I am still scribbling furiously to finish the next Randal Lee mystery, so I asked fellow author Dan O’Brien if he wouldn’t mind stopping in to guest blog. He graciously responded like a champ.
He’s included both a short essay and a sample chapter of one of his books, so be sure to check it out. And, if you are so moved, consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign for his next novel here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/630515511/one-novel-one-project-one-dream
Thanks a bunch, Dan!
A Writing Perspective from the Other Side of the Fence
A Guest Post by Dan O’Brien
Life as a writer can be hard sometimes.
Success is elusive; fans shift as often as a summer wind.
Yet, we persevere, writing into the late hours of the night and waking in the early hours of the morning to log the hours and enter, for a time, the worlds we create. When I first started writing, more than a decade ago, it was because I loved the idea of immersing myself in a place where I could construct the narrative; walk through dense forests and to the tops of mountains. Over time the process became more about writing as a tool to move through emotions and languishing memories that required catharsis.
Writing takes on many forms, for many different writers, over the course of our lives.
For me, the process is the reward.
I love to write.
When I ask myself that silly question of what I would do if I had all the money in the world, the answer is always quite simple: write. Now more than a decade later, I have a renewed sense of purpose and have become quite adept at balancing the spinning plates of responsibility.
Recently, between being a full-time graduate student and writer, I joined Empirical magazine as an editor – among other responsibilities. A national magazine similar in spirit to Harper’s or The Atlantic, the magazine is firmly rooted in a West Coast sensibility. There is a little something for everyone, and honestly, the hope is that everyone will take a look. Contributors to the magazine come from around the globe and cover everything from politics to fiction.
Working at a magazine, especially at this point in its maturation, is a wonderful experience. There are so many moving parts that enliven your day. Sometimes I spend the day sorting through fiction and poetry submissions, searching for that piece of prose, or perhaps a stanza, that ensnares my imagination. Other days I am editing, constantly referring to the Chicago Manual of Style to ascertain the correct usage of an archaic sentence structure. As a writer, the prospect of editing and rummaging through the work of others might not sound exciting, but there are some wonderful consequences:
- You learn to become a better editor of your own work
- You begin to recognize redundant sentence structures and overused phrases
- Your grasp of language grows exponentially
However, the most important component for me is:
- You get to help others bring their work into a public forum
For many writers, and certainly for me early in my writing career, the notion of being picked up by a magazine or a small press was foremost in my mind. It was that distant promise of publication and everything that goes with it that pushed me forward. When I got rejection letters, most of which lacked a personal touch, I would get down on my writing, denigrate my ability.
The years passed, during which thousands of rejection letters amassed, and I realized that the pursuit of writing for a purely extrinsic reward was dooming myself to Vegas-style odds. I became clear to me that I needed to write because I loved it, and then find a way to share it with others – even if it was not through traditional routes. I found that I was more comfortable with my writing when I did it for the pure joy of it.
Now that I am on the other side of the fence, so to speak, I have noticed a few myths about submitting to paying publications that otherwise mystified and frustrated me prior to becoming an editor and being responsible for interacting with first-time and established authors.
I have decided to provide a humorous, but serious, collection of things you should do and things you shouldn’t do when submitting and entering into a discourse with a publication – sprinkled, of course, with some anecdotes. And without further ado (or perhaps slight ado if you count this sentence here):
Things You Should Do
- Read the publication you are submitting to before sending an email. This one sounds obvious, I know. However, it happens so often that it warrants mentioning. If you have written a brilliant piece of prose that is about zombies, it is quite likely that Popular Mechanics will not be that interested in it. Pick up an issue of the magazine you are interested in submitting to and familiarize yourself with the kinds of stories they publish. The next part is the hardest part: be honest. Does your piece fit with what they publish?
- Read and follow the submission instructions. Again, a no-brainer. If you are thinking that you don’t know where to find the submission instructions and you just have an email address, be prepared for disappointment. Your email might go to submission purgatory with a one-liner response about having received your correspondence – if you’re lucky.
