Why Having Your Mom Read Your Work Is a Bad Idea

So last night, my Mom tells me that she finished reading my manuscript. Here I’m thinking that she’s about to launch into a litany of Mom-like praise.  No.  This is how the conversation went (and apologies for any spoilers… please don’t let that stop you from buying my book when it eventually comes out):

Mom:  I couldn’t believe that ending.  I kept reading and saying Oh, my God!  Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean?

Mom:  I had no idea!  I didn’t see it coming! Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean, you didn’t see it coming?  She talks about revenge!  She’s plotting!

Mom:  But killing him, for breaking her sister’s heart?

JC:  No, Mom, she kills him because he raped her sister!  That’s why she’s getting revenge!  And he killed her other sister!  He ran her over in his car!

Mom:  He did?  He raped her sister?  I didn’t see that.  And he killed the other sister?  I mean I knew she died…

JC:  Did you read this book?  The rape is not explicit–it happens “off stage,” but he admits it to his friend…

Mom:  I guess I’m just too pedestrian. [Whatever the hell that means.]  Guess I’ll have to read it again and look for the clues.

JC [trying to sound gentle]:  I’m sorry it upset you. [Look for the clues???  How could you miss them?]

Mom:  Of course I’m upset!  She cut him open!  She chopped him up!  I had no idea!  You should have given me a synopsis before I read this book.  It was too graphic!

JC [a little petulantly]:  But you knew she was going to get revenge…

Mom:  Yes, but I thought it was going to be a spell.

JC:  Well, it was a spell.   She poisons him after she does a spell.  And anyway, he was dead before she chopped him up.

Mom:  I just don’t read things like this… I mean you know these things happen, but I don’t read about them!…Before I share it with [a mutual friend] I’m going to have to warn her. She won’t expect it–it will upset her.

JC:  [Good grief.]  Ok, Mom.

I am somewhat bemused by this conversation–it’s kind of funny, but it’s also a little hard to take.  I mean, if you pay attention at all, there are plenty of signs that the main character is just biding her time (à la Hamlet) until she’s ready to exact revenge on the bad guy.  Ok, so maybe the dismemberment was a little over the top, but at the same time, I tried to write it bloodless–that is to say, very matter-of-fact, very much like reporting what was happening (as opposed to poetic editorializing) to demonstrate how clear-headed she was in carrying out her revenge.  Like I could have been gruesomely graphic, but I tried to be restrained. (As an aside, let me say, one of my writing group members thought I should rewrite this section to make it more trance-like, as if she were doing this murder in a dreamlike state.  But that would never have worked, a) because I don’t write in fragments, and b) that is not how this character acts.  She’s completely within her faculties–which I think makes the scene more chilling, because she’s perfectly clear-headed in the process.  She’s not some kind of psycho-killer.  But I digress.)

The point is, of course, that audience matters.  Clearly, some Moms aren’t the audience for books that examine instances of violence.  My Mom despises violence–she runs out of the room, for example, when something scary or possibly bloody is about to happen on the TV.  And while I think that’s an extreme reaction, I suppose, knowing this about her, I should have expected a reaction like this one.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t–so I didn’t think to “warn” her about the murder–although, I also think if she had been reading more carefully, she would have realized what was going to happen.  For heaven’s sakes, that particular part is called “Blood Will Have Blood.”  Like duh, what did you think was going to happen in something that quotes from Macbeth??

Mom was also upset, I think, because there are no repercussions (at least, in this book–and no, that’s an oblique comment promising a sequel, by the way) for the murder.  The character does, in fact, “get away with it.”  And I’m ok with that.  I think my Mom’s sense of justice doesn’t like that she escapes her actions with no downfall, or at least, no real commentary about it.

But I’m not interested in the main character’s punishment–I don’t think she’s unjustified in her actions–and human “justice” is not what this book is about, anyway.  It’s about supernatural justice–not divine justice, make no mistake–she does invoke the Sign of the Goat/ the Dark Mother, after all.  And also, this is not a Greek tragedy.  Apologies to Aristotle, but it’s not hamartia for her to kill him who needs killing.  And anyway, if you kill without your soul, you can kill in “good conscience,” because in fact, no soul equals no conscience to be damaged.

