Monthly Archives: December 2014

Interview with Kelly Simmons

WivesofBilliesMtI recently had an opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Kelly Simmons, self-published author of The Wives of Billie’s Mountain. OK, full disclosure, Kelly graduated from the MFA program at Queens with me, and we shared a few classes, so I already knew her quality as a writer.

Kelly is no stranger to the publishing industry, having worked throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s for a packaging and publishing operation, Falcon Press, which was eventually sold to Globe Pequot. I have a theory about corporations – eventually everything will be sold to a subsidiary and either Disney or Microsoft will own everything. It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of self-publishing for the simple fact that it’s relatively easy for anyone to put anything out, which creates such a staggering amount of crap content that the average consumer has trouble weeding out good work, like Billie’s Mountain, from bland writing, like Aunt Gertrude’s expose on her secret love affair with the mailman in 1967. My opinion on self-publishing has undergone a transition over the past year, and I wanted to speak to Kelly about her experience, and her thoughts on the industry.

Your Book, Wives of Billie’s Mountain, was self-published on Amazon in April of this year. At what point in the writing project did you consider self-publishing?

Kelly: I had no interest in self-publishing and never set out with that in mind. When I finished Wives of Billie’s Mountain I started looking for an agent. Three different agents requested the manuscript for months at a time. One agent requested rewrites, which I did, and I also had three publishers who had it for several months. I waited for over two years with my book in limbo, and was told ultimately each time that they liked the book, but they just didn’t think there was much interest in Mormons. It didn’t matter how many times I told them about Big Love or any other Mormon titles. It’s frustrating. I’ve received great reviews but wasn’t able to get a foothold. Continue reading…

Publishing Industry’s Life Change

It’s no surprise that the publishing industry is changing; pretty much everyone from the mailman to Aunt Gertrude can sense that bookstores aren’t what they were a decade ago. But what is the industry changing into? A butterfly, or a new form of ravenous beast? The summer’s greatest blockbuster for anyone following the industry was the feud between Amazon and Hachette Books, and just like most summer blockbusters, the show was filled with overproduced spectacle but ended in a fizzle. The behind-closed-doors resolution will impact the industry for years, and we may never know the specifics. Doubtless neither party walked away elated.

alergy-watery-eyes_www-txt2pic-comI’m a terrible prognosticator; I believed the iPhone would fail, that Avengers would bomb at the box office, and Twilight would never be made into a movie. So if I predict that publishing will be usurped by the prescription drug industry, I’ll understand if you’re cautiously doubtful. Think about it: television ads for new books, complete with fast-spoken warnings! Announcers booming: “Bored with life? Looking for excitement? The latest John Grisham is exactly what you need, ask your bookseller for details! Side effects include: sleepless nights, plot confusion, and subjective exposition. Be sure to read in a well-lit environment, not everyone who reads John Grisham is a fan, paper cuts can be hazardous, always seek the advice of a bookseller before reading a John Grisham. Glaco-Driscoll takes no responsibility for any adverse reaction to John Grisham. Buy your copy today!”

Eh, I could be wrong. Continue reading…

Fiction Contests

Ohio State University’s The Journal has an open non/fiction contest running to the 14th of February. Valentines day submissions will either show your complete dedication to the craft, or your lack of a love life. If you win, we won’t judge you.

The Kenyon Review’s 2015 short fiction contest will be active from Feb 1 through the 28th.

Sixfold has a contest running through January 24th, with winners chosen by fellow writers, which could be dangerous if you’re a self-centered and cruel person.

Building Your Author Site – Part 1

theinternetBeing an author in the modern age means having a web presence. It’s like Kim Kardashian’s butt – you simply can’t avoid it. Since re-launching my site I’ve had more than a few folks send questions my way, so this is probably a good opportunity to build a primer on TEH INTARWEBS! Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll walk you through the basics of building your own site. You don’t need to learn any programming languages (unless you want to), and for those of you who already know web sorcery, you get to ignore all of this stuff, though you’ll miss my subtle fart jokes along the way.