- Address your submission to the appropriate person. If you are thinking that I am giving you the obvious pointers, then you are quite right. With that in mind, imagine that I still receive hundreds of emails a month that manage to ignore these simple suggestions. If you are writing a stunning expose on corporate greed, the poetry editor is probably not the best destination for your work.
- Edit your work. I tell this to students a lot, so I will mention it here as well: spell check in Microsoft Word is not sufficient. I am not saying that you need to be a copyeditor to submit to a magazine, but do yourself a favor and read it out loud. If it something sounds funny when you read it, you can only imagine how it will sound to an editor who is choosing among thousands of articles and stories to determine what goes to print.
- Be cognizant of turnarounds. By this I mean, the amount of time between when you sent in the work until you hear back from an editor about the status of your submission. Nothing will send your work to the bottom of a slush pile than to send a follow-up email the day after you submitted, wondering whether or not you are going to be in the magazine. Most publications will post how long it takes to hear back from them about the status of a submission, and an amount of time after which you should contact them if you haven’t heard from them.
Things You Shouldn’t Do
- Send an email telling an editor that they would be stupid not to publish your work. It always surprises me when I get an email telling me that I need to publish a story, poem, or piece of nonfiction because it is the next best thing. Top this off with letting me know that I would be a fool not to accept it, almost guarantees a trip to the trash can.
- Send a photocopy of your story by registered mail. If you want to have your story in a magazine, start by giving it to editors in a format that they can actually use. By sending a faded and blurry photocopy of your forty-word poem and declaring that it is a soul-searching masterpiece does not inspire as much confidence as you would think.
- Contact an editor on a frequent basis about the status of your submission. I have to sort through hundreds of emails a day, edit for the current issue, and work on editing an anthology; not to mention a thousand other intangibles. We posted a time table about getting back to you for a reason: read it.
- Be discouraged by a form rejection letter. This is a bitter pill to swallow for many writers. They think the form rejection letter means that the editor didn’t read their work, or simply had things already planned and was stringing writers along. The reality is on any given month I send out hundreds upon hundreds of rejection letters. There is simply not enough time in the day to offer feedback to every single person. This not to say that I do not offer feedback, or that editors do not offer feedback in general, but instead the process is streamlined so writers can be responded to in a reasonable amount of time.
- Call the magazine to find out about your submission. This is subsumed by not contacting an editor about the status of your submission before enough time has passed, but I thought it warranted a special mention considering it is really going the extra mile in terms of being an irritation. If we haven’t gotten back to you yet, calling us is not going to suddenly make us more accessible.
- Send another email with corrections. Read twice, send once. If you don’t think what you sent is ready for publication, then please don’t send it. You get one chance at a first impression, and nothing speaks to being underprepared and unprofessional than sending a draft and immediately following up with another draft. If your piece needs work, note that in your submission, but don’t send a series of emails chronicling the different stages of the edits for that story. The exception, of course, is if you have already been accepted and you have been asked to make edits.
- Contact the magazine to air your frustrations about not being selected. I say this with all seriousness. It is very likely that you got rejected because the piece was not a good fit and not that the magazine has decided to order a hit on your writing career. Please don’t treat it that way. Lashing out at a publication for sending a form rejection letter, or passing on a piece you have written, reeks of a lack of professionalism and could impact your ability to publish elsewhere. Many editors are friends, especially in the digital age, and word spreads fast.
- Contact the magazine to ask if you think a story you are working on would be a good fit elsewhere. I can appreciate the sentiment. A lot of editors are writers themselves, and they love talking about the process and the product. I find myself building friendships with writers, those we publish and those we do not, and often I will give them suggestions about their work. However, if you don’t know me personally and have never been published or solicited in any way to use me as a sounding board, then do not contact me and ask if a poem or story would be a good fit at another magazine. If you think it is ready for publication, then submit it here. An obvious exception would be if the writer knew the story would not be a good fit and asked because they were uncertain in venturing into new territory.
