Research: No substitute for being there.

When I began work on my current project–a novel set primarily in Singapore–I didn’t think I’d need to travel there to complete the book. After all, I lived in the country from 1983-1989 and 1990-1993 and had made several other visits before and after those periods. I felt that I knew the country pretty well. So I plowed ahead with the writing.

But the deeper I got into the story, the more I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. For one thing, the story I’m telling takes place both long before and somewhat after the years I lived in Singapore, and if anything remains constant in the country it is rapid change. For another, it is one thing to remember your sensory perceptions and try to describe them. It’s something else again to describe what you’re feeling at the moment. The heat. The humidity. The smells. The crowds. Did I mention the heat and humidity?

So sometime last year I decided I would have to return to Singapore for a research trip. I know–hardship, right? Well, yes and no. I’m happy to be in the tropics during January, that’s for sure. But the planning process was stressful–booking flights and hotels, making various arrangements–and expensive. (If I hadn’t paid for everything in advance, I might have bagged it at the last minute.) Now that I’ve been here for a couple of days, though, I’m so glad I made the trip. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but I don’t think I could have written the book without making this visit.

My research is divided into three parts. The first part is basically done now. I’ve spent the last several days in a hotel near where I used to live. I’ve gone back to areas I used to spend time, and I’ve walked all over this part of town to really reinforce the experience of living here. I’m taking notes as to my impressions and the sensory details, and all of this will be invaluable when I get home to dig back into the manuscript. The second part is a side trip to Bali, where I’m headed on Monday. I’ve visited Bali several times in the past, and it’s only tangentially relevant to the novel, but I can’t deny that I liked the idea of resting and relaxing by the ocean for a few days. (It’s the rainy season there, but I don’t care.) The third part, and the most significant, will happen when I return from Bali. I’ll be staying in a different part of town, closer to some of the locations for scenes in the book. I’ve enlisted the help of the National Library for some actual research, so I’ll be spending a couple of days there, also. And I’ve got some meetings lined up that I hope will be helpful.

I guess there’s a fourth part, too. Chinese New Year will coincide with the last few days of my stay, and that holiday figures prominently in my story, so the timing couldn’t be better.

All in all, despite the stress of planning and travel, I’m very glad I made the trip, and the book will be much better for it.

 

Your Writing Resolutions for 2017

It’s a brand new year. You’ve made some resolutions, am I right? And if you’re a writer, as I am, your resolutions might look something like this:

1. Finish more [stories, essays, poems].

2. Figure out where to send them.

3. SUBMIT!

I’m here to help. When I first started sending out stories in about 2004, I had no idea where to send them. I dutifully read some of the literary magazines I could find, but I barely knew a Ploughshare from a Conjunction. And my method of choosing where to submit was pretty scattershot. Then I discovered the idea of dividing the literary magazine world into tiers and only submitting (simultaneously) within the tiers.

I decided to create a ranking system that would let me group magazines by their quality–or at least by some measure of quality, since quality is ultimately subjective. I chose the annual Pushcart Prize anthology as my measure–among the major annual anthologies, its selection process seems the most transparent, plus it excludes the “slicks” from its recognition–and created a formula to award points for prizes awarded and special mentions listed over a ten-year period.

The result was a big list of magazines that I posted on my blog and some people found it useful. Later, I added separate lists for non-fiction and poetry. And then I added hyperlinks so writers could jump directly from my rankings to the websites of the magazines they were interested in. Now I frequently hear that writers find the list indispensable.  I’m glad to hear it.

Here, to help you with your submissions in 2017, are my annual literary magazine rankings:

2017 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Rankings: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry.

In Residence

vcca-logo-homeI began my two-week residency at VCCA yesterday, driving over the mountain on a beautiful, sunny day. I settled into my studio in the afternoon and got some writing done in the evening after dinner.

I’ve been coming here for ten years, and although the scenery is very similar to what I have out in the Shenandoah Valley–the main difference being a view of the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains–I’m generally more productive here than I am at home. At home, I rarely work in the evenings, but here I enjoy the couple of hours of additional writing I can get done after dinner, in addition to working all day.

I haven’t met a lot of people yet, but so far everyone is nice and interesting. I only knew two people on the roster from before–one from Sewanee and one from previous stays here at VCCA, so I’ll leave with lots of new friends.

No dramatic goals for this residency. I’m not going to finish anything. I’m hoping to at least nail down the structure for the work-in-progress, which is a blended contemporary and historical story. And I’ll also identify the areas of research I’ll need to do on my January trip to S.E. Asia.

And now: to write.