Check out my story on Jukepop

I realize I haven’t updated this blog for a long time- almost a year, but I’m returning to it with an exciting announcement. During the time I wasn’t updating this blog, I was busy writing and applying to MFA programs. I’m still waiting to hear back from the MFA programs. In the meantime, I’ve decided to post a novella I’ve been writing on the site Jukepop, which I reviewed a while back. The story is called Babela and here’s a brief summary:

When a drug is invented that allows people to effortlessly learn a new language in just a few days, Jerome Corinth, a French professor at a community college, is out of a job. He decides to try out the drug himself, but can only finance his habit through a dangerous smuggling job that takes him on a journey through Europe and beyond. Along the way seeks out new languages to fuel his addiction, but discovers that the miracle drug he takes comes with some nasty side effects.

If that sounds in any way interesting to you, please check it out! Here is a link to it.  So far I have the first two chapters posted, and I will be updating it every week or so if all goes as planned. If you like it, please comment on it or give it an upvote!

 

Scribophile

Happy New Year, everyone! As one of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve resolved to write biweekly updates to my blogs (every two weeks, just to clarify). So be on the lookout for more writing-themed blog posts in 2015!

I stumbled on Scribophile, an online writing sharing community that strives to create a social media platform for writers, while I was participating NaNoWriMo last November, since it is an affiliated website. Overall, I recommend Scribophile as the most comprehensive website for writers seeking feedback on their work that I have seen thus far. I think it has a lot going for it, and I recommend that you check it out. It is not perfect however, and its complexity can seem daunting, especially when you first join it. I’ve been using it for about a month now and I’m still getting the hang of it.

Scribophile is mainly a platform for sharing writing and connecting with other writers. Essentially, on the site, you can read other writer’s work and critique it, using various methods including “in-line” comments, or a form with specific questions about particular aspects of the work, such as its plot, structure, or characters, or a “free form” critique in which you write whatever you want. For each critique, you earn a certain amount of “karma” points. The number of points you receive depends on how long your critique is, and on a number of confusing factors including whether the work is in the “Main Spotlight” or not or whether you have added the author to your favorites. I haven’t quite figured out the way to maximize karma points yet, but even if you just edit whatever things you find interesting, you’re bound to get some points from your critique.

Once you’ve accumulated 5 karma points, you can post a work on the site. Each work “costs” 5 points, so once it’s up there, you have to start all over again building up karma points. You can also submit your work to a number of contests on the site, but that will also cost you some karma points. A “work” is usually no more than 5,000 words, so if you have a longer story or a novel, you can post it in chapters. This potentially allows for you to create a serial following, like on the sites JukePop and WattPad (see my article about them here). But Scribophile is not just for novelists. You can post short stories and poetry on it too. Once you’ve posted a work, you sit back and wait for the critiques to roll in.

One of things I really do like about Scribophile is that it is a website for serious writers. The critiques I’ve received on the site so far have all been pretty detailed and insightful. The karma points system creates an incentive for people to write longer critiques. Also once you’ve received a critique, you can give it one or more labels including “enlightening,” “thorough,” or “constructive,” and for each label, the editor will receive a few karma points (but not nearly as much as they get from the critique itself). When you receive these labels, it also increases your reputation on the site by giving you “reputation points.” Reputation points have no tangible benefit, as far as I can tell, but they represent your experience as an editor.

The site also makes you tick off an agreement saying that you will write constructive edits and will not just insult the writer and/or their work, which I found to be comforting. Obviously, it’s an honor system, but if you find a critique particularly mean-spirited, you can report it. Scribophile’s rules, while complex, do create an environment where serious, respectful editing gets done.

The site also contains forums, groups, and contests, really attempting to create a sense of community among its users. I still prefer to bond with writers in person, but it is nice to have that option online. It also acts as a quasi-social media site, allowing you to write message on other writers’ “scratchpads” and to announce publications. It also contains its own blog with writing advice, interviews with writers, and the site’s latest updates, and it has an “Academy” section with articles specifically written to help you tackle writing challenges. The amount of sheer stuff on the Scribophile website is a bit overwhelming, and I’ll admit I haven’t had time to sift through all of it. But I’m sure a lot of the resources on the site are really helpful.

