Archive | December, 2012

It’s the Green Thing To Do

31 Dec


I have this dumb rule about submitting work to agents and editors, and applying for grants and awards, and entering pieces in contests; and that rule is:

Never pay to have your work read.

A few years ago, some enterprising literary journals figured out that if they accepted electronic submissions, they could transfer the costs of the submitting process (postage, paper, packing materials, etc.) from the author over to the magazine. Prior to 1999, when I first began submitting stories, emailing an editor with a story was considered bad form. Over the years, resistance to this practice has weakened (usually under the auspices of “going green”), and now e-submissions, and with them reading fees, are the norm. Yet my rule remains:

Never pay to have your work read.

That said, if you happen to have written an extremely technical 12,000-word novella about spelunking, and Caving Magazine is open to fiction submissions, but is charging a $3 fee, then you should probably go ahead and pay the fee. Three dollars is, to all but the lowest of paupers, an insubstantial sum of money. But paying editors to consider your work sets a bad precedent, and I predict that if the trend continues, it won’t be long before magazines are offering “premium members” the chance to bypass the slush pile and have their work zoom directly into the hands of an editor.

On a less political note:

Mr. Slag,

This is a great, detailed piece of experiences in young adulthood. I wish we had a place for it at the current time. Best of luck on all future writing,


Clearly this story was not ready to go out on submission. Praising a story for its “detail” is the equivalent of passing out a participation award at a fourth-grade spelling bee. It is a textbook example of damning with faint praise. I appreciate the personalized response, but moreover I am grateful for the masked criticism. The day I catch myself writing fiction about my “experiences in young adulthood” is the day I shoot myself in the balls.


Two Fingers

28 Dec


From Faultline:

Thank you for sending your work to Faultline. Our reading period ended on February 15th, and your letter arrived after that date. We hope that you will submit again next year, anytime between September 1st and February 15th, 2010.

I seem to make this mistake a lot. For all my familiarity with lit mags, for all the research I do, I just can’t keep submission dates straight. You would think that, being a nurse, I would balance my inborn, artsy-fartsy spaciness with a rigorous attention to detail and an instinct to anticipate deadlines, and that this would be my true strength in the short story market … Ah, but you would be wrong. So very wrong.

Hard to believe I printed out my story, wrote a cover letter, got a S.A.S.E. together, stuffed it all in a manila envelope, put on a coat, walked to the Post Office, had my package weighed, bought additional postage, and sent my story out into the wilderness, only to have it immediately eaten by the wolves of poor planning. I would have been better off staying home and sticking two fingers in my ass.

Hard Hitting Issues

24 Dec

Gary Lovisi, editor of Hard Boiled Magazine, writes:


Not bad but so similar to many stories I’ve had, so I’ll have to pass. You might want to try a subscription to Hardboiled & better see my needs. $35 gets you the next 4 hard-hitting issues.


I don’t mind editors using rejection letters as back-alley streets to peddle their wares. I don’t object to the implication–true, as it happens–that I’m not overly familiar with the magazine. But $35 for four issues? Hey man, I just wanted to take your daughter out, no one’s talking marriage.

Tiny Letter

21 Dec


You can’t tell from the picture, but this is the tiniest rejection letter I’ve ever received, quite possibly the tiniest the world has ever produced.

Things that are bigger than, and can thus physically dominate, this rejection letter:

  • Playing card
  • Bar of soap
  • iPod Nano
  • Pack of cigarettes
  • Zippo lighter
  • Monopoly money
  • Micropenis (flaccid)

For reference, here is Pembroke’s standard rejection form, aside an American quarter.


I feel silly having provided the postage for this seafoam-green scrap of paper. I feel like it could have been delivered to me via insect.

You’re Kind of An Asshole

19 Dec

New Letters

I had a professor in college whose claim to fame, as it were, was having been published a couple of times in New Letters.

She was a mousy, skittish thing with black pinpoint eyes and greasy grey hair who was nice enough to give me an “A” despite my work being transparently misanthropic, embarrassingly confessional, and chronically overdue.

And she said something to me, once, that I will never forget.

It was the last day of class and I had decided to duck out early, to get a head start on my winter break bender. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go out and get drunk, or that I was bored with that day’s lecture. It was simply that I felt like my work was done there, and I didn’t see any reason to carry on with the charade of being a student any longer. I pulled a lot of that shit back then.

What I did not plan on was my professor excusing herself from class and following me out into the hall.

“Do you know what I did this weekend?” she said, as if idly striking up a conversation with a colleague in the faculty lounge. “I went to a party. All the department heads were there. Dr. Grecco was singing your praises.”

