Archive | January, 2013

Dinner at 8

28 Jan

We’ve all been there before. You go out to the mailbox and find a featherweight S.A.S.E. You rip the envelope open to find what appears to be a standard form rejection from Interim Magazine, official literary publication of UNLV. It’s printed on good bone-white card stock. You hold the letter in your hand, finger its sharp corners. It exists. You flip the card over, only to discover an enthusiastic, handscrawled note from the Interim editorial team…

Check the backs of your rejection letters, people. You could find interesting things there. To prove my point…

I have about a zillion of these cards from Black Warrior Review. It’s one of my favorite literary journals. I submit there all the time. Besides being based out of the awesomely named Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and rocking an equally awesome bold-Impact-fonted letterhead, and featuring some of the best poetry and fiction produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, they also nominate for the Pushcart Prize and to the Best American series.

I almost threw this rejection away–really, how many of these things can you keep before they become a fire hazard–until I needed a piece of scrap paper to use as impromptu stationery, as is my practice. You can imagine my surprise when on the back of this particular card I found this perfectly-rendered doodle of a pig.

That pig’s god mad personality. I just love his enormous ears and twirly tail; his broad, bold snout and curiously absent eyes. How he tilts his head just slightly, and peers into my soul, as if to say: “Good show, chap. Thank you for your work. I am delicious.”

I am a strong advocate for the Old-World process of mailing stories to editors and receiving physical rejection letters in return. But one drawback of this antiquated system is that you can’t readily capitalize on personalized rejections, when they do come. It’s easy to reply to a thoughtful, emailed rejection with a quick word of thanks and a promise to submit more work in the future. But how to respond to a pig? If I were to, say, tweet at the editors of BWR

@BlackWarriorRev Thanks for sending the pig along with my #rejection. Dinner at 8?

–there’s a good chance they might not know what the fuck I am talking about, and may even alert the authorities. Oh, I’m sorry, was I not supposed to link to a picture of myself holding a hog’s head in one hand and a bloody chef’s knife in the other? Excuse me, Miss Sensitive.


Cowboys and Astronauts

24 Jan


I used to collect butterflies. It was just something I did for a couple of summers, when I was nine or ten years old. I had a blue butterfly net, a few dozen jars, a cork board, some pins. I’d go out early in the morning, when it was still foggy and cool, and catch not just butterflies but beetles, sawflies, grasshoppers, ladybugs, and even bees.

As far as I know or can tell, I was the last American child to collect butterflies as a hobby. It’s one of those things you hear about kids doing, or read about in books, but never actually see in real life. Like helping old ladies cross the street; or obtaining merit badges in archery. Or reading.

*  *  *

When people tell me they don’t read books–better still, that they “hate reading”–I don’t understand what the fuck they are talking about. How can you hate reading? That’s like hating air.

For one thing, reading is one of the most relaxing things a person can do. In this age of nonstop stress and stimulation, when it seems like life is just a series of panic attacks, or one giant, prolonged panic attack, reading is one of the few activities you can engage in independent of family, work, or other horrific and loud distractions. It’s so relaxing, in fact, that it puts you to sleep. I know I can’t personally lay down on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, even a great book, without winking off in less than an hour.

The other thing about reading is that it’s an aggressive, and even a competitive, activity. There are very few books that can keep your attention the whole way through. At some point–usually after the first 140 pages or so–there is always a temptation to put the book down and never pick it back up. The book may begin with an intriguing premise, but then the author makes a questionable decision, goes off on an ill-advised tangent, fails to properly braid the strands of his story into a cohesive, suspenseful whole–and then you have a decision to make. The author has challenged you; and now it’s you against the author. So you power through. The book will not defeat you. You finish the book, you put it on your bookshelf, and you say: “I read that.” It’s a mini-accomplishment. You did that shit. It’s hard to read a book. It takes time. Time–the one commodity that all of us have, and don’t have, in spades.

