Salvatore Pane

Category: Writers

The Query Letter

The query letter is the bane of my existence. Distilling a 300 page novel that I’ve spent untold days, weeks and months writing down into a few paragraphs seems so reductive as to actually harm my soul. So far, I’ve avoided writing such a document by having mentors recommend my manuscript straight to agents. But lately, I’ve been worrying whether or not that’s enough, and I’ve decided to query some agents just to shore up my chances. Because you only need one agent to say yes, right?

What follows is not patented advice. I’ve found out most of this stuff from people who’ve worked in agencies, other writers and a few helpful websites. I’m not claiming this will get you a partial request from the agent of your dreams, but this is what I did.

Step One: Find Some Agents

I’m sure that most serious writers could name the top lit journals or publishers but very few could name a ton of agents. I certainly could not. And when I began the querying process, I first had to do my research. Mostly this consisted of reading the acknowledgments sections of books I like and seeing who the agents are. Also, Query Tracker, the Duotrope of Agents, has a great feature called “Who Reps Whom”. Check it out.

Step Two: Writing the Query

Ugh. Ok. Here we go. All in one page. Get ready.

Paragraph One – Personalized Introduction

This means addressing your query to a specific agent and explaining why you want to work with them. This usually means bringing up one of their clients you admire. In this paragraph, you should also introduce yourself and the title/length of your book manuscript.

Paragraph Two – Synopsis

You know those paragraphs on the back of books? Write one. About your book. Don’t hit every beat. Don’t hit every character. Make it snappy. What are the major thematic concerns? What’s the plot? Who is the protagonist? You only have one page so don’t waste space.

Paragraph Three – Market

What is you book’s role in the marketplace? What book is it similar to (hopefully that sold well)? Is it voice-driven, plot-heavy, a generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City?

Paragraph Four – Who the Hell Are You?

Give your writer’s bio. Degrees. Publications. Teaching appointments. You know the drill.

Paragraph Five – Personalized Conclusion

Restate why you want to work with this specific agent. Make this seem as little like a form letter as humanly possible.

Step Three: Agony

Now you wait.

This isn’t the only way to write a query letter. Different formats can be found at Agent Query and other online resources. I culled most of my info from an amazing panel I attended at AWP (Grants, Proposals, and Queries: How to Write about your Writing with H.M. Bouwman, Swati Avasthi, J.C. Hallman and Matt Rasmussen).  Hopefully this helps.

A Disturbing Trend

Every so often I find myself stuck in strange, sometimes unproductive writing routines. The first one I really remember started in spring/summer 2006. I was preparing my application for grad school and tried to write a new story every two weeks. The only problem was they all had the same voice: first-person working class dude in his mid-fifties.  I’d try to write other things, but they just wouldn’t go anywhere. They’d stall out after a page or two and I’d revert into that familiar voice that was one part everything I’d grown up with at my father’s garage and one part Ray Carver imitation. This consumed my writing for about four months, until finally, I produced a story with this voice that wasn’t mind-numbingly terrible. I put it in all my grad school applications and luckily got into Pitt. So the end result was positive but all that time spent drafting failing stories with the same exact voice felt pretty unproductive, and at times, like a personal affront.

Recently, I’ve found myself going through a similar cycle. Ever since I’ve finished my novel (or at least, slowed down enough where I could focus on short stories), the same routine keeps recycling itself. I write about five or six pages of a new story, get an idea for something totally different, drop the first story completely, then finish the sexy new thang. For example, during the cataclysmic snow fuck that was February, I started writing a story based very loosely on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s wife. I don’t know a thing about her, but I’ve always wondered: who married that guy? What does she say at office parties when people ask her what her husband does? “Oh, he used to work in an office but now he reviews video games from the 80’s and early 90’s and the odd nostalgic board game.” Who is that person?

Clearly, that’s not a good basis for a story. There’s good character potential but zero idea for a plot. And after the aforementioned office party scene, it stalled out and drifted towards the most overused plot device in all of my work: the classic love triangle. I took a long walk around Squirrel Hill on one of the days Pitt closed on account of the blizzard and came up with the idea for my final workshop story: a piece about a former NCAA swimmer from Egypt who works in athletic advising at Pitt and knows his wife is going to leave him after work. That seemed to go a lot better in that I actually finished the story and revised it considerably. The AVGN piece sits untouched on my desktop.