(Dr. Grecco was a professor of British and Irish literature who was, for all intents and purposes, my academic mentor. He held two Ph.D’s from the Yale School of Drama, was a rock star in the field of literary criticism, and was an accomplished playwright in his own right; his third play, The Orientals, produced by the Marin County Theater Company, was a minor hit in the Seventies. He was also an abrasive drunk, an impossible-to-please critic, and one of the most physically unattractive men I have ever encountered. He had an absolute gift for making me feel ridiculously small, only to boost my confidence by pushing me to reach for greater heights with my fiction. On one memorable occasion, fed up with my habitual lateness to class, he interrupted his lecture and declared: “You have a very casual attitude towards your education, Mr. Barbieri. You play your cards close to the vest, but you’re holding a bum hand. You think you’re cool, but you’re a goof. You think you’re goddamn J.D. Salinger, but you aren’t that good. Yet.”

It was Dr. Grecco who single-handedly steered me away from writing screenplays, towards writing short fiction, by suggesting I enter a short story in the Edward J. Nichols Writing Contest. Now, for some inexplicable reason, the professor of my advanced fiction writing class, who was on the jury of said award committee, was stopping me in the hall to discuss Grecco’s surprisingly high-flown opinion of me.)

I was uncomfortable with this conversation. I still had not learned how to gracefully field a compliment. I’m fairly certain I reeked of weed and rum. I definitely smelled like something.

“I’ve gone over your transcript,” she was saying. “Talked to some of your professors. You’ve done some good work here. But you’ve also been kind of an asshole.”

I screwed up my face, did my best to appear offended and bewildered by the comment … but I knew what she meant. For three years I’d been skirting by on talent and not much else. In choosing my curriculum, the only qualifications I ever considered were open seats towards the back of class and a start time past 2PM. Even so, I was always the best writer in every class; unfortunately, I didn’t have a work ethic to speak of; and I never once participated in any workshop discussion. There were whole weeks when I didn’t show up to class at all.

“I want you to know that I read your submission for the writing contest. I will not be recommending it for the award. But I’m impressed with it.”

“Well … thanks.”

She seized my forearm. Dug her thumb in between the bones. I was sure this weird, ancient woman would snap my arm in half like a stick. There was enormous strength in her grip.

“You know, there are a lot of smart people out there. Hard workers. And they don’t go to Penn State. They go to Princeton. They’re Rhodes scholars. I just want you to know what you’re up against.”

I forced myself to look her in the eye. For some bizarre reason, I was terrified that she would try to make out with me. I pictured her sagging tits and varicose veins; my nose nuzzled into her turkey-gobbler neck. I would have gone along with it out of sheer terror; in deference to the draw of her authority. I was kind of turned on by the idea, to be honest.

“You can do this writing thing, if you want to,” she said, still holding my arm, “but I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone.”

And then she simply let go of my arm, turned and walked back into the classroom, as if nothing had ever happened.

*  *  *

It was with this professor in mind that, ten years later, I decided to enter two short stories in a fiction contest sponsored by New Letters. I think in my mind I wanted to prove to her, and to myself, that all those hours spent goofing around in her class had not gone to waste; that I was serious about this nonsense; that I was cut out for The Life; that I had the stomach for the writing bug. And maybe she would see my work in the magazine where, as a struggling author herself, she’d found a tiny measure of success and satisfaction; and remember our conversation in the hall; and be, if not proud, mystified.

*  *  *

“The End of Everything Good” was eventually published by the Berkeley Fiction Review (Issue #29) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

“Fiends” was published by the now-defunct Kennesaw Review.

Rookie Mistake

17 Dec

Green Mountains

From the scolds at Green Mountains Review:

Dear Contributor:

Thank you for your interest in Green Mountains Review. However, we cannot consider your manuscript at this time because it arrived after the March 1st deadline. Please note that our reading period is from September 1 – March 1. We appreciate your interest and look forward to reading your submission during that time period.


The Editors

But since I am an idiot, I have a few questions–chief among them, the mildly terrifying logo to the left of the letterhead, an image of what appears to be a lumbering, malproportioned man carrying some sort of sack across a nightmarish Edvard Munch landscape: what is that?

This is clearly a form rejection–which means Green Mountains Review receives enough stories outside the designated reading period that the editors drafted a boilerplate letter for the express purpose of reminding space cadets like myself of proper submission procedure.

I do wonder what happened to my story when it entered the mail room of Johnson State College’s English Department, and crossed the desk of an editor. Did it reach an editor? Was everyone on vacation? There must have been someone there–an intern, maybe; a wide-eyed undergrad, probably–to slice open the envelope, stuff my S.A.S.E. with this rejection, and send my story to the shredder.

