My essay, “Kibun” is out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology!

SF ChinatownMy essay, “Kibun,” on navigating cultural misunderstandings in South Korea is now out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology! It was selected as a runner-up in Fish Publishing’s annual short memoir contest by author-judge Carmen Bugan.

This essay began as a section of my graduate thesis, a memoir on living in South Korea in the 1990s. It morphed many times over and, seven-ish years later, it’s finally in print. Here’s the opening graph from “Kibun”:

When Chung kicks us out we think about returning to the U.S., but to leave now would feel like giving up. Late one evening he announces he’s getting married. “I’m sorry! You are living another home,” he says. English is not his strong point and Korean is not ours. We exist in this ambiguity of language; a riddle of verb tenses. We are living in the home of another; we will soon be living in another home. We are not at home; we will never be at home here. 

I’m thrilled to finally have this piece in print! It’s available in Kindle formats on Amazon here and is just $5, so pick up a copy and enjoy a fine collection of poetry, fiction and memoir from writers worldwide. You can see the table of contents, some notes from the judge, and excerpts from the winning pieces here.

on getting a story published

unstuck2My short story “Family Mart” was published in Unstuck Vol. 2 back in December. And though I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, I just realized I never wrote about it here. Ack, social media. Anyway, this was exciting, exciting news for me. Encouraging progress just when it felt like my writing had stalled. Unstuck took a big chance on me – they liked “Family Mart” but wanted changes. I had been receiving a lot of “almost” responses to the story for over a year. That is, personal responses from lit mag editors who said they liked it, but… sorry, no. Some of the almost-but-nos may have had to do with the content – “Family Mart” is fantastical (a woman wakes up with a hoof instead of a hand) and a lot of magazines focused on literary fiction just aren’t quite willing to go there. The story ended up being named a finalist in a couple of contests, but never published. I knew it needed something but I didn’t know what. The editors at Unstuck had a lot of excellent suggestions and were patient as I worked through several revamps of the piece and I am so grateful for that. I hope “Family Mart” is the better for it.

I should back up and say that I began writing “Family Mart” in 2007. Yep, that’s right, from start to publication took five years. I suppose that is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to see it in print. Finally! It’s a now-6,000 word finished, published story that over the past 5 years went through so many rewrites I lost count (50?) and had to create a separate folder on my computer to house them all so I could manage to find the most current one. I felt strongly about this story in a way that I don’t often feel about other pieces – that is, I wasn’t willing to let it go or to gather dust on my hard drive, forgotten, and thus the five years of rewriting, re-plotting, re-thinking, and submitting. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope my next published story doesn’t take nearly so long.

Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal, which is, of course, exactly what I was looking for. Its second issue includes work by Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart and Paul Lisicky. I’m honored to be in such company and so impressed with the issue itself — more than 500 (print!) pages of some wonderful, inventive stories. Order yourself a copy! Or download the Kindle version.

The power of editorial suggestion

I have a publication coming up. I’m thrilled about this – thrilled that my short story finally found a home after some 3 years of sending out various versions of it, of getting some finalist mentions, very nice, personal rejections and a lot of flat-out no-ways. And I’m thrilled that the editors of the magazine it will appear in took a chance on me. Because they did: They accepted the piece under the condition that we work together to revise it.

I suspect this is unusual. I wrestled with whether to accept these conditions. On the one hand, my writerly ego wanted desperately to believe that my story was great the way I had decided it should be and other than minor copy-editing, it should be published as is. As a former editor I of course know better than that and told my writerly ego to shut up. I was worried about my own ability to revise a story that I had already revised some 50 times — in the end, a valid worry. (No, sadly, the 50 times are not an exaggeration.) But I decided to go with it. I agreed: You suggest edits, I revise. I revise to your standards, you publish.

A year later the story has been revised several times, drastically, and it will appear in print very soon. The process was an interesting one for me. I have been edited before, mostly as a journalist, but quite possibly I have not been edited before on a piece of writing I felt so strongly about. This story was a pet project of mine for reasons I cannot explain. Changing it so much raised big questions; questions that I have not often seen discussed: How much revision is enough? How much is too much? Who decides? Does editor always know best? Is there a point at which one should stop and listen to that writerly ego? And from a fairly unpublished writer’s standpoint, there’s the power issue: At what point does the need to get published trump ownership of your writing? That is, is editorial compromise for the sake of the work, or for the goal of publication? I’m not sure the two can be separated.

