Category Archives: Essay / Creative Nonfiction

My Pet Serial Killer: Authors Abducted!


Local authors are missing; many more are now seeking placement in WitSec.

Another mysterious message, the second after yesterday’s nebulous ransom note, was discovered at 3:14 a.m. Central Standard Time at the Cat13 offices that read simply: “PLEASE HELP!”

However, the new handwriting sample differs from that appearing on the back of yesterday’s ransom note. This time, the frantic word’s were hastily painted directly on the brick facade of the Cat13 HQ, downtown.

Omaha Police are working together with Federal agents, but few leads reportedly exist. Two expert graphologist teams are stumped.

Legendary profiler and criminologist, Michael J. Seidlinger, arrived moments ago to create a composite description of the suspect:

Alias/Known As: “The Main Plot Marauder”

Real name: Joseph Michael Owens

Number of victims: 37


~Wrote short stories published in local newspapers and journals.
~Targeted interested parties responding to published fiction; proceeded to write addendums to effective fiction, often with interested parties enticed into becoming secondary characters in his fiction.
~Continued communication with interested parties for up to 6 months prior to first incursion; promised immortality in the form of his characters.
~Targeted up to 5 victims at any given time; met with victims at least twice a month, often with minor lacerations and damage to victim’s body, all in line with fiction originally written.
~Progressed over 6-12 month duration until victim was rendered weak and incapacitated based on death of fictional character(s) of source material found in local newspapers and journals.
~Completed fiction/target victim by rendering victim weak and vulnerable, lured victim to a secluded location for subsequent dispatch.
~Victims’ bodies never found; only fingers and eyes found in killer’s ice-locker.

Be Mine

“So no matter what, the media’s going to make the victim as innocent as can be, no matter what the victim might have done, there’ll be this disconnection from reality and fiction when it comes to serial murder so it doesn’t really mean that much to answer why, and I’m really trying not to answer the question why because no matter how hard I try I’m not going to be saying what you want me to say because I don’t really know what you want. I don’t know the answer.”

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Reading: “We Always Trust Each Other . . . ”

Me reading my short story “We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don’t,” at The Loft Literary Center around this time last year. The event was put on by Grey Sparrow Press and it was an absolute blast! (Thanks to David S. Atkinson & Shannon Mooney for recording it!!)

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On China Miéville and Pushing Boundaries

“It’s a risky novel and it is not always successful. But those risks are important and should be encouraged, because even when failing, they lead to future promises of success.”
~ Eddy Rathke in his Goodreads review of China Miéville’s 2012 novel, Embassytown.

I like what Eddy wrote here and I think this is true in/of a lot of China Miéville‘s work. Miéville is really interested in pushing the boundaries of what’s been historically accepted as possible. It definitely takes a sense of fearlessness to say: “Fuck it, I’m trying this regardless of what anyone else thinks!”

. . . and it really seems to work for Miéville, more often than not.

As an aside (though more or less tangentially-related) remark: Miéville’s vocabulary almost never ceases to amaze me. Not only that, the way he incorporates the vocabulary — stylistically — never pulls the reader out of the narrative (N.B. this is at least true for me), but rather it has a way of working with the story, rhythmically. It’s ostensibly an evolution of Twain’s “lighting/ lightning bug” analogy — the words Miéville chooses are not just impressive, they’re absolutely the right choice for the given sentence. (I think a good example of another SF/F series I’ve enjoyed, but the words often miss their mark is David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.)

Worth a mention: Perdido Street Station is just impressing the hell out of me right now! I can’t wait to see what the whole “New Crobuzon” series has in store!!

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I reviewed Viriconium on Goodreads

I felt compelled to write a review of the 3 novellas that make up most of the Viriconium omnibus (the last quarter of the book is comprised of collected short stories centered on the city of Viriconium). I posted it over on Goodreads!!

(The cover to the right is the one I wish Bantam used for the American release.)