I would never just discard a story like that. What am I, a philistine? Send me a story and I’ll read it. Send me 10,000 stories, and I will read them all. I may be intellectually curious, but, as noted above, I am also an idiot, one who can’t even follow simple directions, and whose career thus far is somewhat analogous to this premature touchdown spike by the inimitable DeSean Jackson:

*Note awesome end zone dance at 0:28. That’s me, after mailing my story to Green Mountains Review.

Character Development

14 Dec


Every now and then I take a break from killing myself with alcohol to reflect upon my transition from professional rejectee to published, agented author.

By winter of 2009 I owned maybe two pairs of jeans, a pair of Doc Martens boots, and a laptop that threw off smoke if I used it for fifteen consecutive minutes. But I was moving up in the world–literally, from basement to attic. Once again I found myself relying upon a certain friend who, perhaps more than anyone else, understood the struggle I was facing; the compulsion to foolishly cling to a foul-smelling dream, long past its date of expiration.

Two years prior, I had written thirty pages of what had started out as a short story and had metastasized, as these things do, into a full-fledged crappy horror novel. It was basically the story of a Marine with PTSD who moves into a haunted house. I was calling the story “It Lives Upstairs,” which is a bad, bad title for the kind of book I was attempting. The writing wasn’t any great shakes either.

But it was words on a page, the prose was there, the story made a kind of nonlinear sense, and it was something to work on, to distract me from the flaming helicopter accident that had become of my life. At the end of the day I had a roof over my head, a quiet space to write, a snow-swept window with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Pittsburgh … but I couldn’t take advantage of it. I could not conceive of trundling home after work, to my little attic with its dust mites and beer-soaked carpets, to sit in front of a blank Word document into which I would theoretically insert literary content. I was terrified of being alone. I’d sit at my laptop, and five minutes later I’d be texting some girl I’d met on the street, making plans to meet up at Dee’s, that charmless, hipster-strewn den of apathy and unearned narcissism.

In those days, I fancied myself a bit of a player. I thought I had “game”–but in retrospect, I was really just an asshole. I would just walk up to the prettiest girl in the bar, say the most random, bizarre shit I could think of, then walk away without hearing a response. I was charming and repulsive to the extreme. Sometimes I would intentionally double-book dates, then let them fight it out as I ignored them both. I’d leave the bar without telling anyone–what’s referred to as an “Irish goodbye”–and later, at around 4AM, already lying in bed with another girl, I’d shoot them a text that read: “Who won?”

It was around this time that some of my friends started suggesting I buy a gun, carry a knife, or at least learn how to fight. But I had no need for such radical, preemptive solutions; I had my brain; I could talk myself out of, and into, anything. Often I’d find myself walking home from the bar with a bag of potato chips, and I’d stop under a bridge to catch my breath and light a cigarette, and just pass out from sheer asshole exhaustion. Just sleep there under the bridge, as if that were the most natural thing in the world to do! In the morning I would pick myself up, dust the dirt and snow and other detritus off of me, vomit in some bushes, and walk three blocks to the coffee shop where I worked. Looking back, it’s a miracle I was never robbed by police, raped by homeless psychopaths, or set on fire by steroidal teenage marauders.

To say I was a little depressed would be a bit like saying a late-stage drug addict with a brain tumor and failing kidneys and full-blown AIDS is just a little bit sick. I was gravely, immeasurably depressed. Depression consumed me. I COULD NOT shake my depression. Couldn’t face the fact that the endless parade of stoners and whores that passed in and out of that crumbling house was the extent of my social involvement. Were it not for my general laziness, aversion to planning, and pathetic inability to obtain a firearm, I would surely have ended my life that same winter.

People who knew me back then will sometimes ask me how I defeated my demons and pulled myself up by my bootstraps to become the upstanding, super high-functioning white guy I am today. Well, I’ll tell you. One day, while walking along some train tracks, I had what you might call an epiphany. I figured there were three things I could do to beat back my depression. One, I had to stop drinking–at least until such a time when I could string together two coherent thoughts. Two, I had to get some exercise–ideally something more rigorous and vigorous than walking from bar to bar. And three, I had to make a concerted attempt to write. To sit at my computer and make myself available to the Muse. Whether I got any work done, or sat there all night staring at a glowing computer screen: I had to put the time in.

Eight months later, I had a 90,000-word novel that was better than it had any right to be, considering I was so fucked up on vodka and pills that to this day I do not remember writing vast stretches of it.

I gave the book a quick edit, and went out on the usual rounds of submitting the work to indifferent, high-powered literary agents, with predictably bad results. Some agents expressed interest, but after reading the first few chapters, sagely brushed off my query, washed their hands clean of me. Most agents simply didn’t respond.

Precisely one agent, from the Maria Carvainis Literary Agency, requested to read the full novel.