I don’t know that I have answers to a lot of these questions. I was lucky to have some very attentive editors who made a lot of fantastic suggestions. I was lucky to be given the chance to rewrite my story. The story went in a new direction that I might not have chosen without the editorial prodding. It’s going to be published. For now, that’s enough.

It begins again.

I haven’t written anything new in a long time. I spent much of the 2nd half of 2011 revising and reconsidering writing that I’d begun, in some cases, years before. This was a good thing, as I am a horrible procrastinator when it comes to revisions. I would put off revising forever if I could. But alas, good stories, essays, novels, etc. don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains. Or at least, from most people’s brains. I had to seize the revision momentum and go with it. I suspect that revision, while still somewhat gut-wrenching to me, has gotten easier. That more practice with revision has resulted in less time wasted, improved editing skills, and a sharper eye. It took me years – literally, years! – to understand what was involved in revision. It’s not just about cutting words or adding paragraphs or polishing sentences, though it could involve all of those. It’s about pinpointing what is working and what is not, about finding flaws of logic and blips of out of place action, writing, or characterization. It’s about seeing the parts at work in the whole.

All of this revision has paid off: I made progress with stories I had long ago declared dead. I got an acceptance for a story I have been shopping around for more than three years and writing and revising for five. The story was a finalist in a contest at a major magazine two years ago. After that milestone, I submitted it with a confidence and fervor that I had not applied to any other piece of writing. And still it took two years to find a home for it.

If this sounds discouraging, I do not mean it to. What I suppose I’m getting at is that this is a tough business, writing. For example, the magazine that accepted it wants another revision before publication. Good stories don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains and they don’t even end up that way after 47 revisions. There is always room for more revision to be done.

The concerns about the story from the editors are valid; I have known there was something that needed to be clarified in the story, but despite the many, many revisions the piece went through (I lost count), I could never quite get at what that was. So I’m thrilled and grateful –they’ve agreed to take on a story that needs work, and they’ve agreed to help me make the needed tweaks that I couldn’t quite see. The surprise, beyond the acceptance, is how relieved I am that someone finally “gets” this story and what it needs after all this time.

And so, it begins again. And again, and again. That’s writing.

Friday things

1. Subtitles, a rant.
Can someone explain why all nonfiction books must have subtitles? Are readers of nonfiction books unable or unwilling, like readers of novels, to turn books over to read the graph on the back cover? A sampling from Amazon’s featured listings of nonfiction books:

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
•Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
by Greg Grandin
•Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
by Nick Reding
•The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
•Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
by Clay Shirky
•Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
by William Dalrymple
•Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It
by Richard A. Clarke
•The Promise: President Obama, Year One
by Jonathan Alter
•Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea
, by Linda Greenlaw

Or, here’s a nice example, from a book I recently read (though I’m not sure why, since the subtitle kind of says it all ): Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, by J. Maarten Troost

It would seem that not only do nonfiction books have to have subtitles, but the subtitles tend to follow certain (and in my opinion cliched) rhythms. There are a lot of “ands.” As in (see above), “rise and fall,” “death and life” “strange and true,” “connectivity and generosity.”

I find all this rather unnecessary (can you tell?). Look back a few years, and wow, not so many subtitles. Somehow, people figured out what the books were about, and read them. Consider Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or An American Childhood. Consider Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk. Consider Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

2. The Dust Bowl.
Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about the 1930’s, the plains, the backdrop to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been reading The Worst Hard Time, the National Book Award winner by Timothy Egan. TWHT, as is to be expected, has an obligatory subtitle to tell you what it’s about: “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” (There, see? Now I don’t have to describe what the book is about, because you already know.) Here’s what I can say about TWHT: It is brilliantly researched and written in a way that pulls you through the story — not quite in the thriller-esque way of, say, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, but it’s very readable all the same, especially considering the topic. It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot about American history that I did not know.  However. But. Were I to make a list of things I’d like to read about before going to bed, the Dust Bowl would not exactly top it. And, I have learned: Reading about the Dust Bowl must be tempered by reading about … something else. It’s bleak, people, very bleak.

3. Things that are not bleak.
The short story I sent out in January is slated to be published in a small lit magazine out of the Midwest. I am happy. This is progress. It will be my first fiction publication.

