through published novels by writers I admire and looked to see what agents were thanked in the acknowledgements. I looked up these men and women to see where they worked. I also picked up the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and went through each and every listing. I crossed out every place that a) was not accepting new clients and b) did not represent literary fiction. It wasn’t long before I had put together a list of names that I thought would be a good fit for me and my coming-of-age debut.
When it came time to write a query letter, I felt a huge amount of stress, almost like I was a teenager again approaching a cute girl in the hallway. And, to be honest, I handled the situation similarly: I approached with confidence, respect, and I made damn sure I didn't come off as a slob. Like I said, it will always be safer for the agent to NOT take you on—so I knew if I had typos, errors, or a general lousy attitude in my letter that NOBODY would want to work with me. I spent a lot of time on my query letter to make my book sound appealing. I let my other writer friends read it and give me feedback. I only had one page, so I focused on making every sentence, every word necessary. Then, after I had the basic elevator pitch down tight, I set a quota: every Friday, after I was done at the office, I queried five agents. Every Friday. And I don’t mean I just sent off five e-mails (never shotgun a form query letter) I mean I found five agents I would be thrilled to work with, and I tailored each e-mail to that individual. I explained why I wanted to work with him or her, and why I thought they would be a good person to represent my novel. But I kept it brief and polite. And I never gave them any bullshit reasons either.
It wasn’t long before agents started responding. One agent wrote me back, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for your project! I thought your query and sample were well-written with a strong concept but not quite what I’m looking for at the moment. Because I’m careful to keep my client list manageable, I’m being really selective about what I request. However, I think another agent is going to be intrigued enough to ask for the manuscript and I’m sorry I can’t offer a referral.” Now, that was a rejection letter, but about as nice as a rejection letter could get, so after that I knew I was doing the right thing, and I kept to my quota of five query letters every Friday.
After a few weeks of querying, I came across Mark Gottlieb at Trident Media Group. Mark had just transitioned from the audio rights department to a full-fledged agent. I thought this was a good sign, because it showed he had already been around a bit and was learning various aspects of the business. His roster of clients was also impressive, especially for such a young agent. A young and upcoming agent at one of the nation’s biggest agencies? The guy was a total world-beater.
Around this time agents were asking me to send them partials of the manuscript. I think about three were looking at the first fifty pages when Mark e-mailed me and asked to see the full book. I happily obliged and went along with my day. The very next morning I had an e-mail from Mark saying that he’d read the entire manuscript and wanted to talk with me on the phone about representation!
As thrilled and excited as I was, I knew I had to be professional and look at everything from a business point-of-view. I came up with a list of questions—some to make sure he wasn’t going to try to make me put vampires in the book, but also to see why he wanted to represent me. I know that may sound strange, but I wanted to make sure Mark was excited about the book and would fight the good fight. When we spoke on the phone, I could tell he was extremely qualified and wasn’t going to try to box me into a corner, badger me, or any of that. He told me what he liked about the book, the audience he could see wanting to read it, and about the opportunities he and his agency could offer. We talked for a little more about the book and some other stuff, and we agreed that I would take some time to contact the other agents reading my manuscript and let them know I had an offer.
A week later I signed with Mark Gottlieb. Within in the year Mark was ranked #1 in Agents on publishermarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other individual categories. That means I basically signed with the #1 agent at the # 1 agency.
So when I hear writers ask how should they go about getting an agent, I tell them to be persistent. Set a quota and stick to it. But know why you’re querying an agent. You should know why you want to work with that person. And you should be able to tell if they really want to work with you.
Good Books To Read When Researching Literary Agents
Writer’s Digest Magazine—Get a subscription
Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents edited by Chuck Sambuchino
The Short Fuse Guide to Query Letters by Michelle E. Richter
How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen
A good article on the web: "How to Get to Yes: Writing Effective Query Letters"
Eventually I'll have the whole video uploaded. But here are some pictures from my reading last week. It was a great night. A big thanks to everyone who showed up!
Whenever someone asks me for advice on writing, I tell them to always Remember The Reader.
I think a lot of folks, when they’re first sitting down and trying to write, forget that reading and writing should be fun. They start thinking about things they’ve heard in their English classes about Joyce, Nabokov, and Pynchon. Or they forget what it was about books and stories that initially excited them, so they retreat into forms closer to television because those feel familiar and safe. But if the beginner stops and thinks a little about the reader, what the reader expects, what will take the reader out of the story, what will turn the reader off, then the writer will avoid plenty of headache once it is time to start revision.
Now, obviously, readers are different—some will want things a little more literary with subtle symbolism, others will crave wild tales of the supernatural! But if you have an ideal reader in mind, the rest will easily fall into place. I think most readers do not want to be confused. Sometimes a person just starting out with writing will have sentences that get out of hand so the poor reader isn’t sure what is happening. Remember, you won’t be there to explain your obscure and purple prose to everyone—so always aim for clarity.
Most readers also don’t want to feel talked down to. If you’re trying to add some depth to the events and actions of characters by forcing some type of metaphor, you have to pull back and let it stay beneath the surface. Readers are smart. They’ll pick up on all that stuff. This is why a lot of writers advise to just let those things come about organically (i.e. not doing it on purpose) because if you stop the story every other paragraph to point out how clever you are… well then you’re not that clever. And the reader will be annoyed. I also think most readers do not want to be bored. This is 2017. We can watch Rick and Morty on our phones now. Why should anyone pick up your book or short story? This is where I urge people just starting out to revisit the first pieces that really excited them. Was it the crazy action in that spy thriller? The lush language in that short story collection? There was something there that glued you to the page. Think about this. You were a reader before you were a writer. So remember the reader and think about what will keep your ideal reader also glued to the page.
I think all other advice about writing stems out of this generality--Remember The Reader. You want clean sentences to not confuse or bog down the reader. You want relatable and three-dimensional characters because that is who readers will want to spend time with. You want to keep the pacing tight so the reader won’t put you down to watch reality television.
If you remember your reader, you’re already onto a healthy start.
I didn't know that the fine folks at Turner Publishing were going to do this, but I found out yesterday that they place an amazing looking advertisement for Cities of Men in the current issue of Publishers Weekly. If anyone happens to have a hardcopy, please contact me about mailing it to me! There are no bookstores around where I live (how depressing is that for a writer to have to say?) soI can't really get my hands on a copy, but I'd love to have one. Let me know. Everyone at Turner has really taken a big chance with me, so I really don't want to disappoint them... In other words: you and everyone you know should buy a copy when it comes out. Available May 23!
Writer living in Central Texas.