I could probably keep listing things you shouldn’t do, but I will wrap it up there. I encourage you to keep trying and keep writing. Things only get better with time, and time is all we really have. I love to hear from other writers and potential readers, so please stop by and say hello.
The tree had been standing for centuries. Many thought that it had survived the wars that had scarred the earth and shaped the future. Every day in his sad excuse for a life, he walked to that tree as the sun set upon the city.
It was an odd sort of place.
Amidst a world bathed completely in lights and steel, this one remnant of nature remained unscathed as a pillar that refused to be expunged from living memory. If pressed, many citizens would argue that they had never seen a day that was filled with sunshine. Instead, the world seemed trapped in a state of perpetual sunsets and eternal nights.
He stood and looked at the tree, a gentle, cool breeze dancing across the majestic limbs and needles that delicately joined in rhythm with the winds. The monolith of nature was veiled in the fading light, crawling fingers of darkness placing its hold upon the day.
Had there ever been a time filled completely with sunshine? The air was smooth and almost sterile. Already the lights of the city jumped to life, a slithering electricity that touched, in order, each billboard and iridescent sign. The tree stood on the farthest edge of the city, closest to the Great Desert that separated what remained of humanity and the barren wasteland that swallowed souls.
A steel wall was erected behind that essence of nature, runner lights crawling up the heavy border. Beyond the wall was nothingness. A vast ocean of sand that served as little more than a reminder of time passed and horrors witnessed.
The wind kicked suddenly.
Whipping his long coat around him, it cast shadows of distant denizens and haunting beasts that were little more than colorful fiction. It was quiet this night, as it was quiet most nights. Fewer and fewer people came to visit this place anymore.
Such a reminder was an open sore from a history that many would love to see forgotten. Shadows emerged. Men and women rose from their slumber and moved about the city, the curtain of night a catalyst for their activities. He watched them out of the corner of his eye.
The world had become an immensely safe place. There was no war. Poverty had been abolished, laws and rituals instituted that would maintain the pleasant temperament of the newly-formed society.
The cerulean aura was sudden.
The ring flattened around his temples and then across his face, covering his features like a theater mask. Images flooded in front of his blue eyes. Advertisements flashed faster than his eyes and brain could process.
“Cerulean Dreams makes the world swim forever in imaginings,” sang the angelic voice as the images slowed and a woman came into view. Her thin dress was contoured to reveal her perfect figure. “Cerulean Dreams wants to remind all citizens of Orion that the upgrade is now available. The world is at your fingertips, but with Cerulean Dreams, whatever you think can be your reality.”
He grinned, a small turn of his lips.
His azure eyes scanned ahead, his mind pushing past the advertisement as well as a plethora more that were ready to assault his mind. Already he missed the simple serenity of the tree, its stoic power and magnanimous nature a welcome change to the self-serving society that had taken shape in the last centuries.
“News,” he rasped, the images responding.
He walked forward, red lines running the edges of his vision as he walked near another citizen. Not a word was exchanged as they passed into and out of their respective existences. The images moved faster and faster, blurs of people melded together until it stopped. A dark background labeled in metallic lettering spoke simply of the broadcast’s nature: the news.
The newscaster’s voice was chipper, so much so that it seemed unnatural. The breadth of his smile and bleached teeth made him seem more like a machine than a man. “This is Hadrian Shamus with Orion News, and this is what is making headlines in our utopia today.”
Beside the manic-looking Hadrian, images rapidly shifted among various visages: a freakish collage of people’s faces caught in an eerie stillness. “OrionCorps, protectors and enforcers of the Peace Laws, responded to a possible breach in the perimeter walls earlier today. Cerulean Dreams Disease Center officials immediately dismissed concerns about disease or possible contagions. They promptly issued a statement that the breach was little more than a stress fracture on older parts of the perimeter, which have already been slated for the Orion Improvement Program instituted by Praetor Buchanan.”
The image shifted to Praetor Buchanan, his heavy face seemed to shine as if it had been oiled. The deep sockets of his brown eyes seemed to hide an intelligence that his easy manner belied. Despite the heavy jowls of his face, thick robes hugged his gaunt frame.
