Great Writers Steal Presents: What Can Writers Learn From the Best Short Stories of 2012?

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The guy behind Great Writers Steal has finally published his first book of writing advice based on his hundreds of essays. If you’re a fiction writer, you likely have The Best American Short Stories volumes on your bookshelf. (If not, pick them up right away!) Now you can follow along, reading all of the excellent stories chosen by Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor, then consulting the detailed notes about each work.

Inside the book, you’ll find:

…Analyses of all 20 Best American Short Stories 2012 stories
…A reprint of the Okla Elliott short story, “The Queen of Limbo”
…Exclusive analysis of the Elliott story
…An exclusive introduction by Kenneth Nichols
…More than 23,000 words of fun and education!

Note:
This eBook is not affiliated in any way with the Best American Series, its publisher, its editors, its authors, the tree farmers who grew the wood that would someday be pulped to make the paper between its covers, the craftsmen who printed and bound the books or the booksellers who put the finished books on store shelves.

The Best American Short Stories® is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifflin Company. I am not using the trademark; all I have done is write scholarly essays about copyrighted work.

 

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The Real Problem With Reading Fees

A lot has changed in the fifteen-plus years that I’ve been submitting my writing for publication.  When I started out, you had to buy the great big Writer’s Market volume and cross out the journals you knew wouldn’t like you in the first place before printing out your manuscripts on a daisy wheel word processor.  Finally, you’d go to the post office and try to explain to the postal employee what a SASE is, even though you think they should already know, seeing as how they work at the post office.

Things are different today.  Paper submissions are simplified by cheap laser printers.  Electronic submissions are easier still; you just attach a Word file, click “submit” and cross your fingers.  Perhaps the biggest difference when it comes to offering our work to editors is the rise of the reading fee.

Fifteen-plus years ago, paying a reading fee would be unthinkable.  Actors don’t pay to audition for casting directors.  Musicians don’t pay to send their demo to a record label.  Why should writers pay between two and four dollars so an editor can read the first three pages of a story and click “reject?”

The issue is more complicated than this shallow assessment.  I am sympathetic to the reading fee for a few reasons:

  • The fees are (sometimes) lower than the cost of hard-copy submissions and are easier.
  • Most journals, especially small ones, are not getting rich off of reading fees.  I can’t remember who it was, but I saw a kind and impassioned argument from an editor on Facebook.  Someone had criticized him harshly for having a reading fee and part of his respectful response was to point out how little the journal had made off of the fee.
  • Though they’re not getting rich, journals need money.  I get it.  I need money, too.  (Consider purchasing one of my eBooks!)

On the balance, however, I think reading fees are not the right direction for our community.  Why?  Well, we always talk about wanting to include marginalized voices and underprivileged writers in journals…those people may not be able to afford to pay $1.50 to Submittable and $1.50 to a journal for any logical number of submissions.  (I certainly can’t!)

Many journals that charge a reading fee don’t pay writers for their work.  It seems tacky at best to ask a writer to pay to give their work away for free.  Would this be acceptable in any other profession?  Is being a creative writer to become a form of multi-level marketing?

And if we’re being honest, submissions are, to a great extent, a crapshoot.  A poem that is rejected by an editor today may be accepted by that same editor next week.  You could write the world’s best story about a divorce, only to have it land on the editor’s desk the day he or she woke up to a Dear John or Dear Jane letter.  Editors tell us what they are looking for (with varying levels of clarity), but editors find themselves violating their own list of wants all the time, which is as it should be.  The only way to get things published is to submit a lot to the journals that make sense for your work.

The reading fee also reveals the oligarchic nature of some journals. Say The Big-Time Journal has 20 open spots for short stories each year.  How many of those are filled with agented submissions?  How many of those are filled by stories contributed by people like Joyce Carol Oates, a great and popular writer to whom you would not and should not say “no.”  Perhaps it’s because I’ve lost so much hope for myself in the past few years, but it rubs me the wrong way if The Big-Time Journal collects thousands of dollars to consider hundreds of stories for a dozen spots.  (And are people like Ms. Oates paying the $3?)