I was ecstatic, terrified. I couldn’t believe it. This little horror novel I had written, from my little attic in the Southside Slopes, this thing I had almost drunk myself to death while writing, was going on a BIG TRIP to Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. I couldn’t have been more proud.

I printed out the manuscript, slapped together a cover letter, wrote a brief message on a piece of stationery with a picture of Edgar Allen Poe on it, and packed the materials into a FedEx box just before my shift at the Beehive started.

As I was doing this, my friend Ted Moses, a 64-year-old degenerate gambler affectionately and provincially known as “The Mayor of Southside,” came over to my table.

“You’re gonna get picked up,” he casually said, while crunching on an apple. As if telling me it was going to rain in five minutes.

“How do you know?”

“I just know. I can see it. What you’ve done here, it’s beautiful. I know it in my balls.

With the exception of the outcome of horse races, I’ve never known Ted to be wrong about anything. So it was not without a measure of hope, and dumb delusion, that I waited for the response to roll in.

About a month later I was lying in bed in with my then-girlfriend Serena, and I got this email on my phone:

Dear Mr. Barbieri,

The impressive amount of detail and chill-inducing descriptions of this horrid house really made my skin crawl. Unfortunately the characters in the story did not have any particularly lasting effect; their lack of substance and seemingly arbitrary relationship with the protagonist was off-putting. Moreover, the fact that Abe has PTSD does not compensate for the often confusing sense of time and perspective in the narrative. For these reasons, I am very sorry that I cannot be the enthusiastic representative any author deserves and I demand of myself.

I wish you much pleasure and success with your writing career.

Best regards,

And that was that. There would be no clearly delineated moment of victory, convincing me that I was on a course to success; the Gods of Publishing would not swoop in and rescue me from obscurity, from a life of wiping asses and hanging bags of blood. In one month I would start nursing school, and I knew I wouldn’t have the time to lovingly perfect my query letter and send out a new batch of submissions. It was over. The dream was over. The novel did not get “picked up,” as Ted had predicted. The book did not “find a home.”

Instead, I did.

And I’m kind of glad it happened that way. I’m glad Ted was wrong. I’m glad I went another ten months before finding the exact perfect agent to represent my book. Because if, by some providence, I had gotten signed by that agent, knowing myself as I do, I would have taken it as a sign to keep going, keep drinking, and I never would have had the guts to follow through with the best decision I ever made, to do something for someone other than myself for a change, to become a nurse–a decidedly non-writerly exploit that changed my life in ways too wonderful and strange to write about now with any clarity or insight.

*  *  *

As I write this somewhat scatterbrained blog post, it occurs to me that I still don’t know what the fuck I am doing. Why am I putting this all out there? What do I hope to gain? Do I hope to gain anything? Who do I think will read, or care about, this bullshit?

I think, deep down, I just want to be adored. I just want to be naked–stripped of the bitterness and misery that piles up with year upon year of hilarious failure. I’m clearly an angry person, and maybe this blog is my way of reconciling the euphoric high of the creative process with the perpetual hell and disappointment engendered by that same process. I think there is a tendency to romanticize and embellish that period of my life–as if, at my core, I am the kind of person who thinks nothing of walking out on a tab or asking random girls if they fart or eating potato chips under a bridge; who can exist, as a child or a psychopath exists, without morals or responsibility. But I will never be that person again. I just don’t have time for that person.

All Apologies

10 Dec

I suspect “DK” are the initials of the slush reader who rejected my piece.

But I like to think this reads: “Sorry OK”.

As in: “Sorry, OK, we hate to do this, but OK, the thing is, your work is really awful, like criminally bad, so please don’t send us anything else … OK?

You don’t have to be sorry. You took the time to scribble something in pencil on my rejection slip, thus ensuring its enshrinement in Letters of Rejection. Really, I should be thanking you.

I Like This Crazy Story

5 Dec

 A truly great acceptance letter. Response reads:


I like this crazy story.

“The Woodsman” is in for the November YAWP. I’ll send you one free copy. $3 for extras. Sounds like you just let your imagination romp; sometimes that’s best.


–John Berbrich

I love this guy’s enthusiasm. Sometimes you really feel like an editor is just doing this for the love; he’s not trying to alter the fabric of the literary scene; he just gets off on uncovering “crazy stories” in the mail. I don’t care that I only get one free copy. Here is an editor that makes me feel like I’m interfacing with some niche subculture; like I’m a part of something bigger. That “one free copy” might as well be an O. Henry Award.

The funny thing is, I don’t even like this story. It’s what you might call a “trunk story”–something I wrote while I was delaying writing something else; an exercise to keep my pen fresh. And yet, it landed on an editor’s desk, and the editor saw fit to put it in his little magazine. Amazing.

It has been my experience that the stories you toss over your shoulder and never think twice about are the ones that make the most satisfying splash.