Since then, the same process has repeated itself twice. A few weeks back I posted about my frustrations with my novella. I thought the problem was a post-novel slump, but the truth was I just couldn’t deal with that material at the moment. I swapped it out for something more familiar (aging comic book writer deals with a love triangle via Twitter!) and called it a day. Even this week, I started work on a project about President Garfield’s assassin’s time in the Oneida Society as narrated by his death row grandson, but the scenes just wouldn’t go anywhere. Its failure left me in a funk until I abandoned it and moved onto, again, something at the opposite end of the spectrum.

What I’m interested in is whether or not all writers develop odd quirks or routines. Do you ever find yourself  going through a strange process that you know isn’t the most productive way to be doing things even if at the end you come out of it with a decent story? I’m not talking about having a specific writing chair or pre-writing routine. I mean an actual tick that develops in your writing, like a superstitious belief that every other story you write is crap and must be sacrificed to the ghost of Richard Yates in order to produce something worthwhile. TELL ME I’M NOT ALONE!

Flashback Monday I: My Interview With McSweeney’s or The Great Cataclysm of 2043

My entire novel is about digital narcissism, about what it means to an exist in an age where anybody can voice their opinion to an audience of billions instantaneously through Twitter and Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with these outlets. On one hand, I see the danger, how isolated we’re becoming, how what it means to be human is being altered on a very fundamental level. But on the other hand, I really like tweeting about old Nerf Herder songs and linking to the sexual tension that is Comicvine’s video review show on Facebook. I often wonder how deceased writers would interact with these sites. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. They’re lucky in that most of the stupid apprentice writing they did will never see the light of day unlike David Foster Wallace whose undergraduate thesis is seeing publication later this year.

I don’t intend on bucking the trend. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. I’ve been cleaning out my external hard drive recently and found a back-up of my laptop from right before I finished college. Buried there is every file I ever wrote, including the incomplete 253 page single spaced fantasy novel I wrote at age fifteen (final line: “Immediately after her demise, the picture vanished, and the Memory Cube returned to its standard hue of blue, leaving the three Chosen Ones in complete and total disarray…”). So I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’ll post something from my more formative years that may be of interest to people other than myself. I won’t do this with any regularity so don’t worry.

The first item of inquiry is an interview I did with Eli Horowitz, the managing editor of McSweeney‘s, for a paper I wrote in an editing and publishing class with the poet Karen Holmberg. The questions aren’t super interesting, but the answers are kind of funny. And I really can’t believe how nice Eli was to do this, and how much of a pompous douche I was for even asking. Also, I titled the paper “The Future Is Robots” which is pretty neat.

1. What was the genesis of McSweeney’s? Did it come out of the end of Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine or did the creators think that they could fill a niche not catered to by the rest of the literary journal market?

Initially, if was made largely of work rejected by other magazines.  And something for Dave to do while he procrastinated on his book.

2. An obvious pillar of the McSweeney’s philosophy is to publish and nurture young writers. What guided you in this direction? Many other literary magazines don’t follow your principle about unpublished authors and I find it slightly alarming.

I don’t know — it just makes sense, right?  Why others don’t, I’m not sure, except I guess it’s kind of slow to sort through all those submissions.

3. How do you go about choosing which submissions to run? Do the section editors have meetings with reading boards? And if so, do they look over everything or is there a slush pile? If so, who goes through all the entries and decides what to go into the slush pile?

There isn’t really a slush pile; almost all the stories go through the same system.  Basically, there are a bunch of readers, and if any of them like a story it becomes a contender, and then Dave and I pick from that group. Everything definitely gets read, generally by three different people.

4. What do you usually have your interns do when they are on site? What about interns who are helping away from a farther location? On your website, you say you sometimes have both.

All sorts of things — reading submissions, fact-checking articles, going to the post office.  Those distant ones are generally readers — I’m not yet sure whether that actually makes sense.

5. Every issue of McSweeney’s seems very fresh and different from the last, but do you have any overarching message or theme that you hope each book contains?

Not really.  Well, a sense of excitement and possibility, and a respect for the stories themselves.  But there’s no conscious mission, I don’t think.

6. How did you personally go about getting your position at McSweeney’s?

I started as a volunteer carpenter for 826 Valencia, our tutoring center. One thing led to another, in a series of flukes.

7. Unlike most literary journals, you do a lot of public events such as They Might Be Giants vs McSweeney’s. What do you think these events add to the magazine, and what type of events would you like to see happen in the future?