*  *  *

More and more it occurs to me that people simply don’t give a fuck what I’m doing with my writing. I tell them about a conversation I had with my agent, or the revisions I’m making to a story, or an idea I have germinating in my head, or a magazine I am thinking of sending my work to, or this blog, and they politely nod their heads and try to think of a way to steer the conversation down a more fruitful, less conflicted path. They never know what to say. I might as well be talking about ET tubes and CVP waveforms and indwelling catheters and runs of v-tach. There are a few people who I would call friends who know, more or less, what it means to have a story accepted by a magazine; but from the rest, even from the most well-meaning of friends, the best you can hope for is that polite, uncomfortable head-bobbing, a kind of grim acknowledgement of semi-success.

Used to be, someone would introduce me to a group of people, and begin by saying: “This is Ernesto, he is a writer.” What it meant to them, I dare not say, but it would mean something. These days I’m almost embarrassed to tell people I write–and downright mortified to describe myself as a writer. I might as well say I’m a cowboy, or an astronaut; it’s a carved-out area of the American jobspace that doesn’t really exist anymore; at once too specific and too vague to count for anything. I’m sure there are people on this planet who earn their livings wrangling cattle, or getting shot into space, or dreaming up stories and poems and plays out of thin air, but I don’t know them, you don’t know them, and so, do they really exist? Are they real?

*  *  *

There was this little weird guy who used to come into the Beehive, who I was always kind of afraid of. He was even shorter than me, and waifishly thin, and he always wore a three-piece suit with a pocket watch and a tie, and he had a pencil-thin mustache that looked like it was drawn on, and I think he would walk with a cane. I was afraid of him because it always seemed like one day he would walk into the Hive, with his beta-male rage, and instead of a cane he would have an automatic weapon, and just open fire on the place, just wipe us all out.

I mention this freak because, at the time when he was coming around, I had just gotten a story accepted by Morpheus Tales, a little UK horror magazine that is actually one of the bigger horror markets. He came in one day, I gave him his coffee, and he said, almost as an afterthought, “Congrats on Morpheus Tales, man, that’s really cool.” It was so out-of-the-blue that for a few seconds I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. I hadn’t told anyone about the acceptance, after all. (Adding an extra layer to my confusion is the fact that I write under a pen name.) Yet somehow he had seen my story–it was about a vampire masquerading as a tattoo artist, who uses a special tattoo gun to collect blood from his clients–and he’d kind of put two and two together and realized that the writer who worked behind the counter at his favorite coffee shop had published a story overseas; and we had a moment, him and me, a moment of understanding between readers. And the moment conveyed: I got you, man.

Few weeks later, I banned him from the Beehive. I had to. He was running around the back room, goosed on acid, hitting girls in the legs with his cane.

*  *  *

One day I went out to the garage to retrieve my blue butterfly net and it wasn’t there. It was the first day of summer vacation, and I wanted to get a head start on all the glorious insects that had descended on our humid enclave of Philly. I asked my parents where my butterfly net was, and my mom handed me a brand new basketball, and my Dad said coldly: “You’re too old to be running around chasing butterflies like a fairy.”

And the thing is … he was right! I was too old to be prancing around in some meadow, swinging my faggy blue net around. He didn’t have to be such a giant dick about it, but even then, I knew what he meant. It was developmentally inappropriate.

Many years later I came home from San Francisco to announce my intention to write fiction for a living, and it was as if I was coming out of the closet to them. I am lucky my dad didn’t throw me out of a window. I think my mother cried. “You were always so happy running after bugs in the yard, with your little net,” she said into her tea. “You could have been an entomologist.”

A New Beginning

14 Jan


Just to show you this blog is not all gloom and doom, I’m going to talk about some nice things that have happened to me lately.

In December I accepted a nursing position in the cardiothoracic ICU of a major Pittsburgh hospital. This is joyful news, albeit a bit bittersweet; being a fat, unemployed, alcoholic loser was a personal dream of mine. I’m nervous, of course, and excited, and humbled by the opportunity, and hopeful that I won’t kill anyone. Nursing gives me serenity, and a much-needed respite from the manic-depressive stagecraft of producing fiction. I passed my boards back in November. I also passed my drug screen.

And then there is my writing. Ah, writing. Remember writing? That thing I used to do, before I started this blog? The good news is that my agent loves the new book. The bad news is that my agent loves the new book, and so there are notes. Revisions. Pacing issues. Rewrites. There is also a new-new book, which I hope to finish this year, a crime novel titled THE GROOMSMEN.

