What We Were Reading in 2014: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The real writer is one who really writes (thanks Marge Piercy), but writers need to read, too. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” But with so much to choose from sometimes it’s hard to decide what to read next. So we asked the editors what they read this year and what they’d recommend to TC readers and here is what they had to say.

What We Were Reading In 2014

Background Image: Paul Bence/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Baker recommends:

Carsick by John Waters. Equal parts fiction and memoir, even more fun with the author-read audio book. Not to everyone’s taste but if it’s to your taste, we should get together for lunch.

Captain Marvel (ongoing series). Sometimes the “as you know Bob” element of comics deters me from reading but I am absolutely captured by the new Captain Marvel. The visuals are lush; the story and dialogue are well ahead of standard comics. Captain Marvel will be looked back on as a turning point in what comics can be.

Closing Time by Joe Queenan. While reading on my Kindle, I wanted to reach through the screen. Sometimes to comfort Queenan and sometimes to fingerpoke him in the shoulder. Long in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to it and hated putting it down, even when Queenan frustrated me with his word choice or double standards.

Tina DuPuy (blog, columns, articles, Twitter). DuPuy’s voice is clear and unapologetic, with humor and more than an occasional dose of snark. She writes from a progressive viewpoint on topics that are always ahead of the mainstream. Reading her prepares me to talk about the next big thing when it turns up on everyone’s lips.

The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World” by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon Magazine). I think that Americans don’t talk often enough or realistically enough about poverty and its effect on generation after generation, not just in big ways but in small. John Cheese has written on the topic for Cracked (+ and +), combining truth and dark humor. Smarsh’s piece came to my attention through social media. I shared it liberally but it didn’t catch on the way I think it should have. I can only imagine that it’s because of its specificity and that specificity is why this simple 3,500 word essay still crosses my mind often nearly a month after I read it. My husband and I discussed our personal experiences relevant to the article over dinner and in the car and while brushing our teeth before bed. Even if you don’t share the experience, Smarsh’s writing draws in the reader and paints an unpretty picture I think more Americans should see.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Billiard recommends:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Saga is an ongoing comic series, but it’s one that I read when the collected volumes are published. It’s fantasy/SF, and the plot is…difficult to explain. It’s about war, and love, and literature, and it is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in quite some time. Volume 3 was published in March of this year, but you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe. Like Saga, Rat Queens is an ongoing comic series. Volume 1 was published in April. This book has a female-led cast, and is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also difficult to explain, so allow me to borrow from Amazon’s description: “…a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!” Reading Rat Queens is some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire. This is the eighth volume in Seanan’s October Daye series. Upon completing The Winter Long, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire series. I never do this.

Seanan also has a blog, and while she mostly posts work and travel updates these days, sometimes she posts things like this. (Be aware that the linked post deals with depression and suicide.) Earlier this year, she published a collection of blog posts/essays called Letters to the Pumpkin King. Seanan’s nonfiction writing is witty, insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. I love it; I hope you do, too.

I first encountered Lindy West last year on an episode of (the sadly canceled) Totally Biased where she appeared opposite comedian Jim Norton to discuss rape jokes. I found her to be funny and eloquent and started following her immediately. She writes about pop culture and feminism and body acceptance, formerly for Jezebel, but she’s very recently moved to GQ. Here’s a post from this year about liking Chris Pratt before it was cool.

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Broker recommends:

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking. What it says on the box.

Anne Lamott, who has a wonderful blog and is just out with a new book, Small Victories. She has a way of shucking right down to the cob, saying simple-sounding things that are also very profound.

What-If by Randall Munroe. His comic is always worth reading, and he has a weekly answering the mail questions thing that’s gathered in the book. The rollover text on the comics is part of the fun.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane is seriously wonderful: magical realism and childhood nightmare all in one.

To round things out, this article from The Atlantic (not for the squeamish; it features parasites): How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen McAuliffe on work by Jaroslav Flegr.

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Harpspeed recommends:

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. This mystery novel from an Icelandic writer is also part ghost story—Sigurdardóttir creates a fabulously atmospheric setting that make the word “creepy” obsolete.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I liked the juxtaposition of the two historical characters, deeply dimensional and rich.

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett. I am curiously drawn to writers’ personal stories and liked reading Pachett’s memoir because she also fills her pages with good advice for writers.

The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce. This story is part biography, memoir, ethical philosophy, and science journal in its examination of the author’s beloved dog’s descent into old age and the author, herself, who explores the many facets of the human-animal bond.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury by Amy Newmark and Carolyn Roy Bornstein. Disclosure: My friend, Carolyn, is one of the editors of this collection and recently gave me a signed copy knowing how interested I am in her work on the subject of writing and TBI, and that I enjoy reading personal essays; this collection is a great introduction to the power of the personal essay and the growing concern that is currently trending across America’s landscape.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Beaver recommends:

Proof of Loss” by Emily Rapp (The Rumpus). Emily Rapp writes unsentimentally about continuing to live after the inevitable death of her son Ronan from Tay-Sachs disease: “In those final days of my son’s life, I thought I would die, but knew I would not, which made me want to die even more ardently. Still, I lived. How? Perhaps I didn’t live at all but existed, half-alive, half-dead, in some liminal space.”

Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” by Rose Lichter-Marck (The New Yorker). I am fascinated by this story about creating and not-sharing and unasked-for posthumous fame. If you have a hard drive full of unpublished stories, you might be, too.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. An Untamed State grew out of a short story called “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” The novel starts where happily ever after leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. You should read it because it’s on every* best nonfiction book list of 2014. You should also follow Roxane on Twitter because she’s smart and hilarious and gives a lesson on how to deal with haters on a daily basis. (*possibly a slight exaggeration but not much)

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling”  by Hannah Gerson (The Millions). Hannah Gerson, on writing about that small town background she’d been avoiding and how watching TV “to relax” got her there. (Writers are always writing. Even when they’re not.)

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Escape Your (Reading) Comfort Zone

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker & Beaver

  1. This month we challenge you to read outside your comfort zone. If you always read books by men, pick up a book by a woman writer. If you always read white writers, pick up a book by a writer of color. If you always read writers from your own country, pick up a book by a writer from another part of the world. If you always read fiction, pick up a memoir. And so on.
  2. Check out these hashtags for recommendations and discussion:
  3. Take the title—just the title—of one of the pieces in this month’s article and create a mind map. Write the title in the center of the paper, branch out from there with ideas until you’re dry, then go back to the center and start again. (For examples of mind maps, do a Google Images search for “mind map” or “mind map template”.)
  4. Many of the editors’ choices are deeply personal true stories. Write at least a paragraph (hopefully more) of one of your most personal, private stories. Afterward, put it away or delete it and write a fictional paragraph or poem inspired by your previous exercise.

