On Vanity, Buddies, and Getting it Between Covers

(image from vanitypressing.com)

This is a shared post by one of our View From the Keyboard contributors, Geoff Hyatt. As corporate publishers and even hard-working, fighting-the-good-fight independent publishers are less able to sink resources in a title that may not turn a profit, the idea of self-publishing can become more appealing to a greater number of writers than ever before.

The Self-Publishing vs. Indie Press: One Skirmish on the Front ~ by Geoff Hyatt: I recently read a passionate argument against the tide of self-publishing, posted by an editor at a small press horror blog. It incited a commenter to attack some of what he perceived as shortcomings in small presses. Both held viewpoints bandied about quite a bit these days; seeing them voiced in the same place really brought the dispute into focus for me. While the entry refers to horror writing, it certainly can be applied to other literary genres. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in the past couple of weeks.

The original poster suggests we are entering “a dangerous phase where writers will outnumber even readers in this genre.” A proliferation of sub-standard self-published horror will make readers unwilling to purchase emerging authors in general, and further marginalize an already stigmatized form. Today’s 99-cent downloadable novels are “tomorrow’s freebies,” destroying any chance of fiction’s profitability. These downloads are making hobbyists writing’s only practitioners.

Small presses, he argues, sift through a torrential river of manuscripts in order to locate a few nuggets of gold for the reading public. Those of us wading into self-published waters are likely buying these gatekeepers’ rejects. If the indie presses fold, no one will be there to select, edit, and market books aimed at a small or niche audience. The average reader will be up a certain creek without a paddle, and so will be every other author not reaching a mass audience through a major publisher. In short, the good shall be left to drown in a sea of the mediocre and worse.

The retorts this post can incite are many, but the most commonly stated is what one commenter decries as the “buddy system” he sees present in independent presses. The commenter declares that small presses “mainly publish works from their employees and/or friends, or a friend of a friend. Sure, some of the stories are indeed readable. But there is also a lot of garbage published because of this system.” It’s a harsh assessment, but not an uncommon one. Attacking the “buddy system”  (also known as “Best Friends Press”) is the counterpoint to the idea of indie presses as curators of the artistically viable. To those on the outside who do a little Googling, the connections between editors and authors of some publications can create the impression of a vast mutual appreciation society based on collective advancement. All of this can be very intimidating for new authors on the scene.

Both sides of this argument seem a bit dramatic. Self-published books are clearly exactly that to a discerning reader. Does this mean they’re all rejects unworthy of our time? Of course not—but how will the reader know which book to buy without a press to signify that it’s “good?” Entire sites are devoted to reviewing self-published books, and more will doubtlessly appear. There are communities out there, and doubtlessly more on the way. People interested in self-published works will find critics they trust.

I think readers have different levels of expectation for self-published and indie-published work. Small presses usually offer better editing and more professional production than self-published e-books, and their higher price reflects this. The proliferation of self-published downloadable books actually raises the bar for everyone. Small presses now must put forth more effort in order to validate their role as curators. This means improvements in design, editing, marketing, and content. Self-publishers must now work twice as hard to stand out in the crowd of their direct-to-Kindle contemporaries.

As for the “buddy system,” it’s not the many-headed hydra it seems to be, at least not more so than the rest of the world. First of all, I hear of people being published by people they’ve never spoken to before all the time. It does happen. But yes, of course, people also publish and promote their friends’ books. However, they usually do also genuinely believe in these books. Artists often befriend one another because they respect and enjoy one another’s work. Besides, almost anyone publishing today has put in a hell of a lot of hours to get where they are, and most of it was spent writing.

So, I was wondering. Ever play a gig with your band, and when you look out in the crowd you realize more than half of the audience is made of the other bands you played with tonight and all their girlfriends and friends? And everyone else on the bill is signed to the label run by guys who used to be in a band with guys in the headlining band? Maybe not, but this is how it goes most of the time. And yes, it can be frustrating, especially if you’re just getting started. But there are a lot of opportunities out there. The fact that you’re shy, anti-social, lazy, or just plain not interested, isn’t the fault of people who don’t feel the same way. Besides, you can always just start your own thing, right?

