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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A couple weeks ago, on the biweekly Writers Ask edition of the Book Fight podcast, Mike Ingram  and Tom McCallister talked about reading fees and their proliferation in the lit journal world. As editors themselves (of Barrelhouse), they had a useful take on the problem. They suggested that the reason so many journals are starting to charge submission fees might be because of how easy and tempting it is to charge them using Submittable (née Submishmash). They said all you have to do is check a box and enter in the amount. It seems like Submittable may have inadvertently put the idea of charging reading fees into some editors minds, and once some journals started doing it (and getting away with it), others followed suit.

And a lot of writers are willing to pay the fees for a chance to get published. From what I can tell, most journals are going with $3. $3—it sounds like a paltry amount, and it’s true that before online submissions, writers had to spend somewhere in that vicinity to print and mail submissions anyway. But as McCallister and Ingram point out, that money didn’t go to the journals. It’s not really an appropriate justification to say, “Oh, before technology advanced, you used to have to buy various products/services to submit. Now that you don’t need to pay that anymore, we’re going to make you give the money to us.” Sounds like the words of a schoolyard bully to me.

 McCallister and Ingram offer a whole slough of other reasons why the justification journals offer for their reading fees are not okay. I always think about something Damien has said. As the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review, applying for and managing the funding from grants is a big part of Damien’s job. As a pretty fantastic journal—the journal consistently gets Pushcart and Best American placements, and the majority of the authors in any given issue are big names who were solicited by the editors—New Ohio Review has a largish budget because they’re able to garner a fair amount of grant funding. They have plenty of money to cover their printing costs, pay their authors, and advertise. Oh yeah, and pay Damien’s salary.

Sure, not every great journal is able to get as much grant funding, but the point Damien has made is that the best journals will be able to get grants or find some means of funding themselves. If a journal is so financially unstable that it has to rely on submission fees to stay afloat, it’s probably a reflection of the quality of the journal. Is that really a journal you want your work to appear in?

When I first started getting serious about submitting, one of the first things I learned is that legitimate, reputable publishers don’t charge submission fees. It was considered unethical, and in fact, it was included in the CLMP code of ethics. The first journal I noticed was charging submission fees was Narrative. I was outraged. I didn’t understand why they were allowed to remain members of the CLMP. Needless to say, I refused to submit there (McCallister and Ingram had a few choice words to say about Narrative, too, which made me very happy). As more and more journals started doing it, though, I did cave and pay a few times (The Missouri Review charges for online submissions, for example, and they are a great, reputable journal, so I went ahead and paid it).  

But listen, if we pay these fees, the editors will keep charging them. Regardless of how much it costs to run a journal, and regardless of how much snail-mail submissions used to run, and regardless of whatever other justifications editors offer, CHARGING SUBMISSION FEES IS UNETHICAL. On Writer’s Ask, they offered the excellent analogy of an art gallery who doesn’t sell enough art to stay solvent. Nobody would think it was okay for the gallery to turn to artists who are interested in having their work displayed in the gallery and charge them a fee, no matter how minimal, just to consider showing their work.

Submission fees exploit writers. How can anyone claim it isn’t slimy to say to an aspiring writer, “So you want to be published? Sure, kid, I’ll look at your piece . . . for a fee.”  If you want to support a journal, donate to one or buy a subscription. But please, writers, DO NOT PAY SUBMISSION FEES. If we all stop paying them, the journals will have no choice but to stop charging them. The journals that can’t stay afloat any other way probably shouldn’t—I’m sorry, but it’s true—and they certainly shouldn’t keep themselves going by exploiting people’s dreams.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Thursday marked the deadline for Jenni Moody’s and my first milestone on our novels. In case you haven’t been following along, Jenni and I are using a joint goal system to write our respective novels. The first goal was to have 10,000 words written by November 15th. It seemed like a reasonable goal, and in fact it was, but still, I didn’t end up meeting it.

I got in touch with Jenni a few days before the 15th and suggested we extend the deadline to the end of the month. Jenni, I think, would have been able to meet the goal—she was almost there by the time I asked for the deadline to be pushed back—but there was no way I was going to make it.

I was actually doing pretty well—building a steady momentum and feeling confident about my ability to meet the deadline—but then my mom came to visit for a week, and two days after we dropped her back at the airport I drove to Pittsburgh for the weekend to visit family and do a radio interview (I’ll talk about that some other time); then Amalie scratched the cornea of my right eye and I could hardly open my eye for a day; then Damien had minor surgery (he’s fine, don’t worry) and was recovering, leaving me almost solely responsible for Amalie for a week. Plus I had a bunch of papers to grade. Plus I had to do my tutoring hours.

Plus, Season Two of The Walking Dead became available on Netflix.

But the truth is, there are always reasons not to write. If you’re planning to wait until you have time to write that novel, I hate to break it to you, but that novel will never get written. And the real truth, even truer than that, is that I just didn’t manage my time well. I knew my mom was coming for a visit; I knew about the Pittsburgh trip. I knew when I would be collecting papers, when Damien’s surgery was scheduled for, when I would be scheduled for tutoring shifts. The only thing I didn’t know was coming was the scratched cornea, and that event—painful though it was—only caused me to lose a day.

So I should have planned ahead. I should have written extra words before my mom came. Then, I should have written extra, again, in that two day period between her departure and ours, for Pittsburgh. I should have restricted myself from watching The Walking Dead, or at least only allowed myself to watch it after I had written a specified word count for the day.

