Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writerly Tip #3: Manuscripts

Now here is the main event. As you all have been anxiously awaiting this entry, I will skip the introductions!

When reviewing a manuscript, a writer should break it down into three aspects: (a) formatting, (b) copy editing, and (c) labeling. This is, at least, how I review my manuscripts.

(a) Formatting

This is simple enough, but can be a big deal to editors. I like to set up my page first: Margins 1", page format Letter (8.5" x 11"), and then a standard heading. Next I Select-All (ctrl+A) my story and change the font to Courier New 12 pt. I do this so that I can better copy edit it later and so that it won't hurt the editor's eyes. Courier New is a monotype font, which means that each letter takes up the same width. A font like Times New Roman may look professional, but it's actually very hard to proof read, because some letters (i's and t's and l's in particular) end up jammed together. I also go into "Page" and set the paragraphs to double-spaced.

Next, I add the page number into the heading, which is found under "Insert" in most word processors. I also, write in my full name, making sure to change the front to match the manuscript. This is technically part of (c) labeling, but I'll include it here.

For each new paragraph I make sure to tab the first word 1/2" from the left margin. If there's a substantial span of narrative time I put an extra space between the two paragraphs, and center a "#" in the line between them.

Next, I "Save As" as a doc file, so that editors with any Microsoft Word or Open Office or most other word processors can open it.

(b) Copy Editing

Here we are simply making sure everything is spelled correctly, punctuated, etc. I like to print my manuscript and run through it with a blue, fine-tipped marker. You can also give it to a friend, as an extra set of eyes can do wonders in this particular area.

(c) Labeling

All I mean here is that your name is displayed on the manuscript. If you don't put your full name on each page, the manuscript might come apart and the editors wouldn't know whose wonderful work they're reading!

I like to put my information - Full Name, Address, Email Address, Phone Number - in the upper left corner of page one.

Making sure your manuscript is legible is the first step in not being ruled out. Many editors are looking for an excuse to not accept your work. Don't let them have an easy one!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Writerly Tip #2: Cover Letters

To be specific, I will be discussing Cover Letters for poetry, short-fiction, and creative nonfiction.

Things to keep in mind: editors read a lot of cover letters, often all at once. Usually the editing process is done in several stages: They read the cover letters and then the manuscripts, sorting them into two (Yes/No) or three (Yes/Maybe/No) piles. Each editor will do this with a stack, and then they will all meet to discuss the merits of the Yeses and Maybes, coming to a consensus on what will be used for next months issue, what will be held for a future publication date and what will be added to the No pile.

Reading the cover letter is the first step an editor takes in deciding whether or not to publish a poem, story, or essay. It is your introduction to the work, but unlike a foreword or introductory paragraph, it doesn't need to hook, it just needs to present.

Things you will need:

-List of work(s) submitted

Firstly, we must address the editor. An acceptable method is to use the generic "Poetry Editor" format. Often, writers believe that personally addressing the Fiction Editor or Editor-in-Chief will increase their chance of standing out, showing they know a thing or two about the journal. The problem is that editors change...frequently. You might address your submission to the Fiction Editor of 2005-07, because you read an old copy of Writers Market. This doesn't look good. Or, it could be read by a new assistant editor or GTA. Reading, "Poetry Editor," reminds this editor that he is a poetry editor now. Reading, "Mr. Bret Lott," reminds him that he is not Bret Lott. Not even close.

The first paragraph should be short and sweet. List your works and get out of the way. If you can summarize the tone in a single adjective, by all means do it! (eg. "Please consider my humorous short story, "The Land of Potato Heads, or My Summer Babysitting"). However, what shouldn't be in this paragraph, at least from my perspective, is a list of authors you read and the trip you took to Italy which inspired and shaped the five line poem the editor is about to take ten seconds reading. In some ways, an overly long cover letter can become a self-parody, especially when submitting poetry or flash fiction.

I also try to keep my credentials short, sticking to the relevant publications - for instance, when submitting fiction, I don't bring up my Creative Nonfiction award, or my year doing magazine writing.

Finally, the bio. This may seem presumptuous, but really you're just saving the editor some time in the event that your piece is accepted. I like my bio to have a joke and a little personal color to it. It emphasizes my writerness, but also presents my personality, which I am marketing just as much as my work itself. (Deny this at your own risk!)

My Cover Letter:

Fiction Editor,

Please consider my fiction submissions, "Insufficient" and "Monologue from the Womb." They're intended to be humorous.

My fiction has appeared in Elimae, Cavalier Literary Couture, Bartleby-Snopes, and Hobo Pancakes, but I hope these minor accomplishments don't discourage you from publishing my work.

I've also attached a brief bio:

Steven Miller is a graduate of Kansas State University. His fiction has appeared in the online journals Bartleby-Snopes, elimae, and Hobo Pancakes. He is currently putting his English degree to work writing ad copy for the local newspaper: "Feeling Down? Come on Down to Clown Town!"

Thank you for reading my short pieces,

Steven Miller

Monday, December 6, 2010

Writerly Tip #1: Submissions

From my few short years student-working at the illustrious Southern Review, I learned one thing above all others: What a submission looks like.

I was the evil clerk who put the "Better Luck Elsewhere" slip into the SASE to mail back to the writers. I didn't have the Sophie's Choice position of choosing which ones got the slip (I do now at LeaningHousePress), but I still felt that weight.

It did not discourage me from continuing on my path to be a writer, but it did equip me with some useful knowledge - for instance, what the first line of an unpublishable story sounds like. More to the point of today's entry, it taught me the standards of submitting work.

Here are the materials you will need:

-Cover letter
-Manuscript (we'll get into these specifics in a later entry)
-Two standard (#9) envelopes
-Paper clip

Place the cover letter on top of the manuscript. Place one envelope at the back of the manuscript. This envelope should have your name and address in the "to" section, and the name and address of the journal your submitting to in the "from" section (upper left corner). This is called a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. Don't forget to put a stamp in the upper right corner. Paper clip these all together and fold the bundle into thirds.

Now address the next envelope to the journal you're looking to submit to, and fill it out accordingly.

It's been my experience that all of this can be mailed with one stamp if you have a five page or less manuscript, but after that you should consider having a post office worker weigh it.

That's all for now! Good luck in the cut throat world of publishing!!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thank You

Thanks to everyone who tuned in to hear me on the radio this week! What an experience! I can't wait to do more of the same.

It wouldn't have been nearly as fun if I didn't know I had fans out there in the world listening.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Financial Lives of the Poets

Jess Walter. Harper. 2009. 304 pp.

(originally published 10/10/10 in the Manhattan Mercury)

In the great Modern tradition, Jess Walter presents at the heart of his novel not a hero but an anti-hero, a J. Alfred Prufrock character – middleaged, educated to the point of pretension, pigeon-holed and indecisive – a protagonist who is his own antagonist. However, like with Prufrock, these flaws do not make us dislike Matthew Prior. On the contrary, they fill us with a great affection, perhaps even a great pity for Matt. The plot of the novel, excepting the ending, which I won’t get into here, is essentially a story

of entropy. Walter introduces Matt not on the day he leaves the local newspaper to start an illconceived website specializing in free-verse poetry about the stock market,, nor when that particular venture fails, when he crawls back to the paper, nor when he is finally fired; the novel doesn’t even open on a small but symbolic moment: discovering his wife Lisa’s infidelity on Facebook, perhaps, or opening the foreclosure notice. No, we meet Matt in an unlikely place: 7/11 at 2 a.m., contemplating the original cost of his car versus how much he still owes on it (two commensurate figures) and getting stoned with two twentysomethings he’s just met, Jamie and Skeet. So in medias res we being, not at the outset of conflict but in the thick of it. "This is what it means to come apart," our narrator tells us. "Not gently unraveling, but blowing out, a tire on the freeway."

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is that literally every part of the protagonist's life is marching seemingly in tandem toward complete dissolution, and yet clarity of situation is never compromised. With Skeet and Jamie, he stands in a fetid apartment littered with pizza crusts; at home he doesn't sleep because he simply can't bring himself to share a bed with his unfaithful wife; when he should be working, he's reminded again and again that there's nothing in this world for him to do: "Four years earlier we had complained about too many ads in the paper (less room for our brilliance) and competed for designer beats (cultural trends reporter); now we sighed with relief when the slender paper had any ads at all and eagerly accepted pay cuts and broad, hyphenated jobs created by the loss of our colleges (courtscops-schools...)."