Everyone Else Is Doing It (So Why Aren’t You?)

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

NaNoWriMo is the pumpkin spice of the writing world. Come September, it starts seeping into everything a writer touches. By October, it’s ubiquitous. So when November rolls around, it’s inescapable. NaNo is a great excuse to hang up the “do not disturb” sign for the month of November, whether you’re doing it or not. If you’re not NaNo-ing, how else can you use those 30 days to become a better writer?

Set Goals

National Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about writing a novel in a month as it is about discipline, goals, and practice. If NaNo isn’t your thing, set your own goals for the month (or the season). These might include “write for two hours five days a week” or “outline a story in early November, write in November and early December, then edit and submit it before the New Year.”

If you’re already a writer who’s disciplined and working as much as you can, look at your comfort zone and where you might be able to break through it. Are you writing a little every day that never goes anywhere? Use November to pore over abandoned pieces and maybe link them or finish them. Polish them and submit at least one before November 30 and you could have a fresh publication credit by the end of the year.

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Write poetry, CNF, or memoir

NaNo is made for fiction writers but not all writers create fiction. Many of us are poets or memoirists (or would like to be). The nonconformists among us looking to co-opt NaNo might want to use November to create our own November challenges.

Write a poem a week; use Mondays and Tuesdays to explore ideas, write on Wednesday, revise Thursday, rewrite on Friday, and ask for feedback over the weekend.

Use your favorite writing prompts as the impetus for memoir instead of fiction. Write a memoir every day in November, even if it’s only a sentence or two. At the end of November, reread and look for a uniting theme among the 30 pieces you’ve created. Flesh out those stories and gather them together. Do you have a collection or at least a good beginning?

Write Short Stories

Lots of my NaNo friends are short story writers. Most of them use NaNo as an excuse to stretch themselves by working on novel-length fiction. Some like to use NaNo simply to create longer short stories. Usually they write five 10,000-word stories, which they plan in October. Those stories tend to have a connecting thread, like a character who appears in each story or a theme that carries through every story.

The NaNo police are not going to show up at your door and tell you your work for November doesn’t “count” because you didn’t write 1667 words per day on a single piece. You win NaNo by having 50,000 words of original fiction written in November. You don’t edit yourself as you go. You don’t delete paragraphs that aren’t working. So who cares if you realize on November 10 that this piece is complete? End it and begin something new. If you’d like to connect them later, you can, if it makes you feel better about the way in which you participated in NaNo.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers program allows the setting of a word count of your choice as a goal. NaNo Rebels maintains a discussion board at the official site (search it; if you read this after 2014, this link to the welcome thread may no longer be valid).

Write Character Sketches/Bios

Okay, you’re a fiction writer. You want to write a novel (or another novel). You’re down for NaNo… but uninspired. Still, you want to go to the coffee shop and answer “I’m doing NaNoWriMo” when the person beside you asks what you’re doing. Do you have a character in mind? It doesn’t have to be a main character. Write that character’s background story. You can fill out a Character Development Worksheet. You can write diary- or blog-like paragraphs from any time in the character’s past. Take an online quiz, giving the answers a character would give. Try a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test for the character you have in mind to learn more about him.

Everything you write about the character is fiction. You can count it toward your total word count of fiction on your NaNo project. You might be able to get a novel off the ground by the end of November but you might not. You can create your own NaNo project by creating 10 original characters (one every three days) and writing 5000 words about them, from their names to the story of their first heartbreaks. You might put them all into a single project or you might hang on to them until you find their stories.

Explore New Genres

NaNo has no restriction on genre. How many genres are your NaNo friends working on? NaNo is a great excuse to write in a new genre. Start something fresh or take a false start and continue it. If you feel your fiction pulling you toward horror or sci-fi, follow it.

If it doesn’t work, go back to where you consciously began the new genre (maybe a little further back than that), and try a different path. If you were writing a romance novel that turned into erotica and fell flat, think about why it wasn’t working. Character motivation? A setting that didn’t add to the plot? A word that you were uncomfortable putting into your narrator’s vocabulary? Change it up and give it another shot. None of your writing will be wasted.

Practice With Prompts

If you’re not into creating a single 50,000 word project for November but you’ve set the goal of daily writing or reaching 1667 words of fresh fiction per day, practice with prompts. You can find writing prompts right here at TC, at Twitter, at Pinterest, and all over the web.

Again, you can connect your daily pieces later if you want a more coherent feel to the work you’ve done in November but there’s no rule saying you must reach someone else’s goal. If you use NaNo to get into daily writing practice, you “win” when you have 30 prompts that worked for you, even if it was a few sentences jotted down in a Moleskine book before bed.

Enter a Contest

Lots of journals and publishers have contests going on in November (TC included) and with so many writers focusing on NaNo, you have a better chance of making the cut. That’s not to say that you can slack; you never want anything less than your best out there. But you can spend November writing a single short story that gets published rather than a 50,000 word novel that will never see the light of day.

Research (and query) agents or markets

When prospective NaNo-ers are writing outlines, you can research markets, publishers, and agents. October and November are opportune times to send your polished query to an agent. When the agent requests more from you, you’re ready to go. If an agent or editor responds to your piece asking for a few edits, you’re not caught up in NaNoWriMo madness. You’re ready to fulfill those requests.

As always, you’ll be writing to keep from watching your inbox, but you won’t feel the pressure that NaNo writers are feeling. Your November harvest could be a publication credit, a signed book contract, or the payment for a short story.

Keep your goal specific, like “research and query one agent per week” or “research markets every MWF and submit on the weekends.” Specific goals are harder to slack on.

Submit or Workshop

Even if you’re eschewing NaNo to the point of taking the month off of writing, send something out. TC’s inbox is most swelled in January when the New Year’s resolution to submit inspires writers. Beat the rush. Submit something in November for publication. Send a piece a week to the journals you’ve researched. Find the best possible fits, follow the submission guidelines, and send it in.

There’s more going on in your local real world of writers than NaNo. In addition to write-ins, there are workshops at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. Everyone will be talking about their NaNo frustrations while you show up with a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) ready for feedback. It’ll be a welcome distraction for the NaNo-ers and you’ll come out with some fresh opinions.

What Now?

Implement one of our A Pen In Each Hand accompanying exercises (culled from the above), get yourself a lovely seasonal beverage, and enjoy the month of November. Pumpkin spice: optional.


NaNo Rebellion

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

For the Traditionalist:

  • Join National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write 50,000 words on a single piece of fiction.