4. More things that are not bleak.
In the spring of 2007 I began a short story. I have been working on it off and on ever since. A short story! A mere 10-15 pages. And yet I have been unable to finish said story. There are two characters and the second character has morphed into various different people and there have been at least five major, major plot changes in the story. There are so many drafts that I have had to create a folder within the story’s designated file on my computer entitled “old versions” because there were so many Word documents I could never find the most recent version. The story takes place in Thailand, and I have considered setting it elsewhere (but held on to Thailand, all the while suspecting it was stubbornness on such points that was getting in the way of finishing the story). Still I was unsatisfied. I cannot let this story go, I cannot let the main character go.  Well. This week I did the following: I cut the second section and pasted it before the first. Wow. Wow, wow, wow.  What a difference that made, and suddenly the rest of the story is coming together. I would not say it is finished, but it is close, it is getting there. I have a hope for it that I have not had since the spring of 2007,  and that is good. Or at least, not bleak.

News flash: Momentum is important.

This month I’ve managed to finish, revise, and send out a short story that’s been dangling unfinished and unworkable since 2007. I’m feeling pretty good about this. The story was one of two unfinished pieces I began in 2007 that have been gnawing at me ever since.

I don’t intend to take so long to write anything so short ever again. Revisions are one thing; sometimes you need time to be able to understand what a piece of writing needs before you can make changes to it. But these two stories were sitting as unfinished first drafts on my hard drive for an exceedingly long time, particularly for two pieces of writing that are so short. (The story I wrapped up and sent out this month ended up being 14 double-spaced pages, about 5,000 words.)

The story, before I proofed and revised it a couple of times, reflected the fragmented writing process that went into it. It’s hard, after all, to pick up where you left off if it’s been so long since you left off you don’t remember where it was you left off in the first place. And so, when I finally got through the first draft and began revising, I realized that I’d switched tenses as often as paragraph to paragraph. I’m not, it should be said, normally a tense-switcher, but so much time had elapsed between writing sessions on this particular story that I don’t think I knew what tense I was writing in whenever I returned to the piece. What a mess. It may seem simple to go back and fix something like that, and compared to major plot changes, I suppose it is. But I ended up having to spend a lot of time going back over the story and discerning what tense, exactly, what the right one, and then making sure I fixed all of the instances of the wrong one. Ugh. I hope not to have to do that again.

One thing I got from attempting NaNoWriMo this year was an understanding of what it means to bang out a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you do need to reach an endpoint before you can polish and revise. My M.O. from now on is going to be faster, less polished writing — with actual endings. Momentum is important. Revisions can come later.

Now that I’ve finished getting this story out the door, I’m wondering what to tackle next. I have numerous essays that need to be revised and sent out (and that second, unfinished short story!) but I’m itching to start something new. Something big.

rejections, submissions, publications

cacti, San Diego, CAJade Park has a post up about waiting for responses to submissions that got me thinking of recent events in my attempts to publish. Even as I write that I realize that “events” sounds dramatic and as though there are just so many happenings when it comes to publishing my work I can’t keep track of them all.

Ha. Not true, not true.

One recent “event” was that two weeks ago or so, I received a rejection in the mail for a submission I mailed out almost exactly one year earlier. I had, in fact, long ago assumed that I had gotten the rejection already and just forgot to note it on my submission tracking spreadsheet. There’s a part of me that gets frustrated and annoyed when these letters take so long to arrive. But there’s a part of me that is hopeful and imagines the positive reason why it took so long to hear back.

At the literary magazine I worked for when I was in grad school, submissions that made the first cut, i.e were approved by an initial manuscript reader (usually a grad student or former grad student), were passed on to one of the editors on the staff. If the editor liked the manuscript it got passed on again, to another editor. And so on and on. Sometimes, because of the enormous backlog of manuscript reading everyone had, this process took a very long time. As much as a year. Sometimes, the manuscript might get through three or four people only to be rejected by a fifth. As far as I know, the responses to these almost-successful writers were not much different than the usual rejections we sent out. That is, unless you knew the inner workings of the magazine (or had a friend on staff, in which case you might get a phone call telling you of your near-miss), you, the recipient of the rejection letter, might simply think, “Great, another rejection. And it took them a year!” never once considering that your piece had been oh-so-close to being published.

This is what I think of when I get a rejection letter after a year has gone by. It’s possible the magazine that took so long to get back to me is just totally disorganized, or undergoing staff changes, or that they lost my manuscript and only just found it a month ago. But why think that when you can imagine that your piece was a near miss instead?