But here’s my biggest problem with the rise of the reading fee.  I assure you that I am not a Ayn Rand-esque capitalist monster.  I do, however, need money.  You need money.  We all need money.  Maybe not piles the size of the cash mountains Roger Ailes skis down in the summer.  But we need money.

The reading fee contributes to the loss of the profit motive in the literary community and reinforces our insularity.  Journals, just like car companies and widget distributors should survive, at least in part, by getting other people to purchase their journals, cars and widgets.  Instead of allowing the reading fee to become standard, we should all take to heart what I’ve been saying for a while: we need to make more readers.  The financial survival of the creative writing community can’t depend on contributions from other creative writers alone.  We must become a part of culture again.  AMC didn’t pay you to watch Breaking Bad.  AMC got money from Mad Men and used some of it to make Breaking Bad, hoping the show would appeal to enough people for it to become a financial success.  Writers need to appeal to enough people to bring more money into the shrinking industry.

Further, Starbucks doesn’t ask their employees to chip in when the store gets an electricity bill.  Starbucks doesn’t charge the coffee cup company to make the coffee cups.  Instead of looking for money from those on the inside, we should be getting money from the outside.

I wasn’t lying when I affirmed that money is not my primary concern.  Unless you are a sixth-grader, I have less money than you do and many of my life choices have been in the interest of trying to make a difference and blah blah blah.  I’m just saying that we can’t continue to ignore the culture at large and funnel MONEY FROM WRITERS to those who make and bind books (for a profit!) and who run ISPs (for a profit!).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a bit peckish, so I shall go to my favorite local restaurant to see if they would like to pay me an eating fee to consider letting them give me a free meal.

YZzTBKy

COVER REVEAL: What Can Writers Learn From the Best Short Stories of 2012?

People have been asking for this volume for a while…and it’s about to drop.  Finally, the cover can be revealed:

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To paraphrase Barenaked Ladies, I’m all about value, so the eBook offers plenty.

  • Analyses of all 20 Best American Short Stories 2012 stories.
  • A reprint of the Okla Elliott short story, “The Queen of Limbo”
  • Exclusive analysis of the Elliott story
  • An exclusive introduction by me, Kenneth Nichols, the Great Writers Steal guy.
  • More than 23,000 words of fun and education

I hope you like the book cover!  Bear in mind that I’m a one-guy band.

The First Great Writers Steal Press Contest: The Workplace

Friends, fellow devotees of the written word, Great Writers Steal Press is trying to reclaim the readers that we have lost in recent decades.  We’ll never get back the market share we had before televisions and cell phones and Kardashians, but we have what everyone wants, even if they don’t know it: stories and poems.  Here’s my comprehensive essay about our struggle.

We would like to feature a short story or a poem that most exemplifies the Great Writers Steal Press vibe: reading that does not feel like homework, but also means something.

the theme

This sounds like a riddle, but isn’t one:

Name the place where we spend a third of our lives that seldom appears in fiction or poetry.

The workplace!

The great Lee K. Abbott was one of my teachers at Ohio State.  One day in workshop, he pointed out that very few stories take place in locations that are familiar to so many.  Sure, there are exceptions; Stewart O’Nan’s entertaining and meaningful Last Night at the Lobster is one of many.

Great Writers Steal Press is all about bringing literary work to overlooked audiences, so let’s see your stories and poems that (primarily) take place in the offices, garages, driver’s seats and toll booths of the world.

The details

There will be five named and congratulated finalists.

The big winner will have his or her work published on the Great Writers Steal Press web site as an example of work that is both entertaining and literary.

The big winner will also receive digital copies of all Press books released to that point.

the honorable judge

No one exemplifies the Great Writers Steal Press ethos better than my father.  Ken F. Nichols is a lifelong reader who has devoured thousands of books.  I bought him Stephen King’s thick and heavy Nightmares and Dreamscapes with my own money for Christmas in 1993 and spent a couple weeks terrified that the volume would smother him because he always fell asleep with a book on his chest.  He had to build his own shelves to house all of his paperbacks.  He now plows through tons of eBooks on his tablet, as well.