For the Habitual Line Stepper:

  • Write 50,000 words of fiction spread among several projects.
  • Write ten 5,000-word short stories.
  • Write 50,000 words of memoir or non-fiction.
  • Blog 50,000 words.
  • Write a poem a day.

For the Non-Conformist

  • Write in a new place at least once a week.
  • Create ten new characters; work on their character backgrounds three days each.
  • Write fresh fiction every day based on a writing prompt. When you hit 1,667 words, stop for the day. Pick up the unfinished pieces in December.
  • Write anything in a new-to-you genre.

For the Eschewer

  • Submit four or more pieces for publication, at least one per week.
  • Spend the first two weeks of November researching markets and the remainder of the month submitting.
  • Research and query one or two agents or publishers per week.
  • Attend a workshop or write-in. If you can’t find one, create one.

Tales From the Inbox: Baker & Beaver Discuss First Reading

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Theryn: Let me start with this. It annoys me when people fail to put “submission” in their subject line and/or submit to the wrong address because these subs end up in my main inbox with all my other mail, rather than being filtered into my submissions folder. Sometimes I wonder if people do that intentionally (especially with the wrong email address) thinking they’ll somehow jump the queue, but really it just increases the chances of the submission being missed or mistaken for spam. So, follow the guidelines, please. (Oh, haha, literally as I’m writing this, a “submission”-less sub showed up in my inbox!).

Stephanie: I just got that one too. I use a flagging system (and have for years) so when something has “submission” in the title, it gets the big, bold “TC SUB” tag and gets my attention. I also have a filter so that anything with “submission” in the title never goes to spam. So all it really does when a writer doesn’t follow that guideline is increase the chance I won’t see it. It will either be deleted with the flotsam and jetsam or it’ll languish in the spam folder for a month and then die alone and unread.

T: Ditto. When you bypass the guidelines, you bypass my “never send to spam” rules.

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

T: Oh, yes. Part two to this. Sometimes when people re-submit / submit again they just hit reply on the response I sent them. Which sends their new sub to me only, and leaves my lovely colleague Stephanie out of the loop. If I don’t notice you sent it just to me, and she doesn’t see it, your chances of making it past the first round just went down (oops!). Also, not as important, but still annoying, with threaded conversations, the new sub gets tied to the previous sub and that gets kind of messy. Again, I’m not sure if this is a jumping the queue thing or if people just aren’t thinking, but it would behoove you to submit to the correct address.

S: I am lovely. Since I’m on there as “managing editor,” I also get subs sent directly to me. I have no problem—nor does anyone else, to my knowledge—with a cover letter that mentions me in its salutation. The problem is when it comes to my email address. I usually don’t notice until my ravishing colleague Theryn says, “What is this submission you want in?” Then it goes from shortlist to DQ.

T: Ravishing? lol, ok.

S: I have a thesaurus and I’m only slightly afraid to use it.

T: Your lack of fear makes me afraid 😉

T: I also shake my head when I glance at my submissions folder and see a bunch of attachment symbols. What about “NO ATTACHMENTS” is hard to understand? Ok, maybe people don’t get why attachments are problematic. The main thing for me is they really slow down the reading process. All the opening and closing is annoying, when you could just be moving smoothly from one sub to the next. I often read/shortlist subs on my phone where attachments are a pain. I just want to read your sub and move onto the next without impediments. So just paste it into your email, ok?

S: Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt that they may have an email program that sticks some kind of an attachment onto everything. Sometimes it’s a signature that’s technically an attachment. But it is a huge red flag. I read those submissions right away and usually the attachment is the submission. So it actually saves me time in that I can say, “Oh a sub with an attachment? Can I get this out of my inbox? Why yes I can.” Click.

T: Oh, for sure. Same.

T: What do these things have in common? Oh, yes. WASTING MY TIME.

S: NEXT!

T: So it makes me sad when I head into the subs folder to shortlist and I glance down the names and notice that 75% or more of the subs are from men. What’s up with this, seriously? I brought it up in the class I’m teaching because it’s just so striking to me. I mean, we’re a publication that was founded by women and has had a majority female staff since the beginning, and this info is not a secret! Also, if you look at our archives, we have a good balance of m/f writers. What I’m saying is it’s kind of obvious that we’re a female-friendly publication and yet, women still seem hesitant to submit to us. (And if they’re that hesitant to submit to us, how hesitant are they to submit to a publication with an all-male staff / that publishes mostly men?)

S: Are men more confident about submitting? That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t think there are more male writers. I don’t think it’s fear of rejection.

T: These are the key differences I note between men/women writers (generalizing, of course). Men a) seem to be more willing to submit early drafts of pieces and b) almost always submit again after a rejection. Women a) seem to polish/edit work more before submitting and b) almost never submit again after a rejection. My guess as to why? Men are taught to take risks (submit anything! why not? what’s the worst that could happen?) and to pick themselves up and try again if they fail (rejection = challenge). Women are taught to be cautious, to not expose themselves unnecessarily (therefore: “I should work on this a bit more; it’s not ready yet; I don’t want to look stupid”) and that if they fail once, well, they’re really not good at that thing and maybe they should try something else, something “easier” (rejection = you suck at writing, maybe you should take up knitting, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

S: Sadly, this could be the case. I don’t think it’s a confidence problem. I think it’s more “Well I’ll just go elsewhere then.” We’re not rejecting the author. We’re rejecting this piece. It’s like holding out a bag of Hershey Miniatures and telling me I can only have a Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I want a Special Dark. But you don’t offer the bag again so I’ll just have this fun-sized Crunch from over here.

T: lol now I want Halloween candy.

S: Hey, I don’t pull my metaphors out of nowhere. I have a bag of Kit Kats here.

T: So I really do think women writers do need more encouragement to get their work out there than men do. With that in mind we have been putting out occasional calls for more submissions specifically from women writers.

S: We put out a call for minority voices and I think we’re enjoying a really great response. Hopefully asking for work from female writers will have the same result.

T: I’m not sure what else would be helpful. Women writers: you tell us, what would encourage you to submit more?

S: That’s the best way to figure it out: ask.

T: Ok, going to do some reading. Starting with the flash. I liked the first one I read; voice and setting were interesting/unusual. Putting on consider list. Next!

S: I usually start with the flash, then poetry, then CNF, then fiction. Not just because it’s longer but because I have a more black-and-white reaction to the other submissions. Fiction sometimes needs to sit with me for a while before I label it “no” or “consider.” I have rescued submissions from the “no” pile after I’ll be baking cupcakes or something and a character or setting I read creeps in there while I’m leveling flour or something.