His voice was childlike, the narrow pug of his nose unmistakable. “Citizens of Orion, the integrity of the perimeter remains secure. This breach, I have been informed, is little more than a stress fracture caused simply by the age of the structure. Have no fear my fellow citizens, as Dr. Roth has assured me that Cerulean Dreams is behind the Orion Improvement Program one hundred percent.”
Dr. Aaron Roth, headmaster of the Cerulean Dreams Empire, controlled a vast network of electrical and neural impulses that successfully managed the day-to-day lives of the citizens of Orion. He was a sweepingly powerful man, perhaps more so than Praetor Buchanan or any other single being in Orion.
The face of Hadrian Shamus returned.
“The possible breach is the third of many frightening collapses along the eastern end of the perimeter wall. Many have speculated that the Orion Improvement Program will have to replace an entire section, not simply the fractured runners that have been failing around the city.”
The angle shifted and shot Hadrian from the side, his upper torso and the darkened table turning with him. “After the break, we have more on the strange lights to the west beyond the wall and the memorial for those lost in the Water Rights Wars of 2076. See you after the break.”
The screen blackened for only a moment before the subtle chimes and rustling sounds of leaves overwhelmed his senses. Darkened letters penciled themselves across his vision: Report. Respond. Rely on OrionCorps for the everyday safety of you and your family.
The words flashed several times.
The soothing sounds of ocean winds announced the exit of the propaganda, only to be replaced by another and then yet another. Each was as uneventful as the last. Orion News in bold letters crawled across the screen and the overly joyous face of Shamus returned, his plastic smile held firmly in place.
“Several citizens have reported what they are calling strange lights in the west, beyond the perimeter wall. Dr. Roth from Cerulean Dreams could not be reached for comment. We instead sought answers from fellow citizens.”
The screen focused in on an elderly woman. Her thick pink glasses hung comically around her eyes, the lenses darkened profusely and thick gold earrings hung from her stretched ears. “I think that it is aliens, coming from some other galaxy to take us away,” she spoke in a riotous overtone. The signal cut back to the laughing face of Shamus and then on to another man, a child, a woman, each of their answers inconsequential and no closer to what may be truth.
It mattered little to him.
He was seeking a very particular piece of information, a certain headline that was of much interest. The youthful voice of Shamus returned. “The memorial took place slightly before sunset. Nearly a million citizens were in attendance for the lighting of the vigil for those fallen in the Water Rights War that claimed so many lives, both civilian and military.”
The overhead view of the plaque showed the structure to be nearly half of a kilometer long, and nearly as tall. It seemed to gleam of rich silver. “Although a horrific tragedy in human history, it marked the inception of the Cerulean Dreams Corporation. And eventually the gathering of the citizens of Earth into the newly-manufactured Orion, the first and last safe haven for humankind.”
“Come on,” he mumbled angrily.
The music changed to a long horn and then dampened, signaling the end of the broadcast. “That is all for tonight, citizens of Orion. Remember to install your upgrade and stay tuned for network messages…”
“Disengage software,” he grumbled in dissatisfaction.
The visor halted further imagery, but a thin red line remained as well as a yellow dot that flashed in the left of his vision. The voice was decidedly feminine. “Do you wish to log off the network?” she asked mechanically.
“Negative. Signal active, imaging dormant,” he responded without emotion.
The visor rose and wrapped back to the left temple of his skull. A small blue, pulsing sphere remained, waiting. The city was a monstrosity, plain and simple. Buildings rose into the heavens, beyond all sight during the night. False lights guided to empty places and colorful signs depicted diversions and empty consumptions to pass the times.
Vehicles flashed overhead, alongside the buildings. Their trails crossed high into the atmosphere, some even beyond the line of buildings. Orion was a metropolis built upon a metropolis. Many of the markers of old had all but disappeared. There was simply Orion and the desert, the bustling city and the simple death.
