A New Venue for Edmonton Writers

Next time you fly out of the Edmonton International Airport, check out the new Short Edition, short story dispenser. This project, conceived and organized by Edmonton writer #Jason Lee Norman, brings a range of Edmonton writers to a new venue in a new way.
If you want some stories or poems to read while you wait for your flight, you stand at the dispenser, make a selection, and the machine spits it out. I haven’t seen it in action, but apparently the dispenser works like an ATM. You will find a range of seventy-odd Edmonton writer’s from which to choose, including Jason Lee Norman, Thomas Trofimuk, Jessica Kluthe, and Don Perkins—and many, many more.
I have a piece in the machine as well, called “Superhero of the Supermarket.” Thank you to Jason for thinking of yet another way to promote Edmonton writers. His projects such as 40 Below and #yegwords Coffee Sleeves show his commitment to the city and its writers. Next time you check in for a flight, give yourself an extra few minutes, visit the dispenser, get yourself a couple of stories, and take a little of Edmonton with you.

A Love Letter to the Rejected Writer

Dear Writer:

You’ve had another story rejected. You’ve lost track of how many times you’ve submitted this particular piece, and you’re wondering if you should bother doing it again. I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times.
Submitting to literary journals is a disheartening process. You spend time in your room, at your kitchen table, or in coffee shops—writing, writing, writing—then you wind up your courage and fire off your submission to a journal. Days, weeks, then months pass. You try to keep yourself from obsessively checking the status of your submission online. Finally, you get an email. It’s a rejection. Then you rage, cry, or just get depressed. And you do it all over again.
The writing process is difficult enough, but the submission process comes with its own constellation of negative spirals and rabbit-holes. If you are like me, you use Submittable for most submissions to literary journals. I love Submittable. It keeps my submissions in order, and I can download a list of everything I submitted and to where. As of this month, I’ve made more than a hundred submissions since January of 2016. I haven’t submitted a hundred separate stories or essays—that would be crazy. Neither have I published a hundred pieces since I started using Submittable. However, I’ve submitted individual pieces as many as ten times to different journals.
This last September, Penmen Review, which comes out of Southern New Hampshire University, published “My sister Maddie,” a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago. Before Penmen Review picked up the story, it had been rejected by nine other journals. Often, it’s a question of the fit between the story and a particular issue or journal. Editors tell me this repeatedly. It still doesn’t help with processing a stream of rejections, especially when that piece has cost you more time and emotional energy than you give to many of your relationships.
As a rule, the rejections that find me—usually at awkward moments on the bus or in the mall—are form letters that say the same thing.

Dear William Thompson:

Thank you for submitting to our journal. We receive many submissions for each issue, but unfortunately we can’t publish everything…

I understand the point of the form letter. Editors don’t have time to comment on individual submissions. However, now and then I will get a comment from an editor that is thoughtful, encouraging, or offers a snippet of helpful feedback. I’m always grateful for such comments.

“This is quite well written, with strong atmospheric details.”
“The story is very powerful, relating the protagonist’s situation to his mother’s is very impactful. I suggest giving the protagonist a name and more description. It will make the story more visceral.”
“I found parts of this fascinating, but all the pieces didn’t fit together in a way that felt unified to me.”

Feedback is always good. You don’t have to like it; it just needs to make you think about your work from someone else’s point of view. Difficult, I realize. And rejections always carry a particular sting, no matter how many you’ve received.
I remind myself regularly that submitting as part of my work as a writer—in the way that writing this blog is part of that same work. Researching journals that might be a good fit for a particular story or essay takes time. I also try to read something a journal has published before I submit, which isn’t always possible, depending on whether or not the journal has sample pieces available on their website. I set a goal—say, eight or ten submissions a month. I keep a folder of pieces that are in circulation, and I work on pieces I can add to the circulation folder. I happen to be good at compartmentalizing my life—not such a fabulous quality in some ways, but it makes this particular process easier.
Rejection doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that no one likes it, or that you should give up any thoughts of being a writer and take a job somewhere that never reminds you of your love for the written word. Rejection means you are out there—for good or ill. No one can reject something you’ve written if you don’t submit it. And no one can accept it either. Writing is a process, but so is submitting. And both require you to put a little iron in your soul, first for the sake of finishing that story you have to write, then getting it out into the world.