There are no winners and losers here. Whether you self-publish, or go the indie route, or get a hotshot agent and sell the movie rights to Michael Cera, whether you teach at city college or Columbia University, there is no finish line. If you write, it’s increasingly unlikely anyone in this world really cares that much, anyway. You would be hard-pressed to find someone on the sidewalk that can name ten authors who released a book in the past year. Self-published horror or the network of indie presses have little to do with that. Let’s not make this harder on ourselves than it has to be. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Isn’t it? Go write something. Or don’t. Do whatever feels best.

Thanks, Geoff, for letting me put this up. Readers, writers: your thoughts? Oh, and by the way, keep your eyes open for Geoff’s fine novel, Birch Hills, slated for release later this year.

Dennis McFadden’s Working Man’s Quarters ~ Another View From the Keyboard

As promised, here is the writing space of Dennis McFadden, author of the very fine short story collection Hart’s Grove, and participant in this blog’s “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. You’ll find here, too, an excerpt from another of his wonderful stories.

Dennis: This is where I do most of my writing and watch the sun come up. It’s located upstairs over the kitchen in our old (1857) farmhouse in what was at one time the “working man’s quarters.” Appropriately enough. My muse, disguised here as a cat, is getting old too, and needs her heat lamp now. She lets me know if I neglect to turn it on for her. From the window she watches the birds and rabbits, and fondly recalls the good old days.

Excerpt from “The Three-Sided Penny” (The Missouri Review, vol. 30, no. 4):

In the end they blamed the travellers and closed the book. Old Foley gave in to despair. Friendless before, he was now all but shunned, seen as possessing enough bad luck to rub off on anyone misfortunate enough to give him the time of day. Only Lafferty stood him a pint or two when he could afford it, the Murphy’s not the Guinness. One night Foley shows up dressed to the nines, in his tweed jacket, threadbare but clean, and a fine woolen tie. His best trousers held up by his rope. When asked the occasion he smiled and stood a round. Says he, “I’m after closing a deal,” and he’d say no more on it, despite all the prompting and cajoling, the speculating rampant that he’d found his three-sided penny, in a different pocket from where he’d thought he’d stashed it, the old fool, or hidden elsewhere where he’d forgot in his state that night, or that indeed he’d discovered another. But wasn’t he found next day in his shanty, beside his own donkey Isadora, Cromwell the killer bull suspiciously frisky in the field beyond. He was hanging from the rafter by his rope, Foley was, his trousers dangling loose about his feet.

Dennis, thanks again! And a reminder to our writer-readers, we are eager to see your space, too, and to read your writing. Guidelines for submissions are at the right. -PMc←

Sheep Herding and Shrimp ~ Dennis McFadden on Earning as a Writer

As part of our on-going Conversation Among Writers “Why The Short Story?”, Dennis McFadden takes on Gina Frangello’s questions about the financial implications of a writing life.

Dennis: Man, talk about déjà vu. How many times has something like this happened to you? Standing around at the old writers’ conference cocktail party, having wormed your way into a conversation among a few faculty members, you throw in a couple of comments that aren’t too terribly far off the mark, and they all look at you appreciatively, as they might at a trained seal who’d managed to nose the ball through the hoop. Then they chatter on amongst themselves for a while until one of them asks if anyone’s tried the shrimp yet, just as you’re popping another shrimp into your mouth.

Did I mention my “traditional” career? A project manager with the New York State Department of Health? Not that I can blame Gina. Turnabout is fair play, after all. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bunch of us project managers were standing around trying to have a decent project management conversation when some writer (usually with misbegotten aspirations of someday becoming a project manager) tries to horn in. We might patronize him or her for a little while, but that gets old pretty soon, and we eventually forget he or she is even there.

So I certainly can’t blame her for not noticing me standing here, munching on the shrimp. I’ve never met her, and her rejection slips from “Other Voices” didn’t convey a lot of her personality, but I’m willing to bet she’s a nice woman. So, just to keep the conversation going, let’s take her questions one at a time and see if we can unearth any relevancy for a project manager and part-time writer.

What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? None, now. Not much then, either. When I left college, I was branded a good writer, and I knew two things: I would probably always write, and I would probably always have a “traditional” job. My background was strictly blue-collar, I wasn’t all that far removed from my parents’ Great Depression, and I harbored a subtle but actual dread of ever being in the position of not knowing where my next meal was coming from. A career in writing was every bit as likely as a career in outer space.

Naturally (having been branded a good writer), I also harbored a distant, vague notion that someday I might meet with some writing success, perhaps even enough to be able to chuck my day job—about the same probability as perhaps winning the lottery someday. Of course taking a decade or two off from writing probably didn’t lower the already formidable odds against that ever happening. But when I finally did get around to writing again, I turned to the novel, not the story, a decision that was probably financial to some degree (relevancy, at last!). If that remote possibility were ever to occur, it wouldn’t be because of a short story I’d written, it would be because of a novel. As the wonderful writer Manette Ansay would tell me years later, “I love the short story, but it’s the novel that pays the bills.”

How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? The money I’ve earned from my book and the stories I’ve published in magazines that actually pay in American dollars (Confrontation sprang for forty bucks!) might have almost covered an all-expenses-paid vacation to downtown Albany, but the writing expenses—those conferences ain’t cheap, never mind postage, envelopes, paper clips—precluded my dream vacation. So I’ve resigned myself to being content with the tax write-off.

Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? You mean besides getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning? Besides pissing off my wife by going to those conferences nearly every year, then having to eat bad food and read untold numbers of ungodly stories and try to come up with something nice to say about them? And having to try to talk to faculty members and hope they remember I’m in the conversation? Besides all that? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. These are the sorts of sacrifices one has to be prepared to make for the sake of one’s art, aren’t they? Nobody promised us a rose garden.

Oh, you mean financially? No.

Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Many years ago, as I was climbing the bureaucratic ladder, scratching and clawing my way to the middle, I was sorely tempted to just say the hell with it and become a shepherd. As a matter of fact, I went so far as to fill out the paperwork, but that was nipped in the bud when it came to light that I was allergic to wool.

But maybe that isn’t all that relevant to this particular conversation.

Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? As a grandchild of the Depression, I’ve never met an indecent dollar. You know the rest. If you’ve been listening.

What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, as I’m not sure mine qualifies as a “writing life,” at least in the context of the question.

But I’m willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

The harsh realities of economics (I can remember when gas was twenty-five cents a gallon, and the snow was up to here!) mean that I have to keep my day job, so the cons would include the aforementioned early rising (hey, I’m getting older, I get sleepy) and the other sundry aforementioned sacrifices. Of course, the pros were also mentioned afore: seeing your work in print, knowing that someone else besides you is actually reading the stuff, reaping in those glorious forty dollar checks. And writing. The pure, unadulterated pleasure of it. Creating lives where none were before, watching them strut and fret, feeling the goosebumps rising…

I could go on, but I think I’ll go stand over there and munch on some shrimp.

Hart's Grove

Stop by our View From the Keyboard series tomorrow and you’ll see Dennis McFadden’s 5:00 AM writing space and his trusty writing partner. Dennis, thank you. -PMc←

John Steinbeck’s View From the Keyboard, 1962

John Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

I thank the Swedish Academy for finding my work worthy of this highest honor. In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the Nobel Award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect or reverence–but there is no question of my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.

It is customary for the recipient of this award to offer scholarly or personal comment on the nature and direction of literature. However, I think it would be well at this particular time to consider the high duties and responsibilities of the makers of literature.

Such is the prestige of the Nobel Award and of this place where I stand that I am impelled, not to speak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession and in the great and good men who have practiced it through the ages.

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches–nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.

Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.

This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit–for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.

Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgment.

Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing–access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control–a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.

To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world—for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace–the culmination of all the others.

Less than fifty years after his death, the door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.

Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.

→What more need be said? -PMc←

Prizes and a Patron ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Earning as a Writer

Vanessa Gebbie is the first of our story writers in conversation to answer the questions Gina Frangello posed in her last post to our series “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. Just to remind you, here are Gina’s questions: “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?”


V: Let me stop laughing before I type my reply.