Which is all a very circuitous way of saying that this blog is changing. Over the holidays it occurred to me that an excess of introspection is not necessarily a good thing; that maybe I should spend a little less time reflecting on my failures and a little more time concentrating on my future. I am, first and foremost, a writer of fiction; and between working on the new book, submitting stories, nursing, reading, drinking, chasing skirt, and posting moronic tweets, there is only so much time in the day.

Still, I’m proud of what I’ve created here–prouder still of all the people who have gravitated to the blog, and helped promote it, and subscribed to my feed, from India to Jamaica to Canada to Switzerland and Australia and the UK. The response has been so much more positive than anything I could have imagined, and is something I will always remember.

*  *  *

The big news today is that I am opening up the blog to other writers. For those eagle-eyed return visitors, you may have noticed the handy new SUBMIT tab at the top-right corner of the screen. Click that shit. I essentially want to make the blog into a community where writers and artists can share their thoughts on the struggle to make their work known to the world. Everyone, from precocious high schoolers who have yet to place their first story, to famous authors who want to tell us how they ate cigarette butts and grubs on their way to publication, is welcome to participate.

I will still post my own rejections here, and blog about them, as time permits. I will also occasionally use this space to post notes about THE GROOMSMEN, and updates on my other projects, THE GOOD HOUSE and THE DARK BREW. And of course there are always my short stories, my little retarded rugrats, whom I love dearly, and constantly worry about, as parents stress over whether their shiftless children will ever find gainful employment.

So please keep coming here, as your own busy schedule permits; and if you’re feeling especially generous and social, leave a comment; and if you feel like contributing your own letters of rejection to this site, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or tweet. Thanks again for participating in this little experiment, and please, don’t text while driving (road head is acceptable).

Yours in Christ,



Not the Best Fit

9 Jan

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult letter to write.

And yet, in the spirit of the trust you placed in me, I feel it is my duty to declare–forcefully, unequivocally, and magnanimously–that I violated that trust.

You had asked me to house sit, and with that responsibility came the unspoken agreement, a sacred pact if you will, that I would not eat too much of your food, use your bath towels, run up excessive cable fees, or defile your cat with my dick. Indeed a vital aspect of this social contract–I find it awkward but necessary to point out here that at no point was money exchanged–was that I would vigilantly look after your cat’s needs. Which needs, as I am now to understand, did not include the placement of my dick on or even within the vicinity of your cat.

A step-by-step rehashing of the events leading up to this regrettable encounter would be immaterial, boorish, and possibly defamatory. Nonetheless, I believe it is my obligation to give some sort of account as to what happened on the night in question, so that all parties–namely you, your cat, and my dick–can arrive at something approaching peace.

Before going forward, I should humbly point out that I did in fact complete each and every item on the list you left me, such as bringing in the mail, removing the newspaper from your driveway, and watering your plants (not with my dick). These tasks were carried out happily and without regard for compensation. It was my pleasure. Really.

I should also note, without the slightest trace of conceit, that I could very well have remained silent on this delicate subject, and none would be the wiser. But where is the morality in that? What if, for instance, late into the night, I had opened up your laptop, and sleepily but methodically gained access to certain sensitive documents, and sort of accidentally reviewed your financial portfolio, even going so far as to memorize key figures and the precise locations of your various holdings, as I did? I am certain you would want to be made aware of that information, if for no better reason than to “clear the air” between us, so to speak. To put our cards, and not our dicks, on the table.

How embarrassing for me that the very reason I was selected for this assignment is my good standing in the community–in particular my reputation as a person with a dick who can be relied upon to perform such tasks as emptying the litter box, refreshing the water dish, and lovingly and dicklessly providing your cat with the requisite amount of affection–my “way with animals,” as it were. Now I suppose the luster of this distinction has been somewhat tarnished. Perhaps this is as it should be; and if I am to be disqualified from subsequent arrangements, within the orbit of our social group, merely because a portion of my dick ended up on or inside of your cat, then this is my cross to bear.