The streets were littered with people, their visors donned, vision and minds enraptured by Cerulean Dreams programming. They chatted with friends, their mouths moving. Words that could only be conversation flowed from their lips, even though they spoke to no one. Words echoed all around him. Without the visor, he was painfully aware what a horrendous symphony their collective voices created.
He watched the billboards and signs.
Cerulean Dreams owned a piece of everything: entertainment, production, and government. Without their constant supervision, Orion would not be able to function as it did. Programming dictated their movement; every task was completed for them via the Cerulean Dreams software and a massive network that stretched from city wall to city wall.
An air cab rushed past, the orange lights of its descent casting a strange shadow across his features. His strong jaw and blue eyes watched the cab pass within a meter of him, yet he did not waver. It would have been inefficient to do so, since proximity warnings and various other technologies made it nearly impossible for an air vehicle to ever collide with a human. Cerulean Dreams had made sure everything worked as it should.
The street narrowed into several smaller streets, albeit unnamed without the imaging visor. Within it he could have seen the virtual map of the city and walk through it, every street named, every pothole, bend in the road recorded. There was little individuality left in simply following what others had laid down.
He wished to do it by memory, by feel.
The runner boards overhead spoke of what was on everyone’s mind: the upgrade. One could not go anywhere in Orion and not see an advertisement for the upgrade, for up-to-date software was vital to link with the parent network at Cerulean Dreams, which sat at the very center of Orion.
Turning sharply to the left, he chose the darkest of the split pathways. Obscured by the darkness, puddles had collected along the sides of the street, an oddity given the limited possibility for rain in the middle of a desert. He made sure to dodge them carefully. The long wings of his coat drug as he marched evenly.
In a city whose morality and peace was regulated by a third-party, there was still a district where you would not want your grandmother to walk. Not for fear of death, but for those activities that might be deemed otherwise unsavory.
The poor, the destitute: that was where he had guided himself. Ducking into a dark door, the dull chime announced it as the dive it was. He seemed at home. “Marlowe,” called a heavy voice across the tavern.
A few sparse bodies were ducked into booths, visors down – stained glasses inhabited the darkened interior. The wide expanse of the bar was unoccupied, the necessity for a bartender seemingly forgotten. Marlowe looked farther into the bar, seeing the root of the voice.
Heavy in every part except his wallet, a man sat uneasily at the bar. His face ran with sweat and the heavy coat around his shoulders seemed three sizes too small. He drained the glass in his left hand and then made as if he was going to stand. Marlowe waved him down and took the iron stool next to him.
“Jackson,” he mumbled, “always a pleasure.”
The heavier man, Jackson, grinned widely. He revealed bleached teeth and horrific breath that reeked of many nights spent at the bar. “Good of you to stop by, though if I’m not mistaken you are running a little late. Your imaging software not working?”
Marlowe placed his right hand on a darkened square of the bar. Lights flooded beneath, passing over his fingertips as he spoke. “Whiskey, double, straight.”
Jackson waited for an answer, but received nothing as a dirty glass rose from deeper in the bar. Marlowe grabbed it gently, taking a sip and clicking his tongue reassuringly. “You weren’t at that ridiculous tree again, were you?” asked Jackson.
Marlowe stared ahead, the blue sphere along his temple throbbing angrily, information waiting in the wings that he so deftly ignored. “Last living thing, worth taking a look at from time to time,” he spoke, his voice gravelly. He took another sip, sucking his lip and clicking his tongue once again.
Jackson laughed and smacked his hand against the bar, making his chins jiggle. “You have to be the only guy in this entire city that don’t have his visor down and ain’t knee-deep in some program. Don’t know how to enjoy life.”
Marlowe turned to Jackson, drink in hand. “Don’t see you with it down.”
Jackson laughed. His thick belly bounced as he did so. “Fair enough, Marlowe, fair enough. You upgraded yet?”
“Don’t see the point, my imaging runs fine. Maps, intel, all working smooth.”
Jackson ran his hand over the bar sensor, a glass full of dark brown in response. “Not really the point, is it? They tell you to upgrade, you upgrade. That is how this utopia works.”