Money paid no role whatsoever other than a negative one, in my decision to write fiction. Prior to that, I was being paid a small sum now and again to write non-fiction as I was a journalist of sorts—the sort that doesn’t get paid much. That’s not quite fair—I was also owner of a one-woman marketing consultancy, and had been for some eight years. I was earning thanks to that—and sometimes, decent sums.

As soon as I stopped to write, I earned not only nothing, but a negative sum. There were course fees to find. There was the purchase of a computer. Paper. Ink. Workshops. Not to mention the books. Books and more books! And I was no longer adding to the family ‘pot’. But let’s put this into context. I wasn’t exactly a youngster. My husband, bless him, had two rather useful attributes—firstly he was in a well-paid job, and was more concerned with my happiness than my financial contributions. And thus it was that I acquired what used to be called, in the olden days, a patron. I was just married to mine.

Without my income, we had appreciably less money. Even the odd competition win, bringing in a thousand or two in a good year, was laughable when compared with the income I’d given up.

I’d had my various careers. I’d done a languages degree, then worked for the Ministry of Defence in London, had one son, requalified in management specializing in HR, done an MBA, taken on senior management roles, had second son, started up the marketing consultancy… then suddenly, enough of the treadmill! Time to do what I needed to.

My husband (mon patron) pays the bills.

Short fiction has paid me very very little, if we are only talking cash. Publication fees can be measured in tens of pounds. I have been lucky and won competitions—even they don’t pay much—the best was a Bridport second place which raised £1000. ($1657 apparently…) I have two collections out and a text book, with one of the largest most respected indie presses in the UK. They pay no advances. Royalties are tiny. 7.5%. We make a little on the books—can buy them for a 35% discount and lug them round readings, festivals… But know something—I am not a saleswoman. I am a writer.

I wrote a novel. It took me five years to write. Well, from my previous post you will know it was a glorious series of short stories which was bullied into a different shape, firstly because I wanted to see if I could write something longer, and secondly because I had an agent (acquired thanks to a single short story, incidentally…) who wanted a novel to sell. So I am counting the advance I got for that as allied to the writing of short stories, if I may. A decent, not high, but very welcome five figure sum.

Wow. Five figure sum, huh. What, literary fiction? Yeah. But before we get too excited, remember it took me five years to write. That’s (if my maths is right) a cool and not-high four figure sum for each year spent working on this thing. If I take into account the money my darling patron spent on multiple stays at writing retreats (it was written in Ireland) flights and car hire to get there—over the five years…he has just about broken even.

I ought not forget teaching—as if I could. I love doing that, and have had some terrific times—being writer-in-residence at Stockholm University this time last year, for example—working at Winchester Writers Conference in July, running a week long workshop in Ireland next month—a workshop at Bridport in November—teaching pays well.

However. I am a writer, and a teacher when asked, not an academic. Is writing an academic pursuit…now there’s a question?! If I let teaching become a job, I would worry about what would happen to the writing—and am happy to leave it to those who can juggle the demands of both disciplines much more effectively than me.

Financially, I have run very far and very fast to stand absolutely still. By anyone’s measure, for a lit writer, four books in four years must be doing OK, product-wise…but then I read today about a debut author getting £600,000 in a two book deal. I felt sick for a moment. Then I looked at what her novels were about—nothing I could write in a million years…and felt much better. I do what I do and am happy. Just about. It remains to be seen whether I have the reserves to do this all over again, despite the fact that I have a brilliant idea tapping at the windows of my heart…oh what the hell. Writing will see me out one way or another. And there is one certainty. When I do shuffle off this mortal coil, my estate won’t be able to pay for solid oak and brass handles. I’ve ordered plywood.

Thanks again, Vanessa. There’s a whole lot more about this writing stuff on Vanessa’s website and blog:  www.vanessagebbie.comhttp://morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com/. You might want to check them out. Next up, Dennis McFadden on eating shrimp with project managers. -PMc←

McNair Named Poet Laureate

My half-brother, Wesley McNair, was recently named Maine’s Poet Laureate. On any given day in any given state, this honor is remarkable. But in a state where the governor (Governor LePage, the Republican perhaps best known for telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt”) cut the inaugural poem and choral music from his inauguration celebration because he thinks these art forms are “dry”, in a state where the governor took down from a state building a state and federally funded mural depicting the history of labor in Maine because it does not show the story from employers’ side (some references made to Communism and brainwashing in alleged anonymous faxes), the act of serving as Poet Laureate can be seen as very nearly subversive.