The best thing my father did for me was to bring home all kinds of reading matter.  He brought home Asimov’s and Analog, just in case I would like them.  He turned me on to T.C. Boyle and John Irving and Joyce Carol Oates…

But he is extremely reluctant to read a lot of contemporary literature.  Too boring.  Too didactic.  Too self-satisfied.  My dad is the kind of reader we need to reclaim.  Do you have work that will tickle his fancy?

how to submit

Submit your work to greatwriterssteal [at] gmail.com.

We Need to Make New Readers: The Literary Community’s Most Pressing Crisis

Fellow devotees of the written word, we are in a war for our very survival.  For centuries, the written word was the only way to share stories with those who were out of earshot.  Prose writers cornered the market and prospered, publishing stories and novels and poems in books, newspaper and popular magazines.  Throngs of readers who were hungry for their next narrative fix even lined a New York City pier awaiting the ship carrying the final installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, begging sailors for news of the protagonist’s fate.  Aside from a justified Harry Potter blip or two, this kind of anticipation is now reserved for blockbuster movies and the finales of television shows.  Believe me, I love Breaking Bad as much as the next guy, but we need to recognize that we have a problem and start to address the written word’s biggest problems.

Here’s hoping my thoughts start this vital conversation.

the sad truth

We’ve lost and pushed away a lot of readers.  These are our potential customers.  The statistics are depressing:

I wasn’t lying; all of that is depressing.  Here’s the crazy part: people still consume stories.  They still love stories.  They still crave forging an emotional connection through human creativity.

They’re just not doing it as often through the written word.

We must be as fun as other forms of media

As I already pointed out, Americans watch an average of five hours of TV each day.  How many of those people sigh as they recline into their La-Z-Boy and say, “Ugh.  Guess I need to watch some TV now”?  That sentiment, however, is applied, both fairly and unfairly, to reading.

Genre work (science fiction, mystery and romance, for example) don’t have as much of a problem with striving to entertain.  “Literary” work, for whatever the term means, seems much more preoccupied with being “important.”  Breaking Bad is a beautiful example of longform narrative, evolving characterization, master class acting, and examination of Aristotelian themes.

But that’s not how Breaking Bad is marketed and those scholarly qualities are not at the front of most viewers’ minds when they fire up the next episode on Netflix.  Breaking Bad is kickass fun with lots of action, lots of tension and lots of gunfire.  “You want to send a message,” the old saying goes, “call Western Union.”  Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, is obviously a brilliant man and a stellar storyteller, but he clearly wants the viewer to enjoy him or herself, too.  Gilligan charted the tragic downfall of a good man, but didn’t club you over the head with his message.

So many of us understand that reading is not homework, but we must admit that a lot of “literary” work feels that way if we’re going to expand our readership.  How do we make fun a primary goal of the literary community?

we must publish with a wider audience in mind

I am honored to have an MFA in Creative Writing.  I will always be grateful to the world-class teachers who shaped me and the colleagues who were kind enough to devote their time and attention to my work.  I’ve been writing for more than twenty years; this is what I love.  I was extremely fortunate to be able to get an advanced degree in the field I love.

This endless affection is perhaps why I am so desperate to expand the audience for creative writing, literary and otherwise.  Unfortunately, we’re far too often MFAs writing for other MFAs.  Other forms of media try to build as large a supporter base as possible.  Mainstream films, for better and worse, do whatever they can to pack theaters during opening weekend.  The creators of television shows compose with a wide audience in mind.  Musicians aspire to take the stage in front of thousands of people.

Writers of literary fiction?  A lot of us seem happy in our own little sandbox.  We love to experiment with form and language and subject matter, but as any scientists will tell you, most experiments fail.  And the general public doesn’t care about experiments.  They care about the useful innovations that result.

I’m as suspicious and as doubtful of unbridled capitalism as the next guy; I’m not advocating a publishing world in which profit is 100% of our motive to write.  I do, however, wonder whether wide readership and profit are high enough on our list of priorities.  Yes, write the words that are in your heart.  That’s what all of us do.  But let’s not create an stylistic and ideological echo chamber.

Take the example of Esperanza Spalding, the ridiculously talented jazz performer.  Sad but true: jazz is not exactly blowing up the Billboard charts in 2015.  Ms. Spalding, however, is kind enough to share her talent in other areas instead of restricting herself to performing somewhat experimental jazz in clubs.  When she performs an extremely accessible Stevie Wonder song at the White House, she expands her audience and chips away at the false societal belief that listening to jazz isn’t fun.