I could easily have met the deadline, but I didn’t. There’s no way to go back and change that now, so instead, I’m going to look ahead, to the new deadline, and make sure that I meet it. I’m going to remind myself that the culpability for this missed deadline lies with me, that the excuses I’m using are just that—excuses—that it isn’t fair to Jenni for me to keep pushing the deadlines back, that it isn’t fair to myself to keep not writing and not writing when the projects I want to write just keep piling up. That these stories aren’t going to be told unless I tell them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I’ve been preparing to retake the GRE this December, so I can apply to a PhD program for next year. The decision to (try to) go for a PhD deserves its own post, so I won’t get into that now. What I do want to talk about it is vocabulary.

See, when I took the GRE the first time around, seven years ago—has it really been that long?—I didn’t bother preparing at all, and I was pretty mortified by my verbal score. On the quantitative side, I did terrible—bottom 25% percent—but that didn’t surprise me at all, nor did I figure it would matter, since I was applying for MFA in creative writing programs. I got in to two of the three schools I applied, so my scores must not have held me back too much.

Still. That verbal score, it stuck with me. I’ll just come out and say it—I got a 500. I was ranked in the 61% percentile (meaning 39% of people who took the test did better than me). I did great on the writing part, but that verbal score surprised me. I’m a writer. I was an English major. I read all the time. Why was I not scoring up way at the top on the verbal part of the test?

Seven years have passed since then. That’s seven more years of reading, six-and-a-half years of teaching experience, and three years of graduate school (in English). I’d like to think my verbal score will improve this time, but to hedge my bets, I’m working on my vocabulary.

As I’ve been studying my new words, I’ve been focusing on expanding my vocabulary for real and not just memorizing a bunch of words that I’ll forget as soon as I take the exam. I want to actually have a stronger vocabulary, not just for this exam, not just so I can get into a PhD program. I want to have a stronger vocabulary because that’s important—isn’t it?—as a writer.

When I got the results of my first GRE, I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself that I’m not a fan of bombastic prose (although I didn’t use the word “bombastic”—that’s a word I learned as I’ve been preparing for the test this time around). Concision and simplicity, minimalism, that’s what I’m drawn to as a reader. Couldn’t I write, then, and write well, even if my vocabulary was only better than 61% of college graduates (and really, it’s 61% of college graduates planning to go on to grad school, since that’s who takes the GRE)?

The answer is obviously yes—I mean, I’ve gone on to become a published writer; I won an award to publish my first book, for cripe’s sake—but, as Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons would point out, the answer is, “Yes with a but.” Yes, I can write well with an only just higher than average vocabulary. But I can write better with an even better vocabulary.

As I’ve been learning new words, I keep coming across words that I really like, words that I can’t help but imagine using in future stories, words that have more interesting and refined meanings than their simpler counterparts. These words can open the door to all kinds of interesting metaphors and ideas, and though I still think it’s important (for my tastes) that readers shouldn’t have to hold your book in one hand and a dictionary in the other, I do think my writing can only stand to improve from the careful, unobtrusive addition of these less common but oh-so expressive words here and there.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I’ve said this before and I’ve always gone back on it, but you have to believe me, this time I really mean it: I’m done with my thesis novel. Finished. I’ve officially moved it to my “Failed Attempts” folder, from whence it shall never return. When I had said I was going to move it to my “Failed Attempts” folder in the past, I lied. Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. I was planning to do it. But when it came time to actually make the cut and paste, it just felt too, too, I don’t know, too something. Too painful. But this time, it’s already moved. It shall forever be considered just another one of my failed practice novels.

How do I know I’m really going to stick with it this time? Because this time, it felt really good, like a relief. It felt right. This time, I decided, I really am ready to move on.

And not only that, but this is the first time I’ve looked at the novel and thought, Eh, it’s not really that great. I got to this point because I was working on yet another revision of the novel, with the intention of entering it into Fence’s Modern Prose contest. This revision was sort of a combination of my most recent draft and some earlier drafts, and I do think the result was better than what I’d been sending around. When I had been cutting things in previous revisions, I actually cut some scenes that I now think are pretty integral to the reader’s understanding of certain characters, so with those scenes woven back into the story, everything felt a lot stronger.

But as I was working on it, I started really analyzing how well some of the components of the novel are working. There are some great things in this story, I think. Some of the writing is really strong, and some of the moments feel perfect. But there are some really serious problems with a couple of the characters, leaving those characters feeling very flat on the page. There are points that lag, too, and I almost feel like it’s a novella that’s been stretched in to an entire novel.

In short, I don’t think I want it to get published. I don’t think it reflects what I’m capable of. I can do better. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I began this novel. My first drafts, now, need less work than this nth draft of my thesis would still need, and I think it would be a better use of my time to work on a new first draft of a new novel.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right now. And the truth is, I’m having way more fun and am way more interested in this new novel than I am in reliving for the millionth time the same story from my thesis. I’m just so sick of Timothy Bannister and his dead father—there, I said it. I don’t want to work on this novel anymore. I don’t want to send it out. I don’t want it to get published.

But that doesn’t mean that those few years I spent working on it were a waste. I learned a lot about how to write a novel from this experience. I made a lot of mistakes and learned how to fix them, and I think my next novel will be much stronger from draft one as a result. Maybe the next one will be a practice novel too, who knows? But I do know that this last one definitely was, and finally—FINALLY—I’m okay with accepting it and moving on.