Poor Mom.  She said, “I never knew I’d have a daughter who could write like something like that.”  Oh, if you only knew.

If I Were Virgil Suárez

My poet friends used to joke that if you wanted to get your poetry published, all you had to do was put Cuban-American poet Virgil Suárez’s name on your submission.  For a while, it seemed like no matter what literary journal you picked up, there would at least one poem by him included–and it didn’t matter what the journal was–it could be a nothing-in-particular start-up journal, or it could be the Prairie Schooner.    I also heard–though I can’t substantiate it–that he had this scary complicated system for submitting his works… and gasp, he simultaneously submitted (back when that wasn’t a thing). The point was, he was very good at placing his work.

I don’t know what Virgil Suárez has been doing lately poetry-wise (his last book of poems came out in 2005)–but according to his Florida State University webpage, he’s just published a book called The Soviet Circus Comes to Havana and Other Stories (C & R Press, 2014) ($15.95 on Amazon)–so, at least I’m not competing for space in journals because of him.

But I am competing for space in journals… and losing, based on the two rejections I received today.  One rejection said that they didn’t “love the piece enough” to send it on to the next level of discussion; the other one praised the “ambition” of the work, but then stabbed me in the heart with the criticism that they found my work “too prosy.”  That just struck me as wrong.  My writing tends to be narrative, but it’s in no way “too prosy.”  I know from prosy–after all, I see student creative writing all the time–talk about prosy!  But of course, journal editors are human, and humans are subjective.  I wasn’t overly bothered by the rejections–submitting is a game to me at this point.

Not that I in any way mean that I don’t take the submission process seriously–I do.  I do research on the journals I submit–I generally try to read them before I send them my work.  But I guess as a writer you just get to the point where it’s all just a game–trying to figure out what certain people will like based on what they showcase in their journals.  If I were the Virgil Suárez of the past, that machine of publishing, I might just send my work everywhere, scatter-shot, and hope something sticks.  I might have a hugely complicated Excel file that lists every journal everywhere, and I might cross-list all the poems that I’ve simultaneously submitted–perhaps the same batch of poems for 15 different journals, and have 80 such batches sent out at once.

But that is gamifying the publication process way to much for the likes of me–that’s a little like playing all the numbers in the lottery.  It might work–and maybe if I were that mono-focused, I could do that and be published far and wide in any number of start-ups and well-established journals.  But on the other hand, my very analog system–I put all my submissions on index cards filed alphabetically by journal–seems to work for me.  I can manage that.  I feel good about my process of reading submission calls, reading the journals whose calls interest me, and submitting my work to them.

It may not net me a lot of pubs, but it feels like an accomplishment when I see all my index cards, even the ones that fall under the “Rejected” tab, as today’s two rejections now do.


Worrying, Whining, and Waiting, Oh My

I haven’t really said this to anyone, but since I finished my book, I’ve been feeling really edgy–and worried. Edginess is not surprising; after all, after you’ve put as much time into the book as I have, with characters that you know inside and out, now that their story is done, you don’t know what to do with yourself. How do you say goodbye, except to say it? But now, what are you supposed do you do with your time?

The worry, of course, is probably typical of anyone who’s ever finished writing a book. I’m listing all my current worries:

  1. Why won’t the people I’ve given the book to read, read it? (How dare they be busy with their own lives?)
  2. What if they’ve read it and hate it?
  3. What if they didn’t mind it, but that’s the best they could say for it?
  4. What if no one publishes it?
  5. What if someone publishes it?
  6. What if it gets published, and no one cares?
  7. What if gets published, and people say they like it, but because I always mistrust people, I don’t believe them, and I stay a curmudgeonly old crank convinced everyone secretly hates me and my writing?
  8. What if I can’t write anything else?
  9. What if I can’t write anything else?

That last worry is probably so familiar, everyone feels it.  I listed it twice because the fear is smothering me–that if I’m lucky enough to be successful, I’ll be a one hit wonder, like Harper Lee.  (Of course, if your book is To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s probably just fine to coast the rest of your life and literary career… I should be that lucky.)

