An Editor’s Notes

Everywhere Stories: Volume I

One of my many projects for the year is to compile, edit, and publish (with Press 53) Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. Like the first two volumes, the book will have twenty stories set in twenty countries by twenty writers (unless I have room for a few more than that). We opened submissions at the end of 2017 and I am currently reading through a few hundred stories to find the best pieces to include in the book.

Curating an anthology is challenging work, for a variety of reasons. Among other things, I find myself rejecting stories that are perfectly fine, excellent even, that just don’t fit my evolving vision for the book.

For example, I recently turned down a submission that was a very good exploration of character that could have been set anywhere in the world. In fact, if the author hadn’t told me in his cover letter where the story was set, I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out. Given the nature of the series, though, developing a strong sense of place in the work is one of the markers I look for.

There are no taboo subjects in my view, but some topics are hard to bring off with freshness or appropriate sensitivity. As a result, stories that involve abuse toward women or children rarely appeal to me. Same with violence toward animals. Stories about characters with cancer are often overly sentimental or too familiar, and that’s true whether the setting is California or Kathmandu. (Sometimes, however, as with one of the stories in Volume I of the series, cancer is only an ancillary part of the story, not its sole focus, and provides poignancy rather than melodrama.) It turns out that I’m not a big fan of stories about drug use, either.

Everywhere Stories: Volume II

Writers who demonstrate a familiarity with the kinds of stories we published in the first two volumes probably have an advantage over those who clearly haven’t read either of those books. This is true with ordinary literary magazines, too. Why submit a poem to a publication that says in its title that it includes only short fiction? And while we have dipped our toes into magical realism, a story that is over-the-top surreal probably isn’t going to make the cut in a collection of stories that is, for the most part, hyper-real.

I’m both amused and disappointed when writers ignore the submission guidelines that specify the countries we’ve covered in the first two volumes that we will NOT include in Volume III. “The story is set in France,” says the cover letter, even though we did France in Volume I. Other than the United States, we aren’t repeating countries, as we stated explicitly.

And speaking of the United States, if you sent us a story set in this country your odds of having it included in the book are very small. Of all the submissions we received this time, about a third of them were set in the U.S. It’s been very difficult to wade through all of those submissions to find the one story set in America that will work for us, because many of the stories are extremely good.

One of the things you’ll hear from or about over-worked editors is that we’re looking for excuses to reject a story. Anything to move it off the table so we can get to the next submission. This is why writers are advised to proofread carefully, to use standard fonts and formatting, to follow submission guidelines exactly, and so on. But for this project, I find myself being more tolerant than when I was editing a magazine. I wish every story had the wordcount on the first page, but it’s not fatal to the submission if it doesn’t. I just use page count instead to judge length. The writer uses “alright” instead of “all right?” No problem. We’ll fix that in the editing process if we have to. Punctuation mistakes? Confusing “which” for “that?” Wrong word choices? (One writer used the word “costumer” when he meant “customer,” which gave me a chuckle at the writer’s expense.) Not really a problem. Maybe, if there is an accumulation of these sorts of errors that will give me headaches in the editing process, then I will turn a piece down. But if the story otherwise has merit, I’m more likely to give it a chance despite these superficial flaws.

I am getting close to making the final selections for the anthology and writers should be hearing from me within the next two weeks. At that point, we’ll start working on edits—also a time-consuming task—and soliciting author bios and statements. By late spring I should be able to turn the whole manuscript over to the publisher with a view to publication in October. Stay tuned for the pre-order announcement in August and September!

If you’re curious about the series and the stories we included in the first two volumes, take a look at Press 53’s Anthology page.

 

Language(s)

In my recent post about the books I’m currently reading, I mentioned the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I started reading that one because it was recommended by a friend in a Facebook post I made the other day. I was looking for tips on how to structure self-learning of a foreign language. I’m not very far into the book, but Wyner has some excellent advice based on his own experience of learning languages. I’ll keep reading! (In addition to the book, there’s a website with useful resources: Fluent Forever.)

 

I love studying languages, but I’m terrible at remembering and I’m a bit too timid to speak in a foreign language unless I’m forced (like in an oral exam) or a little drunk. So I’m not fluent in any language other than English, but I’ve studied a lot of them, and I’d love to build up my ability in at least a couple.

My first exposure to a language other than English (I hate referring to them as “foreign languages” because they’re only foreign to monolingual English-speakers) was French in the fifth grade. I had been admitted to a “special class” in Indianapolis that involved going to a school that attracted students from a larger region of the city than the normal school district. Because my family moved to a different city when I entered sixth grade, I didn’t get to continue with my French, so that was that. When I arrived at my new school in a rural area, my teacher mentioned to the class, having seen my report card, I guess, that’s I’d been in a French class. For a while, some of the kids taunted me by calling me “Frenchie.” (I didn’t think I’d retained much, but some of the language came back when I took another French class decades later.)

In high school in Peoria, Illinois I took four years of German. I’m not sure why I chose German over the other choices, which were French, Spanish, and Latin, except to be different, I suppose. Most kids took French or Spanish. I enjoyed those classes and did well, although I have never had a reason to call upon my German. That’s not completely true. I visited Zurich, Switzerland a couple of times in the 1980s, and in the 1990s I passed through the Frankfurt airport several times. I probably uttered a few words, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I placed out of the foreign language requirement in college, so no more German classes for me. When I got my MA in English, it turned out that there was a European language requirement, so I crammed for a test in German, passed it, and was grateful for my good teachers in high school.

Even though I didn’t need to, I decided I would take a language in college anyway. I chose Russian, again just to be different, I guess. I wish I had stuck with it. I only took two quarters and can’t say that I’ve retained much, although at least I can usually decipher things written in the Cyrillic alphabet. My little Russian actually came in handy in 1994-95 when I worked as a consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan, one of the recently independent former Soviet states. (In Almaty, both my Korean and Chinese, which I learned long after college, were also somewhat useful. Being a neighbor of China, Kazakhstan had a number of Chinese visitors and several Chinese restaurants. And it turned out that there was an ethnic Korean population as well, as Stalin had deported a number of Koreans from Northeastern areas to the steppes.)

After college, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea. People often ask me why I chose Korea, and the truth is that I didn’t. I barely knew where Korea was. If I had studied French or Spanish in school, probably they would have sent me to Africa or South America, but my two languages at the time were German and Russian, neither of which would be helpful in the Peace Corps of the mid-1970s. (Later, Russian would have been handy for work they were doing in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.) So it was clear they would send me to a country where they’d have to teach me the language, and Thailand and Korea were likely spots. We had two months of very intensive Korean language training upon arrival in the country, and I loved it. We had five students in each class and met every morning. We lived in a small city so there were ample opportunities to practice, and we made great progress in those two months. The Korean “alphabet,” Hangul, is simple and wonderfully phonetic, so it was easy to learn. Grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary were very hard, but at the end of training, I felt good about my ability. Then I went off to my work site where I would be teaching English and although I did continue to study Korean, I never got a whole lot better than I was at the end of training. My excuse—that’s what it was—was that I spoke too much English: in my classes, with students outside of class, with professors who wanted to practice, and with complete strangers who also wanted to practice. So I never really needed to get better. It was a missed opportunity, though, and I regret it. Still, I speak enough to get around and to have simple conversations with people. In the late 1990s when I worked for the World Bank I made many trips to Korea (during the Asian Financial Crisis) and my Korean came in handy then. And a lot of it came back on my most recent visit in 2011. I’d love to go back again soon.

After the Peace Corps, I went back to grad school. I had done one semester before my service, so I basically needed one summer and a full academic year to finish the MA. I had hoped to continue studying Korean, but at that time Indiana University had dropped its Korean language program. Disappointed, I chose to take Japanese instead. My English Department advisors counseled against it because it wouldn’t count toward my language requirement, but as noted I had already satisfied the requirement through a German exam. I loved studying Japanese and I did well in the class. My work in Korean was great preparation, too, as the two languages have very similar grammatical structures and both have many loan words from Chinese. Because I had studied Chinese calligraphy in Korea, I was also ahead of the game on learning Kanji—the Chinese characters incorporated into Japanese in addition to the two phonetic alphabets.

I did no language study while I was in law school or in my first two years of law practice in Chicago. But as of January 1, 1984, I was transferred to my law firm’s Singapore office. After I got settled, one of the first things I did was enroll in a Chinese language class. Singapore is an odd place. English is definitely the language of international business, but the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Although Mandarin is the official Chinese language in the group, many Chinese in Singapore speak other dialects—Hokkien and Cantonese, especially. Still, there is some value in a foreigner’s knowing Mandarin, and in any case, it was fun to learn. I studied the language off and on for all the time I lived there, 1984-89 and 1990-93. When I started work at the World Bank in January 1996, I was assigned to work on China projects, so I began traveling to Beijing and elsewhere in China, so that my Chinese actually was useful. Plus, a few of us who worked on China projects took conversation lessons from a Chinese teacher, paid for by the Bank. I loved it. A couple of years ago, I took an online Chinese class through the Virginia community college system, just as a refresher.

I moved to rural Virginia in 2001 but continued to travel to Asia for several years after that as a consultant for the World Bank, so I tried to keep up with Chinese. But I also had some new travel adventures. I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in 2003 and was looking for opportunities to attend writing workshops. One that caught my eye was a workshop in Mexico. I’d never been to Mexico and knew no Spanish, but once I had decided to go I opted to take a Spanish class at the local community college. I did one semester before I went to Mexico, did a homestay and language immersion program for a week in the country, and then took another semester when I returned home. That gave me a good grounding in the language should I need to refresh for another trip.

Then a few years later, I applied for a writing residency in a village in France. I didn’t think my fifth-grade class would be enough to prepare me for that, so I took a full year French class at the community college. That was great. It was a small class with a native French speaker, and I learned a lot. Or, at least, I learned enough that I managed to get around the French village and also the city of Toulouse, where I was a tourist for one week before my residency. Again, that gave me a good base if I need to brush up for a return visit.

So I’ve studied lots of languages. Of all of them, though, it is Chinese that continues to enchant me. That’s probably because of the Chinese characters. And so I have resolved to brush up this year. I’ve started using the Rosetta Stone program for Chinese and have also begun using Duolingo, a free online tool for language learning. It’s hard to imagine a true beginner being able to use either of these tools, which seem to expect you to recognize the Chinese characters instantly, but because of my previous study, it isn’t a problem for me.

 

Books I’m reading now

I know a lot of people who only read one book at a time. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but I usually have more than one going at a given moment, although at least they’re all in different genres or media. Right now is kind of an extreme case, and I would like to get through a few of these so I can focus better, but I thought it would be fun to record my current reading list:

Novel. The novel I’m reading in hard copy right now is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I bought this last year in hardcover when it won the National Book Award, but had not gotten around to reading it. However, I persuaded my book club to pick it for our January discussion, so now I’ve moved it up to the top of my list. I’m not very far into the book, but so far it is very similar to other novels I’ve read in recent years about enslaved Africans. I gather that it will soon diverge, however, and I’m looking forward to that.

Novel on Kindle. Actually, I’m reading this on the Kindle app on my tablet because Children of the Salt Road by Lydia Fazio Theys is published by Kindle in Motion, so it has some interesting effects (color backgrounds plus moving illustrations) that don’t appear in other formats including my Kindle Voyage. I bought this because Lydia is a friend, but I’m enjoying the story, set mostly in Sicily. So far it’s a little spooky, but it seems that it’s going to get more than spooky in the coming chapters.

Nonfiction—History/Memoir. As I was straightening up my office recently I came across an interesting volume that I bought used last year after hearing about from a Pearl Buck fan, a special 1972 signed edition of Pearl S. Buck’s China Past and Present that is illustrated with lots of black and white photographs. It’s part history and part memoir about her own experience in China, which was extensive.

Nonfiction—History. I’m interested in genealogy and have done a fair amount of research on my own family tree. Last year I visited Lunenberg County, Virginia, because I had learned that the Scott family (the ancestors of a great grandmother on my father’s side) had immigrated there from Scotland. I found records of them in the county courthouse and was also shown a couple of books about local history in the 18th century. I’m reading one of those books now: The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia 1746-1832 by Richard R. Beeman. It’s well written, but the subject matter is pretty dry. It’s going to take me a long time to get through this one.