Don’t forget: Stephen King spent a few decades as an outcast in the literary community.  How do we create and nurture the fun work that brings in a larger audience?

we must change the way in which we market our work

We already know what “reluctant readers” want in the art they consume.  They want entertainment and escape.  Imagine that creative people of all stripes are proprietors at a state fair.  We stand outside the tents, barking invitations to passersby.  Who will bring in the most customers?

In front of the film tent, you hear: “This Batman movie is going to be so much fun!  You’ll love the spectacle!  Falling into this narrative is so much fun!  And the movie’s pretty good!”

In front of the music tent, you hear: “Come on in!  Participate in the fun!  Sing along with the music!  Sway to the beat!  Instagram this for your friends!”

In front of the literary prose tent stands a person with folded arms who says, “Hey.  This is the most important book of the year.  You’re going to learn so much.  Half of the words are in Mandarin and backwards to reflect the necessity of rejecting neocolonialism and to dissituate conventional methods of cognitive perception.”

I wouldn’t want to read that book, either.  When James Patterson was starting out, he wanted to do commercials for his books.  You know, to attract as many readers as possible.  His publishers told him they “don’t do commercials.”  Patterson paid for one out of his own pocket.  The rest is history.

Here’s a modern example.  Note how the spot appropriates the conventions of the way films are marketed.

We all want our writing to impart deep truths about humanity.  But how can we do that if we can’t get people to pick up our work?

We must invite men back

I don’t know about you, but I bristle when scholars such as Louann Brizendine say things like this:

“Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to ‘feel into’ the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men…”

Would we accept such a dismissive statement were it directed toward women?  Men didn’t have a problem marshaling the patience and empathy necessary to read in the past, so why would today be any different?

Men represent slightly less than half of the population, of course, so shouldn’t we want to do something about the fact that we are ignoring so many customers?  The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey to understand Americans’ how and how often we participate in the arts.  Read it and weep:

neastats

Why are we having so much trouble attracting male readers?  There’s no all-encompassing answer to the question, but there will be no answer at all to the problem unless we start an open and honest discussion.  If nothing else, it’s probably a good idea to attack the cultural biases that men don’t have the patience or empathy to enjoy literature.

we must reject the inflammatory clickbait mindset that pervades so much of our media

Clickbait is dishonest.  That’s why they call it “bait.”  You read the headline and wonder what Donald Trump said now, then you click on a web site that has several dozen ads, a few autoplay videos and a couple hundred words of useless summary of someone else’s article about the Trump quote du jour.

SNAP.  The metal bar broke your neck.

The other form of clickbait is the deliberately inflammatory 800-word essay that tells you what you should feel about some controversial issue.  (Sometimes it’s even a “nontroversial” issue.)

What happened to “show, don’t tell?”  We are artists, friends.  We don’t tell people how to feel.  We don’t tell them they’re evil or wrong if they aren’t in full, complete and instant lockstep with everything we believe at any given time.

The writing that we create should not be disposable.  No one cares about “We Slathered a Baby With Honey and Put Him In a Bear Enclosure. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” five minutes after it’s published.  It’s our job to create the conditions in which people can access their humanity through contemplation of literary work.  We can’t force people to think what we do.  Why should our creative work resemble a lecture?

we must dissuade many people of the notion that reading is homework and writers are boring

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but the Stephen Kings of yesterday somehow became enshrined in an ivory tower, separated from the popular consciousness.  When I first read Jane Austen in high school, I was struck by how contemporary it felt.  Sure, Austen died in 1817 and the characters don’t even have radio, let alone television, but the Dashwoods feel like real people who just don’t have cell phones.  Unfortunately, a lot of people think that Austen and Shakespeare and Hemingway are dusty busts on a shelf in your tenth-grade English classroom.  No.  These were real human beings who gave us works that survived for a reason: they are both entertaining and meaningful.