Yours in Fellowship,

Writers on Writing

Craft essays are those pieces in which writers talk about writing—their process, how they started writing, or how they keep writing. I read such pieces in the hope of gleaning something that will help me the next time I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or desperately discouraged about my own writing.
Recently, I read “This is How a Writer Writes a Story” by Margaret Malone. She thoughtfully explores the messy business of writing fiction, and her first experience of having to write a story for a creative writing class.
But there are as many opinions on writing as there are writers. If you are someone who wants to write, or someone who wants to write more effectively, where do you begin?
Two years ago, I decided I had to quit screwing around with my writing. I had to get stuff finished and sent out. Many literary journals use Submittable as their online, submission portal, and I decided I would use Submittable to send out as many pieces as I could. I wrote and wrote. Those pieces I finished went into a folder on my computer; those I couldn’t finish, for one reason or another, went into another folder.
Since the late fall of 2015, including several older pieces I pulled out to revise, I’ve completed thirty-five. I’ve made over one hundred submissions, through Submittable and by email, and I’ve published seven, including essays and short stories.
My goal over the past eighteen months has been consistency—both in terms of what I’m writing and how much I submit. My draft folder has more than a hundred pieces, most of which won’t turn in to anything. But that’s fine; I hang on to everything I write.
In order for me to understand myself as a writer, I needed to complete as much as I could, and I needed to get used to editors rejecting my work—never an easy thing to do. However, it’s even possible to turn rejection into a motivator.
Kim Liao offered some of the best advice I’ve heard recently on writing: aim for one hundred rejections a year. This seemed like masochistic advice, but then I thought about it again. Rejection isn’t a measure of a writer’s ability; it’s a measure of a writer’s output—the consistent, day-to-day grind of writing and revision that makes you better at what you do.
I’ve sent out a story, had it rejected, then gone back to look at the story and been horrified that I let it get out there. Then I revise it and send it out again. This is always a lesson in humility. I usually learn that I was more anxious to send out something I thought was a great story than I was interested in making it the best story it could be.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourite short story writers, would call this day-to-day work of getting stuff out there the external habit of writing. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says the external habits of a writer will be driven by his or her common sense—or lack of it—as well as his or her own circumstances. Writing, for O’Connor, is more about getting the habit of art, and the habit of art is about getting at the truth in an imaginative way, which is both messy and laborious. O’Connor writes: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
Several years ago, my daughter bought me pottery lessons for father’s day. We went to a series of classes that summer. I quickly discovered that pottery was much harder than I thought. First, you have to centre the clay on the wheel, then you have to decide what you will do with the clay—a mug, a bowl, or something else. Clay can be unforgiving. There’s a point at which you have to stop forcing the clay to be something you want; you have to let the clay take the shape it’s going to take. If you force it, the clay will slump, and you end up with a collapsed mess on your wheel. Each time you throw a pot, you learn more about how to work the clay.
Writing is like that, but it’s also more forgiving—thank god. You can revise, restructure, flip the point of view, or simply start over. But that story or essay or novel is going to have limits; you need to understand what you are building in order to not force the thing into a shape that’s going to make it implode. Hence, the folder with more than a hundred partially finished pieces.
However you go about it, writing is about writing. Thinking about writing won’t get words on the page or the screen. Thinking about food won’t put your dinner on the table. Write stuff down. Get feedback on what you write, but don’t let anyone tell you what your story should or shouldn’t do. Feedback is invaluable. Listen carefully, express your gratitude, and then go back to writing and revising.
Once you’ve established a discipline of writing, and once you’ve had a few lessons in humility, you will discover what my friend Tom Wharton calls the fifth element of story. The fifth element, according to Wharton, is that space between the story, the listener, and the teller, “a magical space, a pocket dimension, a field of invisible forces. You know this space when you’re in one that’s really working. It casts an enchantment over you.”
I mostly know the fifth element as a reader. It’s the experience of a book or a story that transports me beyond what I am, that helps me to see the world according to a new pattern of understanding—even if it’s just for a brief space of time. If you can write a story that transports your reader, you can know that you’ve had a hand in something truly humbling—the function of art and the operation of story.

