Wednesday, October 1, 2014

In Rejection of (Certain) Rejections

The worst rejection letter I ever received was from a small Colorado-based "literary" magazine that billed itself as prime literature for the doctor's office waiting room.

I'm going to let the above line stand alone and sink in. Consider for a moment, if you will, the plight of the writer. Good writing doesn't just happen; it takes time and effort. Querying literary magazines to get the writing published, thereby validating said expended time and effort, takes even more time and effort. The higher profile publications receive hundreds—perhaps thousands—of stories each month. Competition for placement is fierce, and refusals are many. Rejection-free indie publishing has removed some of the sting, but even these authors will admit they'd rather have someone accept and publish their work "traditionally," which is the only reason why we continue to subject ourselves to the often soul-crushing process of querying.

This, of course, brings me back to my opening sentence. The rejecting publication was not The Paris Review. It was something people read while waiting to get their tonsils swabbed for a strep test. Moreover, it was helping to spread strep to the next unsuspecting reader/patient, and then to the one after that. What I'm trying to say here, gently, is that I wasn't aiming all that high.

Even so, I'd done my homework by reading the publication and developing a feel for what they liked. I selected a story that fit their style. After drafting a professional query letter, I mailed the still-warm manuscript out First Class. For a few days, I basked in the pleasant possibility that another one of my stories would be published.

Less than a week later, an S.A.S.E. arrived in my mailbox. At once, I knew that a single sheet of paper was inside—never a good sign. Sighing, I tore it open, expecting the usual: Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we do not feel it is right for our publication. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. These form rejection letters are unsigned and grainy from years of having been photocopied off other yellowing photocopies of the first form rejection letter ever written, no doubt penned and printed by Gutenberg himself. Like most professional writers, I've received more than my fair share of them.

What I found inside, however, was something altogether different. In my hands was the same query letter I'd mailed out only days earlier. Right underneath my signature, the editor had written in two-inch-tall block letters with a red Sharpie marker:


It's difficult to describe what went through my mind and in what order. I remember an initial flash of mortification, some disbelief (Was Allen Funt hiding nearby, filming everything?) and, finally, indignation. Would it have killed the editor to be polite? After all, he'd solicited in Novel & Short Story Writer's Market. Why respond like I'd shown up selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door just as dinner was being put on the table?

Rejection sucks in general, but it especially blows when delivered by sucker-punch from a decidedly mediocre publication. My good friend Erin, a talented poet, shared her own frustration a while back when her work was rejected by a "literary" magazine that was—I kid you not—printed on typing paper and then crookedly stapled with such amateurish aplomb that it made me (a former print production manager for a Fortune 500 company) want to throw its editors into a cage and spray them with a fire hose until they screamed for mercy. At least they’d had the common decency, however, to be polite to her.

Yes, I know: Writers aren't supposed to bitch about these things. It's considered poor form. Still, someone needs to point out that we’re all in the same boat here. In graduate school, we were told that we should "support" literary magazines with subscriptions and purchases because those people worked so hard with little financial recompense for their troubles. Oh, the irony.

This question-doubling-as-a-suggestion probably flies in the face of The Way Things Are™, but here it goes, anyway: Wouldn’t it be great if these publications were wired to support writers too? Perhaps a more cordial “thank you” for having taking the time and effort to submit material should be offered instead of a sterile form letter or worse, an obnoxious note. Yes, writers want something when querying, but in most cases it’s in exchange for no cash payment, just a single copy of the issue and “exposure” in a mostly-unknown publication. These publications should, at the very least, reciprocate some professional courtesy.

I’ve said my piece and counted to three. Say yours below, if you’re so inclined.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Stupid Cancer -- An Original Poem

Stupid Cancer

I read an online meme today
that began, inexplicably,
with the words  
Stupid cancer!
and I sat there, baffled 
that a stunning word like
could be married to an underachiever
like stupid.
The noun, insidious,
loaded, life-changing. The adjective,
what a toddler shouts at
a sandbox playmate who stole
her pail. A surfeit of 
dazzling descriptors
exist, yet the writer chose
to pair stupid with  
cancer. The word
must have been hiding under
the couch that day, while
vacationed incognito
in a small Colorado town.
Let's call things what they 
are. Let's stop 
pretending, stop 
giving out pink
teddy bears in the aftermath
of shocking diagnosis. Let's 
give people swords 
and cheer them on while,
like gladiators, they go into
the arena to cut stupid cancer's
motherf*cking head off.

