Sunday, December 23, 2012

Writing and Getting Published

Let me say a short thank you to my two dozen or so devoted readers.  I originally started this blog as a way to share my military-related writing, but it has assumed its own direction.  I've called myself a writer since early 2008, but thus far I have never published.  I have been paid for writing a pamphlet for a bank about how pre-paid credit cards work, a job I found online.  I was paid $15, and I didn't receive any credit or byline.  I've made a few dollars each quarter from Yahoo, but nothing I ever wrote went viral.  The most popular piece I have online is an educational article about uterine fibroid tumors on Yahoo that has been read almost 8,000 times.

Just before Thanksgiving, I decided to explore a whim, and I wrote a short-short fictional piece.  For those non-writers, a short-short, or micro-short, does not have anything to do with Daisy Duke, although I suppose it could.  In such stories, the author has less than 1,000 words to set a scene and try to make a point.  There isn't much time for the type of explanation and exposition that the first paragraph of this blog contains, for instance.

I was immediately faced with two challenges.  First, I don't normally write fiction, and I certainly have never tried horror or suspense.  Scary movies make me laugh, and I've seen enough real-world carnage that it would be pretty hard for me to be suspenseful.

Secondly, unlike a research paper, writing less is actually more difficult.  I had no time to introduce the reader to the character, set themes, and build anticipation.  The outlet that I had chosen for my piece has a strict word limit of 666 words (yes, it's a horror publication), and the outline for my first story exceeded that.  So I went back and revised the story, changing it to a single scene, with just enough background to make it work.  My 100-word outline for this story quickly expanded to 500, so I cut things out as I put things in, sort of my own personal fiscal-cliff negotiation with myself.  As I reached the limit, I went back and eliminated any phrase with more than one adjective, and slicing off every piece of small fat. 

I added one or two pieces back, and ended up with exactly 666 words, a fact I thought might please this particular publisher.

The website I had chosen from the 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, a heavy paperback commonly accepted as the place to look when one is ready to sell a work.  I had dutifully read some of the published work, and I thought haughtily, "I can write better than that."  I still believe this to be true.  Since the site accepts about 50% of what they receive, I was hopeful as I sent my presh-isss to their editor to be considered.  Since they promised a reply within a week, I checked my inbox daily.

Thirteen days later, I eagerly clicked on the incoming e-mail, but my giddiness was doused with a small bucket of "Your submission doesn't meet our needs."  They didn't write it quite like that - in my recent memory I seem to think it was more like, "We think your story sucks."  Hey, I'll remember things the way I want.

For some reason, I didn't stop.  I opened the guide again, and saw another website that published monthly.  They receive 100-200 submissions/month and publish about a dozen.  After browsing their guidelines, they made it very clear that they had enough material for the next year.  I wasn't hopeful, but off it went again to another editor.  This one promised a 3 month response time, so I forgot about it.

This time it only took six days.  I opened my inbox and did click.  The reply was equally short.

"Your story has been selected for publication in the October 2013 issue."

The publication is called Ascent Aspirations, an e-zine published in Canada.  I'm not being paid, but that's not why I want to be a writer.  There are plenty of more efficient ways to be paid.

I want to be read.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Big and The Small

Today's post is short, but I hope my readers will take the time to give it a Like, Digg, Stumble, +1, or even a Share.

Saturday my family and I went out walking.  We were actually looking for a local street event that we never quite found.

One thing we found instead was a man in a park, letting his puppy run around in the grass.

There are things in this world that make me feel very big.

Later, as we made our way to the ocean, we saw a gray sunset, the water still lit with the warmth of a sun that we couldn't quite feel.

There are things that make me feel very small, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reflecting in Huancayo

There’s nothing like waking up to the sunlight.  With the foggy weather of Lima, it had been months, but this morning we woke in a humble little hotel in Huancayo called “Grandma’s House.”  It was cheap, clean, and cheap, my three requisites.
Lucho, our guide, met us out front, and within minutes of the ride to our first stop, we could tell that Huancayo was nothing like our corner of Lima.  It felt more rural, more…normal.  The tiny museum was in the corner of a tiny suburb, and a group of kids, well dressed from mass, were gathered in the town square, which might have been a hundred feet across.  We were quickly the main attraction.

As we were greeted with staccato choruses of “good morning,” Lucho explained that they learned some basic English in school, but didn’t understand much.  Once they realized that we spoke Spanish, they were a bit quieter, but a few talked with us like kids do.

After a five-minute tour of the museum, which was just one room, we walked down some stone steps to a set of ruins about the size of a basketball court.  A few hundred years ago, the Catholics had covered the ruins with dirt, in an effort to bury the religious beliefs of several millennia.  Surprise, the Peruvians have shovels.

Walls several feet thick surrounded a central courtyard filled with thick green clover and two ancient, twisted trees.  Shallow pits walled with stone graced the center courtyard, where we saw three men quietly meditating near one of them.  An older one was talking quietly to the other two, who were about our age.  We stepped quietly passed them, not seeking to disturb, and kept to other parts of the sacred place.

Our respectful gesture may have impressed the old man, because he spoke to Lucho, and we were invited to sit next to them in the circle under one of the twisted 500-year old trees.  In the center, a small bundle of candles burned with black smoke, and a cloth with various objects sat near.  The objects, as Lucho explained, represented various aspects of life, like the sea, or Mother Earth.  There was also a small bowl of coca leaves and cheap cigarettes near the candles.

The old chief offered each of us a handful of coca leaves from a small bag, we were to sort them and pick out the best three (the number three representing the heaven, the earth, and the underworld) and place those back into the bowl, a gesture of recognizing the gods for what we had been given.

The rest of the leaves we quietly chewed while we made small talk with the old man. The old man then offered a pinch of ashes to go along with the coca – apparently the lye in the ash serves to “unlock” the spiritual properties of the leaf.  I’m pretty sure it’s just chemistry.  I did as our guide did, wetting the leaf in my mouth and blotting in onto the ash, then placing it in my cheek.

I don’t remember anything after that.

I’m kidding.  A person would need several pounds of coca leaves to feel any significant effect, and even then, the leaves are unprocessed, not like the concentrated, alkaline substance produced by the ton a few dozen miles further into the jungle.  The raw leaves are either chewed or brewed into a tea, which is stimulating, but not as much as caffeine.  It also fixes nausea and a host of other things.

I didn’t see any little pink elephants (elephants are in Africa anyway) but my mouth got a little tingly, and the altitude headache I had been coping with most of the morning disappeared.  

Any euphoria I felt was caused by a quiet minute to sit down, without the noise of the city, and just talk quietly with people with whom we shared little in common, other than simply being human.  We all felt incredibly lucky that they had shared this intimate and important part of their lives with us.

After a few minutes we stood up, thanked them, and moved quietly elsewhere.  We spent a few minutes hunting four-leaf clovers in the old courtyard, which Lucho said were lucky even in the pre-Inca culture.  

“The odds of a four-leaf clover are about one in ten-thousand, and a five-leaf is a one-in-a-million chance, and although sometimes certain patches have lots of them, that’s not normal.”

He looked at me skeptically, like he didn’t trust my facts.  It is true that 72% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

I told him about hunting them with my Grandparents when I was a kid, not being any good at it, and that I had found a 5-leaf only once in my life.

Five seconds later I plucked a five leaf, and held it out to him.


“Remember these things, children do.  Yours will remember this, too.”

Lucho may be a long-haired hippie looking, Yoda-talking, Inca tour-guide dude, but he’s a pretty smart guy.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, even hikes through the jungle, depending on what you would like to see in or around Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.