The site does have some drawbacks, however. First of all, Scribophile is primarily used by people writing novels. This isn’t a bad thing of course, but the way that it’s site posts the newest chapters of writer’s works up for review on the “Main Spotlight” is a little strange. When you’re flipping through works to review, you will see novels that are on Chapter 21 or 39. How are you supposed to jump in and start editing from that point in a story you haven’t read? Scribophile tries to solve this problem by allowing writers to post summaries of previous chapters so that reviewers have some idea of what the hell is going on. But I don’t think reading the summary of a plot and then editing a chapter in the middle of it is very effective or helpful for the editor or the writer. So far I’ve tried to avoid editing novels that are very far into their plot, instead I’ve been editing short stories or novels on Chapters 1, 2, or 3.

Of course, if you have several hours of free time, you read all of the chapters that came before the one you want to critique (but by that time other people will have critiqued it and it will no longer be in the spotlight, meaning you get fewer points from critiquing it). Or, you can find some novels that you like that are in a nascent stage, add the author to your favorites, and then get updated every time he or she posts a new chapter. I personally think it’s far more helpful to edit stories knowing their entire context.

Secondly, Scribophile requires a good deal of patience and free time (luckily, I have both). Depending on whether you choose to edit stuff from the Main Spotlight or not, it can take you a while to rack up 5 measly points to post one chapter. In my case, it’s usually taken me about 3 critiques to gain 5 points. I think Scribophile did this on purpose, so that everyone is getting at least three responses to everything they post. But still, it means you have to spend a lot of time critiquing other people’s work.

Thirdly, the feedback you get on your writing from this site can be thorough, but it also can be a bit overwhelming. You can get opposing reactions from two different editors. Of course, this happens in any situation in which you ask people to review your work. But when I ask my friends who are writers to review my work, I know their work too, and I know, in general, when to trust their advice and when to ignore it. If you’re just getting random critiques from different people, it’s hard to know which suggestions you should consider. I’ve had a similar experience before in writing workshops. The difference, though, is that in a writing workshop, all of the writers are in dialogue with each other. They hear everyone’s comments on a particular work, and then discuss them, coming to somewhat of a consensus on it. Since, on Scribophile, you’re not required to engage with the other people who have critiqued the work you are critiquing, the website does not manage to replicate a workshop experience.

Still, these flaws are by no means deal-breakers. This site has a lot offer, and you might discover that you really like it.

The Missouri Review

This fall, I submitted a short story to the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize. I didn’t win. But, luckily, the contest submission also came with a year-long subscription to the literary journal (the fee for the contest was $20). I just finished reading the fall issue, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. I think everyone who considers him- or herself a writer should read at least one literary journal on a regular basis, and I think from here on out, the Missouri Review will be mine. While not all the stories were perfect, and I wasn’t personally interested in all of the works in the issue, overall, the review’s fall issue had fresh writing with rich language and fascinating subject matter. I definitely recommend that you check it out.

The Missouri review publishes poetry, short fiction, and essays. I found the poetry in the latest issue to be accessible. Most of it was free-verse and more on the traditional side. There was nothing that could be called experimental in all of the magazine, in fact, but that was fine by me, since I tend to like more conventional literature.

Most of the poetry I read I would characterize as concise, filled with sharp, curt images, but at the same time it was layered, ready for deeper exploration. It was the kind of poetry you could read and think that it was rather simple, but if you go back and reread it you will find more than you thought was there. One of the poems that I liked in this issue was actually reflecting on this very topic, the layers of poetry. It’s called “The Poem About the Henhouse” by Lawrence Raab, and it is prefaced by a quotation by Jose Saramago, who said that a writer can’t find much to say about a henhouse.  And of course, the poet finds a way to say something about a henhouse which is quite poignant.

As for fiction, in general I liked the short stories in this issue. In particular I really enjoyed reading “Bury Me” by Allegra Hyde which offers surprising images of a funeral and fresh portrait of a friendship between two women. During college, the two firends use spirit of carpe diem as almost a crutch, to avoid thinking about one of woman’s mother who has cancer and who eventually passes away from it. The story opens at the mother’s funeral and explores the women’s past together and how they have grown apart. I really liked it, and I found both the narrator’s voice and the main character, the narrator’s friend, quite compelling.

However, occasionally I found the stories in the journal to be clichéd, with characters or situations that were predictable. Overall, I liked the story “A Bellyful of Sparrows” which is told from the perspective of an ailing Southerner with lung-cancer living in an RV. In general, I found his character to be quite fun to read about. He still craves cigarette smoke, despite the fact that he has to breathe from an oxygen tank, and he craves the taste of squirrel. But when he nearly dies at one point and he starts to see his life flash before his eyes, I rolled my eyes. In general, I saw a few moments like this in the stories I read, but of course all literature is susceptible to falling back on formulaic templates such as that one. In general, even in the stories I found to be clichéd, the writing was intricate, detailed, and vibrant, so I could get past a few clichés.