In these stories–like the ailing artist, Audsley King, in Viriconium‘s third novella–Harrison is painting with words, beautiful water colors and rich oils. For a world as bleak and unforgiving as the one that converges upon Viriconium (a city like no other. a story without end…), the lyrical descriptions are truly beautiful and masterfully crafted. I’m beyond question at a loss for how impressed I am with this book so far!. . .

His words are so many things simultaneously: sad, hypnotic, haunting, hilarious, sage, prescient. He’s clearly a master of his craft and he keeps his blade (his pen), honed and sharp. Viriconium has been labeled science-fiction, fantasy, even steampunk; but I’d argue at best it’s all of them, but more accurately, it’s its own, singular work. It demands and dares readers to pick it up, challenges them to find the nuances woven within its tapestry. . . .

Needless to say, I really liked this book!

Click here to read the rest!

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There Be Dragons! | 03.14.12

I’ve been busy!

Although AWP ’12 is now done and over with, I have more to do than ever, which is a good thing. “It’s better to be busy than bored,” etc. etc.

Work on my novel has picked back up. I’d taken a small hiatus away from it while prepping materials for AWP and finishing a couple freelance editing gigs. The ultimate success of the latter two items was really hit or miss. It might be March, but a resolution I’m setting for myself is to be more clear with my communications with others. In trying to please everyone with too much flexibility, something invariably gets lost in translation. I wrote that down so I’d remember it.

I’ve been reading some great books lately. Two of the best have been Adam Levin’s Hot Pink (my review of Levin’s book goes live on [PANK] March 20th) and Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan. It would certainly behoove you to read these two books at your nearest convenience. Or cancel other plans to read them. You’ll thank me later.

Tumblr is fun!

If you haven’t checked out Mike Meginnis’s simulated text adventure series EXITS ARE over at Artifice Books, you should do so ASAP! And don’t forget to congratulate Mike for having a story accepted for next year’s Best American Short Stories (BASS) anthology while your at it!!

Speaking of next year’s BASS anthology, I’d also like to congratulate Roxane Gay (who I’ve — not even secretly — got a huge literary crush on) for having a story accepted as well — this is truly BIG news for the small indie presses!!

And speaking of Roxane, it’s no secret she’s really into The Hunger Games (scroll down). “Really into” is perhaps a complete understatement. Because of Roxane’s wholly infectious enthusiasm, I was this < > close to starting the postapocalyptic trilogy myself. I’d even bought all three books and everything. That’s something i do with books, by the way — if it’s a series, I’ll buy all of them at once to A) have them all because I might possibly be a hoarder-in-the-making, and because B) I like to be prepared for the off-chance a stranger approaches me on the street and gives me a drug that turn me into a super-genius (like what happened to Bradley Cooper in Limitless), in which case I could read all of them back-to-back in a sitting or two.

But something happened…

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Adventures In Freelancing! (Editing)

OK, forget what I said about posting here once a week for a hot second. I’d like to rephrase it as “I will post here 1+ time(s) a week.”

I’ve been offering freelance editing services for a while now but am still fairly new to the enterprise. Most of my work has come by referral (thanks KB!), and none of it has been what I’d consider “easy” editing. I’m not going to go into detail about previous edits, but I’d like to recount my last experience, omitting/changing the client’s name.

Needless to say, this has all certainly been a “learn as I go” kind of endeavor.

I would argue—and perhaps one of Specter and [PANK] Magazines’ contributors/editors, Alicia Kennedy, can maybe confirm or deny this—that every editor has their own unique editing style, just as every writer has her or his unique writing style. Or, more specifically, every editor has her or his own unique style of initially approaching a new manuscript.

My latest project was one I was indeed excited to work on. After a preliminary read through of “Mr. Smith’s” manuscript, I thought: OK, here’s a chance to finally utilize most of the implements in my editing toolkit. By which I mean that it seemed like Mr. Smith was looking for the kind of feedback and editing advice a writer typically gets when workshopping her or his piece. Having previously attended a large number of these workshops and earning an MFA along the way, I felt confident I could offer Mr. Smith exactly what he was looking for.