© 2014, K. P. Vermaelen. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

TURNed Off

"There are only a couple of things I have a problem with--the story and the dialogue."
-- Michael Burgess (played by Alan Alda) in Sweet Liberty

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull--one thing "Turn" did right
What a difference a month makes. The last time I posted here, I was struggling with the prospect of writing a bad review. Now here I am, about to give one.

As a historical fiction writer and a college professor who has slogged through the archives of Long Island's Revolutionary War history for personal and professional reasons, I had the highest hopes for AMC's Turn. For too long, Long Island's history of British Occupation and the covert role that Long Islanders played in helping our young country win the war has been side-stepped by American history textbooks and teachers alike. Turn, I believed, would begin to educate the public about what really happened on Long Island during the American Revolution. Or so I'd hoped.

In the first episode of Turn, Abraham Woodhull is "turned" by childhood friend Benjamin Tallmadge against the loyalist leanings of his family and the greater Setauket community. He secretly pines for Anna Smith Strong, his ex-fiancé, who runs Strong Tavern in her arrested husband's absence (Selah Strong has been incarcerated for accidentally assaulting a British officer during a tavern brawl, leaving Anna to fend for herself), and Woodhull convinces her to pitch in by hanging her black petticoat on her clothesline as a signal when he has intelligence to share. Woodhull then takes an oath of loyalty to the crown in a Setauket public square to solidify his cover before getting down to the business of surreptitiously changing young America's fortune in the War for American Independence.

This all sounds exciting and fantastic. What it lacks is historical accuracy. First of all, Abraham Woodhull was not a Tory. He served on the Committee of Public Safety in Brookhaven Town, he was a lieutenant in the local militia, and he signed an oath of loyalty to support the Continental Congress prior to the occupation. When Tallmadge suggested spying for the cause, Woodhull would have had no problem with the request. In fact, it might even have been Woodhull's idea.

Second, Woodhull was 26 in 1776 and was single for the first five years of the war; he didn't marry Mary Smith until 1781*, a time at which the British were beginning to redirect Long Island-based troops to support to their flailing South Carolina campaign. Abraham and Mary never had a son named Thomas, nor did Abraham have a predeceased brother by that name who was held up as a shining example of who Abraham should be in order to please his demanding father Richard.

This romance never happened.
Third, no engagement to Anna Smith Strong ever existed, and no arranged marriage brokered by Woodhull's father and Obadiah Smith ever thwarted his intentions to marry her. Anna (Nancy) Smith married Selah Strong in 1760, when Woodhull was just ten years old, and she birthed her first child in 1761. By age 36 in 1776, she was pregnant with her seventh child, a boy born in December of that year. Despite this large brood, "Annie" is portrayed as childless in Turn; the Strong children have been written out to smooth the way for the imaginary romance. Yes, Selah Strong was arrested and sent to the notorious prison ship Jersey, but for the crime of espionage. Strong didn't even own a tavern in Setauket; he was a farmer. The real Setauket tavern owner in the spy ring was Captain Austin Roe, a patriot who for whatever reason has yet to make an appearance in the series.

In summary, a sizeable chunk of this true story has been completely fabricated.

My problem with Turn stems from this belief: Historical fiction has an obligation at least to try to get the facts right, and especially so when using the names of real historical figures. Consider HBO's excellent John Adams series, based on David McCullough's masterful book. The scriptwriters didn't have John Adams lusting after another woman, nor did they feign his ideology or write in/out family members to match an altered story line. In John Adams, the historical record remains largely intact. Imagined scenes, such as the conversation John holds with cousin Sam Adams prior to a public tarring-and-feathering, are present solely to develop characters further. There's no need to "sex up" John Adams' story by adding fictional elements. It's "sexy" enough as is.

