Day 7: I rested

Instead of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I have a few things to say this evening about Glimmer Train, one of two litmags based in Portland, Oregon, that will not be with us when we enter 2020. The other is Tin House.

Glimmer Train began in 1990 when two sisters, Susan and Linda, decided they wanted to publish volumes of short stories. (I know their full names, but they always refer to themselves as Susan and Linda, so I will, too.) That they did, for 30 years, in 106 perfect-bound, digest-sized issues of 200+ pages, along with interviews, interesting comments from the writers on their stories, and a childhood photo of each writer.

The zine was never an art director’s delight – that was Tin House – and they never ran themes or led their readers down unexpected trails –  again, Tin House – but the writing was usually solid, often inspired, and there was at least one year when the annual Best American Short Stories included more stories from Glimmer Train than from The New Yorker or, yes, Tin House.

When I found out late in 2018 that both zines were ending their runs, I knew I had to make a last-ditch attempt to sell them a story. I was too late for Tin House, which received more than 20,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year until they finally barred the door. But Glimmer Train has always tried to make a home for the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were running three last contests. I set myself a goal of writing two new stories and entering two contests.

I checked off that goal in April after writing one new story and rewriting an old one. Close enough. But Susan and Linda weren’t biting, and I will not be in that number when the literary gods go marching in. In my final rejection from them, number 14 lifetime (this includes an honorable mention in one of their contests), they called my story “a good read” and wrote:

Readers and writers have – through their writing and by their presence – deepened and enlivened our lives. The thousands and thousands of stories people have sent us over these last three decades have each revealed something significant about what it means to be human. As much as it really is time for us retire, we’ll always hold these many years, the stories and their authors – you – close to our hearts.

It’s been a great honor doing this work and one heck of an exciting experience for us.

With gratitude and warm wishes,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

Glimmer Train is gone but Tin House rocks on as a book publisher and as the sponsor of the Tin House Summer Workshop, held every summer at Reed College, barely a mile and a half from our house. I went to the workshop in 2008 (22 years after I went to Clarion West) and it was a wonderful week (for which I was prepared by having gone to Clarion West).

Good-bye just now, Susan and Linda, and thank you.



Day 6: Extreme psychic damage

The Write-a-thon continues! What have I been doing for two days, besides overeating?

In Dan Wakefield’s essay “How I Overhauled My Mechanic’s Novel,” his mechanic is startled to learn that he needs a protagonist to make his book work. He’s never heard of a protagonist. And he’s shocked when Wakefield tells him how much a protagonist is going to cost, even if they buy one secondhand from a book that was remaindered.

Fortunately for me, I know how to build my own protagonist. My question is what kind of protagonist to build. I know he is definitely a he and as manly, chiseled, and woke as his creator. But is he young? Old? How you define those words changes as you move from young to old. Are we in his head (first person)? Following him around (third person)? In and out of his head (Pink Floyd person)?

In an interview with the novelist Kent Wascom in the Spring/Summer Glimmer Train, Wascom says, “That first year or so for each book is about finding the shape. I follow a lot of different threads and try various voices. One lives. The others die….I’ve accepted that there’s probably a year of my process, if you add it all up, that is filled with false starts, pursuing different threads, and accepting it all as play.”

It’s good to know that I’m following the path blazed by a successful novelist, even if one year for him has been several years for me. Perhaps we live light years apart?

Here on my planet, I just gave my protagonist his third different name, and I’ve adjusted his age and background. I’m going to give him some misfits to hang with. Names are easy. What the characters do with those names is a tougher.

Character names I rejected for my book:

Chaka Cohen
Rimshot Korsakov
Sal Contrabando
Stan the Man Musical
Van Lingle Mungo
Vlad the Inhaler

Of his method Wascom said, “I think you an do this and not suffer extreme psychic damage if you’ve already published a novel.” Uh-oh.

Diet Day 6

Here at the office, after a week of birthdays and a celebration for a departing colleague for which every woman in the company baked a bundt cake, my diet was in sad shape. So I skipped lunch today and lost 5 pounds. Dieting: Solved!

Day 3: Cranberry scones of death

Happy fattening birthday, bitches.

Not much progress in the Write-a-thon today. Three of us in our department had birthdays (one last week, one this week, one next week) and the apocalypse of pastry brought in to celebrate was placed on a table by the door to my office. My discipline and self-esteem immediately left the building. Plus we all went out for a Caribbean lunch. By 2 p.m. I longed for a hammock under my desk like we used to have in software.

You are what you eat, and if you eat like this you’ll demote your brain. The rest of you won’t be happy, either.

My lone accomplishment today (though still satisfying) was to finish rooting out all the false starts, cul de sacs, potholes, critiques of versions that no longer exist, and other irrelevancies that form the archive to a book I’m nowhere near finishing. I shredded the paper and deleted the files. I am not the Smithsonian.