Maybe a sense of community?  Once I say a woman on a giant unicycle flip five bowls from her foot to her head — I’d like to include her in a future event.

8. As a publishing house, McSweeney’s published the inherently political The Future Dictionary of America last year. Do you think McSweeney’s will constantly dabble in politics or was that a one shot type of thing?

Hard to say.  I think there will always be some element of that, but probably rarely anything so straightforward; that seemed like a particularly urgent need.

9. The designs of McSweeney’s magazines, even your books like How We Are Hungry, are known for their interesting and unorthodox designs. When creating the magazine, which is more important, the design or the contents within?

The contents.  Well, both, but the design can never interfere with the contents.  Our goal is to create a design that honors the writing inside.

10. Finally, what is the future for McSweeney’s? Whose hands would you like to see the magazine fall into eventually, and what vision do you want to see it taken in?

The future is robots, and an underground clan of freedom fighters. McSweeney’s will be destroyed in the Great Cataclysm of 2043.

Thoughts on Plot

I’ve been reading Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel A Gate at the Stairs. It’s enjoyable, and if you like Lorrie Moore (which I certainly do), you’ll enjoy this book. The voice is strong. The descriptions are surprising and unique. But there’s one crucial element missing: plot. I made a complaint about this on Facebook and certain people (ahem) complained about said complaint. I’ve been wondering a lot about why this is. Why when someone criticizes a literary novel for not having plot, many thoughtful readers will rise up and say literary novels don’t need plot. But that would never hold true for dialogue or characterization or any of the other fundamental building blocks of fiction. Imagine someone critiquing a novel’s characterization and a reader saying, well, literary novels don’t need characterization. 

By plot, I don’t mean melodrama. I mean tension, an inciting incident, anything that grabs readers’ attention and forces them onward. It could be something as monumental as a mother having sacrificed one of her children to the Nazis and dealing with the aftermath (Sophie’s Choice) or something as subtle and quiet as finding out how the final night of a closing Red Lobster plays out (Last Night at the Lobster). Plot is an absolutely necessary component to any work of fiction for me, but at some point, it became a dirty word in hoity-toity literary circles. In MFA workshops, it’s often thrown around as an insult. This story’s too plotted or too plot heavy. Again, can you even picture a reader who would say that a story has too much characterization? But what is a story without a plot? A quirky observation? A rant? 

Tension! A Plot!


When I think of really strong plots, I think of books that have elaborate underpinnings that are hidden from the reader. I think of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. On one level, not much happens. A married suburban couple is unhappy. They think moving to Paris will solve all their problems. The wife becomes pregnant and the husband uses that as excuse not to go. What will happen? But if you reread that book, you can see thematic seeds planted throughout. References to April wanting an abortion appear in the first 50 pages, before she even gets pregnant. Characters talk about how people are more alive in Paris before the trip is ever brought up. Rehearsals for Frank’s eventual failure of the soul occur again and again and again. Each scene is necessary, and pulling out even one would destroy the book as a whole. In that sense, it’s structured like an elaborate end-game Jenga tower. But upon first reading, none of this is apparent to reader. Everything is organic. This is an instance where plot is as important as dialogue, characterization, empathy, and all the other elements of fiction of the traditionally dominant aesthetic set. 

I can’t say why exactly I’m so drawn to plot, but it definitely has to do with my odd inclination towards structures. Maybe it goes back to my fascination with genre storytelling as a boy, and subsequent return to comic books as an adult. I’m not sure, but it certainly explains why I prefer Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Cloumbus (a tightly plotted coming of age novella) to his more celebrated Portnoy’s Complaint (a long, first-person rant directed at a psychoanalyst). One uses plot effectively while the other does not. Both are great books, but one plays more towards my preferences in literary fiction. The same holds true for Lorrie Moore. I love her short stories (the characters usually want something and try to achieve those goals, or else their inaction and stagnancy are the “point” of the story). But I’m not loving this novel as much as I’d hoped because the protagonist (though wonderfully vivid and defined) is given little drama or tension to play off of. She is adrift. That is all. One scene follows another but only a handful feel vital to the book’s movement and soul. Of course, I’m only 150 pages in, so maybe I’ll have a very different opinion by novel’s end (although I’d be hard-pressed to see a reason for the first aborted adoption meeting at Perkins). All these years later, and I’m still a believer in Tom Bailey‘s second rule of fiction: story happens when shit hits the fan. 