It is my sincere hope that with time and perspective we will look upon this matter with amusement, detached curiosity, and even celebration. However, in the interests of preventing a recurrence of this unfortunate event, I think it best that in the future I do not house sit for you.



Douche Cougars

7 Jan


I had the pleasure of spending New Year’s Eve with some clowns from around the way who were kind enough to listen to my drunken fireside ramblings about Greek mythology, boxing technique, the art of writing compelling fiction, and other subjects I know next to nothing about.

Now, at every party, at least the ones I attend, there is invariably a person who goes far and beyond the call of duty, a shit-show champion if you will, who puts even my debilitating alcoholism into perspective. Our MVP of this particular night was a woman in her late thirties, visibly pregnant and heavily tattooed, wearing a green miniskirt that unsuccessfully shielded her genitals from the roaring fire. Every few minutes my friend Gary was required to leap up from his lawn chair and employ a modified wrestling hold on this woman, to keep her from tumbling ass-first into the fire pit. She was, to the best of my recollection, attempting to abort her unborn child with what I imagine to be a lethal cocktail of cocaine, marijuana resin, mood stabilizers, high fructose corn syrup, amyl nitrates, and Lord knows what else.

At some point in the evening, we had this meaningful exchange:

Party Girl: I just got screamed at by a bunch of guys on the street.
Me: Why?
Girl: Because they’re fucking douche cougars, why the fuck do you think?

Oh my, that is perfect.

Douche cougars. I like that.

But what, exactly, is a douche cougar? According to Urban Dictionary:

1.     douche cougar
term for someone who asks you to move down in a bar …


This definition makes a kind of intuitive sense–douche, because asking someone to give up their bar seat is a classic “douche move”; and cougar, because this erstwhile reasonable request, in the hands of a douche, is a feral, manipulative, aggressive and tactless act.

However, in my opinion, the term douche cougar is too rich and rewarding to be wasted on such a niche definition.

So in honor of this blustering, unstoppable tornado of a woman, I would like to introduce an alternate definition of “douche cougar” into the lexicon:

2.     douche cougar
a person, typically male, who regularly engages in “douche-y” behavior, long after the point when such
behavior is reasonable or cute or age-appropriate


And we’re done here. What I like about this secondary definition, is that it attempts to repurpose the banal, better-known, female-directed cougar to fit an aging male stereotype. (The term “cougar,” in itself, is sort of a douche-y thing to call an older woman with a healthy sex drive.)

On to our rejection du jour, courtesy of Santa Monica Review

Dear Writer,

We don’t know of anyone who hasn’t had work returned at one time or another, but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. We hope you will find some consolation in the individuality of editorial tastes and in the assurance that, with persistence, good work will be recognized as such.

Thank you for trying us.

The Editors

This may be the most well-crafted form rejection I’ve ever received. I love the story it tells–its empathetic appeal; its insider take on the sad world of writers–all of it cresting in the bold guarantee that my work, if good, will eventually be accepted to some great reward (just not by the Santa Monica Review). For now I can take solace in the “individuality of editorial tastes,” and resist the dark thought that the Editors of SMH just shoved my story aside to make room for a better, sexier, more interesting and profitable writer.


4 Jan


At first blush this looks like a standard form rejection. And it probably is–which is to say, this might be a template into which my pen name, and the title of my story, were inserted. Still, it took time for Stephen Mazur to plug this data into his Word document, and to scratch his signature at the bottom; his response is particularly charitable, considering that the story I sent him is not right for the magazine at all.

“The Sands” is a straight-ahead horror tale about five friends returning home from a Steelers game who crash their car off of a bridge and into a pit of quicksand. Fantasy & Science Fiction does occasionally publish horror, providing the story in question contains some element of fantasy, or science–of which “The Sands” has neither.

I was grasping at straws with my submission to MFSF, desperately trying to keep its chances for publication afloat, even as I knew that with every “genre” magazine that rejected the piece, my hopes for ever seeing it in print were fast slipping away.

“The Sands” is one of my strongest, strangest stories; but due to its gratuitous sex and violence, juxtaposed uncomfortably with long discursions on football and geology, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it will not find a place in the commercial short story market.

Fantasy & Science Fiction submission guidelines: