Speaking of awards I haven’t won yet …

Earlier this week I found out my story “Fantastic Atlas” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Ascent, the journal where it appeared back in March of this year.

This, combined with the very favorable write-up my novel How I’m Spending My Afterlife received for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Contest (which it did not win, alas), has made for a very affirming and confidence-building week for me.

Of course, it is just a nomination. I haven’t actually won anything yet. And as John Fox points out in a pretty divisive blog post, a lot of people get these nominations every year. That’s because every small literary magazine is eligible to submit up to six pieces they published during the previous calendar year. There is, therefore, a school of thought that says the nomination itself is pretty meaningless unless it’s followed by a win, or at least a Special Mention, and that boasting about it is unseemly.

My take: Nah.

Nobody says we shouldn’t brag about getting our stories published. In fact, that’s just good self-promotion, and it’s pretty much required these days (hell, self-promotion is the reason I wrote this post in the first place). So why wouldn’t I be proud of it when an editor tells me that he thinks my story was one of the best things his journal published this year?

And I’m not the only one who feels this way, either.

So yes, I’m gonna brag about it, and I hope I win. I got a Pushcart nomination! Hooray! Go me! But even if I don’t win, it really is an honor just to be nominated.

I’ll definitely mention it when I start sending the short story collection out to agents and editors, though. Way up high in the query letter. They are gonna hear about it, boy howdy.

There’s more to life than winning awards, you know (though that’s probably pretty nice too)

Earlier this year, I entered How I’m Spending My Afterlife in the 26th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The judge who read it had some nice things to say (I assume they would have told me if I’d won anything, and since they didn’t mention anything, I guess I probably didn’t, which is okay because I am getting plenty of validation from this critique, let me tell you):

HOW I’M SPENDING MY AFTERLIFE knocks it out of the park. Wonderfully produced, its colorful, evocative and clever cover is sure to draw many an eye and pocketbook. And readers will likely not be disappointed; Alton Carver is fully developed, appealing scoundrel who owns his mistakes but doesn’t quite know what to do with them and his wife (widow?) Nicole is equally misguided. The true victim of the piece is an innocent, daughter Clara who is portrayed realistically as well. Readers may recognize parts of themselves and others in these characters; motivation in and of itself to keep turning the pages.
But author Spencer Fleury pulls together other elements as well, including a plot that bubbles along at rapid pace and lots of humor. Alton makes no bones about his love for all things materialistic, such as parting ways with his beloved Porsche when he fakes his death. “…you either understand what I’m talking about or you don’t, and if you don’t I feel sorry for you.” While Nicole calls Davis, her ineffectual lover, “an idea hamster…coming up with ideas and never taking them anywhere, just…spinning his giant hamster wheel until the next one came along.” Such writing is reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen, another chronicler of all things Florida.
Although the book has some vagaries, such as exactly how much money is at stake, where it is located and what happens to it after events unfold and the exact nature of Alton’s initial crimes, these are not enough to detract from the an excellent escapist read. And like any good piece of writing, it’s reflective of society in general and imparts a solid moral lesson that allows readers to figure it out for themselves.
  • Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 5 (on a scale of 1 to 5)
  • Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 4
  • Production Quality and Cover Design: 5
  • Plot and Story Appeal: 4
  • Character Appeal and Development: 5
  • Voice and Writing Style: 4
Thanks, contest judge! I’m glad you dug it.

One of the (hundred) best

Validation is mine: How I’m Spending My Afterlife was just selected as one of Shelf Unbound Magazine’s 100 Notable Indie Books of 2018!

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There it is. Gaze upon it. One of the hundred best independently-published books of the year. You know you want a copy.

It’s a small bit of recognition, true, but it’s also very gratifying, and nearly makes up for the whole Pulitzer snub. Thanks for enjoying the book, Shelf Unbound, and for telling your readers that you did.

Tomorrow’s the day

So. Tomorrow’s it, then. Publication day for my first novel, How I’m Spending My Afterlife. The realization of a dream I’ve kept alive at some level for nearly my entire adult life. It’s been three and a half years since I typed out the first page of the first draft, and to finally get here after all that time is exciting and terrifying all at once.

And in that time, here are three things I’ve learned:

  • I have a lot of very supportive people in my life, and am lucky for that.
  • The real hard work of this is just beginning.
  • I’m good enough to do this again, and I will.

Check out the book here. I hope you dig it.

Either way, wish me luck.

Destination unknown: writing without a map

I started writing How I’m Spending My Afterlife in May of 2014, but I’d had the plot and characters in my head for at least seven or eight years before that. Maybe even longer.

There were a few reasons for that long delay in turning the idea into a book (I talk about some of them in my post about being a late bloomer), but one of them was particularly pointless and stupid: I didn’t know in advance how the story was going to end. And because I had never seriously tried to write a novel before and had no idea of what I was getting into, I was terrified of investing years of time and toil into a project I might not be able to finish.

There’s a whole cottage industry of advising neophyte authors on how best to tame the beast that is the writing process, but there’s no consensus on what that best way actually is. (Which makes sense, I guess: if there were a clear path, then there’d be no market or need for all those books and seminars.) Outline or no outline? Should you write character backstory that will never be read by anyone by you, or is that a waste of time? Write each chapter in order, or skip around and fill in the blanks later?

Most of the advice I was reading at the time urged the use of an outline. That made sense to me. Even then I was self-aware enough to understand how my mind works, and how easily I could get distracted and find myself writing down tangents and blind alleys until I’d forgotten the story I was trying to tell.

It also made sense to me to write with a specific destination in mind: in other words, to know the ending I was working to reach, the narrative resolution I was trying to achieve. So I refused to start until I knew where I wanted to end up.

This was a huge mistake that cost me years.

I remember countless phone conversations with my best friend during these years, trying to hash out with him what the end of this story should look like. He tried his best, but ultimately was no help at all because we have different ideas of what a satisfying resolution should look like: he kept suggesting Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines twist endings, and I kept shooting them down, terribly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t think of anything better.

It was maddening. I had a solid setup. I had strong characters. I had a story arc. I just didn’t have an ending.

But then I realized that if I had strong characters, I had all I needed right there. Not because having that means you don’t need an ending, but because strong characters would tell me what the ending was. All I had to do was start writing. When the time came to wrap things up, they’d let me know.

And it actually worked. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft before I figured out how the book would end, how it had to end; after I circulated a draft among some trusted friends of mine, I used their feedback to make the ending better.

I just let the characters live their lives and tell their story. I trusted them and never tried to make them do things they wouldn’t do. That’s all there was to it.

Of course, if you don’t have solid characters with strong personalities and specific desires and goals, this won’t work. The up-front effort goes into building those characters instead of a detailed outline. And let’s be clear, that does take a lot of up-front effort. But strong characters always make for the best fiction anyway, so it’s worth it.

I guess the point of this post is that if you want to write, don’t worry about conforming to someone else’s idea of process. I listened to the wrong people back in the day, and it cost me a metric shit-ton of time. I should have just trusted my instincts more (this is actually the piece of advice I would give to most people, in most contexts). I’d be a lot farther along in my fiction-writing career if I had.

I’m well into a draft for novel number two now, and I’m taking this approach a step further: I do have an ending in mind, but I’m not completely sure how I’m going to get there. The story arc is hazy. Plot points are un-plotted. It’s an even bigger leap of faith this time because I can’t give an elevator pitch about what I’m working on; it’s possible there’s not even a novel in what I’m doing. But I do have strong characters, just like last time, and I am confident they’ll show me the way again. So check back in 2019 to see how it worked out.