As advertised, a LOT of complaining.

Top 20 Under 40

The New York Times recently released The New Yorker‘s top 20 writers under 40 list. The biggest surprise is that it was the Times who broke the news on the web.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32
Chris Adrian, 39
Daniel Alarcón, 33
David Bezmozgis, 37
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38
Joshua Ferris, 35
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33
Nell Freudenberger, 35
Rivka Galchen, 34
Nicole Krauss, 35
Yiyun Li, 37
Dinaw Mengestu, 31
Philipp Meyer, 36
C. E. Morgan, 33
Téa Obreht, 24
Z Z Packer, 37
Karen Russell, 28
Salvatore Scibona, 35
Gary Shteyngart, 37
Wells Tower, 37

So did they get it right? Any big surprises? Any huge omissions? According to the comments sections on HTML Giant, this list is all wrong. I actually like a lot of these authors including Joshua Ferris, JSF, Z Z Packer and a few others. I am surprised that people like Justin Taylor or Teddy Wayne or Joe Meno didn’t make it though. What do you guys think? I’m really curious about people’s opinions on this. HTML Giant seems to be pretty negative about the whole thing, but I think the list is pretty decent. It doesn’t beat Flatmancrooked‘s sexiest author list, but what does?

Post Novel Depression

A few days ago, I finished the (187th?) draft of my novel. It’s been read by lots of folks (if you’re reading this (doubtful), thanks!). And I’ve spent so much time on it that I can recite many scenes and snippets of dialogue from memory. It’s too early to talk about what happens to it next, but please send your positive energy my way.

What I really want to talk about is starting my next project. I’ve spent so much time in the world of the novel using that voice, and it’s a lot harder to come out of it than I anticipated. While writing the novel, I took a few breaks to write some short stories and a couple pieces of flash fictions, but those were trysts, brief interludes that kept me away from what I considered to be my truest work.

Now what the hell am I supposed to do? Since starting the novel, I’ve been keeping a notebook full of short story ideas and a very loosely plotted novella amputated from a too-ambitious short story. I started the novella three days ago and it’s been really rough going. I’ve written about 4,000 words but there’s only one scene I actually thinks is any good, and even that’s filled with instructions to myself in big red letters about how to flesh things out more.

One of the problems I have is I keep slipping into the novel voice and trying to bring the novella back to themes directly connected with the novel. I’m not sure how to deal with this. Usually, I’m a very intuition based writer. I don’t have elaborate plans and only know what’s going to happen a few scenes in advance (with the exception of maybe a handful of images I know might work towards the end). A lot of the time, I don’t even write in order and piece the scenes together once I have a first draft. Normally, I would follow my intuition and keep writing in the novel voice, but I’m worried about being derivative. I don’t want to be one of those writers who does the same thing 85 times, but on the other hand, maybe the novel’s themes are my true subjects, and it’s up to me to continue pursuing them? Another problem is that both the novel and novella use twenty-something male first person protagonists. They’re extremely different characters, but the voices are more similar than I’d like and this worries me. Maybe I need to put this novella away (again) and work on something more closely connected to a female character or write something in third person.

I know a lot of this is rambling and probably of little interest to non-writers. But I am curious for responses from people who read this who do write. What’s your process like? Do you have difficulty transitioning from one project to another? Do you work on multiple projects at the same time? Do you find that your voice bleeds from one work to the next, that you have an authorial style that’s impossible to hide once you really discover your voice? Any and all opinions welcome.

There I am working on my novella!

The Publishing Industry Is (Still) Dying According to the Voice Actor Behind Odin on Disney’s “Hercules” Cartoon Show (Not the Movie)

It seems that every few months some old white guy has to comment about the end of literary journals or the publishing industry. One of my first posts on this blog mentioned just such an article and gave copious examples of why this is simply not true. But who needs examples or those pesky little things called facts and statistics? Garrison Keillor, a contributor to The New Yorker and host of some Minnesota radio show, wrote an op-ed today in The New York Times about how the publishing industry “is about to slide into the sea.” His reasoning for this? Well, as far as I can tell his daughter really likes the internet and he got invited to a Tribeca publishing party filled with “authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses” (I guess “elegant young women in little (?) black dresses” can’t be authors, agents or editors).

Nothing infuriates me more than this type of article. Keillor never gives us any facts or stats to back up any of his opinions; he just makes vague allusions to the internet, Barack Obama, self-publishing and Amazon. Then he ends on, predictably, a story about what he literally refers to as “the Old Era” (his caps not mine). Keillor wistfully tell us, “I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it.”