T: I love subs that stick with you. And ones that grow on you the more times you read them.

S: So what do you think of the flash submissions, in general?

T: Hmm. A lot of the time, I think the flash is well-written, but insubstantial. Like, more of a beginning or an anecdote or a sketch. I think, so what? When I read flash I need to be able to picture the whole story even though there are only a few words. It’s the Hemingway/iceberg thing. What’s on the page is the one-eighth of the iceberg that’s above the water, but from that, as a reader I need to be able to extrapolate what’s underwater. If the piece doesn’t imply anything beyond what’s explicitly laid out then it’s a no for me.

S: I think there’s some weird idea that flash is about word count and nothing else. Recently—maybe this reading period?—we had a flash submission that was too long for our parameters and wasn’t flash anyway, which was doubly frustrating. Then we had a fiction submission that fell under the flash word count limit but was rightly submitted as fiction because it wasn’t flash. I wanted to kiss that writer.

T: I also think humor is really hard to pull off, and that’s something a lot of people try in flash pieces. I’m not saying don’t try it, just that it’s a lot harder to do well than being serious. I think it’s because humor is such a personal thing—what one person loves another will hate. Example: I hate punchline endings. If you want to write jokes, do stand-up. But at the same time I’m sure other editors love them.

S: I don’t like anything that sets up to a punchline. I’m in the Monty Python Club. We used to get more humor pieces and I think it’s because we have some levity on the site and we have a fun title. But we’re not a humor magazine. Maybe people are reading us and discovering we don’t have a satire section.

T: I love writers who read through the archives before they submit. Three cheers for you!

T: Then there are the (long) stories masquerading as flash. You know, a story that clearly needs to be longer, but the writer has tried to cram it into 500 words. Reminds me of when I was a kid and all my stories “had” to end when I reached the bottom of the page. This type of story is recognizable by an abundance of detail (e.g. all the characters are introduced by their full names) that’s unnecessary unless it’s actually meant to be a longer story.

S: As a sidenote, if I see a full name in line 1, the story is on notice. I’m looking for reason #2 to slush it by that point.

T: Oh, me too! I’m not saying characters shouldn’t have full names, but a line 1 mention is definitely a red flag for me.

T: I am never enthused by work submitted by a third party (i.e. someone a writer has hired to submit for them). Just saying.

S: I don’t get that. Half the rush is clicking “send” and then sitting there waiting for a response, having your nerves tingle every time you open your inbox. I only get it if it’s a case of “I think this is brilliant and he never submits his work so I’m trying to prove a point.”

T: *ponders stealing Steph’s novels and subbing them for her*

S: *leaves them to be stolen*

T: Let’s look at some poetry. A common reason for saying no is poems that are strings of pretty words with no substance behind them (why are you telling me this? what’s the point? where’s the meaning?). A poem is more than than just description. Also a poem is not just a chunk of prose chopped up with (random) line breaks. Speaking of line breaks, sometimes I really like the content of a poem but the line breaks baffle me. If you’re not sure where to end a line, the best advice I’ve heard is to end on a strong word (not “of” or some other meaningless word).

S: Yes: end on a strong word. That’s one of the criteria I use on first read. Line breaks that end with “of” or “the” don’t say much to me. Rhyming poetry turns me off too. Sometimes a rhyme will slip by if it’s well done but usually the lines are forced to fit a rhyme and/or meter. That said, when we get a great poetry submission, it’s usually my favorite submission. Of all the things we’ve published, the poetry is what stays with me over years.

T: Like humor, I think rhyming poems are a genre that’s really hard to do well. More often they end up being cheesy.

S: Or sentimental to the point of saccharine.

T: The number one piece of writing advice I give students (with respect to essays) is to start by writing about concrete things not abstractions. Anchor your ideas to an object and your writing will immediately be better than if your ideas are just floating around unattached to anything. I feel like the same advice could be applied to many poems. Writing is interesting in its specificity. A poem that consists entirely of vagueness isn’t.

S: Specificity is the key across the board. A moment. An object. A character. Most of the submissions I put through to second read have elements of softness or vulnerability but they all have a hard edge.

T: Oh, crap. I just read a story I really liked and then noticed it’s a simsub. Blargh.

S: You had to go and like it, didn’t you?

T: 😛

T: Too much telling.

S: That’s still a huge problem in the writing world. I see it a lot in stories published elsewhere and I wonder if those editors aren’t getting good submissions or what’s going on that that’s what they choose to publish. Maybe I’m old school.

T: And then… there are the stories that almost have me until they abruptly careen into the ridiculous. I think this is a variation on “I’ve reached the end of the page; must end this story.” It’s like the writer gets scared of where the story could go, so they back off and go for melodrama instead. Disappointing.

S: I have a specific groan for when I read a story that falls apart at the end.

T: It’s the worst. Seriously, I hate it when that happens.

T: Some things are just not a good fit.

S: That’s especially frustrating. I want to include a note that says, “This is good. I can’t wait to see it published elsewhere.”

T: All dialogue. This is almost always going to be a no. A story is not a script.

S: I admit, not only have I done an all-dialogue stories but many moons ago, I submitted one. I was the “wtf?” of that month’s slush pile, I’m sure. But it wasn’t doing me any good sitting in my “finished” folder.

T: Ahhh, it’s a dead person story. At least he seems to know he’s dead (twist!). I hate stories with dead protagonists, to be honest. We get so many of these, so it’s a cliche, and it’s just not an interesting premise to me in the first place.

S: I had to specifically put it into Dead of Winter’s rules. We still get them. And The Sixth Sense is, what, 15 years old now?

T: I know, right?

S: Tell me/us something that will get a story marked “consider” on first read.

T: I like stories where I can’t immediately tell where they’re going.

S: I have a specific gasp for stories that surprise me in a good way.

T: The best.

T: So, I’ve reached the end of this month’s subs, and I literally have more subs in my DQ folder (mostly for attachments) than I do on my consider list. Just saying.

S: And the frustrating thing, if I may presume to speak for both of us and probably most lit journal editors out there, we want a huge consider list. We don’t like DQs and we don’t like to say “no” on first read. Very often, I start to say to myself, “Self, let’s reconsider this submission” and then a new submission comes in that’s exactly what I wanted and it reminds me not to change where I’ve set the bar.

T: Ideal number of DQs: 0. I mean, I’d much rather spend our time arguing about how to cut down a long shortlist than grumbling about people not following the guidelines. Ya know?

S: Too much of a good thing would be wonderful.


The Rules

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker & Beaver

First Round

  1. Write something.
  2. Revise.
  3. Revise.
  4. Revise.
  5. Find a publication you’d like to submit to.
  6. Read the submission guidelines.
  7. Are the guidelines acceptable to you? If no, return to step 5. If yes, continue to step 8.
  8. Submit your work, following the guidelines.
  9. Patience, grasshopper.
  10. Return to step 1.

Second Chance

  • Take a rejected piece and look at it fresh, keeping this conversation in mind. What advice do you think Beaver & Baker might give you for this submission?

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s first short fiction collection Train Shots was recently published by Burrow Press. In it we meet characters ranging from a drug-addicted doctor to a Britney Spears-like “pop princess” in places ranging from Costa Rica to Pennsylvania to Florida. Vanessa recently took time from her reading tour and Edward F. Albee Foundation residency to talk about the collection, her characters, and the burgeoning Orlando literary scene.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Toasted Cheese: We discovered that we kind of traded places (I grew up all over Florida and moved to Pennsylvania; you moved to Florida from a different part of Pennsylvania). “Barbecue Rabbit” technically could take place anywhere but it’s set in Pennsylvania and feels like a Pennsylvania story down to the bones. Pennsylvania also dips a toe into the title story as well. I’m curious about the perspective of someone who isn’t shaking Pennsylvania from her boots the same way I can’t shake Florida. Do you think there’s something particular that stays with you when you make a geographic or culture change or is it simply our life experience in play?

Vanessa Blakeslee: It’s uncanny that you ask this because right now I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on over the past few summers set in northeast Pennsylvania, where I grew up. For a while I didn’t think Pennsylvania was an itch I wanted to scratch as a fiction writer but while at Vermont College, I wrote a story called “Shadow Boxes” that took place in my hometown. The story later won the Bosque Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for a number of others. This prompted me to consider that maybe there was more to mine in the subject matter (apparently so). I’m two or three stories away from a completed first draft. I’m still early in the process—and who knows how the manuscript may change—but so far the project feels very much in the tradition of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both books I greatly admire.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

I think when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life somewhere, those particulars of place can’t help but stay with you. You undergo moments of humiliation and joy in an array of locales, from the grocery store where you landed your first job (and maybe your first love), say, to the woods where you walked with your grandmother, to the school parking lot where you got beaten up. Those memories become ingrained in the landscape, whether your returns are real or imagined. At the same time you’re shaped by the natural world—even if that world is New York City—down to the climate and weather, and the cultural milieu that is inhabited by the people there. You can’t escape those factors, nor should you; they’re what knit inhabitants together across economic divides, the insular peculiarities of individual families, age, and time. And over time, it’s as if the heaviness of memory pressurizes one’s sensory knowledge of a place with the emotional terrain—that’s when you’ve got real gold to mine from, as a writer.

TC: It seems like you’re being tagged specifically as a “Florida writer.” It never feels dismissive but it doesn’t feel complete when I read it. How do you interpret “Florida writer,” if not simply “I live and write in Florida?”

VB: Again, I think this has more to do with the emotional terrain in my fiction rather than the concrete specifics of place. Most Floridians are from somewhere else, many from the Northeast who chose to make Florida their home for a number of reasons—so you have a vast number of residents who didn’t spend their childhoods there, and are in some way deliberately starting a new chapter in life. There’s a sense of displacement there, of transition—perhaps even frontier. Transplants set out to move there with hope and optimism, if only for the weather and lifestyle—so you’ve got everyone from college students to retirees showing up, brimming with desire and dreams. We’re now the third largest state; all of this growth happened so quickly that you have radically different people colliding on one narrow peninsula. All of this makes for unique conflict scenarios as well as emotional terrain for fiction.

As for the label, I don’t mind being called a Florida writer because I do write a lot about my adopted state—just watch out if I move somewhere else! Because I write what I write, and I certainly don’t feel pressure to be a “Florida writer.” If that’s how others chose to see my work, fine, but ultimately labels fall short and backfire. Literature is vastly bigger than any convenient labels we can come up with.

TC: There’s incredible diversity in the state (people, backgrounds, geography). What do you find inspiring about Florida?

VB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eyes peeled for what happens in my backyard, or my neighbors’ backyards. But Florida, and Orlando in particular, has such a variety of establishments, parks, neighborhoods, malls, etc., in part due to the tourist economy, that I think the city offers plenty in terms of choosing lively backdrops for fiction. PR’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, was an obvious one since I worked there for five years. I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination, both in “Clock In” and “Train Shots” (also in “Arthur and George: The Quest” which didn’t make it into this collection but is available online at Drunken Boat).

The landscape and climate inspire me a great deal. In the case of “The Lung,” I had fun setting that story during a summer of raging wildfires rather than a more expected scenario. There’s no “hurricane story” in the book, for example, and I kind of like that. I like bringing readers into the real world of a place, and the reality is that Florida’s chilly winters and torrential summer downpours are much more evocative of what life is like here than the occasional devastating hurricane season.

TC: What do you wish more non-residents knew?

VB: That the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. The University of Central Florida now offers the MFA in Writing, plus the University of Tampa has a low-residency program. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years—but we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. Ultimately the lit scene will change as Orlando grows; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.

TC: No matter where your story is set, your settings are specific and vibrant (“Welcome, Lost Dogs” struck me in this way). Do you think of setting as a character in its own right or more of a backdrop for particular situations or people?

VB: It depends on the story. My fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories grow out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there.

In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows? For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb.

Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, was originally set in Florida but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story,” and therefore gimmicky. In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the right unusual details to make it truly fresh and believable.

TC: Some of your characters aren’t written to provoke sympathy or likeability but they’re compelling and realistic (Sam in “Hospice of the Au Pair” stands out to me). When writing short fiction, how deeply do you get into your characters? Do you let their backgrounds evolve as you work or do you begin with their histories in mind?

VB: Short fiction doesn’t leave much room for backstory so I don’t spend too much time on characters’ histories aside from nailing down the immediate situation they’ve just come out of offstage, which has propelled them into the crisis they’re facing now. Much of the time this is very thin, just a couple of lines at the outset. Then, as the story progresses and a gap opens up where a bit of backstory information is called for to shed light on the present situation, I’ll make something up that is ideally both idiosyncratic to the individuals, setting, etc., and also inevitably fitting.