My Hand at Writing Memoir

My first piece of nonfiction was published in Hippocampus Magazine last summer—a flash piece called “Q and A.” “On Smoking” is another first—my attempt at writing memoir. And I have Donna Talarico and the fine people at Hippocampus Magazine to thank once again for publishing it. You can read it here. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to explore the compelling nonfiction at Hippocampus.

100 and Still Posting

This entry marks the one hundredth post on my blog. It’s actually more than that, but I figured re-posting doesn’t count.
In the early summer of 2015, I had the idea for a blog on children’s literature. The teaching term was over, and I spent hours sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how to create a blog. Everything I read told me I needed to make it interesting, that I needed pictures, and that I had to find a niche.
I surfed the web for hours, looking at other blogs about kid’s books. Many of these were book review sites—interesting and informative, but not what I wanted to put my energy towards. I finally settled on a weird mix of commentary, personal reflection, and creative writing.
I was still faced with many questions:
1. How not to sound like a pompous ass,
2. How to write about things that interested me,
3. How to reach readers,
4. How to offer something original,
5. And how to make my blog both easy to read and appealing to the eye.
Of Other Worlds: A Children’s Literature Blog was born. My first entry was a personal account of discovering Tolkien at the age of eleven, after losing my sight in a car accident the summer before.
I quickly discovered that maintaining a blog was less easy than I thought. I tried writing something every week, but that was too hard. I tried writing about the books I loved, which worked better. I started writing and posting fractured fairy tales, which was fun, but again, hard to maintain. All of it was a learning experience—the writing, the site itself, and the hard-to-ignore, sometimes demoralizing conviction that nobody was even reading it.
Last summer, I created this author webpage, which meant that my blog was just now part of my site. Kid’s and young adult books are still a major part of my life and work, but the blog has expanded into something more. I’ve learned a great deal from creating and maintaining these sites, and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for anyone who reads what I write.
I’ll keep posting, and I hope people keep reading. You’ll still find stuff on kid’s and young adult books, but maybe you’ll occasionally find more to interest you. Either way, let me know.