I also highly enjoyed reading the essays and interviews in the journal, which had a wide range of fascinating topics, from one man who lives in New Mexico reflecting on the importance of the atomic bomb in his life, to a woman discussing an enigmatic figure from her past, her landlady’s son, whose life profoundly touched hers. Reading essays like these ones really makes me want to try my hand at creative nonfiction. They are able to weave real moments together to form a coherent narrative that reads like literature, but carries more weight because it has the emotional backing of the author who is invoking his or her personal experience.

The Missouri Review accept online submissions, but they do charge $3 per submission. This magazine is highly competitive, so I would advise only submitting your best work to it and to be ready for a polite rejection letter in response. Personally, I think my writing is not yet at the level of the works that I read in the journal. That won’t stop me from trying to improve and to continue to submit my writing to places like the Missouri Review, even if I don’t have much of a chance. However, if your writing is really good, you do have a chance to be published. The Missouri Review does publish new or emerging writers quite often. For example, one of the writers I interviewed for this blog, Julia Glassman, had one of her first publications in the Missouri Review.

For More Information

The Missouri Review

Website: www.missourireview.com

Post NaNoWriMo (and Sixfold) Reflections

I’m back from my month long hiatus for NaNoWriMo. I did, in fact, succeed at writing 50,000 words! And to boot, I almost finished an entire novel, although it’s a very rough draft that would need a lot of work before being publishable. Meanwhile, I also spent most of November and part of December participating in the selection process for the online magazine, Sixfold. If you don’t know what Sixfold is, I wrote a review about it a while back. It’s an online journal that allows writer to submit their work to vote on other people’s submissions to determine who gets published. I’ll soon be back to my regular reviews of literary journals and writing-related websites, but until then, here are my thoughts on NaNoWriMo and the Sixfold voting process.

This was my first year doing NaNoWriMo, and it was definitely a month of learning and growing for me as a writer. I think the best thing you get out of NaNoWriMo, whether you reach 50,000 words or not, is an incredible rush of creative energy. During the first couple of weeks, I wrote for one to two hours every single day, hardly skipping a day. (I might note that I actually only work part-time right now so I had a lot of free time to spare). During the middle of the month, fatigue started to set in, but I had already gotten off to such a good start, that I knew I could finish if I just kept up a steady pace. During the month of November, I lived, breathed, and slept my plot. I dreamed sentences and spent my days at work trying to ignore the characters in my mind who were constantly vying for my attention. And even when I felt like I had hit a wall, I drilled through it with my writing. I just kept on throwing words at it until I carve a way through.

As a result, I think my novel is probably the sloppiest thing I’ve ever written. I took no time to think about whether I sounded cliched or whether the words even made sense. Thus, it needs a lot of reworking. In fact, I’d probably have to write most of the sentences from scratch to fix it. But what I did get out of NaNoWriMo was a plot. I had barely sketched an outline for my novel, and I realized that as I pushed it farther and farther, it started to roll on its own, like a rock falling down a slope. The characters acted in ways that I never expected them to, but in ways that made perfect sense. And complications and developments in the plot that I had never anticipated arose. Now, if I go back and revise it, at least I have a solid, organically grown story to work with, even if the words need fine tuning.

After NaNoWriMo ended, I felt hollow. It was strange. I had been writing so much for the past month that if a day passed by where I didn’t write, I had the same feeling as when you eat a ton of donuts and don’t excercise that same day. It’s like the words that you don’t spill out accumulate like layers of fat. NaNoWriMo gave me a thirst to write, one I already had before, but it’s stronger now. I write almost every day now, because now it’s a habit, an addiction.

But what I learned from NaNoWriMo is that the binge-writing, it’s like eating lots of candy. It makes you super hyper, but leaves you with little nutrition. As much as you need a burst of binge-writing once in a while, for the most part the real work of writing is in the chewing and digesting of minute details, on the level of words and sentences. Nothing is perfect in the first draft. To get to the real vitamins and protein, you have to process writing, work through it, over and over and over again. And that I always dread, because unlike eating candy, it’s not always fun. It takes hard work and nail-biting and screaming into pillows in frustration. And that’s where I’m currently at with some of my writing. But the end product that emerges will hopefully be worth it.