I’ve just been feeling like I have no words right now.  I don’t know what to write.  I feel like there are no poems inside me.  I feel like there never will be again.  I feel like I’m in mourning.  Or maybe I’m having the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression.

This is coming off as overly dramatic and needy, isn’t it?  You’re probably telling me to STFU.  Believe me, I tell myself the same.  You’re probably also thinking, Why don’t you wait and see what happens, and quit being such a whiny little bitch?  If no one reads/ likes/ publishes your book, so what?  You’ll live.  There’s people dying of Ebola virus, did you think of that?

(Great, Ebola.  Now I’m worrying about that too.)

The truth is, my writing group has read my book, and they like it.  I should accept that they like it.  Chris has read it and likes it.  My Mom has read a good bit of it and she likes it.  But a part of me thinks, well, they only like the book because they like me.  So they “don’t count.”  (Isn’t that some kind of ridiculous thinking?  They’re the ones who should matter the most!)

Ugh.  I’m just a big tangle of insecurities and vanity and… STFU JC Reilly.  And go to bed, while you’re at it.

Even Better than Well-Written Rejections Are Sweet Acceptances

My phone just dinged at me.  It dings at me a lot.  It tells me when I need to go to meetings or to tennis matches.  It gives me the score to football games I care nothing about; it tells me how long my trip from work to home will be; it reads my e-mails.  So whenever I hear it ding, I cringe.

But this time it dinged, and there was happy, happy news.  Again, I’m reproducing the message to share with you:

Dear JC Reilly,
     Thank you very much for your interest in Howl. We would like to congratulate you on the acceptance of all five (5) poems you submitted. Your submission was unique, creative, and we believe that our readers are going to love your publication. Please let all other literary journals simultaneously submitted to know that your work has been accepted here and please send us a brief bio to accompany your submission upon publication. Congratulations again and don’t forget to tell everyone where to find great work like yours.
The Editors,
Howl took all five poems!  I don’t think any journal has ever done that for me!  I am so happy!  (There is a little bit of margin issues on the poems but I can live with it!  A pub is a pub is a pub.)  Read them here.

*Does a happy dance*

Well-Written Rejections Are Almost as Appreciated as Actual Publications

Today I received a rejection that was so thoughtfully (and kindly) written that I am reproducing it here for you to read:

Dear JC Reilly,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read “JC Reilly–4 poems.” After careful consideration, we decided the work was not a good fit for Rivet.

Your writing is great, and we really enjoyed reading your work. We encourage you to keep sending it out and hope you find the right home for it. Our reasons for declining it were not based on quality but rather on kind. Rivet focuses on writing that goes well beyond mainstream realism and takes some big risks with content and style. If you do some more experimental work in the future, we’d be glad to see it. We invite you to subscribe to our newsletter (link below) to be the first to hear about new releases and calls for submissions.

We wish you the best with your writing and look forward to staying in touch.

The Rivet Editors

I don’t know if that is Rivet Journal’s standard rejection.  It may well be.  But what strikes me so much about it is that it takes a moment to offer praise (hey, I’ll take my work as being called “great” ANY DAY, even if it seems a little bland) and then to clarify what their aesthetic is.  Now, when I sent them the four poems initially, I sent them what I thought were “experimental” poems–but clearly our understanding of “experimental” is quite different.  And that’s ok.  I also like how they invite me to send them more experimental-as-they-understand-it work in the future.  It’s a nice touch.

Of course, what’s nicest about their invitation is that knowing that the four poems I sent were experimental to my mind but not to theirs tells me that I probably won’t ever write something that would strike the right chord with them.  So I don’t have to worry about sending work to them again.  (Unless, of course, my style radically changes, and I don’t think that’s likely.)

But I encourage any of you who do write much more experimental work to send it to Rivet Journal.  It’s a lovely journal, and I like what I’ve seen of their publication, and imagine how effusive and praise-worthy they will be with people whose work they accept, if this is how gentle and praising they are of people they reject.