Director Baz Luhrmann has made successful films based on Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby.  The audience members who filed into theaters did not do so for a lecture about the dangers of authoritarian parenting or repressed emotions.  People saw those movies because they wanted to be entertained.  As I said earlier, they got the messages because they were lured into the tent–not the other way around.

the way forward

So where do we go from here?  I don’t know.  I guess it all starts with a genuine conversation about these issues, ones that often get short shrift in our wonderful community, even though they have a direct impact upon our prominence and survival.  By all means, leave a comment below or on social media or write a rebuttal on your own blog.

This crisis was also part of my motivation to create Great Writers Steal Press.  Can we change the way short stories are marketed?  Can we convince people who don’t have MFAs that reading is not homework?  Can we show people who share song lyrics on Facebook but say that they hate poetry that they actually love poetry?  Our backs are against the wall, friends.  Do we try to reclaim the proverbial “woman on the bus” as a reader?  Or do we just give up and let her check her Facebook on her smart phone a thousand times during that trip instead?

Kenneth Nichols

Addendum

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, I’m trying to expand my own personal audience and the influence I have to help other writers.  If you don’t feel like contributing to the conversation I’m trying to start, will you share this essay with your literary and non-literary friends?  Perhaps you would like to participate in the first Great Writers Steal Press writing contest.  Of course, you could always take a look at the eBooks that are out to date.  Consider entering our first contest.

You can keep up with Great Writers Steal on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.  Or you can follow this blog.  There are so many ways to connect!  Let’s get out there and make a difference in the culture at large!

Unexpected, Overlooked — An Entertaining Chapbook of Stories and Poems by Kenneth Nichols

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Why you should read the chapbook:

  • What is it like to have outlived your spouse by more than half a century?
  • How far will you go to support the man or woman you love?  What are you willing to sacrifice?
  • Would you quit your job if you realized you were developing chemicals intended to allow bosses to control their employees’ minds?
  • What would you say if you ran into your ex’s mother during a low point in your life?

Unexpected, Overlooked offers interesting stories and poems about relatable characters who find themselves in extreme situations.

Table of Contents:

“Learning to Sling”

“Letter of Resignation”

“Cerulean”

“when you called,”

“Still a Woman”

“Promise and Regret”

“Still a Woman”

“She Wasn’t Home For Long: A Brian Earlington Mystery”

“On Running Into the Mothers of Ex-Girlfriends”

“An Older Brother’s Lesson”

What the pieces in this chapbook might remind you of:

This video tells the story of “Cerulean” with pictures and sounds.

The first story was inspired by this Justin Torres story from The New Yorker.  Perhaps you’ll like “Learning to Sling,” too.

What are you waiting for? 

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“Houdini’s Knife” — An Entertaining Short Story by Kenneth Nichols

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Why you should read the story:

“Houdini’s Knife” is NOT a 5000-word story about a Bengali woman whose dog has run away and you’re supposed to wonder if it will ever come back because she’s having dreams about the dog and the life it wishes to lead.

Forget that.

“Houdini’s Knife” is a story about a young man who is a magician.  He wants to date a particularly beautiful and kind young woman, but he understands that’s not going to happen.  Why?  Because he’s a magician.  Nevertheless, he finds a way to express how he feels.

What this story might remind you of:

ANY CRUSH YOU’VE EVER HAD.  We’ve all been there.

What might be the saddest song ever:

What are you waiting for? 

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Enhanced content:

The story was inspired by a number of great magicians, perhaps Penn & Teller most of all.  Here’s one of their best illusions:

And here is the ending of a great special in which Penn & Teller went to the Middle East to find the origin of the cups and balls, one of the oldest tricks in all of magic.  Penn & Teller, of course, have their own spin on the basic illusion:

“Fit To Be Tied” — An Entertaining Short Story by Curtis Bradley Vickers

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Why you should read the story:

“Fit To Be Tied” is not 5000 words about a dandelion in a war zone and you’re supposed to wonder if anyone’s going to step on the dandelion because it’s a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.

Forget that.

“Fit To Be Tied” is a story about a five-year-old boy who trusts the wrong people.  Our parents warn us about these people, but we’ve all been there.  Further, we all care about little kids and dogs.  There are real stakes here, friends.

What this story might remind you of:

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz?  She’s a little kid and she just wants to protect Toto and get home.

The first four minutes of a Law & Order episode.  You love Law & Order.

What are you waiting for? 

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