A Publishing Primer

Since I dissed writing contests last time, I suppose I should now burst the litmag bubble. Hey, folks, before you accuse me of curmudgeonly sins, realize I'm only doing this to show a way through the wilderness to the promised land.
First, there are precious few commercial magazines willing to publish fiction these days. In case you ask why, consider the book market. What do you read about on, say the New York Book Review weekly? Very little fiction there. And one of the bastions of commercial fiction, The Atlantic, has now dropped short stories. Instead, they publish an annual fiction issue, which isn't included in your subscription. To get it, break out the folding money at your newsstand.
Okay, now the literary magazine market. The good news is litmags are plentiful. The bad news, of course, is that litmags are plentiful. Meaning, the competition for subscriptions is fierce, and every editor lives for the moment he or she can advertise an issue with a big name from the fiction world. One issue with a big literary name will likely carry a litmag's sales for an entire year. So you can see the challenge for the break-in writer. You have to try these publications, but don't expect to score often. If you're a fairly mature writer skillwise, you can expect one hit every hundred submittals. Even some prominent names are finding the litmag biz an equally hard sell these days.
But there's this new phenomenon – I'm sure you've heard of it – the Internet. There, within the Net's plethora of e-zines, you'll find the most promising market for fiction. Sure, some publish pretty bad stuff. But agents and editors read them, just like they read the print mags.
So, for my money, the future is in e-zines – until they too get overly choosy.
But there's one other angle you might try. If your talent is diverse, send in a few essays, creative non-fiction pieces, or whatever you want to call the alternative to fiction. Editors seem more open to these now, and you might crowbar open a literary door that will be open to your fiction at a later date.
Happy hunting!

Writing contests

There's been a lot of talk in recent months regarding writing contests, most of it because of perceived – or real – scams. Poets & Writers magazine carries the body count fairly regularly on these, and some involve real malfeasance. Writing contests are one of the avenues for aspiring writers to amp up their resumes, but, sadly, it's often a dead end.
One has to understand how these contest work to see that they're virtually a literary lottery. First, manuscripts are screened for conformance to contest rules. This is a legitimate requirement and writers should heed requirements regarding manuscript length and format, but these stipulations are unforgiving. Then the manuscripts are read by a screening board for merit. These readers may be junior or senior students in college creative writing curricula – at best MFA students. They aren't seasoned editors or writers. I suspect that, regardless of instructions given them, these readers are looking for entertainment, not good writing. They are largely young and influenced by television dialogue, which is virtually never of literary merit.
If you manage to entertain these readers sufficently, you make the final cut and your story is read by legitimate judges – distinguished educators, writers or editors. If you've caught the attention of the initial screeners, you very well may not impress the final judges at all. In fact, there have been a couple of recent cases in which the judges failed to award prizes because the quality of writing submitted was simply poor.
But let's say prizes are awarded, and you win, place or show: your writing will be out there for agents and editors' notice, and they too may very well be unimpressed with the quality of your writing.
The best avenue for a writer is to submit work to magazines, to take to heart the occasional critique or advice given by editors, re-work your stories – or write others – and keep submitting until you begin to be accepted. A resume containing a half dozen such publications is much more worthwhile than throwing your work into the winds of writing contests.

Of Diversity and Commonality

Yesterday my wife and I were discussing a pair of books written about nations more or less closed to U.S. residents: The Kite Runner and Waiting For Snow in Havana. Both were written by authors from the countries in question, Afghanistan and Cuba, and we agree both are poorly written. Not that they don't have value, you understand. Both give insight into these closed-off countries and their people. But one has to wonder: To what degree did these representations of Afghanistan and Cuba suffer because the authors weren't held to the standards of excellence most writers must navigate?
The value of such fictional/memoir/autobiographical books is to allow us entry through the written word into the psyches of these people, their strengths, their blind spots, the way their cultures have shaped their lives. And the country itself: the geography, the climate and everything these elements dictate regarding the shaping of a people and their hopes and aspirations. The authors of these books made stabs at these vital ingredients but,sadly, failed.
Why is there such a rush to publish books about far away lands by authors who have managed distance from their shaping cultures? One part of the answer is that we're in such a hurry these days. We hurry to write, we hurry to publish, we hurry to buy and read. But the tandem to this dilemma is the way we're caught up in the socio-political maneuverings of a multicultural world. The argument, as I've heard it, is that publishing books by authors from foreign lands exposes their work to a broader audience, and in turn exposes us to the real, diverse world. I don't have a problem with this diverse, multicultural perspective. It's the way the world is and we need to see it in all its complexity. But it's the flip side of the coin I object to: the-what-you-see-is-what-you-get school of writing. The argument here is that to demand "so-called" standards of excellence from these writers imposes a cultural bias that excludes when it should include.
Okay, in some cases you could make a case for poor translations, which isn't the issue in question here. Such arguments aside, I want – need, in fact – to read about such cultures. But I want to see these subsets of humanity though eyes attached to a cultivated mind and able to express the depths of their cultures, the depths at which our human diversity finds commonality.

Hokkaido Highway Blues

I'm continually finding books that escaped my notice earlier, this one Hokkaido Highway Blues, by Will Ferguson, a book I'm reading in a MLA curriculum class taught by Peg Downes, who certainly has a good eye for interesting books. This one was published in 1998 by Soho Press (for you writers out there, take note: the big New York houses don't publish all the good stuff). Anyway, Ferguson hitchhiked the length of Japan, and the book is the result, something of a travelogue. In case reading travel books sounds like an evening with the encyclopedia, HHB will change your mind.
Ferguson's encounters with Japanese he mooches rides from are only part of the story here. A school teacher in Japan, he has a grasp of both the language and history, as well as a fine sense of the Japanese psyche. His accounts alternate humor with history, irony with a deprecating sense of self, all embellished with occasional poignance. It's an incredibly entertaining book, and I recommend it.