Thinking About the Reading at Poetry Readings

This morning a colleague made some gratifying remarks about me and about my poetry, and while she is the kind of person who is elegant and generous in her praise with everyone (which, in some ways, lessens some of my pleasure in the compliments), one thing that she did say that I think was not especially florid or fullsome was that I am a good reader of my own poetry.  That is something I value.

We all have gone to to poetry readings wherein otherwise excellent poetry is ruined by the person reading it.  Either they read in a monotone voice, devoid of inflection or life (which in turns sucks the life out of everyone in the audience), or they end every sentence in that pretentious “poetry voice” where the tone seems to ask a question even when it’s completely inappropriate to the text.  It staggers me when poets read their work poorly.  It makes me think that a) they never read their work aloud to themselves, even just to hear how the words sound together; or b) (and worse) they cultivate that affected “poetry voice” because they have seen it modeled at so many other poetry readings that they think that’s how poetry out loud is supposed to sound.

Let me assure you, it’s not supposed to sound that way.  It’s utterly gag-worthy that some poets choose to read their poetry to a live audience with anything less than an animated, interesting delivery.  Hello, poetry is PERFORMANCE–even “academic” “on the page” poetry.  Somehow our spoken word poets have gotten that message–that poetry is performance.  They know that poetry is a dynamic medium–so they damn well better deliver it in a dynamic way.

What’s the excuse for “on the page” poets?  Why do they read in a manner that so often turns off their audience?  When they give a dull reading, or read so poorly as to make the audience wish they had cotton to stuff their ears with, they are actually ensuring that the casual poetry audience member will never return and will worse, actually despise poetry.

This is my suggestion for poets to help improve delivery:

  • Practice in front of a mirror.  This can help you remember to look at your audience once in a while.  Look up from those white pages!  Reading in front of a mirror can also help you notice any obnoxious mannerisms you may have, like holding the pages as if your life depends on it, or twisting a lock of your hair, or if you look randomly to the sky.  (I had a philosophy professor who did this–I always wondered what on the ceiling could possibly interest him.)
  • Record your voice…Listen to how you read.  If you catch yourself using that phony, pretentious poetry voice, nip that shit in the bud.  If you find yourself reading without expression, underline words on the page that you want to emphasize, and then emphasize them.  Or, print out copies of your poems with different font sizes on specific words–make the font smaller if you want to decrease the volume of your voice; make the font larger if you want to speak a word louder.  
  • Videotape your performances.  I personally am not hugely keen on being taped.  But it’s beneficial.  Or so they tell me.  With everyone having video-capable phones these days, it’s easy and cheap to do this, and you will gain a fuller experience and understanding of your presence on stage.
  • Learn a few of your poems by heart.  Say them to the air.  Say them to your cat.  If you learn a couple by heart, that can give you a couple of minutes where you don’t need to rely on your pages at all, where you can fully engage the eyes of your audience… even your imaginary one.  One thing that can help you learn your poem is to record it and say it along with the recording.  (I mean, this is how we learn songs, right?  The principle is the same.)
  • Attend many poetry readings.  Notice what engages you as an audience member and then try to recreate it at the readings you give.  What makes a dynamic reader keep your attention?  See what they do right, and model that behavior in your own readings.  
  • Write poetry.  Alot.  And then only read the best material to an audience.  You would think this was an obvious suggestion, but it’s amazing how often poets will combine banal poetry with horrible delivery.  Then it’s a total suckfest.

I think I’m going to try to make a few poetry podcasts and put them here on my blog.  (Of course, I have to learn how to do that first–hahahah.)


So, Productivity Can Pay Off…

I haven’t totally maintained my goal to be sending out at least two submissions every day, but I’ve been pretty good about sending out several a week these last few weeks.  And today, Flyover Country Review published my poem “Stegosaurus.”  I’m so happy!  It’s my first publication in 2 years!  (Not counting being 25% co-author [with Karen Head, Blake Leland, and Bob Wood] of the anthology On Occasion:  Four Poets, One Year, which came out in March.)

I also have a couple of poems coming out in Kentucky Review.  As soon as they do, I’ll let you know!