Internet 101 – The internet was invented so that generals could still watch porn in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. The early internet networks were based on document exchange and file sharing. Web theinternetboxservers still operate by this same rudimentary principle – when you browse a site, you’re downloading the files from the web server, and your web browser renders everything in a pretty format for you to read, complete wift sepling errs. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Web servers provide access to content, and users (laptops, desktops, tablets, and basically anything that can render web content) connects to the greater internet network to access that content. The internet uses computer-based addressing (IP addressing – internet protocol) which isn’t user-friendly. Modern sites are switching over to IP version 6, which is even more confusing. You probably don’t care about all of this…

Continue reading…

Don’t Write Like An MFA Student

Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town changed my life. Before I read it, I was a short Vietnamese woman with a lisp. OK, perhaps I exaggerated. Still, if you’re even remotely interested in creative writing, you owe it to yourself to read it. Were I emperor, I’d make it law that no author could receive a rejection without a copy of Triggering Town, and also a year’s supply of bacon. Perhaps this is why I am not emperor… I read Triggering Town as part of my MFA curriculum, and oddly enough there was a point of realization: the one piece of advice Hugo wrote which stuck with me the longest was a comment on teachers. Teachers teach how to write like them, they’re essentially implying the student should embody what they are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Liz Strout taught at Queens and I’d give popular parts of my anatomy to write half as well as she does. Still, the impact of an MFA program on a writer’s style cannot be overstated. After graduation, it was a year before I had anything published. During that time, I was writing an enormous amount of bad fiction. Luckily my MFA taught me to recognize my own inadequacies. I had to un-learn some of what I was taught.

This advice made me realize something I’d been fomenting over as a reader for Carve. An awful lot of MFA student fiction sounds the same. The tone is the same, usually dismally emotionally imagesHWYZE2CMrepressed with flowery prose. I’ve gotten so that I can spot a currently enrolled MFA student most of the time (let’s face it, there are exceptions to every rule). When I decided to write this topic up, I went through a few drafts that read just as bad as the fiction I was bashing. I think what it comes down to is a matter of teaching. Most fiction writers are taught to write what we know, a mantra codified in nearly every fiction class since the first stories were scrawled on cave walls with bat guano. If writers only wrote what they knew, the world would be filled with crappy stories about breakups and parking tickets. Granted, some really fantastic stories are written by authors who’ve had amazing life experiences, but for the majority of mortals, daily excitement is limited to the Barista spelling our name right when they scrawl on the coffee cup. I think the lesson should be: write what the limit of your imagination compels you to see. Otherwise it puts a whole new spin on Fight Club, and I’d like to think Chuck Palahniuk is not batshit crazy.

MFA fiction often reads like an over-produced song sounds. The story strikes very specific beats, usually with an overly dramatic opening in mid-conversation. I’ve often rallied against this, and I’ll say it again: I’m likely to reject any story that starts with a conversation because I think it does a disservice to the reader. Sure, there are examples where it’s worked, but there are far more examples where it doesn’t. You start mid-conversation, and you have to immediately back up and fill the reader in to what’s going on. Don’t do that.

MFA fiction themes tend to be centered around relationships, death, death and relationships, student problems, or some utterly bizarre and outlandish concept that no modern reader has been born who could possibly appreciate your story. These kind of stories can still work, but they need to be fresh and they almost never are. Think of the deluge of vampire fiction – nobody wants to read about sexy vampires anymore, and the re-imagined dark prince has also been done to death. Your bad breakup story, or your best friend killed story, they’ve also been done to death. If you’re going to write about an emotionally heavy topic, remember the simplest thing: the reader has no stake in your characters and won’t care unless you make them care. Your teary-eyed re-telling how your best friend was clipped by a train when you were eight is likely not going to be the celebrated fiction you think it is. I’m sorry you had such a traumatic childhood, but you really do need to distance yourself from the story before you can write about it well enough to make a reader want to stick with you. Most emotional stories simply don’t earn their ending, doubly so if it’s an abrupt ending. Take the time to make the reader care. If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s earlier works, they’re good stories because he makes us care about the characters before anything terrible happens to them.

MFA fiction tends to over-weigh prose with back story. I’m a huge advocate for back story, but mostly for the writer’s sake. If you know every detail about your character from their favorite ice-cream to the reason they hate watching reality TV, you’re doing something right. If you include all those details in your story, you’re missing the point. Detailed characters and plots are set dressing to the story. If you know your character is manic about getting a job, you don’t need to tell the reader. Write manic into your story and the context will be enough. Pair down your prose and cut the back story to a few well-placed lines. I honestly think this is a trend in modern times. Some of my favorite stories from the mid-nineteenth century were terribly overwritten. Modern readers will rarely stick with a story that lingers too long.

And lastly, I leave you with this tidbit: as a writer, the best advice we can give other writers is honesty. If your writer buddy reads your work and levies nothing but praise, they’re probably going to hit you up for a loan in the near future because nobody’s draft work is that good. If I critique a story for a stranger or a friend, I’m apt to tell you exactly how I feel – often how bad it is. I’ll also tell you what I think works, but it’s the broken parts we dwell on. As a writer, you can’t fixate on bad criticism. If your aunt Gertrude simply says your story sucks, you need to ask yourself why. If a reader’s reaction is honest, it can never be wrong.