For instance, I don’t know much about Sam, the expat doctor in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” but in the final scene in the yard, he notices the blazing colors of the tropical trees. Why does he notice them? What’s the significance of this gesture? I tied it back to the autumns of his boyhood in the northern United States, a purer time which he very much yearns to return to now, via his own, albeit fractured, family. So I feel that I do get into characters as deeply as when writing a novel, but you’re just in and out so quickly with the short form. And in a way it’s very freeing, not having to come up with as much backstory to fuel the narrative moment. Although I’ll add that even with a novel, writers usually don’t need as much character history as they think they do—a story centers on what’s happening now, after all, not back then. There, too, I find myself making up the material I need as I plug along. With novels, I feel like there’s more of a sense of character history but that’s an element best left to the subconscious to work on. In composing first drafts, I’m hyper-focused on pushing the action forward.

TC: Your characters seem to come from a place of great empathy and insight. I’m curious about how and where you observe people for inspiration.

VB: Thank you. I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.

The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with “closeness,” however—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too—how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?

The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene—figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.

While my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction—illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others—I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots”—a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”

TC: Looking back weeks after reading Train Shots, “Princess of Pop” is the story that stayed with me most strongly. I was just telling my husband about it over the weekend. I think it’s because it’s a character we think we already know.

Speaking of characters, I have to ask: is Erica in “Ask Jesus” the same Erica, mentioned but never seen, from “Clock In?”

VB: I’ll say this: I did deliberately chose the name Erica for both stories so that the reader might have the option to make that connection. But it’s up to the reader to decide.

TC: There’s a romantic or sexual relationship in every Train Shots story, whether currently happening in the center (“Ask Jesus”) or the periphery of the story (“Train Shots”) or in the past but looming over the characters (“Uninvited Guests”). I feel like a lot of writers, particularly in short fiction, stay away from sexuality in the story unless it’s directly involved in the plot instead of acknowledging that it’s primary to human nature.

VB: Biological impulses and sexual desire drive the world; we like to believe we’re more sophisticated than that, but it’s naïve to believe so. Literary fiction, at its most basic level, is about connection and disconnection between men and women, and while all stories don’t have to be centered on love and sex—that would be rather mundane—its absence in storytelling is as noticeable as an elephant in the room.

Writing literary sex, whether funny or awkward or passionate or violent, is just like facing any other scene you’ve got to capture; there’s no need for gratuitous detail, but you have to stare. Sex—the lack of it, the yearning for it, and the messy consequences of our romantic pursuits—occupies a great deal of our adult lives. That concept of emotional terrain crops up. Would P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots,” be so distraught if not for his longtime companion having broken up with him three days before the young woman’s suicide? How much of the Princess of Pop’s turmoil is wrapped up in her status as a sex symbol, her identity stolen by corporate interests and molded into a pawn from when she was barely a teen? No doubt her hypersexualized image influenced Erica, the character from “Ask Jesus” in some way, in how she chooses to modify her body to fit what the culture deems sexy—which plays with her head and takes a toll on her marriage.

So maybe it’s just the way I see the world, that sex and sexuality are integral to the messes we get ourselves into even when a situation doesn’t overtly appear that way. What do human beings long for most but freedom and intimacy—how do we go about pursuing both? What do we sacrifice? I’m fascinated by this.

TC: One example of a story with a sexual relationship is “The Sponge Diver,” which was originally published in Toasted Cheese. Most (all?) of the stories in Train Shots are previously published. Did you do much or any rewriting between the previously published versions of the stories and the versions that appear in the collection? How did you prepare the stories for the collection? Did you do your own editing or collaborate with an editor or publisher?

VB: I started many of these stories, including “The Sponge Diver,” as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice, the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles.

I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas (the editor at Burrow Press) approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review. He had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January 2013 and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.

Train Shots

Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014)

Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right. We left out certain stories not because they lacked merit but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order. Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the final “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.

I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before. I think it’s easy for emerging writers to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done, which is far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.

I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.

As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.

TC: Travel and transition are themes in Train Shots and the pieces seem to have a sense of motion to them. What has been your journey as a writer so far? How did you begin? Who encouraged you? How long have you been publishing?

VB: I’ve been writing since I was six. As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by playacting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. By high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. Still, I didn’t publish my first story until 29—“The Lung” which appeared in Cimarron Review.

Two short essays of mine provide a fairly succinct snapshot of my writing journey leading up to Train Shots: “The Corner Booth” and “Paradise Lost,” both of which can be found online at The Paris Review Daily. They are also far more lyrical and lively than any answer I could supply here.

TC: Where is your next journey? More publishing? Short fiction? A novel? Another collection? Do you like to plan where you’re going or see where fate takes you?

VB: All of the above. At the moment I’m at the Edward F. Albee Foundation residency in Montauk, NY and will be working on what I envision will be a novel-in-stories set in Pennsylvania. In between, I’ve been working on essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.

TC: Where can we find you online?

VB: For events and book news, vanessablakeslee.com. For my thoughts on the writing life, interviews, book reviews, guest blog posts and the like, visit Vanessa Blakeslee: On Writing. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my new favorite, Instagram.


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Sex and Setting

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Set a story or poem in the town you’re in right now.
  2. Set a story or a poem in a real place you’ve spent a week or less visiting.
  3. Vanessa Blakeslee said that she doesn’t do a lot of backstory or biography for characters in her short fiction. Start writing the story of a character named Lee who is riding public transportation or driving a car. You know nothing about Lee. Just write and see where you both go.
  4. In a few days, go back to Lee and fill in any necessary biographical information you created while working. How does it change your story, if at all?
  5. Vanessa said that the absence of love and sex in fiction is “as noticeable as an elephant in the room.” Go back to a stalled or abandoned story or poem and add a previous or current sexual relationship or encounter to the action. How does it change the story? How does it change your characters? As an extra challenge, push your scene or backstory out of your character’s (or your) personal comfort level.

Horror and Sorrow and Beauty: Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Mercedes M. Yardley writes “whimsical horror.” Her happy endings might have every character die or go mad. Her characters might have holes in their hands, through which stars fall to Earth (incidentally, stars can prevent you from peeling Granny Smiths by knocking knives out of your hole-free hands). She would tag her new novel with #lovehurts and considers herself a “pantser” when it comes to her characters. She won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy 2013 Best Short Fiction “Stabby” for Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

While reading her work, you don’t want to put it down. Then you realize you have to put it down in order to go find more (and sometimes to eat, drink, see the sun, etc.). Her delicate yet powerful prose sends unique characters on fascinating journeys and she has cultivated a faithful fanbase. Her first novel, Nameless, was published this month by Ragnarok Publications.

Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Toasted Cheese: Let’s start with important stuff. Tell us about the connection to your close personal friend Gloria Gaynor.

Yardley1

Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes M. Yardley: Gloria and I are like this. BFFs. She calls every morning to get my fashion advice. I totally tell her to go with the white hat. Nobody can rock it like she does.