Nonfiction—Language (paperback). Given how many books I’m already reading, I shouldn’t have started this one, but I’m fascinated by the study of languages and when a friend recommended Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner I couldn’t resist. I began reading it last night. I’m going to do a separate post on language study, so I’ll mention this one again.

Nonfiction—Politics (on Kindle). I’m sick of hearing about Donald Trump. I hate the man and wish we had dodged the bullet of his presidency. I was not going to read Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff, but the president’s heated denunciation of the book and threats to block its publication basically forced me to buy it. I’m not very far into this one, and I’m not learning anything I didn’t know or suspect, but I feel obligated.

Fiction—Short Story Collection (paperback). I love short stories and usually am reading them either in magazines or collections. This one is by a friend of mine, published by the same publisher that brought out my two story collections. I Will Shout Your Name by John Matthew Fox opens with a story that I included in Volume II of my Everywhere Stories anthology, so I had a head start on this one!

Fiction—audiobook. I always have an audiobook going, too. I listen in the car or on the treadmill at the gym. I just finished one yesterday, so I’m only about 30 seconds into its successor, but it’s a book I’ve heard good things about: The Green Road by Anne Enright.

That’s eight. I’m currently reading eight books, which is nuts. I must finish some of them! What are you reading right now?

2018 Writing Goals

A lot of folks make New Year’s Resolutions. I think that’s a fine tradition, and I’ve got a few that I’ll keep to myself. What I’ll share here, though, are some goals that I’ve set for the year in connection with my writing.

 

Goals, it seems to me, should be realistic and achievable, but ambitious. There’s no point in setting a goal that is impossible, since failure is then inevitable. On the other hand, what’s the point in setting a goal that takes no effort to reach? Goals should be measurable, otherwise how can you know if the goal has been met? And goals should be limited in time, if only to add to the motivation to reach the goal sooner rather than later. Here’s an article that might be helpful in your goal setting for the coming year: Personal Goal Setting: Planning to Live Life Your Way.

In my case, there are two things that MUST get done this year plus a few more that I’d like to accomplish before the year is over. Ambitious, but achievable.

  1. Finish Edits on Novel under Contract. My novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is under contract to Braddock Avenue Books for publication in early 2019. That means I’ll be spending time this year with the editor to get the manuscript into shape.
  2. Compile the Anthology under Contract. Volume III of my anthology series, Everywhere Stories, will be published in the fall. We’ve promised submitters of stories that we’ll make our selections by the end of March, so that’s the first deadline. And then about two months after that I’ll need to deliver the manuscript to the publisher.
  3. Find a publisher for my novel. I finished another novel last year and I’ve begun looking for a publisher for that book. That’s not entirely under my control, of course, but I’ve started and will continue for as long as it takes.
  4. Finish the new story collection. I realized at the end of the year that I had nearly enough stories for a new collection. So I’ve started putting that together and writing a few additional stories for it. I’d love to be done with that by mid-March when I head off to AWP.
  5. Finish the new novel. I’ve been working on yet another novel for a couple of years now. I have some nagging concerns about it, but I think I’m close to resolving those problems and moving forward toward completion. Dare I hope for getting it done by the end of the year?
  6. Query agents. This one depends on finishing the new novel. I am currently unrepresented, but I believe the new novel has more commercial potential than my last novel did, so when it’s done it will definitely be time to shop around once again.
  7. Dabble in the essay form. I’ve become intrigued by the memoir and personal essay forms. I’ve written very little in this genre, but I’m determined to write some essays this year to see what I can make of them. Possibly a memoir or a collection of essays? That’s a longer-term goals, not likely to be finished in 2018

As you can see, my writing goals for the year are ambitious. I think they should be. I’m actually attending a workshop this coming weekend on goal-setting for writers in which I hope to learn either that I’m being unrealistic or I’ve done just the right thing.

But speaking of those goals, I need to get to work.