Word Count 3460
Doug, as far as I know, you are a retired teacher. Was teaching your dream job? Do you remember your first day at school as a teacher?
Yes to former teacher, but that was only for four years.
No to dream job. My facetious reply is that retirement has always been my dream job. A misfortune of my life is that there is nothing that I have wanted to do which gets paid. I enjoy my writing and music hobbies and various volunteer jobs, but nothing that would be considered a job. I tended towards math in my youth because it was the most abstract and pure thing possible. The major occupation for pure mathematicians was teaching other pure mathematicians, so I just got into teaching on cruise control.
Later I became an actuary because that was a plausible segue into a well paid livelihood.
My first day of teaching full time was at Morehouse College in Atlanta Georgia and it was uncomfortable on at least a couple of levels. I had done only a little teaching as a teaching assistant during a year in the middle of Kansas (written up as “I Won’t Take Manhattan” (Kansas – of Dorothy of Oz and in the middle of the USA, not New York)).
You probably know a little of USA history. Slavery in much of the USA was practiced, mostly in the Southern US, until the Civil War in the 1860s. My past and present home is in Oregon, a state with a historically odd approach to black Americans. Neither slave, nor free Oregon originally outright banned blacks from living here. Despite some breaches that ensured that the black population in Oregon was minimal until WWII. During WWII, both blacks and whites were recruited to build ships at a totally new town called Vanport (for Vancouver Washington and Portland Oregon). After WWII, the whites in Vanport were free to live anywhere in Oregon, but the blacks were redlined to a limited area in North Portland.
This is a long way around to say that I was a white teacher at a college which was close to totally black. Further Atlanta is a largely black city in a southern state where integration was integration and black rights were furiously fought by most whites. All of this was a huge cultural shift for me. Before moving to Atlanta, I had only spent one year off of the West Coast of the USA. I was the proverbial water animal out on land (fish out of water).
One lesson that I took away is that regional differences can be as important as racial ones. I was more in tune with the few black students there from the West Coast than the ones from the south. The rural students were quite different from the big city guys.
Do you miss the past? Or are you happy that it’s over? What is the sweetest memory that you remember again and again?
The past was good and bad. I don’t live in the moment except when something requires concentration. My misfortune is that I view the glass as having a damp bottom, despite being fortunate in most ways. The peaks and valleys mostly involve either physical activity or women. I certainly miss the vitality of youth, but at an age around the average lifespan of an American male, I still dance, exercise and hike.
I don’t have a specific best moment. Meeting editor-to-be and marrying same is up there. Side note – I have old person’s memory. Don’t remember breakfast, but vividly remember select moments from grade school many years ago.
Keep On Rocking In The Free World (the song is ironic in case you have not heard it).
Let’s imagine that an Italian publisher wants to translate and publish three of your short stories. Which of your works should they pick in your opinion and why?
I’m going to assume that this Italian publisher thinks the same way that I do. The first two choices are easy.
Smart Car (either episode 1, the series or a edited version of all the episodes). The series, particularly ep 1 is the most popular thing that I have written. It has appeared six or seven times in some form including translation into Russian and Parsi (as you know). Humoro(u)s, interesting characters including cars. You may know that this came from looking at a completely different Charlie Fish thinking car story. My approach was to avoid evil or robotic cars and come up with one with a kind of human personality. Thanks for inspiring the final (so far) episode, Sam.
Old – This is my favorite. It is a good length for reading in an hour or less. Like smart car it happens in the Pacific Northwest, including the Siletz River where friends had a cabin. There are touches of fantasy, tragedy, romance. It breaks the rule about needing a protagonist and antagonist – just about everyone is sympathetic. The inspiration was old horror movies in which an evil woman tries for eternal beauty through evil.
There could be many third choices. I’m going with “Altared States“, partly because it is relatively recent unlike the other two. I like the gag title, which was spelled “correctly” when it was published. “Altared” is a non-word, to twist the movie title “Altered States”. It is a flip of “Old” in that the two romantic combatants are both evil. Note – it was at first turned down because it contains “damn”, but I agreed to change it to dram to keep the rhyme. An uncensored version is in my blog. The inspiration was very slightly biographical, but it was the woman’s husband who died, there was no match after the death, and both marriages were/are happy.
With around a hundred stories out, it is hard to pick three. I’ll throw in some honorable mentions for various reasons:
Bike Killer – possibly the first published and published more than once. Originally written back in the 1990s.
Reprieve – Topical pandemic story without vampires dates to 2015 before pandemic stories were cool.
Interview/Intelligent Design/*lr*d – Thoughts on religion
ATTACK/War – Anti war
Nose/Vigilant/The Dumb/Gate – combines science fiction and humo(u)r
Let me know when these are published by the theoretical Italian publisher.
How does it feel when you write something like Smart Car and then suddenly find out that everyone expects you to be a faultless author who writes nothing but masterpieces? Does it hurt when you get rejections?