More tragic than this fiscal crisis is the crisis in Matt's marriage, a crisis that weighs on him at practically all points in the story. His unemployment would not be nearly as devastating if her new beau, Chuck, didn't own his own lumber business or if she didn't love the house (he's about to lose) so much. "After each bad decision, after each failure we quietly logged our blame, our petty resentments; we constructed a case against the other that we never prosecuted,” Matt explains, and our only hope is that they truly never prosecute it.

The weight of these conflicts, internal and external, are bearable because Walter writes them with such a keen sense of humor, such an eye for absurdity. From the lawyer/drug dealer – “A prospectus? What kind of drug dealers have a prospectus?” – to the industrious squirrel who’s also struggling, “doing a little last gathering for his chestnut 401K,” Walter keeps us laughing and the true gravity of these failures he keeps at bay.

If I had to summarize “The Financial Lives of the Poets” in one word, it would be “convergence," because this is the essential nature of the characters here, characters who are constantly conflating incompatible elements (poetry and stock tips, drug dealing and legal contracts, their son Franklin's actions both diffident and at times violent) for the absurd aims of money, protection, love. In this respect, at the character-level if not the plot, Walter is an utter realist, refusing the flat character at every turn, and because these conflicts are character-driven we buy their synchronization and flip the pages still faster.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Darkly Comedic, Family Dysfunction with a Twist: a review of "The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo," by Darrin Doyle

(published in The Manhattan Mercury 1/24/2010)

          If it's true that literature is an on-going conversation – a conceit too often repeated to be attributed to anyone – then before discussing a work of fiction, one should first consider a work that preceded its creation. This is actually much less contrived than it sounds, for when hearing of a new novel, say one that takes place in a single day, who of us doesn't think, “Ah, Woolf,” or “Ah, Joyce,” and then begin making comparisons?

          I wasn't 10 pages into Darrin Doyle's new novel, when I thought to myself, “Ah, Donald Barthelme.” In particular, I was reminded of his story, “I Bought a Little City” (Ain't it Pretty), in which a wealthy man purchases Galveston, Texas. This isn't, in reality, a thing one can do, but that doesn't stop the protagonist from telling, in plainest detail, what he did with his new acquisition:
“I went out on the streets then and shot six thousand dogs. This gave me great satisfaction and you have no idea how wonderfully it improved the city for the better...Then I went down to the Galveston News, the morning paper, and wrote an editorial denouncing myself as the vilest creature the good God had ever placed on earth.”

           We accept the circumstance, that he purchased Galveston, because it's immediately presented, and also because the story is interesting, well-written, and engaging. This is how Doyle's narrative works as well.

          In the fictitious “Note From the Editor,” we are informed that from 1997 to 1999, the beautiful and famous eatist Audrey Mapes ate the city of Kalamazoo, Mich. The text of the book is supposedly a compilation of hand-written notes jotted down by her sister McKenna, notes purchased by D. M. Doyle. “There was no cohesion to the random jottings. No story,” the editor explains. “So Mr. Doyle sculpted it, trimmed it, molded it; like Dr. Frankenstein, he stitched together the necrotic segments in order to breath life into the rantings of this decidedly melancholy and plain woman.

          The narrative then follows. Each chapter is short, easily digestible, if you will, and resembles a cleaned up note, one given both a thematic and narrative arc. They don't follow chronologically, but instead jump around, spending time with each member of the Mapes family: Grandma Pencil with her religious judgment of Audrey's obsession; Audrey's brother, Toby, whose own excessive eating aims at bulking up, at achieving the perfect body; her mother, Misty, listless but loving; her father Murray, a factory worker by day and inventor by night (his patents include, “the Clock Hat, the Squeezable Survival Kit...the Collapsible Ukulele with Hairbrush”); and of course Audrey herself, stunningly beautiful despite her birth defects – an iron stomach and two stumps instead of feet.

          The finale is known from the beginning – “she was the gentlest earthquake, the softest tsunami” – therefore, Doyle shows us the path as opposed to constantly pushing us toward the destination.

          As a metaphor, the possibilities are endless. A girl who can't sate her appetite for nonfood could be a stand in for obesity, alcoholism, sex and/or drug addiction, the lifelong search for love, faith, family. The story of Kalamazoo, its rise and fall, growth then total destruction, could parallel the fate of any number of Michigan cities. To investigate these any further, however, would be purely academic. We are concerned with the simple question, “Is it worth reading?”