The same truth holds for Long Island's history. After the American loss at the Battle of Long Island, British soldiers subjected the island's inhabitants to numerous documented abuses. Twenty two thousand British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries were stationed there, matching the adult population in number. Martial law was imposed. Ports were closed, and travel off Long Island became impossible without British permission. Beatings, robberies, rapes, murders and other crimes were committed by the British with impunity. Although the island became a safe haven for Tory refugees, loyalists living there still carried "papers of protection" in case they got into a scrape with the soldiery. One can easily reason that it was a desperate time for residents of colonial Long Island.

Yet these remarkable circumstances somehow failed to create a compelling enough backdrop for Turn. Illicit romance and exaggerated loyalist sympathies are introduced to make Abraham Woodhull not only a spy, but a married man living on the edge, torn between his "true love" and his wife, always in danger of being caught by a Tory neighbor. Apparently, the potential threat of torture and execution upon discovery of his spy work wasn't considered enough to keep the viewing public intrigued. The story needed additional fictional elements to be made more appealing.

In 1986, Alan Alda starred in Sweet Liberty, a movie about a history professor who watches in horror as the movie adaptation of his ancestor's Revolutionary War diary deviates from the original true story to a fictional one of illicit romance between his ancestor and a British officer. In the film, changes are justified by movie-makers as a way to make history "more interesting" for young people. The parallel between the plot of Sweet Liberty and what's happened in Turn causes more than a little déjà vu. [Watch the trailer here.]

Turn also engages in what I call McHistory--that is, the oversimplification of complex historical situations so as to avoid any bothersome critical thinking. The scholar-debunked idea that Long Island was "mostly Tory" persists in character dialogue; the first episode emphasizes in an almost cartoonish way that Whigs will find "no friends in New York." Richard Woodhull, a judge, is portrayed as a staunch loyalist. Never mind that this is the same man whose father's and grandfather's graves were "desecrated" by British soldiers**--an act that Turn portrays as orchestrated by said Woodhull on British behalf. Young Abraham "turning" against the imagined Tory ideology of his community is far more dramatic than the reality: The island contained a minority of die-hard loyalists in 1776 and was rabidly patriotic by the end of the British occupation (a fact supported by the island-wide "Tory purge" of 1783 in which loyalists were forced to flee by ship to Nova Scotia immediately following the signing of the Treaty of Paris).

All of this goes to show that one can't get his/her history from a television show. Despite the televised endorsements of historical societies and "historians," Turn is not the true story of Long Island's first spy ring. It's Long Island's very own version of Sweet Liberty, brought to life by attractive and talented actors (the only reason to watch) who likely have no idea that the "history" they're portraying is more creative license than fact, the product of a scriptwriting arrogance that oversimplifies and "improves" real history for entertainment purposes.

I just hope that the people who brought John Adams to life for HBO will get around to making a true version of the Culper Spy Ring story someday. That would be worth watching.

* Not 1784, as stated in The Woodhull Genealogy. See Records of the Town of Smithtown, by Wm. S. Pellatreau, pp. 476-477
** Per the notes of Morton Pennypacker, on file at the East Hampton Library's Long Island Collection.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Avoiding the Poison Pen

It's mightier. Wield it carefully.
“It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” -- attributed to Dorothy Parker
Last June, I met a fellow historical novelist--a truly lovely woman, who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this post--at the Historical Novel Society Conference. We chatted over Saturday breakfast about our manuscripts, and she handed me a complimentary copy of her self-published war novel, asking only that I post a review in return. I thanked her and told her that I looked forward to reading her work. I meant this. I truly did.

Well, I started reading it about two months ago. The novel opened with transcriptions of period letters that describe egregious war injuries (insert the obligatory pile of amputated arms and legs here) and then jumped to a present-day dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. How the historical letters figured into this shift in time and plot, I knew not--but I was willing to give the book more time to show me. I kept reading.