While I was participating in NaNoWriMo, I also was participating in Sixfold’s fall voting process. I submitted one of my stories to Sixfold and paid an entry fee of $3 to have my work considered. As a participant, I read three rounds of six short stories by other writers, voting on them and commenting on them. At the end of the three rounds, the rankings of the short stories were revealed.

I have mixed feelings about my participation in Sixfold. First of all, let me be perfectly honest: my writing didn’t make it past the first round and was ranked something like #127 out of #369 (on the bright side, still in the top half!). And maybe I do feel a little bitter about that, as one always does after rejection. But putting that aside, there were still some larger issues I think the website needs to address.

Honestly, I really enjoyed reading everyone else’s stories, commenting on them, and ranking them. I went into full writing workshop mode, and gave detailed feedback to nearly all eighteen stories that I read. I made sure to give constructive criticism, always pointing out what I liked, and how I thought the stories could be improved, and most of all, I tried to keep a positive, respectful tone, even when I hated the piece or didn’t understand it at all. That’s why when I saw the feedback for my story, I felt rather cheated. Even though I didn’t make it past the first round, I at least expected to find some helpful comments about my work. After all, Sixfold purports itself as being helpful to all the writers who participate. Sadly, this was not the case for me. Most of the comments I received were less than fifty words of writing. A few were very positive, but gave absolutely no suggestions for improvement. Although they helped my wounded ego, they were not really that beneficial to me as a writer. Then there were a couple comments that were negative. I expected negative comments, that’s fine. But they were either extremely short and therefore not helpful, just pointing out what I did wrong, or they elaborated  in depth on everything they didn’t like, again not giving any sort of suggestion for how I could improve. Maybe my expectations were too high because I’ve spent a lot of time in writing workshops where everyone gives really thoughtful, constructive feedback. I was disappointed.

I think one way Sixfold could address this problem is to at least make a mandatory minimum word count for how long the comments should be. Because there’s absolutely no way that comments that are three words long can be constructive. They could mandate that during each round, you have to write at least 75 words minimum. If people needed to write more, then maybe they would start to point out more suggestions for improvement. It wouldn’t be a guarantee, but maybe it would help writers like me who do not make it to the top rounds have a better experience with the voting process overall. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be submitting to Sixfold again, because for the amount of time that I spent reading and editing other people’s work, the payoff that I received was not enough.

Well, those are my thoughts on NaNoWriMo and Sixfold. Check this blog again soon. I’ll be posting more reviews and articles in the next few weeks and months.

An Interview with Emerging Writer Vanessa MacLellan

Vanessa McClellan

This week, we have an interview with an emerging writer, Vanessa MacLellan. She has published stories in Electric Spec, Pantheon Magazine, and Bohemia Magazine, and her first novel, Three Great Lies, a historical fantasy novel set in Ancient Egypt will be published by Hadley Rille Books in February 2015. Vanessa, whose passion for writing grew during her NaNoWriMo experiences, has developed her career as a writer through the Internet. I chose to interview Vanessa because I thought that her experience as a writer might give me and other writers insight into how to break into the online publishing world.

Q: What made you decide to become a writer? When did you begin writing?

Vanessa: I think that I started writing when I was five.  Badly, of course, but I remember pretending to read blank pages (I couldn’t quite write well at five) to my mother, making up stories with more adjectives than nouns.  As an adult, when I had a handle on real writing, I began writing stories based on a role-playing character I had created for a Dungeons and Dragons game back in 2002.  My creativity naturally spread from role-playing to writing.  Luckily, as I review those first short stories, I’ve gotten a lot better.

I don’t think most people “decide” to become a writer.  I think they just write.  I can’t pinpoint when I decided I wanted to become published, but it was probably about seven or eight years ago when I began to think “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to live anywhere in the world.  I could support myself on writing.”  I’ve no idea if I can support myself on writing, but I’m willing to work hard to give it a shot.  Plus, I can live pretty cheap.

Q: I saw on your website that you have done National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) before. How has NaNoWriMo influenced your career? Did it help you develop as a writer? Did you find a community there?

Vanessa: All Hail NaNo!  NaNoWriMo was a huge influence in my writing career.  My first NaNo I completed a YA novel that taught me so much about character and plot, but the real lesson I learned was to finish what I started.  I’ve done NaNo nearly every year since that first one.  It’s relaxing compared to my usual editing work.  I can let my inner critic go and just write.