Holy fucking shit! A typewriter! If only I could introduce him to just about every hipster I know (they almost all have typewriter collections). And a manila envelope?! Wow. I can’t even believe it. The difference between that and an e-mail is light years apart. I mean, they’re not even remotely the same. Because one is in a manila envelope and one is not. Wow.


And of course, every young writer in the nation took turns swiping Keillor over Twitter. So many joined in the fray that Flavorwire actually posted a round-up citing Maud Newton and Colleen Lindsay (follow her twitter; she’s pretty funny) among others. The fact that this rallied the troops within a few hours of the op-ed obviously proves Keillor’s point that nobody cares about books anymore and authors are doomed to make “$1.75” for the rest of their lives.


Thoughts on Endings: Lost, Infinite Seriality, The Illusion of Change, and What It All Has to Do With Literary Fiction

People who knew me in college can attest to the fact that I was one of the most fanatic followers of LOST on the planet. My friends and I hit a level of lameness never before seen by human eyes when during our senior year of college, we made Dharma station logos for the room doors of the house we lived in. Each Wednesday, we’d cram into my buddy’s room with a bunch of Yuengling and watch LOST with our own set of bizarre Jacob/Man-in-Black-esque rules. No lights. No talking. No complaining. We taped each episode, and as soon as one ended, we watched it again (usually making plentiful use of the slow-mo button) to see if there were any clues lurking in the background (there never were). Once, we famously threw out a friend for complaining mid-episode about the sudden appearance of Nikki and Paulo. And we made quite the habit of going to the local bar after every week and shouting our favorite quotes while getting drunk (shockingly, I don’t think any of us had much sex that year). 

In the intervening years, my enthusiasm for LOST has weaned. I don’t think it’s because the quality of the show declined (minus the dreadful and drawn out final season), but more because I don’t have that core base of friends who worship the show and want nothing more than to theorize about it and assign it personal meaning. Maybe it’s because of this quote from the immortal Poochie episode of The Simpsons: “The thing is, there’s not really anything wrong with the Itchy & Scratchy show, it’s as good as ever. But after so many years, the characters just can’t have the same impact they once had.” Regardless, LOST ended last night, and despite the fact that I really liked it (it reminded me a lot of a mash-up between Our Town and Neon Genesis Evangelion) the consensus around the interwebs seems to be that the finale of LOST was the worst 2.5 hours in the history of television. 

Neon Genesis, like LOST, set a thousand pseudo-science/religious mysteries into motion, then ended on this clip without addressing even one.

I keep wondering why that is exactly, why genre fiction tends to always have this problem and if it has anything to do with literary fiction. Take, for example, the holy lineup of genre TV: LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks and X-Files. Despite having vocal minorities who love the ends of each of these shows, the majority critical/fan opinion tends to be that they all blew it in their final episodes (or, in most of these cases, the final seasons). Why is that? I always have so much trouble ending my own fiction, and I’ve often thought that beginnings are so much easier. Look at the very compelling openings to the above four examples. A plane crashes on a mysterious island. All of humanity is wiped out by robots with the exception of a lone battleship and handful of civilian ships. The corpse of a teenage homecoming queen is found in a sleepy town. Two detectives focus on mysterious cases. 

Ok. Now look at their endings. In LOST’s case, the main character plugs up a magic hole with a magic rock and then hangs out in a church in purgatory with his father and buddies. One is simply more compelling on a base, human level. And honestly, I can’t think of any genre offerings that have endings that match their beginnings. Look at Star Wars or Indiana Jones: a teddy bear parade on one hand and Shia LeBeouf on the other. I wonder if the same holds true for literary fiction. I can think of so many wonderful openings (“In my younger and more vulnerable years…” or “In walks these three girls with nothing but bathing suits.”), but it’s harder to remember endings that don’t disappoint. Revolutionary Road comes to mind, for example. And of course, The World According to Garp. So does Martin Amis’ wonderful London Fields, a genre mashup that’s a trillion times more cynical than LOST but similar in that it also deals with end of the world scenarios. Why is this? Is it because nothing ever ends(the sentiment used to end Watchmen), so any need to impose finality on a work of fiction seems artificial and rings untrue? 

Heavy handed, but satisfying on the character level.