On the surface, Wesley’s poems might look like slices of Americana, and indeed many are small moments in time experienced or observed by ordinary people. But look more closely. There is political commentary here in the celebration of lives often complicated by situations beyond their control: poverty, broken families, false celebrity, politicians, isolation, over-development of the land, commercialization, big cars, and television. Wesley McNair is no Norman Rockwell.

And that makes me proud.

Wesley’s poems are frequently featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac; click here to read “Morning in America.”  Image above from the website of David R. Godine -PMc←

“It’s All Mine” ~ Viki Julian Gonia’s View From the Keyboard

Viki Julian Gonia teaches in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, and writes a column for her local paper. Yep, a paper that still exists. Fighting the good fight. Just about everything interests Viki; she has a very good eye for the everydayness of things, the way the world’s spin affects our daily balance. Her voice is authentic and friendly, her words funny and often slightly barbed. She writes in the comfort of her home.

Viki: I have two main writing spaces in my house. The first, my “office,” is in the basement. When I bought my little house a year or so ago, my first priority was to create a space for writing that was my very own–something I’d longed for, and kept trying to create (unsuccessfully), when I was married. I hired a guy to come tear down some walls and carve a space. I put together cheap bookcases from IKEA and set it all up and then promptly abandoned it. Weird, huh?

I think that I realized that the whole damn house is my very own (the day I closed, I walked from room to room with my arms opened wide and proclaimed, in every space, “MINE!” like a 2-year-old with sharing issues). I didn’t need to try to carve my own space because it’s all mine.

But, just a couple of weeks ago, I reclaimed it. Organized (mostly–I need a little bit of chaos) the piles of papers. Cleared away my son’s soda cans. Swiped the dust from the desktop. I get most of my “business” writing done there, like writing my newspaper column.

Then there’s my living room. Lavender walls and feminine furniture–it’s a girly and comfortable room. I like to sit on the floor with my back against the sofa and a cat or two at my shoulder and a dog at my knee, or at the desk, where I can look up and out to the backyard. There’s nothing in this space that I don’t love. If I were a living room instead of a human, I would be this room.

Something I’ve written recently in this space:

She pours another vodka tonic, turns up the music, picks up items off the display shelves–a glass bottle of the kind he uses to store the Sands of Beaches, which contains a crumpled dollar bill and on the bottom of which has been written “AVJ” and “Tip” and a smudged date, the family golf and bowling tournament trophies. She wonders why he hung the painting of the Old Ormond Hotel near the window, where it would be faded by the sun, and ponders stealing it for herself. She chuckles at the photos he’s printed out of his grandchildren, stuck in cheap frames he’d picked up at the WalMart, and the poster of  the U of I football team, her brother, thick-necked, his blue-and-orange jersey tight across his chest, in the second row.

She thinks, oddly, about the strangeness of her father’s idiosyncrasies, about his carefully placed mementos, the lightning rods on the roof of the house–a huge expense to address the fear that he might be struck twice after the time in the 70s when Mother Nature tore a hole in the roof of his business, pushing him further into struggling times. His stacks of books–Wealth Without Risk piled atop Raymond Chandler collections, beneath John Grisham novels. His telescopes and books full of constellations, his need to have things be a certain way not because they look best like that, but because that’s the best way to remember everything he never wants to forget.

More from Viki on her blog vikibabbles.com. Thanks for sharing your space, woman. Reminder to the rest of you: still soliciting submissions to View from the Keyboard. Guidelines at the right. Oh, and Happy Spring Sphere Day.←

The Air of Ideas ~ Edith Wharton

“The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing,” Edith Wharton.