Spring Means Writing

Recently, I published a book of short stories on Amazon, The Paper Man and Other Stories. These are adult, not kid’s stories. This is to let you know that I do more than read and think about kid’s books.
Now that spring is here, it’s time to move onto other projects. Spring?—you are thinking. We had a spring snow storm here last week, which left more than four inches of snow on the ground. Mercifully, it didn’t stay. I know it’s spring because my Maple in the front yard is leafing out, and the sun isn’t setting until 9:30. The long evenings are lovely for walking. As it’s spring, and as my teaching life is over until September, it’s time to move onto other projects.
At the moment, other projects means independent publishing. Indie publishing has been on my mind for a while. I finally got up the courage last year to try and publish my stories on my own. I began with Kindle singles, but eventually I worked with the fine people at Create Space (another Amazon subsidiary) to produce a book. The result was the thirteen stories in The Paper Man collection.
My next project is a young adult novel, one that I’ve been waiting to get back to for over a year. It will probably be the first in a series. By the way, I wrote the second book in the series first. After having both an agent and an editor tell me the book simply took too long to get going, which had me ready to give up on writing forever, I sat down and wrote a prequel. Here’s a teaser. Hopefully, you will see this book in print by next fall. Enjoy.
From, City of Shadows (chapter 1)
It was a busy morning on the streets—a market morning. Stalls lined the middle of the street in the direction of the square. Booths, carts, open tables, and even blankets were filled and spread with nearly every conceivable bit of junk or food-stuffs that it was possible to sell or trade. Across the street from the rows of vendors, the morning breadline had formed.  Made up of people who had nothing to sell or trade, this line of ragged humanity had to rely on daily handouts from the Municipal Government in order to get something to eat.
In the centre of the intersection stood a cop, wearing the familiar black uniform and combat boots of the Municipal Police. The Blackshirts, as people had come to call them, had been in the district for several months now. All of them carried a heavy baton, this one swinging idly from the cop’s wrist. More deadly was the sonic whip he carried in a holster on his belt. The sonic whip was the size and shape of a small flashlight, but you never wanted to be on the wrong end of a sonic whip.
Safi knew it. She had once found herself on the wrong end of a sonic whip. The Blackshirt, who had taken a dislike to her,  had only given her a touch, but it was enough to make her hair stand on end, knock her flat, and leave her feeling sick for two days.
Safi watched the Blackshirt from the breadline where she had been waiting for more than an hour. People stood silently in front and behind, clutching themselves inside ragged coats or old blankets to protect themselves from the wind that always seemed to blow through the Hed. She was in position, and the only thing that might cause a problem was if the line suddenly started to move. That was unlikely as the breadlines were notoriously slow, and people often found themselves standing in line for most of a day for a single loaf of bread or package of yeast cakes.
The cop did a full circle in the middle of the intersection, staring at people coming and going from Market Street. He stared as if he were orchestrating the entire street. No one looked at him or seemed to notice him, but Safi knew that everyone who came and went was aware of his presence.
Swaggering idiot, thought Safi. He’s going to get a surprise in a hurry. Soon he would have more trouble than he would know what to do with.
She pretended to stare into space, assuming the vacant expression of most people in the lineup. She was checking for the others. Just at this end of Market Street, she spotted what appeared to be an old woman, hobbling towards a warped bench that stood against a wall. Safi knew that beneath the dirty, pink blanket was no old woman at all. It was Seth, and if he was heading towards the bench, then the others must be in position.
Safi was uneasy. She had a tightness in her chest that she didn’t like, a feeling she had when too many things could go wrong.
That morning, she had clutched Seth’s arm as he and the others headed for the ladder that would take them up and out of the pod and into the street. The pod was located in a short access tunnel that connected to the main sewer system beneath the Hed.
“Is she really ready,” asked Safi, looking intently into Seth’s dark eyes. Even asking the question she felt as though she was nagging him. But he had hardly talked to her in what seemed weeks.
Seth looked back, implacable as ever. “Of course she’s ready. All she has to do is talk to the cop and lead him down the street.”
“And what if he grabs her?”
“He won’t.”
“How do you know?”
It was this sort of exchange with Seth that Safi found more and more frustrating. It wasn’t just that he had stopped talking to her. It was as though he had stopped taking her seriously, or maybe that he was suffering from a sort of blind faith—just relying on things to work out.
“I don’t think she’s ready, not for something like this,” said Safi. “Not yet.” More than anything else in that moment she had wanted his attention.
He had looked at her for a long moment. “It’s not Shank I’m worried about,” he said, softly. “It’s you, Safi.” Then he gently disengaged his arm and scrambled up the ladder after Mo and Rami.