More problems emerged, though. The characters were not sympathetic. The father--a middle-aged, arrogant workaholic with a pot-belly and a chip on his shoulder--was realistic but not likeable. No sense of true urgency was established. More letter transcriptions appeared as the chapters wore on, but they didn't connect to the modern-day scenes in any meaningful way. The author seemed to have thrown them in for historical "flavor" in the same way a cook adds spice to an otherwise unremarkable dish. The result was artificial and confusing.

I once read a short and slicing book review that stated, "I can't remember exactly when I slipped into a coma while reading this." This novel wasn't quite that bad, but I began to daydream mid-sentence, literally jolting back to the present to discover I'd only read half a page at most. I chided myself for not focusing and began reading again, only to have the same thing happen again. And again.

When my mind wandered, it became mired in a bog of unanswered questions. Why didn't the author have a book editor look at her manuscript before she published? Couldn't someone in her writing group point out that there must be a reason for the transcriptions, like the letter authors' appearance as characters in the novel? Shouldn't someone have told her that "[sic]" wasn't needed; license to change historical text into something more understandable for the modern-day reader is implied by the genre? Why hadn't the author read (or if so, paid attention to) a few celebrated novels set in the same period to see how others had navigated the past-to-present divide before making her own attempt? As far as I could tell, none of the above happened--and boy, did it ever show.

So, I gave up about halfway through the book. I probably should have tossed it aside long before that, but I have issues with not finishing novels. "If you were bored by a TV show, would you switch it off?" a friend once asked me. "Yes," I replied at once. "Then why force yourself to continue read a boring book?" she asked. She had a point. I guess I kept reading until the midway point because I hoped that the "good part" was coming, and I didn't want to quit before I reached it. But then I remembered something a writing professor at Stony Brook Southampton once told me: "Don't talk about the 'good part' of your book. Every part should be the good part." He also had a point. Halfway through, I didn't care if the characters fixed their problems, conquered their sorrows, fell in love, or lived period, let alone "happily-ever-after." That's a problem, because the reader needs to care. The reader needs a reason to continue reading.

Now, here's my confession: I decided not to write the book review. It's poor form, I think, to kick the author in the teeth when the book has been gifted. Nor would I appreciate it if the situation were reversed. That won't stop me from getting my own bad book reviews, of course, but I'll feel better for having avoided picking up the poison pen myself. Yes, I could have been as diplomatic as a form rejection letter--I just didn't love your book. Perhaps others will feel differently--but I still chose not to write one. I'm not part of the literary police. Still, I feel a little guilty about saying nothing, even though I had nothing nice to say. Why is that, I wonder.

Have you ever given up on a book, or do you push through until the end, hopeful that it'll get better at some point? If you stuck with it, were you happy that you did? Have you written a bad review for a book that disappointed you? Why or why not?

I look forward to reading your comments below.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Publicize This!

I failed to post here in February, but I can say that it was for a very good reason.

Since the middle of January, I've been working on finishing my first "indie" publishing project, a short-but sweet book that discusses strategies for promoting community/nonprofits with limited or nonexistent marketing budgets. It's called Publicize This! and I'm proud to say that it's now completed.

The back story is this: In 2007, I joined the marketing committee at my son's private school. My first project was to print a school brochure, which was easy because it was something I'd done many, many times while working for McGraw-Hill at the publication and at the corporate level. After the brochure was completed, I was asked to publicize school events that were open to the public: Open House, craft fairs, the annual fashion show, and so forth. Unlike my prior assignment, I had NO idea how to accomplish this. None. Zip. Zilch. I had to educate myself swiftly in order to do this well. The wisdom in this book is the result of my studies and my efforts since that time.

Publicize This! is a beginner's guide for community and/or nonprofit groups who need to grow their membership, raise awareness of important issues, and solicit donations to advance their objectives—despite the fact that they have a limited or nonexistent marketing budget. Packed with practical advice, this brief and to-the-point book details specific steps that groups might take to make a simple marketing plan, compile a custom media distribution list, advertise group events, capitalize on post-event publicity opportunities, and generate ongoing word-of-mouth that furthers the group's overall goals. All it takes is "some dedication, a little targeted research, diligent collection of relevant information, and steady application of what is learned along the way." Quick and easy fundraising ideas are included, as well as samples of blurbs, announcements, a radio script, and other promotional pieces for modeling purposes. It's 80 pages in length, so it's a quick read.