Diet Day 3

Looks like I’m not 25 anymore.

Greetings, Eastern Europeans

After every post, half a dozen bloggers from the countries that once were trapped behind the Iron Curtain like and/or follow me. From their photos, I can tell they are 25 and they can still eat like that. I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. As soon as we reach our cruising altitude you may move about the blog.


Clarion West, Day 2: The cult

No, I’m not talking about the English goths who made a lateral career move into stadium butt-shaking. I refer instead to a subclass of railroad enthusiasts who enjoy sneaking into railroad facilities and risking arrest and bites from angry watchdogs to photograph equipment that looks like, well, equipment.

These are men who can look at a passing line of tank cars and tell you from the number on each car where they’re from and where they’re going while the rest of us are worried that all that gasoline is going to blow us to the Yukon. These happy-go-lucky hobbyists are what professional railroaders call FRNs: Fucking Rail Nuts.

I mention this because yesterday I said I’m writing a book full of trains. Another gentleman who wrote a book full of trains, Carlos A. Schwantes, was besieged by FRNs as soon as he went on the road to promote Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest. This is a book about the impact of the railroads on urban and rural areas and what happened when, in many places, the trains stopped running. It’s full of old advertising, memoir, maps, and cultural and economic analyses. But Schwantes could not escape the FRNs who assumed he had counted all the rivets in a steam locomotive, all the wooden ties under the tracks, all the bridges of Madison County, and other burning issues of the day.

I am not writing a book for rivet counters. My target audiences are my wife’s book clubs, past and present. I have met these women and I can tell you plain that not one of them knows the four types of stresses on a railroad bridge, and yet their lives run along just fine, thank you very much.

Today, after working on one unified chapter 1 from three variants, I cleared out more of the stalactites of surplus language in the cave of literature. In my piles of notes I found I had written a job description for a job that’s probably not going to be in the book and even if it was who is going to apply for it, a reader? Also some songs, critiques of chapters from critique groups I was in years ago, and, of course, erotica. Can’t have a book with trains in it without erotica.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on protagonists and the novelist Kent Wascom, who, on the advice of his mentor, kept 90 pages of the first draft of his first novel, The Blood of Heaven, and threw away the other 600. Frankly, I don’t have that kind of time.

Diet Day 2

There are entire nations that don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and here I am complaining because there’s too much food coming my way. This problem would be incomprehensible to approximately 2 billion people.

The trick to dieting is filling your stomach with something that makes you believe you’re full but something that is not donuts. For a while I experimented with frozen corn and peas mixed with cut-up pieces of protein, such as chicken or sasquatch, then microwaved. Not bad, but these simple lunches required seasoning. All the seasoning. There’s actually not enough seasoning. I have returned to the test kitchen.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.” Permission to transgress once may be the best dieting advice ever given.

I came to plié

The Clarion West Write-a-thon began today. I promised that I would blog about it every day, no matter how much I blood I lose.

Here’s the situation: I’m writing a book about working for a living, except unlike the offices I usually write about, this story is set in 1947 on a railroad in the mountains. I have a hero who’s going to have to learn a thing or two, the woman he’s focused on, the woman he should be focused on, allies, villains, mentors, bystanders, eccentrics, philosophers, misguided twits, and, of course, trains.

But I’m stalled.

I have seven chapters, about 28,000 words. I have 22,000 words in my notes, including three obituaries of my characters (one of which is one of the best things I’ve ever written), and a fake bibliography (it was fun). I’ve written three short stories based on this book. I even have an alternative chapter 1 where I try a different point of view. And then there are all the maps, charts, photos, and postcards I’ve collected for — inspiration?

As you can see, I’m doing everything except writing my novel. I think there are three reasons for this:

  1. I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never written a novel before.
  2. Sloth.
  3. The thought that even if I finish, I will never publish this book anywhere.

As for that third point, I have some evidence. Yesterday one of my stories was bounced from Glimmer Train. (More about this magazine in another post.) That is my 175th rejection in this century.

I’ve never received a single rejection for a novel, because I’ve never written one. I should write one. Public accountability will help. Thanks for reading along.

The two deadly sins: writing and eating

Some guys turn to alcohol when they’re stressed. Some turn to Coldplay. I eat. This morning before we went hiking in the Columbia Gorge I stepped on the scale and the scale glared at me and said 170.8. That might seem like nothing much for a man who is 6’7″, but I’m 5’7″. I was in better shape than this not too long ago. So here is how I’m spending the next 41 days: making things up and not eating.

Clarion ends on August 3. My overarching goal is to still be alive on that sweet Saturday.

See you tomorrow.