Ha, no, actually, I’m one of many authors in an anthology that she put out. Somebody sent me an email saying there was a call for submissions and she thought it might be up my alley. The theme is how Ms. Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” has inspired us in one way or another. I sat down and wrote an essay about being knocked flat once or twice (or a million times) in life, and how I was trying to get my roar back.

Being in the book is a fangurl’s dream for me. Ms. Gaynor personalized my copy of the book and the CD she made to go with it. I’m a real geek when it comes to things like this.

TC: I discovered your work through Shock Totem. How did you get involved with the journal? Could you share a little about your journey from contributor to contributing editor to editor emeritus (so to speak)?

MMY: I wrote a black, funny little story called “Murder for Beginners”. It was one of my very first sales, actually, to a new and intriguing dark fantasy magazine called Shock Totem.

The staff was nuts. Ken Wood, the editor, sent this awesome rejection letter that was irreverent and hilarious. I later found out that he had originally rejected “Murder for Beginners” but the other staff liked it enough to fight for it. Thankfully mob… er, majority rule is how Shock Totem works.

I started hanging out on the forums. It was the first forum I ever frequented, and it was just a lot of fun. The staff and I hit it off beautifully. After a while, they asked if I would be interested in coming aboard.

It was a big decision, quite honestly. I loved the staff and the stories and the magazine, but I was afraid that it would take too much time from my own writing. I was also afraid that the dark subject matter would get to me. But ultimately I decided to jump, and it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I loved it. Loved all of it. Seeing things from the other side of the desk was amazing. Staff became family for me. Shock Totem became a huge part of my life.

But things change. I have three kiddos now, and two of them are medically fragile. Three kids are so much more difficult than two. I started publishing a little bit more, and I realized that I was being stretched too thin. I was sick all of the time. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was dropping balls left and right. I really felt like a failure.

I realized that I had to make some changes to keep myself healthy in every way. I started cutting things out. Eventually I realized that I needed to let Shock Totem go, and it was really tough. I miss it every day. But it’s time to focus on writing novels full time. Everything has a season.

TC: I recently had to make a declaration that if it wasn’t about family, my own writing, or Toasted Cheese, I had to let it go. You’ve just done something similar. Do you feel freer and more productive yet or is an “overstretched” element hanging on?

MMY: I admire you for making that commitment. I know it isn’t easy.

I hope to feel freer. Right now, I’m still exhausted and over-committed. I don’t prize my time like I should. I need to be more selfish with it. Right now I dole it out left and right and then I’m surprised when I look at the clock and it’s midnight. I’ve done things for everybody else, but what about my manuscript? ARG!

TC: You belong to a writing group. Is your group face to face or online? What does it give you to belong to a group? What happens in your group (writing talk, commiseration, editing help, brainstorming, etc.)?

MMY: My writer’s group is called The Illiterati, or The Interdimensional Wombats. Don’t ask, because I’ve long since forgot how that all came about.

Yardley2We meet face-to-face in the Wombat Lair every Tuesday for about three hours. And we do everything. Read each other’s work. Brainstorm. Edit. Fight. Eat pizza. Hold write-ins. Celebrate birthdays. We’re family in every sense of the word. We even argue like it, sometimes.

We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know each other’s potential. Our main goal as a group is to make sure that we don’t let each other send something out that’s subpar. Anything less than our best.

Ideally, we’ll all move to a commune together. We’ll raise bees, grow our own vegetables, and hold writer’s retreats at our place. There’s an island in Chile that would be perfect for us. You know. After we buy it for twelve million dollars.

I’m also in a secret online group called The Pit Crew. It’s cobbled together by a few Illiterati, some members of Shock Totem. My literary nemesis takes part. There’s another horror writer whom I adore. This one is much more laid back. More quick reads and minor suggestions. Questions about the business.

The Illiterati is out for blood. The secret Pit Crew is backup. Though I guess we’re not secret anymore. 😛

TC: That makes me want to do an evil laugh and rub my hands in little circles.

Do you have an Ideal Reader? Is it a real person or a construct? Describe the person or audience for whom you write.

MMY: I actually wrote Nameless for my friend, Janyece. We’ve known each other since we were two or three. She’s my oldest friend. So in that sense, she was my first and only Ideal Reader. I’ve never specifically written for somebody before.

Yardley3Well, perhaps that isn’t true. I write the book for the characters. I write as though they’re reading, and I’m telling their stories. My short story “Black Mary”, for instance, is about a kidnapped little girl. Am I telling her story honestly enough? Truthfully enough? Delicately enough. Am I handling the situation with the respect and tenderness that it deserves? I’ve come to the realization that people identify with the characters and situations, especially the dark, painful ones. Sure, I’m writing about a person that doesn’t exist, but the pain she experiences is real. I’ve been astounded at some of the emails I’ve received, saying how people identified with characters, especially Montessa from Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

So I write to her. Montessa and Mary and Azhar and Reed Taylor and the characters I’m writing about. It’s perhaps a bizarre way to do it, but keeps the story true.

TC: Tell us about Nameless, which comes out this month. Who are your main characters and what do they want? What’s the journey they undertake?

MMY: Ah, Nameless! Nameless is one of my favorites. I wrote this very quickly, originally. I was writing a chapter a day for my friend. Then I lost two of my triplets at birth, and I couldn’t work on anything for a bit. It was a joy to come back to, when I finally did.

Luna Masterson has been able to see demons from a very young age. Everybody thinks that she’s crazy except for her father. He checks out while she and her brother are still fairly young, so they’re growing up on their own.

She’s mouthy. She rides a motorcycle, partly for the thrill and partly to keep people away from her. Sorry, there isn’t room for anybody else on here. Them’s the breaks. But she loves her brother, Seth, fiercely, and especially his baby girl, Lydia. She’d do anything for them, and she does.

Seth is very organized and logical. His ex-wife was a beautiful and vindictive woman named Sparkles, and she left Seth and Lydia for another man. So he’s trying to pull himself together, keep a job, and raise his daughter by himself. That’s where Luna comes in.

Reed Taylor is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a recovering addict who doesn’t see demons, but he falls for Luna. He has his own secrets.

And Mouth is a demon of some import, fairly high in the demonic hierarchy. He’s hanging around Luna for his own reasons. He and Reed Taylor loathe each other. I love putting them together and hearing the retorts fly.

They’re a diverse group of people. Ultimately, they’re all lonely and they’re trying their very best. They’ll get it wrong, of course. But they’ll also do some things right. If Nameless had a tag, I’d say it would be “Love hurts.”

TC: You’ve written several short stories, published a collection of shorts, and now you’re putting out novels. Do you have a preferred story length?

