Hiding From the Elephant

chimp with arm out

Talking like an engineer

Sometimes in a restaurant I watch people air talk, moving their hands as they speak. Perhaps I have an unconscious motive to decide whether or not I’m normal, as I was once accused of using my hands too much when I talk. (Or perhaps my lovely companion at the time did not move her hands enough.)

Monday in Atlanta I sat for a while in a student center at Georgia Tech, a school famous for engineering. I watched a woman making rather dynamic hand motions, including, as far as I could tell, an explosion. I hope she’s not going into aviation engineering. Probably because I was at Georgia Tech, I started remembering years ago when I taught with engineers, and I considered methods of communication they use.

At that time, in addition to hand gestures, I was paying particular attention to the types of drawings engineers use, and somewhere in between drawings and hand gestures were physical objects, from a pipe or block of wood up to a scale model. Gestures, objects, drawings, and of course for us language people: talking, and especially writing.

Especially writing. This week I have more time to think about the writing I’m doing, as I’m down south on a necessary family visit. While I’m here, I’m also trying as much as possible to escape from my real life, though it follows me around like an infuriated bull elephant. I suppose it will trample me eventually, but so far I keep managing to scramble up a tree.

In recent weeks, aside from the creative activity that I actually want to do, I’ve been giving more serious attention to the ugly, dark side of writing—getting people to read it. I’ve been sending stories out to magazines, mostly to those that allow online submission, because snailmail submission is A Huge Pain in the Ass. Nevertheless, I’ve also sent off a couple of stories by printing them out with a cover letter and taking the big envelope to the post office. Several times I’ve received the obligatory reply of No, but I think I still have 21 stories in submission.

I’ve also shifted strategy a bit, looking for new magazines that I don’t know at all. For too long I followed an obviously flawed methodology of sending only to places where I would really want to be published. Perhaps the reason those magazines are so good is that people like me cannot trick them into accepting stories.

Quite a few magazines now exist only online, and one thing I’ve noted about them is that many have word limits shorter than what some of the paper magazines allow. You might think it would be the other way around, since a traditional magazine has to pay for paper, printing, and shipping, while an online magazine can use a longer story for no additional cost. So why do online magazines have shorter word limits? Perhaps they think people don’t actually want to read very much on screen—even though that’s how they publish—and the rule is to keep it short.

Some magazines also encourage “flash fiction” which, as you might guess, flashes by. Short. Maybe new literary genres are being created for people who regard Twitter as communication. Maybe for the Twitter crowd a 500-word story would feel sort of like a novella. They might have to read it in stages. Stop and comment on each paragraph. “Like reading wr & pc #goesonforever”.

Some of what I have is too long, not flash fiction but more like a house burning down. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been revising stories that have been lying around for years, to have as many as possible that are suitable for submission. I had one story that was 25 pages and I cut it down to 12. I was careful to keep all the beautiful, sensitive, and intelligent stuff. Odd, though, that it had 13 pages with none of that.

During the time I’ve been here in Georgia I also heard from Cairn Press, the publisher where I sent the novel Benedict and Miramar. I had sent it on my birthday, which I took as a sign of good luck, but now that I think about it, my birthday has brought me nothing but aging. And great wisdom, of course, but I can’t use that. The publisher wished me good luck, shamrocks, all the whiskey the creative process might require, and nothing else. Another obligatory reply of No.Charlie Brown cartoon

So I’ll return to looking for a literary agent. Unless that bull elephant snaps the tree I’ve climbed. We’re kind of swaying back and forth when he whacks into it. I should have brought some peanuts.


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