There are more elegant photos of Wharton all over the internet, but this one appeals to me in that it is evidence of a long writing life, one that spanned decades and crossed from one century into another. Below is a short excerpt from her story “The Long Run,” published in 1916, when she was in her fifties:

“Merrick was still handsome in his stooping tawny way: handsomer perhaps, with thinnish hair and more lines in his face, than in the young excess of his good looks. He was very glad to see me and conveyed his gladness by the same charming smile; but as soon as we began to talk I felt a change. It was not merely the change that years and experience and altered values bring. There was something more fundamental the matter with Merrick, something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable: Merrick had grown conventional and dull.”

PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers

Gina Frangello answers fellow conversationalist Vanessa Gebbie’s question about whether or not writing the short story is training ground for the novel. While Gina’s latest book is a collection of short stories called Slut Lullabies, her first fiction work (besides editing projects,) was My Sister’s Continent, a novel. (Begs the question: What came first, the novel or story? Or maybe it doesn’t. Sorry.)

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, from 1997-2007, I regularly got phone calls, letters and emails from writers I’d published, wanting recommendations as to where they could submit their collections of short fiction. Basically, their situations went like this: “Every story in the collection has been published in a good journal—some have won awards—but I can’t even get any agent in New York to read it.” Agents kept telling these writers that short fiction “didn’t sell.” Even if, on occasion, an agent read a writer’s work and loved it, the agent’s brand of encouragement was often reduced to, “Please get in touch when you have a novel.”

Reactions to this attitude can be varied, of course. There are many young writers out there who do “begin” with short fiction—often because it is the traditional form for university creative writing workshops—with the implicit assumption that they will write a novel “someday.” Of course, even these writers rarely enjoy hearing that their short fiction is totally devalued by the publishing industry. Writers who write both short stories and novels are not any less attached to their short fiction—work no less hard on it and believe in it no differently—than writers who write short fiction alone, and so even these writers (myself among them) have experienced many frustrations regarding the market’s attitude about the short story. Our agents often don’t want to submit our stories until/unless we’ve had a “big” novel first, for example, and we may spend four or five years toiling on a novel that never reaches those heights while meanwhile we have a collection literally collecting dust in the proverbial drawer.

But let’s forget those writers—writers like myself—for a moment. What about the writers out there who don’t write novels at all? How does it feel to be constantly told that your art is a mere training ground for some other form in which you have no inherent interest or drive? Isn’t this a bit like going to audition for the New York City Ballet only to be told that you’re amazing, but to come back when you’re ready to tap dance?

If agents and book publishers have so little interest in the short story form—and this has been true now for almost two decades: the entire careers of many working writers today—then doesn’t it necessarily relegate short story writers to that beautiful “ghetto” of literary magazines, essentially guaranteeing them that they will never find wide readership, much less make money, for their craft?

Most of us in the literary world (or certainly the independent publishing world) would readily admit that literary magazines are the gatekeepers for some of the best writers in the country. The vast majority of these magazines, print or online, are freer from marketing concerns than book publishers are. All but an elite few subsist mainly on arts grants and donations, so while of course all journals want subscribers/readers, the model of “making money” on a literary journal is all but completely passé, especially in this era where so many journals are free online. Therefore, to some extent the only thing that matters in these publications is “quality.” Nobody gets rich running them. Nobody has to answer to corporate shareholders. Lit magazines are rarely “crowd pleasers,” as most people . . . well, barely know they exist. What they aim to do, quite simply, is to rock the worlds of their own small audience. They have scant interest in publishing something simply because it seems marketable, hip, palatable, crowd-friendly—their editors strive to fall in love, and once smitten they don’t have to pitch anything to the marketing department for approval, they simply send an acceptance to the writer. Sure, some editors tend towards the incestuous, publishing all their friends or only reading solicited work while everything else languishes in the slushpile, and this can lead to homogeneity or compromised aesthetics . . . but those things are true in “big publishing” too, perhaps to an even greater degree. So in many senses, literary magazine publishing remains our purest and perhaps our highest quality forum for literature, and many writers are very content to build careers on these pages, perhaps eventually coming out with a collection from a university or indie press after they are already a “big name” in lit journal circles. They don’t necessarily hanker for more. Their small audience adores their work, and they are home.