However, this turned out to be…how should I put it…incorrect.

I think it came down to my editing style not being compatible with the desired results Mr. Smith had envisioned for his manuscript. This is fair—different strokes for different folks, and all that. A mistake perhaps made on my part was offering to be as communicative as possible throughout the whole process, in order to give Mr. Smith a full sense of involvement in his project. That seems like it’d be a really good thing, however, I can testify that the reality of such author involvement is “not always.”

Mr. Smith, from the get-go, wrote very long and detailed expectations of what his thoughts were, i.e. what he had questions about, what other editors had told him previously, what he was ultimately going for, etc. I subsequently set out with the information of that first email and dove into the manuscript. My style of editing for a first read through is to ostensibly do a line edit as I go and provide a running commentary by asking questions, pointing out word choices that don’t work, identifying awkward or clunky phrasing, and other edits along those lines. Pretty standard stuff. I also try to keep in mind what the client has asked for and address it in addition to my own edits.

However, by offering to keep the lines of communication open, Mr. Smith would send three or four emails during every phase of the process, which made it extremely difficult to address all of his questions, at least in any kind of order other than chronologically. One of the more difficult obstacles I’d encounter was when Mr. Smith would invariably decide items he’d asked about earlier were no longer as important as new questions he’d come up with (after I’d already addressed them earlier in the manuscript). It became difficult to go back and address each new comment/question and also have the resulting “fix” make sense with subsequent comments or edits I would make (of course, after the fact) that referred back to the changed comment (does that make any sense, or am I explaining this poorly?).

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I Hate When I Realize I’ve Been A Lit Snob

I felt a sense of relief when I opened up to the T.O.C. of the latest issue of The New Yorker and saw—under Fiction—Roberto Bolaño’s name. The previous two issues featured Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and John Lanchester (and before them, upon taking a second look at my back issues: Etgar Keret, Margaret Atwood, Nathan Englander, César Aira and Alice Munro).

I’d never heard of Sayrafiezadeh or Lanchester. (I’m probably late to the party here; it’d be par for the course, etc.) As a consequence, I had a strong, capricious kneejerk feeling that The New Yorker was tending toward the, well, underwhelming. How about another story from George Saunders? (Even though he just had one published recently.) How about Sam Lipsyte? (See George Saunders comment.)

And then it hit me and I became sad.

Not because the writers I seem to like reading most weren’t in the two most recent issues—for that, I simply began to feel childish and, honestly, a little dumb. I felt sad because I realized I’d just been guilty of being both a literary snob and a hypocrite. I felt sad also because I’d quickly dismissed two writers I’d (honestly and apologetically) never heard of. I felt like a hypocrite because I’m usually among the first critics of The New Yorker for never printing fresh new voices [like Joseph Michael Owens(?)].

Truth be told, there are very few things I wouldn’t do to be published in The New Yorker. I say “very few” only because there might be things I’m not willing to do, but I simply can’t think of any right now. And who would any of us be kidding, really? Few people outside of Amy Hempel would pass on a chance to see their name in that famous typeface.

Because here’s the (oh so very obvious) thing I realized: the stories I dismissed out of hand must be pretty darn good to even have made it into the magazine in the first place. The other thing I realized is that I can be kind of an asshole reader some times.

Perhaps I give myself too much credit for checking out as many indie lit. magazines as I do. I mean, there are plenty of fresh voices in in those, right!? But, similarly, I’m guilty of many times doing the same thing with the indie lit. mags as I am with the more prominent publications. I tend toward automatically seeking out the writers I know and, oftentimes, skip over writers I’ve never read before. And that bothers me.