NaNo has many group meeting and write-ins, but I never participated in those.  The community I’ve developed is through my online world, where I cheer for blogging friends, or Google+ connections.  We urge each other on through tweets.  It’s nice, and almost addictive, to be a part of this global writing event.

Q:  When you send out submissions to online journals, how do you choose where to send your writing?

Vanessa: Well, it’s different now than when I first started.  Originally, I looked for themed magazines and wrote or modified something I had for their theme.  Sometimes I had something perfect for their theme.  Now, I have different criteria.  I research the journal’s reach: how many readers it has.  I submit to the more prestigious journals, or the ones that pay more pro-rates.  To be able to join organizations like the SFWA, you have to have so many professional publications and it forces authors who want to join to submit to certain publications. 

Q: How do you deal with rejection in the literary world when your writing is not accepted or published?

Vanessa: It doesn’t bother me much anymore.  I think of the numbers game publishing is: these magazines get hundreds to thousands of submissions, the chance that mine is perfect for that one slush pile reader in that one moment is slim.  So, it’s not personal.  Plus, the rejection comes in by email (if you’re lucky, so many don’t even bother sending you anything) and that’s as impersonal as you can get.

Sure, at first it hurts.  You wonder why it didn’t work.  You argue that they didn’t really read it; they didn’t get your genius.  But really, once you have a wheel-barrel full of rejection emails, the punch to the gut is weak.

Q: What work of writing are you are most proud of and why?

Vanessa: Ah, I love all my children!  But I’d say it’s got to be my debut novel, Three Great Lies.  Still, I read a chapter of that story and I smile proudly at it.  I love my writing voice and my characters.  Jeannette, my main character, has a lovely growth arc.  It’s a female introspective journey, much like the Wizard of Oz.  It’s great to see her finally Get It.  I hope that readers of this novel can learn what she learned.  Plus, it’s probably one of the few novels out there where a mummy is the romantic interest.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, especially ones entering the world of online publication?

Vanessa: First: Research to see who does not allow simulations submissions and submit to them first.  It’s rough when you find a “perfect fit” but they don’t allow SS and you already have your piece out to 10 other places.  I rarely submit to places that don’t allow SS because I don’t have time to let my story linger with that magazine for 4 or more months.

Second: Keep Submitting!  Do five a month.  Ten a month.  It’s a numbers game.  Get it out there to as many magazines as you can. 

Third: Don’t let rejections or non-communication take you down.  It’s not a reflection on you.

Fourth: Don’t dismiss non-paying markets when you’re starting.  For one thing, your story is out there and being read.  Some non-paying publications have wide readerships and that has value.  But, don’t always give your work away.  You’ve put a lot of time into writing and polishing your piece, it deserves respect. 

Q: What are your favorite literary journals or online websites to read?

I don’t frequent too many websites.  I mainly read articles forwarded to me by my online writing community.  That being said, I do enjoy the Literary Midwife (http://www.newwritersinterface.com/), Marketing Tips of Authors (http://blog.marketingtipsforauthors.com/) and The Future of Ink (http://thefutureofink.com/).  Each of these writing blogs has great information on writing, marketing, and the future of the industry.  I’d recommend each of these if you haven’t read them yet.

For literary magazines, I tend to have a certain loyalty to those magazines that have published me: Electric Spec (http://www.electricspec.com/) and Pantheon (http://pantheonmag.com/). I also enjoy the Colored Lens (http://thecoloredlens.com/), Beneath Ceaseless Skies (http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/, and Spark Anthology (http://sparkanthology.org/excerpts/).  I tend to read from and talk about lesser known journals to help boost their circulation, but there is something to be said for the larger circulation publications.

I love it when I find that gem of a story that just drops your jaw and makes you dwell on it for days.  That is what writing should do, transport the reader, slip into their minds and take up a portion of it for a time.  I hope I touch people like that with my stories.  I guess, that’s every author’s dream.

I for one am definitely intrigued by Vanessa’s upcoming novel. I have soft spot for fantasy, as it’s one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I think it’s important for literary writers to not forget or diminish the entire ecosystems of writing out that make up popular fiction, including fantasy, romance, mystery, or crime writing. These genres have been present on the Web for a long time on various sites and in various forms. They are the early birds in the movement towards online publishing and online literature, and only now are literary publications catching up. At the same time, these genres continue to sell in print too, showing a model of how literature can continue to flourish when made available through different mediums.

For More Information About Vanessa

Visit Her Website at vanmaclellan.com