What was that supposed to mean? Safi stared after him for a moment, then climbed the ladder, knowing that she was neither going to get his attention nor even an answer.
Now she stood in the lineup and waited for Seth’s signal, watching the blanketed figure as it slumped onto the bench. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t take her seriously, she said to herself. He wasn’t taking seriously that things were changing in the districts. And not for the better, either: Blackshirts everywhere, armed vendors, and rumours of gangs that were organizing in response to the police, the beatings, and the arrests.
Safi realized she’d been holding her breath. She let it go, slowly and carefully, shuffling her feet and tugging at the shapeless felt hat she used to hide her red hair. The tips of her fingers tingled with anxiety.
And then, out from Market Street ran a small child, a little girl, seemingly one of the many urchins who lived on the streets of the city. It was Shank. She ran straight up to the cop.
The big man paused in mid-swagger and stared down at her. Her face was tear streaked, and she was pointing back along Market Street. The cop looked up the street and then shook his head. Shank began to cry in earnest, pointing repeatedly back along the booths and carts and clutter of the street. The cop glanced once around, and then with a half-shrug followed her into the crowd that pushed its way along the stalls and booths.
Shank was one of half a dozen or so little ones under Seth’s protection. He was the leader of their pod. It was Seth who came up with their plans for raiding or scavenging anything the pod could sell or trade for food.
Seth’s plans were usually brilliant. He could be reckless, but he was a brilliant planner. Raiding one of the fat vendors who took advantage of people in the district with overpriced or rotten fruits and vegetables was dangerous, but to pull it off right under the nose of some swaggering Blackshirt made the risk worthwhile. At least Safi usually thought it was worthwhile. This time she wasn’t sure.
Safi began to count in her head—one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand . . . . And there it came, a high, piercing whistle. Her signal.
Yanking down her hat, Safi broke from the line and ran. The stall Seth had chosen to target that day was near the end of Market Street. It was a fruit and vegetable stand run by a tall, bloated man who wore a long brown coat. He was one of the new breed of vendor who traded the leavings from the corporate districts that had begun to spring up all over the city. The corporate districts were gated communities that never seemed to lack food or water. Nobody knew how they came by so much, but it was said they threw out what they didn’t use. Even Safi, who had come to hate the thought of the corporates as much as she had come to hate the Blackshirts, had trouble believing such a story. Who would throw out food?
The bloated man in the brown coat was a particularly nasty form of bloodsucker. He got his hands on what the corporates didn’t want, and then he traded it for the bread or meds people stood in line to get from the government, then reselling what he traded to people who could pay for it. He was scum.
Because this particular vendor was a corporate leech, Safi would usually have no qualms about the raid. Hitting such a bloodsucker in the middle of the morning right under the nose of a Blackshirt would usually have made it that much more exciting.
No more time to wonder.
Safi ran straight for the table where the man in the brown coat had piled fruits and vegetables and an assortment of dented cans. She could see a small, lean figure to her right converging on the stand. That was Rami—small, wiry, and irrepressible. Safi spared a glance to her left. And just as planned, she saw a tall, wild-haired figure tearing in from the other side. That was Moe. Right on time.
The three of them hit the stand all at once. Maximum chaos, Seth had said. Maximum chaos.
The table seemed to explode as the three of them slammed into it. Cans and vegetables rolled and flew in every direction. The table collapsed with a crash, and Safi heard somebody scream.
The crowd reacted exactly as Seth had said it would. Vendors hawking and bartering while the crowd behaved itself was one thing; flying and bouncing vegetables and cans was another. People scrambled to grab whatever they could. Safi had spotted something interesting as she hit the table. It was a netted bag of something—round things that looked orange or yellowish through the netting. She deftly scooped it up.
The man in the brown coat was bellowing. He had grabbed a length of stick and was swinging it against the crowd that was all around him now on hands and knees, grabbing whatever they could.
Get in, get out. Maximum chaos. That’s what Seth had said.
Safi clumsily hugged the netted bag to her side and leaped away from the table. She had lost sight of Rami and Moe, but she wasn’t supposed to worry about them. Seth was going to cover, and her job was to get out of there as fast as possible.
Safi knew about crowds and about riots. She knew that such a disturbance along Market Street would cause chaos, so when she leaped for the gap and found herself outside the crowd she knew something was wrong. Even as she heard the two-part whistle that meant danger, she saw the second Blackshirt.
For a fleeting second she wondered where he had come from. There wasn’t supposed to be a second cop. Seth said he would case the streets before the raid, and they weren’t supposed to have gone ahead if it hadn’t been clear.
But there he was—the second Blackshirt. And this one had a baton in hand, and he was running straight for Safi.