I hope that you don’t mind that I laughed at your question. As indicated, smart car was sort of inspired by a Charlie Fish story in that he wrote an AI car story. The first episode was a fit of fluff that I tossed off in an hour or so. After that I tried to sell more episodes to Mr. Fish, but he doesn’t like sequels. All but one or two of the remaining episodes were in Nugget Tales, the one place that said something like “send us more stuff”. I foolishly depended on them, but then the publisher dropped out. Nugget Tales was particularly fine because it had good art and world wide readership. The stories got likes and comments for Africa, Asia and South America.
I don’t know who expects anything good from me. Getting accepted has gotten harder since I started in 2014. I think that there was much less competition in the earlier years. I compared notes with Sharon Frame Gay and she agreed that acceptance rates are going down. A few of the places where I had things published – AWS, Potluck, Story Shack and Dirty Pool have disappeared, which is why I try to place stories in at least two places. There may be an analogy to a musical group that puts their best work on an early album – Blood, Sweat And Tears or Carol King – who never attain the same level of success later. Maybe I’ve used up my good ideas. When I started submitting, I had stories that I had written in the 1990s and no idea what to do with them close to ready to go.
There is probably a connection between my motivation in writing with the success thereof. A story may be better if I want to write it rather than if I think that I should. My few anti-war and religion stories or essays are ones that I thought that I should write. Something like “Nose” or “Gate” were fun to write.
My anecdotal feeling is that getting something published is 90% finding the right publisher and 10% writing the right story. I was surprised when I was scrounging for a story to send “Down In The Dirt” (a favorite because they are online and print). The best I could come up with is “Die” which seemed like a bad fit, but it was accepted in a couple of days.
We have disagreed on rejections I think. I rarely have any use for a critical response. Telling me the ten things in the editor’s opinion are wrong with the story has very rarely led to any changes. I wrote what I wanted to write and just move on to the next publisher. I’m untrained and “too much exposition” doesn’t impress me. I find things like “someone will take it” or “you almost made it” patronizing. “Not right for us at this time” is OK by me, but I wonder about the point of “at this time”. We should all accept that rejections are part of the game. Stephen King and JK Rowling could get grocery lists published now, but not when they started. If many publishers passed on their first works, why should anyone accept the opinions of prospective publishers?
Quick finish with a cliche “One person’s floor is another person’s ceiling” applies to both writers and publishers. As one who is uneducated in writing or literature, I don’t trust my judgement or that of publishers.
What are your writing habits? Do you write daily? Do you write on your laptop (PC, smartphone, etc.) or on a piece of paper?
I don’t have many writing habits, except that I need at least an hour to write or I won’t start. I only write at my desktop at home. As a poor, but adequate touch typist (learned in high school because the class was dominated by girls) with horrible handwriting and dislike for other keyboards, it is the only thing that makes sense for me. There is not a set time or amount of writing.
I always start with a plot and the characters and dialogue are there to support it. Sometimes I develop it as I go, sometimes I list things that must be covered at the top of the document. After poor editing on my part, it is turned over to Sharon. She likes the funny ones better than the rest. Short stories can be drafted in as little as a day. I write non-fiction about religion and against war because that is important to me and just about every genre for fun, but have a particular taste for redoing classic sci-fi and horror tropes.
With only one unpublished story, one mostly finished memoir and a few things that I will rewrite, I spend much of my time trying to get reprints published. After a hundred or so stories in six years I’m short on ideas. So much so, I was happy to write a deliberately bad story titled “Wurst” for Trash Heap Zine.
With a few exceptions, such as your specific requests, I use my own ideas.
What are your three most favorite (online) literary journals?
First what I consider the criteria –
Publishes me (duh)
Allows likes and / or comments
Free viewing online
Better than the above, both online and paper
Stories reasonable length – applies to all winners
Let the contest begin
Literally Stories – Always friendly even in rejection. Sometimes publishes me. Comments and Likes. Free viewing online.
Down In The Dirt – About 50% acceptance. No art. No comments or likes. Both free online and can be bought on paper.
Yellow Mama – Most things accepted. Horror and crime. Explanations if not which are not insulting. Art. Free online.
Commuter Lit and FOTW are a couple of honorable mentions. Nugget Tales would be number one if it were around. Short Humour is good, but it is specialized. I like Wilderness House for non-fiction.
When you were younger, say in your 20s, did you ever meet an old wo/man who gave you a piece of advice which you will never forget?
I draw a blank. This may be because I thought that I knew everything or because I didn’t talk to old men or women much then.
Not under those circumstances, but the best advice or wisdom that I received was:
Technology / science progresses, but culture cycles. That explains why we can have atomic energy, but use it to blow up people and things.
Don’t get old. I learned that too late.
And now, what’s the most helpful advice you can give to those girls and boys who have just begun their life journey as adults?
I don’t think that I have any helpful advice to those starting their life journeys, because they probably would not pay attention. I never did when I was young. I only learned from screwing up and frequently not even then. Most self-help books or columns are crocks because the advice is some combination of obvious, wrong or unlikely to be followed.