MMY: I adore flash fiction. It appeals to my short attention span and it allows me to tell several stories versus telling one story in a novella or novel. But in a longer piece of work, you get to explore things in a way that you can’t in a short story. It’s allowed to be a little more lush. I really enjoy that.

I think I’ll always think in short stories, but novellas and novels are my new playground.

TC: Do you write on a regular basis or as the mood (or your schedule) allows?

MMY: Excuse me while I sit in the corner and laugh uproariously.

TC: Yeah, every writer likes that one, along with the advice to “write at least (random word count) every day” when there are full time jobs, parenting, illness, and life in general competing for your time.

MMY: I would love to write every day. Ideally, that’s the case. And I try. But things always seem to get in the way. So I write as my schedule allows. I’m always in the mood. Writing is what I want to do more than anything else, besides spending time with my family. But real life seems to demand its time, too.

TC: You’ve said that you write quickly and passionately, then go back and give the pieces a couple of light polishes and that’s it. Have you always worked this way or is it a method you’ve developed to suit your work, needs, or time schedule?

MMY: Not only is it the way that I work, but it’s the way I live my life. Whatever project I’m doing at the time, I’m 110% into it. Passionately, wildly. It consumes me. I throw everything I have into it, and do so until something else comes up and interrupts. Then the flame cools and I can go back over it with a more refined eye later.

Short, intense bursts, and then reality. I’ve always done this, and it works well for me.

Yardley4TC: When I read your collection Beautiful Sorrows, I was moved by its magical realism, how you handle it with a light touch while it’s intrinsic to the stories. Do you find readers to be excited, put off, or a combination of both when they encounter something like a talking star or river?

MMY: Of course every reader is different. Some really seem to like the delicacy of magical realism. Pixie eggs grow in the corner of windows. The desert leaves footprints as it stalks around your front door. Boys hang stars, naturally. I think there’s charm to it, and some readers really seem to enjoy the sweetness.

Then again, I get readers who are very vocal in their distaste. There needs to be a reason for the pixie egg. Why do they grow there, exactly? Is it the humidity? A nexus? A blessing or curse? It drives some people crazy that these things aren’t explained. “So that guy just walked through the wall and began brushing her hair? How does he do that? Why?”

Their brains are beautifully mechanical. Gorgeously logical. That isn’t how my mind works. Dig too deep into the meaning of things and it loses its magic. Don’t tell me why. Simply show me that it happens, and I’ll follow you there. I want to believe.

TC: Speaking of magical realism and genre, your stories have strong horror elements, maybe even a bit Gothic or outright romantic. In terms of genre, do you like to color within the lines or do you like something a little more like watercolor that runs and blends together? Also could you tell us about “whimsical horror”?

Yardley5MMY: “Whimsical horror” is a description that I made up. My work isn’t tra-la-la light and it isn’t straight-up horror. It’s stuck somewhere in the middle in a genre that I’m told doesn’t exist. I needed a way to describe it quickly so people’s eyes don’t glaze over. So I found the phrase that was most apt, and “whimsical horror” was it.

Your description of watercolor that blends together is beautiful. And I think that’s how I write. I write what I find lovely and/or horrifying at the time. I find that horror and sorrow and beauty are closely linked. They all cause this type of exquisite pain. I also find that writing helps me work through my current thought processes and issues of the moment, so naturally my emotions come to the forefront. Horror, despite the stigma that is associated it, is all about emotion. So I find that lovely.

TC: You say that the main characters in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu are “wonderfully, beautifully broken people.” When creating characters, do you have their flaws in mind from the outset or do they develop as you work?

MMY: Lu had a fire within him. Montessa was dead, only her body hadn’t caught up with her soul. They were going to fall in love, and it would be wonderful and tragic.

That’s all I had when I started. I’m a pantser to the extreme. I have a gem of an idea and then sit down and write. The characters are fleshed out as I go. Ha, even the plot is created as I go! I have no idea what’s going to happen. In my favorite novel that I ever wrote, I didn’t know if the main character would live or die until I wrote the final chapter! So I don’t have their flaws in mind when I sit down to create. I’m as much of a reader as I am a writer. I sit at the keyboard and I’m excited to see what’s going to occur in the story that day.

TC: Two themes I find consistent in your work are hope and love. Is this a conscious statement you’re making with your work or something else, like an extension of your personality that naturally comes through?

MMY: I want there to be hope in the story. Of course, my idea of hope is usually a little different than most people’s. One of the guys in my writer’s group, Ryan Bridger, and I got into a friendly little brawl about my definition of happy endings.

“All of my stories have happy endings,” I said. “They’re all about hope.”

“Which happy ending?” he said. “The one where they all die?”

“They don’t all die!”

“Or how about the one where she’s abused, freezing to death, and possibly crazy?”

“She escaped, Ryan. Doesn’t get much happier than that.”

“What about the one where—”

“Just shut up, okay? Shut. It.”

I guess what I’m saying is that life is bleak. It just is. But we’re survivors. Humans are resilient. There’s always a silver lining. Always something worth striving for. I hope that’s something that always comes through, because it’s something that I very much believe.

TC: You seem to be a natural creatrix, not just with words but with food and you’ve tried knitting (i.e. “stabbing …beautiful yarn with sharp sticks ”). What are the last few things you’ve made that didn’t involve words?

Yardley6MMY: Oh, I love to make things! I make all sorts of things. I like to work with paper, so I make a lot of cards. I also make different types of jewelry. I especially like to work with stones. Wire wrapping, beading. I made a few sets of really fun dragon horns. I love baking. Trifles. Cakes. I make my own Twix candy bars, and my own peanut butter cups. In fact, one of my favorite things was getting all of the horror writers to help me make peanut butter cups at 2:30 in the morning at Killercon convention this year. We didn’t have any rolling pins so they crushed up the graham crackers with tequila bottles. It was definitely memorable!

I like making things. It really makes me happy. Really gives me joy.

More Mercedes:


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Write Whimsical Horror (and more exercises)

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Try to write “whimsical horror,” as defined in our interview with Mercedes M. Yardley. If you need help with horror writing check out “Imaginable Horror.”
  2. Write or read magical realism (defined in our Writer’s Glossary series). If a storyline stumps you, create a character or setting inspired by magical realism that you might use in a different story.
  3. In our interview, Mercedes talked about belonging to more than one writing group. Join or create a writing group online or in real life. Toasted Cheese’s writing community is always looking for new voices. Bring some friends!
  4. Write without knowing where your story or poem is going.
  5. Write quickly, in bursts as long or short as you have time for, without rethinking or rewriting as you go.