Despite my rah-rah “2008 Plan of Attack” I have made very little progress on polishing some essays and sending them out. Much of this lack of progress had to do with the tendinitis I was dealing with in my arm, which basically required me to rest for a couple of months. That few months of not writing really threw me off. It is much, much harder to try to build a writing routine out of nothing than it is to improve a mediocre one that is limping along (which is how I’d describe my writing routine pre-tendinitis). I am out of the habit and trying to get back into one. And that includes submitting work.

I have made some progress with writing, though much less progress with revising. I will, it seems, do anything (anything!) to avoid revising old work. I’ve begun several new essays, and completed a draft of another, but the work I really need to dive into is revising and sending out. It’s strange, I know the logic, i.e. that if I revise an essay, I can send it out, and if I send it out I’m more likely to get it published, and if I get it published I’m more likely to get other things published, etc. etc. But I still have a hard time making myself work on revisions instead of new work. (Or blogging, trying to build a freelance editing business, going to the gym, eating lunch, playing with my dog, cooking …..)

The other “event” in my publishing life was that an essay of mine that was accepted last summer by a small litmag arrived in the mail, finally, in print form. I am keeping the magazine near my desk to remind myself what can happen when a) I revise and polish, and b) I send out submissions.

2008 Plan of Attack

010108watchcutout.jpg

2008 feels like the future. But also a little like the present has whomped me on the head with a stick.

On the one hand, it seems impossible that we could have arrived here, at this year. 2008?! It sounds so very sci-fi. On the other, here I am in 2008, and there are many writing-related accomplishments I’d like to have achieved by now. But I haven’t, and the passage of time is a reminder and, to some extent, pressure to get to it.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions — most resolutions I hear about are too vague (“I resolve to get organized”) and people tend to make too many to keep track of (“I want to lose weight, get organized, shore up the finances, and spend more time with family and friends”). The resolutions always leave out the details of how and by when. How much weight? Will you join a gym? What is it that needs to be organized? Will you throw away that box of junk in the closet that you’ve been holding on to for years?

Maybe I’m cynical but my theory is that in most cases, resolutions are a set-up for further failure. If you resolve to do something, and then lose sight of the goal or never lay out a plan for how to get there, you feel a double disappointment — not only did you not succeed at the task you’d resolved to do, but you didn’t stick to your resolutions either and you can beat yourself up over that too.

Most years I don’t even think about making resolutions, though it’s hard not to use that flip of a calendar page as a way of making a new start on certain things. This year, though, I feel the pressure of time. Perhaps it’s because it’s the second New Year’s in a row where I’ve found myself working from home and only partially employed. For the most part, my time is my own, and yet I’ve written less and published less than I might have hoped when I finished my MFA program. But wanting to write and publish more are just like those other vague resolutions — “I want to get organized” — there is no how, no plan of attack. And so, this New Year’s, I am making one. (If you think about it, “Plan of Attack” is a much more rousing phrase than “resolution.”)

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some good news about an old thing

I found out today that an essay of mine will be published. In an actual literary magazine.

(yay!)

This is obviously very good news, and I was so excited after I found out that I had a lot of trouble getting anything done all afternoon at work.

It’s strange…the essay is an old piece, written pre-MFA program. I think I wrote the first version in 2000, or 2001. I can’t even remember, it was so long ago. I re-vamped it a couple of times in the years that followed. I actually used it to apply to MFA programs four years ago. But for some reason I never considered sending it out until a few months ago.

Because I am a spastic over-analyzer of everything, having an essay published that I wrote before getting an MFA when I can’t for the life of me get something I wrote during my MFA program published has not gone unnoticed by me. But I am trying not to think about that, and what it might mean.

What is important to point out, however, is that it doesn’t hurt to send out old stuff. Even if it seems …well, old. Or tired, because you’ve read it so many times, or it’s just different from how you write now.

Seriously: Universe? What’s up?

As I mentioned, something very strange is going on. I got another almost-acceptance in the mail today….that’s two in one week! This one is even better than the last, as I am one of ten finalists in a contest hosted by a magazine someone might have heard of, based at a university that everyone has heard of. Alas, finalists don’t get published. But still, it’s something. I’m psyched. Blown away. Bowled over. Insert cliché here.

Lest you be concerned that the universe is indeed wrinkled, tilted, shrinking or whatever other misalignment you can think of, you should know that in my week of good news I have also received at least five rejections, including one very flippant one that began, “All hail, You Patient Contributor.” Really.