Despite all that I wrote “Lessons” including such wisdom as “Take care of your teeth – it will save you a lot of money and pain”, “allow yourself a few mistakes and bad habits, just don’t overdo it”. Those aren’t exact quotes, just how I remember them. One thing that I did wrong which everyone could learn from – have lots of friends, but avoid the toxic, addicted and cruel. A useful thing that I did right was learn from my depression age parents to save money, which my editor also did, making us comfortable through economic and pandemic disasters.
When someone is young, that person may think he or she is bullet proof. That person should learn caution. Hobbies are good, particularly if one is not overly excited about the work one does.
If someone were foolish enough to ask for my advice, I’d probably look up “Lessons” and give that person the url of it.
Once you sent me this tweet … “If you want me to read what you wrote as a beta or gamma reader, I’ll give it a shot. As you know, I have minuscule literary training and don’t care about rules.” Two things you’ve mentioned here. Being academically trained and following rules! I’d like to have your comprehensive comment on this. To what extent should we follow the rules? And when can we confidently say that we are educated writers?
Educated writer –
This could be from literature classes or texts. One gets some education, maybe most from reading. My experience is predominantly from reading, but my scope is limited – most of my fiction reading has been mysteries. The rest is from a college class a few (heh) years ago and an online course I took when I restarted writing in 2014. I thought the course encouraged a hack, formulaic approach which should only apply to certain highly rigid genres. The course was highly praised by other students. A multiple choice exam was inappropriate for the writing course.
Rules to follow –
Grammar – with the exception of dialogue or narrator if those would not usually be grammatical.
Dialogue which sounds like it was spoken by humans (if is spoken by humans, does not apply to animals, robots or aliens) – Not everyone in a story should have the same speech patterns. Speech should vary by degree of acquaintance. Some best sellers – Patterson, Wallace, Leonard) did not manage the basics. False dialogue takes one out of the story.
Too much description – Does it matter what the curtains look like?
A beginning, middle and end are nice.
Show don’t tell – Not a hard rule, but limit telling.
Variation or twists – Handsome hero, vanquishes the foe, gets the girl. No, it needs variation or twists. Jim Thompson said there is one plot “Things are not what they seem”. Use that.
Rules to ignore if one wants –
Too much exposition – Exposition can be appropriate and useful and save a lot of writing. A volcano is about to erupt. The story can say that or you can have people talking about it.
Rigid story structure – Alluded to in the course I referred to which required precise steps in precise order. Start with “hook”, then …
Requirement for antagonist, protagonist, conflict – A twitter claimed all stories and films have conflict. I think that requires an overly broad definition of conflict. Antagonist / protagonist relationship is frequently present in literature but not so much in real life. Stories about someone’s survival against nature are not conflicts by my definition. The stories that I write may have all bad people (Altared States) or all good people (Barberian), so I don’t see the necessity of antagonist/protagonist.
No flashbacks, epilogues, prologues – why not?
Do you have a certain plan for the rest of your life? I mean, are you working on a particular story or book? Or do you have any other priorities?
This old man doesn’t make plans much longer than six hours in advance in the middle of a pandemic. Right now my plan is to be in bed in six hours.
Because I have currently run out of plots, I will be finishing “Cities“, or at least bringing it up to date in the next couple of months. I want to extend “Optimism” in Short Tales into something longer for other venues, and “Killer” (100 words in Detritus) similarly. If I think of a plot, I’ll drop everything else to work on that. I might self-publish horror stories or science fiction, or something else. I try to get everything written into a couple of publications to get a larger audience and because they go out of business without warning, so I spend a considerable time submitting previously published stories.
Those are plans. What I hope for:
A better earth, starting with a leveling or decrease in the world population over time. People in India and other places can’t isolate with the current population density. We need renewable energy.
Political solutions rather than war.
Behind the Scenes
I wanted to write since high school, but the time was wrong then. In 2014 I wondered what I could do if I couldn’t be physically active. At that time I was shackled by knee and foot pain (better now). Further I was inspired / depressed by local author Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”. It made my life seem so boring. After deciding that I liked indoor bathrooms and easy chairs too much to go on a thousand mile hike as she had done, I decided to do the writing instead.
Things I write about –
My interests in politics (particularly anti-war), religion, and my former occupations math and insurance. My fascination with classic and low-brow science fiction books and movies. Attempts to find twists on familiar tropes, particularly genre ones. Example – “Barberian” a romance with no problems. Processing failed relationships. Horror writing was initiated by reading a book on a trip to Arizona from Oregon. Yellow Mama has been a great publisher for me. The longest pieces are parts of the Vernonia Trilogy. The idea is that three famous people came from the small Oregon town Vernonia, which I like because it rhymes with Caledonia. A shirt given to me “Beware Bad Pun Zone” may explain most of my writing.
Another inspiration for writing – mortality (figures in several stories) and legacy. With many journals disappearing however, I could outlive the stories. While other people have great video presentations at memorials, I can have a stack of magazines (mostly Down In The Dirt).
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