I think for me, that might be the case and could potentially explain my love of superhero comics. I forgot who said this, but a legendary comic creator (Stan Lee maybe?) once told Kevin Smith that comics are never-ending Act 2’s. They can’t end. They just go on forever. Batman was in his thirties in the 1930’s and he’s the same age today. The only change is the illusion of change. And if you peel away all the adolescent power fantasies and the inherent ridiculousness in costumed vigilantes, maybe this is the appeal of comic books: infinite seriality. In many ways infinite seriality can seem more realistic than works of fiction that close everything up with a neat little bow. Nothing ever ends. Few things change on any fundamental level. There only exist tiny alterations that hint at the illusion of change. 

Or maybe not. Maybe Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse just didn’t know why Claire had to raise Aaron or what the deal was with Walt’s mysterious powers.

The Super-Ego: Kanye West vs. The Last Son of Krypton

All contemporary writers are inherently egomaniacs. It takes an ego of unimaginable strength for a person to look at the summation of the written word and think, “Yeah. That’s not good enough. I have something unique, vital and oh so very important to add. Shakespeare? Fuck Shakespeare.” Ego is undeniably a necessary component to the act of, if not writing, then at the very least publishing. If there’s not enough confidence, or even arrogance in the strength and validity of your own work, it’ll probably go unread on your hard drive for all eternity. However, too much ego can quickly become a danger for writers. Three days ago, I posted about novelist Tom Bailey and how he would routinely deliver incredibly harsh critiques to undergrad students, often asking them to pick one great sentence from their drafts and start completely over (meaning new characters, new settings, new plots, new conceits). This pissed off a lot of students and some even changed majors or left the program once they realized the type of rewriting Bailey wanted. And this is where the danger lies. Because although you need to have enough faith in your work to believe it is worthy of existing, worthy of publishing, writers also have to be able to deal with criticism. Otherwise you get explosions like that one time Richard Ford kind of spat on Colson Whitehead over a negative review.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why ego is so necessary to writers, where it comes from, and what other professions it applies to. This is something my novel deals with a lot, so I’ve been wrestling with these issues for awhile now. In the book, one of the central figures is Kanye West. The Kanye of my novel is an odd amalgam of true reports and utterly fictionalized bullshit (for example, there’s a scene where Kanye rides a steel horse into space to eradicate an old folks’ home on Mars). One of the things that first really excited me about Kanye is his blog. I’m not naive enough to believe that Kanye’s the one actually posting music videos, linking to art exhibits, or gushing about the latest sneakers, but every once in awhile, a post shows up that is clearly written by Yeezy himself. For an example, check out this video of South Park mocking Kanye and then Kanye’s real-life response on his blog:

Click Yeezy for video.


Kanye’s quote might seem ridiculous to some, but I think there’s something very true and undeniably human about it that makes it worth examining. If anything, West is completely self-aware. He realizes quite accurately that his hyperbole and hyper-ego (the one that first allowed him to attempt to create something and show it in a public venue) originated in his vague, adolescent insecurities. His ego began as a way to boost his self-esteem, but in the wake of rampant success, grew completely out of control. There’s something about this admission that’s always struck me. Ego and insecurities. Are these two warring sensibilities necessary for all writers? Maybe even all “performers”? And if that’s the case, then aren’t we all performers? And are the dangers in overplaying one’s ego that are specific to writers?

These are all issues I’m still grappling with and definitely ones I plan on tackling in future work. My thoughts on the subject (much like this blog post) are kind of scrambled and inconclusive. All I can really add to the subject is this: a week ago, my mother asked me how I was doing. I’d been having a rough go of it (she knew this) and instead of answering her outright and explaining why I now felt so much better about the world, I told her a story. Because I really do believe that stories are how people make sense of reality. I reminded her that after Superman died in his climatic early-nineties throwdown with emotionless super alien Doomsday, the body of Clark Kent/Kal-El was placed inside of a magical regeneration chamber hidden away in the Fortress of Solitude that massaged him back to life with wondrous rays of sunshine imported from the planet Krypton. I told my mother that my ego had the same effect; it comforts, empowers and renews. Kryptonite is on one hand Superman’s greatest weakness, but on the other, it is the wellspring which makes all things possible. For without his Kryptonian lineage, what is Superman other than a disturbed individual who wears his underwear outside of his pants? My mother said, “That’s nice, dear.” That’s probably the best I can expect.

I wish more people understood how much of a self-serving asshole Superman really is.

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.