But . . . what about the short story writer who yearns for something else? The big deal? Even the medium sized book deal? How about just a freaking agent? Well, unless they’re from a trendy country with which the United States is having some highly publicized skirmish; unless they’ve already published a successful novel; unless they are at minimum an Iowa alum with a bunch of fancy blurbs, Pushcart Prizes, and a short story in the New Yorker—probably they’re shit out of luck.

I’ve seen more writers go through this process than I can count. Even my co-editor at Other Voices, a talented fiction writer whose stories were being widely published in journals and anthologies in the 1990s, met with a similar fate. After spending years polishing her collection, devoted to her craft, she could not find an agent to represent her and was told so many times to “write a novel” that—for a time—she stopped writing anything altogether. Though she did eventually find an agent, even he pushed her to write something more commercial, i.e. a “women’s fiction” styled novel. Is it any wonder that so many gifted writers of short fiction end up focusing primarily on editing, teaching, or some other aspect of the writing world, giving up their early publishing dreams?

In the end, there is this: on a craft level, the short story is not a training ground for the novel. They are different beasts. That said, writing is training ground for writing. If you write enough short fiction and you get to be pretty damn good at it, chances are you could also write a novel if you truly want to and you work long and hard enough. And so, while much can be made and dissected (as we have, to some extent, already done in this blog series) of the difference between the story and the novel, the real difference here—the essential difference—has to do with what a writer wants out of his or her career vs. what the market wants. The short story can be mere “training ground” for the novel if the writer sees it that way. However, such writers should keep in mind that writing a novel is no neat guarantee of selling a book for good money at a big New York house either. Deciding to write “to the market” is a risky endeavor—one that can drain your pursuit of its passion yet not lead to an end-goal reward of fame or fortune with anything resembling predictability. Even if a writer is willing to forego all aims of writing literary work and crank out chick-lit novels or thrillers . . . well, think about it. If you think there are a lot of unpublished literary fiction writers out there, when hardly any Americans even read literary fiction and literary fiction writers make crappy money, just how many unpublished thriller writers do you think there are? Would you like to have Dan Brown’s money? Yeah, so would everybody else.

If there’s any moral (well, other than “the publishing industry sucks a little”—but what industry doesn’t?), it always comes down to the same thing. Write what you love. If you love novels, write one! If your only love is short fiction, stick to that. Your audience may be smaller. You may never make a living. You may never even publish a book, instead remaining in the mags forever, and for many ambitious young writers that can be a bitter pill to swallow. But if you were in this for money and the guarantees, you’d have been an attorney, or an options trader, or a doctor, or even a plumber. If you’re writing for guarantees, for money, or to be what the market wants, you’re probably at the wrong party anyway, and you should leave while you have a chance, because the party on the next block might have some caviar, and all we’ve got over here is PBR and rejection slips wallpapering our walls.

In the end, I got so many of those calls, letters and emails from my writers at Other Voices magazine, that I ended up launching Other Voices Books (www.ovbooks.com), where I have been honored and privileged to publish some of these brilliant short story writers myself, like Tod Goldberg, Corrina Wycoff, Allison Amend. We don’t make much money. Sometimes we lose money. We can’t publish all the books we want to publish, because we’re poor with a tiny and overworked staff. But you know what—we’re proud of every book we put out; we’re passionate to live, eat and breathe these books and their writers for a good year-plus of our lives. We no more see our work as, say, training ground for an editorship at HarperCollins, than writers of short fiction should see their work as a training ground for anything at which they do not wish to be trained. We do it because we love it. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Uh, unless you’re starving and living in your car. Which kind of brings me to my next question. As a publisher/editor as well as a writer, I notice that my answers often involve “industry” or market concerns, which invariably do end up relating to money. I tend to take a combination jaded/idealistic view on that front, essentially boiling down to the fact that, yeah, we all need to eat, but if you’re writing for the money you could really have found a simpler way to make ends meet, and that writing needs to be primarily pursued for the passion of it. Not everyone agrees with this, clearly. So, for our next question, particularly since we all write short fiction, a form that is now (as opposed to in Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s time) notoriously underpaid: What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?