Jackson downed his glass, slamming it down on the bar. “Lords and masters, Marlowe. We are just pawns in something that is barely a game anymore.”
Marlowe pulled at his drink again, wondering if whiskey still tasted like it did a century past. “Does Patty know you are out at some dive in the Hole, the dirtiest, vilest district in Orion, chatting with riff raff?”
Jackson slowed at the mention of the woman’s name. “She ain’t doing well, ya know. You should come by. She talks about you now and again, like where is Alexander? I haven’t seen him in such a long time. What type of partner doesn’t come by once in a while? Scares me honestly ‘cause those days haven’t been for a few years now. Her dementia is getting worse, nothing they can do about they say.”
“All that power and can’t help a poor woman, huh? Some saviors,” he half-whispered. Placing his drink back on the bar, the ice swam in a small puddle of brown liquid.
“Ain’t like that. We went to a specialist at the C.D.D.C downtown. They ran all kinds of tests, can’t seem to figure out what is wrong with her and what’s causing the rapid degeneration. Say it might be a genetic deficiency or something. Hell if I know, but you should come see her, man.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Marlowe spoke, his voice a perpetual half-whisper. “You got any info on what I asked you about: the girls, anything at all. Wasn’t a peep about it on the news, not overly surprising.”
Jackson hesitated, looking around the bar at the other patrons. There was a sudden paranoia in his eyes, as if the words that were about to come out of his mouth would draw lightning.
“You can’t keep after these missing girl cases, man. This ain’t the military and you certainly aren’t OrionCorps anymore. You should get a wife, have some kids, settle down, and leave this investigation garbage to people who are too young to know better.”
Marlowe looked at him, his gaze hard. “If you don’t have anything…”
Jackson huffed, his heavy face sweating double-time. “It’s not that and you know it. We know what is at the end of this rainbow. A dead girl in some ditch somewhere, and then only nightmares and lonely nights tracking leads that go nowhere. It’s not your job anymore.”
“Doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job in a utopia. No one is looking for them. What trouble can I get in when no one seems to care? You got a name?” asked Marlowe, swishing the ice and alcohol-ridden water into a small swell in the stained glass.
“Regardless man, you follow these long enough you are bound to find something. I doubt it will be something that will be a positive life experience,” warned Jackson, his wide, dull brown eyes glazed, pleasantly swimming.
Marlowe drained the remainder of the liquid at the bottom of the glass. The heavier man adjusted his pants, straightened his long trench. He could not hide his nervousness. “The Hole is notorious for rumors, we both know that. The girls, these pretty blonde ones, keep popping up along 48th near the halfway house they have down there. I heard from a guy that says maybe he saw a girl that looked exactly like the ones you are looking for staying at said halfway house.”
Marlowe pushed the glass forward, across the condensation that had accumulated underneath it. “Thanks, Jackson.”
As his friend turned to leave, Jackson got up, his heavy weight a burden to throw around. “It doesn’t mean anything though, Marlowe. Girl could be dead, maybe it was the girl who already turned up in a gutter.”
Marlowe had reached the door, the dull green of the interior lights revealing the two-day beard that had grown in around his hard features. “Maybe, but she might be alive. I might get to her before whoever is killing these girls does.”
The archaic chime croaked again, but Marlowe had already filtered into the night, the buzz of electricity permeated the air. This and the distant, unfocused voices of the citizens of Orion talking to themselves made Marlowe feel quite alone.
Bio: A psychologist, author, editor, philosopher, martial artist, and skeptic, he has published several novels and currently has many in print, including: The End of the World Playlist, Bitten, The Journey, The Ocean and the Hourglass, Deviance of Time, The Path of the Fallen, The Portent, The Twins of Devonshire and the Curse of the Widow, and Cerulean Dreams. Follow him on Twitter (@AuthorDanOBrien) or visit his blog http://thedanobrienproject.blogspot.com. He also works as an editor at Empirical, a national magazine with a strong West Coast vibe. Find out more about the magazine at www.empiricalmagazine.com.