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Infinite Jest As Sierpiński Gasket

David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST was written (according to DFW) almost as a Sierpiński Gasket. The Sierpiński Gasket is a fractal and attractive fixed set named after the Polish mathematician Wacław Sierpiński who described it in 1915. However, similar patterns appear already in the 13th-century Cosmati mosaics in the cathedral of Anagni, Italy and other places, such as in the nave of the roman Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Originally constructed as a curve, this is one of the basic examples of self-similar sets, i.e. it is a mathematically generated pattern that can be reproducible at any magnification or reduction.

Download an mp3 version of the interview Michael Silverblatt did with DFW where he [DFW] talks about the novel as a sort of crumbling Sierpiński Gasket here:

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The sophomore slump explained, maybe

I’ve got an idea—a theory—and it pertains to both music and books. And I suppose, really, it pertains to anything creative where there are ultimately followup efforts. It might seem kind of obvious, but if so, it begs the question: why is it still unexpected?

For starters, the “sophomore slump”: why are people so surprised by this phenomenon? Books, music, movies—no media is safe from this label. It’s ostensibly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “This album/book/film is totally not as good as his/her first one.” To me, that is what should be obvious.

Writers, like all artists, [typically] spend years practicing their art before they are discovered; years working on that first big project—honing his or her style, finding his or her voice, sentence cadence, sense of humor. That first project is the author’s culmination of everything they’ve learned. If he or she gets discovered for that work, readers will automatically and inherently have a set of expectations for a followup work by that writer (or musician or film director/actor).

However, herein lies the proverbial rub:

When artists are signed to contracts, there is typically a timeline—an expectation that a sophomore followup will be produced within a year, maybe two. Even though the writer (artist) has found and honed their style, is it not ridiculous to expect a product as complete and revised and polished as the artist’s first effort? Even with a better idea of where to start and less of a need for revising (though, of course, not an absent need for), I would think—just quickly, off the top of my head—the artist would still need at least half as much time as they spent previously to create a work on par with his or her debut effort. [N.B. no actual statistical or mathematical formula or equation was used to come up with this estimate.]

But indeed, this is not the way art-as-a-profession works. Writers (and musicians, directors, et al.) have a contract and a deadline. If you are, say, Adam Levin, author of the astonishing and epic 1,030 page (debut) novel The Instructions, you would be hard pressed to recreate that success in only a year or two. Fortunately, Levin is a McSweeney’s author, so he’s probably got a more lenient timeline written into his contract. Plus both Levin and McSweeney’s are smart: his sophomore effort is Hot Pink, a collection of stories (collected over the period of time he was writing The Instructions), so the expectations will, of course, be different, and the quality will match the expectations, thus (in all likelihood) avoiding the “sophomore slump,” e.g.

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The thesis; she is complete!

In celebration of getting the OK seal of approval from my MFA mentor, I thought I’d post the preface of my thesis collection of essays here!

Author’s Preface

I’m almost at a loss for where I’d like to begin, with respect to this collection and it’s (in all likelihood, woefully inadequate) preface. Almost. My thesis represents not just a two-year journey through a terrific graduate program with the intent to earn a degree at its conclusion, but a culmination of life events and a journey that spans from the highest heights of literal mountain tops to the lowest lows of human depression and anxiety. This collection of essays represents, I think, a fresh look at a critical five-year slice of my life that has unquestionably shaped me, not only as a writer, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a human being—all of this being possible, of course, with a healthy dose of new insight and some refined storytelling capabilities I’ve evolved throughout my two year MFA experience.

Throughout the creation of this collection, I’ve kept in mind two particular goals for every single piece included: I wanted to make sure the essays are both a) engaging and b) entertaining. Maintaining fidelity to these goals was not always easy since they are, at their core, pieces of creative nonfiction filtered through the lens of my individual experience—my senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. These essays are reproduced how I personally saw and experienced them. The line between fiction and nonfiction, because of this human experience factor, is certainly a blurry one (as I discuss in my critical examination of Hunter S. Thompson toward the end of this collection). However, I think understanding the suppleness of the English language and how to make it work in telling a story is as important as the story itself.

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