          I answer a resounding, “Yes!” Not because it is profoundly meaningful – it is – but because the story is sensational, worth telling, and executed with a concision and clarity that brings us into the fold of the narrative. Perhaps even better than the descriptions of her eating, are the reactions of the townspeople:

          “All they could do was stare. It was shocking, deeply unreal. Physically numbing. Narcotic...and at the same time it seemed, for lack of a better word, expected. Comforting.

          “Of course, their mind-blown minds said. Of course there is a shapely woman with the face of an angel standing in my living room, gorging herself on my coffee table. Why wouldn't there be?”

In a climate of literary plots that tell of “The time nothing didn't happen,” Doyle is audacious enough to write about “The time something did happen!” I believe this is a positive trend taking place in American fiction, and I applaud him.

          As this is a time for predictions, I would like to lay down one of my own: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo will win the Pulitzer Prize this year. If it doesn't, this will simply be because the committee either didn't read it, or because they understood and enjoyed it too well.

          Buy, borrow or steal this book; you won't be sorry.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brain Science

"It's not like it's rocket surgery," Walker says, and I laugh at this butchering of an idiom I know so well, even though he's misremembering it on purpose just to make me laugh. I'm letting him make me laugh.

Read the rest at Hobo Pancakes:


I don't care much for Joking, which is not to say that I don't care at all for Joking, just that I don't care much. I would say, if I had to say, that I care for Joking about as much as I care for a cousin, not a close cousin, one I have a genuine friendship with, but rather one for whom I feel the perfunctory kind of love that one must feel for family, no matter how trivial the connection is.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture:

One Week

I have had a headache for one whole-week. Not four quarter-weeks with three reprieves of a few days. Nor even two half-weeks with one reprieve of a few hours. No, I have had a single headache, unremittingly, for the length of one week.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture:

The Money

I make the money. Not the money you think of first, the obvious money. They wouldn't need me for that.

When I worked at the local newspaper, I gathered up the misprints, the ones that ran before they stopped the press, and sold them for three bucks a pop, which is a killing. Misprints like, “Spacious 2br apt, enclosed patio with huge dick,” and “Mayor outlaws unleashed poets,” and “Local Lesbians Come out to Audition.” That last one ran lede-story on Sunday. One thousand papers and I sold them all.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture:

Baby Carrot

In my choppings, I come across a tiny carrot amidst the baby carrots. The runt if you will.

Automatically, I roll it toward me to cut it julienne for my wife's lunchtime salad, but then, conscientiously, I halt. Over years of cooking, I've handled innumerable vegetables, full-sized and baby-sized, but never have I seen one so vulnerable.

Read the rest at elimae:

Bear Costume

He ran over our elderly neighbor Lenard, but not on purpose, or at least not as far as we could tell; there wasn't any yelling, I mean, and he didn't look happy when he got out of the car, though who could really tell through a bear costume. For all we knew, he had left on the bear hat -- that's what it a was, a kind of all-inclusive hat -- just long enough to let a victorious smirk melt from his face.

Read the rest at elimae:

War of Supposes

My teenage son should not be allowed freedom of speech, and this I thoroughly believe. When I ask him about the lawn, specifically the three-inch deep tire tracks, he supposes his truck, which is really my truck, veered off the driveway. He did not steer it into the lawn, but he supposes it must have done it all on its own.

Read the rest at Bartleby-Snopes:

Visiting Grandma

"There's a drug dealer across the hall from me," she says as soon as we sit down to play scrabble.

"Grandma, you think all black people are drug dealers," I say.

"No, no, this is a nice Jewish man."

Read the rest at Bartleby-Snopes:

A Poem of Epic Scale which I've Attempted a Dozen Times Before and Failed Miserably

-for Rachel Molander

The walls in there were white, just like in the films,
but so are walls in most new, apartment buildings.
I shared a room with two people far less
crazy than me and one far crazier.
I couldn't write. I couldn't read.
An angel, as natural and lovely
as any starfish, came each evening at 6
o'clock and this alone I thought happily
of between her departure and the tranquilizers'
arrival; she more therapeutic than any chemical.
Mostly, nothing happened, unlike any film.
I watched a lot of music television,
and played ping-pong in the morning coffee rush.
It was decaf; they trusted us like children—
not at all. Mostly, I ate meals that
were better than I'd expected, asked about
shrinks who were largely absent, and managed to
escape (all right, I was released) prematurely.

Published Spring 2010 at Breath & Shadow