If you (or someone you know) is involved with publicity for a small group, I hope you'll consider adding Publicize This! to your (or someone else's) bookshelf today. It's available via CreateSpace and Amazon, and is available in print and as an eBook for Kindle and other platforms (or at least it will be by tomorrow at 8:30 AM. It took a while to figure out formatting for Kindle Direct Publishing, so I only managed to complete the electronic file today—but I'll save that story for another post).

Thanks for reading this and for considering Publicize This!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Resolved - 2014 Edition

Are you keeping your resolutions?
Since 2004, I've been cataloguing my New Year's Resolutions in a black cloth-covered journal, purchased for three bucks at the now defunct Borders book store in Sayville, New York. Looking back on these handwritten resolutions, I see common themes that now disturb me. It's not that they're bad goals, per se, but the fact that they end up on the list every year regardless of my level of success in achieving them tells me that maybe it's time to stop including them. After all, it's not much of a resolution if it's perpetual.

What kind of resolutions do I make? Omnipresent on my list (and perhaps on everyone else's as well) is to "lose ten pounds." Whether I was at maximum weight (post-baby, 2007) or minimum weight (2011), that resolution always receives the place of honor: #1. The runner-up is the perennial and always nagging directive to "publish something." Although I've accomplished this with various levels of success from year to year, this resolution won't drop off the list anytime soon either. So how exactly are these "resolutions"? They aren't; they're personal mandates. Ergo, my New Year's Resolution list is in desperate need of a makeover.

Therefore, I have decided to ignore the old standards and create new resolutions for 2014, which will hopefully go a longer way toward improving life for the better. My new-and-improved resolutions are as follows:

1. Enjoy more. My kids aren't going to be kids forever, yet I find myself staring at a blank computer screen frustrated by a lack of inspiration at times when I could be taking the boys out to see or to try something new and fun. My primary goal this year is to be more spontaneous about taking them to the beach (a mere 1-1/2 miles from my home), the park, and whatever-else-have-you. Who knows? Maybe elusive inspiration will strike while we're out having fun.

2. Say more. My mantra this year is "Speak your truth." I have made an unfortunate habit of remaining tight-lipped when listening to flawed reasoning, weak rationales, and abject stupidity in general. Although this practice is grounded in some skewed perception of what makes for good manners, it's corrosive to the soul. I see no reason why I need to continue it. "That's wrong," may be hard for some people to hear, but this year they'll be hearing it from me.

3. Sing more. This may sound stupid, but the truth is that although I sing well (or so I am told), I haven't sung much in public since my college years. Therefore, I have a bunch of friends who have never heard me sing. I'm not sure exactly when I stopped or why. I sang to my babies every day and still sing to the kids when I tuck them in at night. It's well outside my comfort zone to seek opportunities in which I may begin to sing in public again, but that's probably a good thing.

4. Try more. I have a Chinese fortune taped to my computer monitor that says "Failure is only defeat when you stop trying." Truth. Even so, I sent out five query letters in 2013. That's downright pathetic, especially for someone who is trying to sell historical fiction set in the currently slow-selling Revolutionary War period. My new goal is to query at least one agent per week. The worst that could happen is that I'll have more practice in approaching agents. The best is that someone will finally say yes.

5. Read more. I already read a lot, but there's a backlog of books that I've been meaning to read that I'd like to cut down to size this year. My new strategy is to throw a book in my car and read it while waiting to pick the kids up. Call it "repurposing my downtime." I hope it ends with lots of really excellent stories having been devoured.

I have some other goals which fit under the general umbrella of these five resolutions, but I won't list them all here. What's important is that I've realized that I need to change my way of thinking about resolutions. Hopefully, this list will help me live life better. I'll let you know in a year.

What are your NYRs for 2014, I wonder.  Post them below, if you dare.

Above image courtesy of satit_srihin/