 →Thanks, Gina. Well, the question is back to our conversationalists, Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, Dennis McFadden, and me. Money? Fame? Real jobs? Hey, don’t forget to troll around on the website here for some other cool stuff like John McNally’s writing nest and Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile. And Faulkner half-naked. And Dorothy Parker on lingerie. -PMc←

Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile ~ Another View From the Keyboard

Here’s what Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply had to say about Volt, Alan Heathcock’s short story collection debut: “The stories in VOLT are intense, suspenseful, and utterly compelling. Heathcock writes about violence and bad luck and bad choices with a cool, grim eye that recalls Cormac McCarthy, yet he also approaches the hard lives of his stoic Westerners with great empathy and compassion and heart–a kind of miraculous combination.  By turns hair-raising and tender, the tales in this collection draw you into a tough, bleak, beautiful world that you won’t soon forget.”

Some very high praise, I’d say. Not really a surprise, though, when you think about it. Alan has had fiction published all over the place, and his stories have been selected as part of The Best Mystery Stories anthology. Volt is published by the very fine Graywolf Press, and has received favorable and even starred reviews from a number of those periodicals we all wish would review us so well. Originally from Chicago, Alan now teaches at Boise State University and is Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise and a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho.

Beyond all of this, Alan has one of the coolest writing spaces I’ve ever seen. Below is his description.

Alan:  My writing studio is a 1967  Roadrunner travel trailer that for most of its life was an Idaho State Police surveillance vehicle, and is now packed with books and trophies and random oddities–in style, it’s urban-redneck-gypsy-writer chic.  Having a wife and three kids, it’s perfect in that I can actually leave the house to go to work, to be out of earshot, to be away from someone asking me to open something or find something or wipe something, but also be close enough to come in to have lunch with the family, and get wifi from the house.  Inside, there’s old beautiful wood paneling, which smells like woods and feels like wood and feels cozy and connects me with the past.  With my wife’s help, I took pages from my favorite books and decoupaged them over the kitchenette area, so every time I get a drink of water, or heat up some tea, Hemingway and Joyce and James Dickey and Joyce Carol Oates stare me right in the face, daring me to bring my A-game.  I’ve hung framed letters I received from authors I admire, my prize being a type-written letter Joy Williams wrote me after she’d read my book.  Another favorite piece is a picture of “The Preacher” from the Charles Laughton movie, The Night of the Hunter.  The Preacher hangs over my head, glowering down over me, H-A-T-E tattooed across one hand, L-O-V-E across the other, him always watching, always making sure I’m writing what’s right and righteous.  In short, the VOLT-mobile (what my kids call it) is a magical place, a space that transports me from my side-driveway and deep into the recesses of my imagination, into all its fear and whimsy, its questions and concerns.

Excerpt from the story, “Peacekeeper”

At the back of the house, Helen entered the master bedroom.  A canopy bed with mahogany posts filled most of the room.  Helen gazed out the bedside window at the flooded world, the dark roofs of houses spread wide like barges on a big river.  Everything smelled of soil and fish.  So much water, so much washed over, but perhaps when they’d start anew everything could be better, everything forgiven.  Perhaps God would allow the girl to be dredged up by the flood and found, her parents granted their closure, yet the unrighteous cause of her death kept a gracious unknown.

Helen walked to a bureau and searched the drawers, one filled with scarves and nylons, the next with panties neatly folded and separated by color.  She moved to the closet and shone her light over the clothes; pants at one end, then blouses, then dresses.  Sweaters were on a shelf above the hanging clothes.  She pulled the red sweater from the middle of a stack, unfolded it to be sure it was the right one.  The silver thread of the embroidered snowflakes twinkled in Helen’s spotlight.  She held the sweater to her face; it smelled faintly of Connie’s perfume.  It was an impulse, and Helen could not explain why she needed it other than to say it was something clean and lovely in a world of mud.  She hugged the sweater to her throat and lay down on the bed, the mattress soft and pulling her in, her boot heels flat and heavy on the water-logged carpet.



→Find out more about Alan Heathcock, read reviews of his stellar, award-winning collection Volt, get information about upcoming events and readings where you can hear from the author himself; visit his website: alanheathcock.com. Thanks so much, Alan. Writing readers, don’t forget, you, too, can submit your work and workspace for inclusion in View From the Keyboard. Guidelines to the right. PMc.←