Old Possum’s, Paula Guran, and Quality

The Old Possum’s Writing Group met tonight, and for the first time in recent memory, no female members showed up. That was a little strange, and slightly changed the dynamic of the group, I think. It wasn’t a significant change, but it did have a bit more of a locker room feel to me. Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive, though.

After the critiques were done, we discussed Paula Guran’s article “Tribal Stand” on the Locus Magazine website. In short, the article laments the current state of the horror genre, pinpointing incestuous webzines and “miniscule press” magazines as being at fault for the large volume of substandard writing being published. Basically, because anyone can now be publisher on the Internet or use print-on-demand and self-publishing services to create a work of fiction, no one has to enforce industry standards or pay respects to the masters of the genre.

This is interesting, since Paula Guran is, herself, editor of a genre magazine, Horror Garage, and has also produced an electronic newsletter, Dark Echo, for many years. A quick look at the Horror Garage submission guidelines shows that Guran is not being hypocritical, though. Horror Garage, in its early issues, published a wide variety of quality writers in a wide variety of styles; Paula wasn’t just printing articles by her friends. Also, the guidelines make it clear that literary quality is a requirement for stories published in Horror Garage. The article also has a great quote: “Real writing happens when your blood meets the bayonet, when your bone is nicked with the blade.” It sounds to me like Guran thinks there are too many rubber bayonets out there right now.

So where do I stand on this? Certainly, by posting this journal and by linking to writers, magazines and bloggers on the Internet, I’m participating in the sort of networking that enabled many of the Buddy Publishing cabals to come into existence. However, I also believe in writing standards, and I do my best to adhere to them. To me, the most basic of these standards is the proper use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in a submitted manuscript. Occasionally, I come into conflict with people in my writing groups because of this. Their argument is that those little things really don’t matter much; what matters is the story structure, plot and characterization. Ultimately, I agree with them.

However, I also find it very distracting to wade through an unclean manuscript, and though I try not to focus on the mechanical problems, I am never successful in doing so. As a result, I sometimes miss the point of a story, or I miss clues in the text that illuminate why what’s-his-name did such-and-such. I feel more like a copy editor than an evaluator, and I’m sure that reflects in my critiques. The guideline I use is this: If I’m submitting a manuscript to a critique group, I pretend that every member is an Ellen Datlow, a Gardner Dozois, a Gordon Van Gelder, a Paula Guran. I want to make the best impression I can on these “editors,” so they will give me good feedback on the story, rather than just reject it out of hand or focus on mechanical faults.

If I succeed in turning in a presentable manuscript, I am much more likely to get meaningful critiques of the important things, the things that are the most difficult to learn: structure, plot, word choice, characterization. To me, these are the aspects of writing that really determine whether or not a story has literary quality.

I guess this puts me pretty firmly on the side of Paula Guran and other “tribe” members. Some may see this viewpoint as elitist or snobbish; that’s unfortunate, but it won’t make me change what I believe, and it won’t keep me from doing my best when I critique a manuscript. If doing my best means copy-editing a manuscript so that it’s readable and then re-reading it for content, that’s what I’ll have to do. But rest assured that I will tell the writer that the amount of mechanical problems distracted me from focusing on the main story elements, and that I probably could have given a more fair critique if the manuscript had been cleaner.

Thinking About Writing

I didn’t write today. I did do a helluva lot of thinking about writing, but I didn’t write. The thinking started in the shower this morning. Unconsciously using techniques from Bruce Holland RogersWord Work, I imagined myself reading poetry to an enthusiastic crowd at an open mic. I imagined which poems I would read, how I would read them, and how they were received by the audience. When I left the shower, I was wide awake and bounding with enthusiasm for writing, which I couldn’t do because I had to go to work. Grrr ….

After work, I stopped by Old Possum’s Book Store and spoke with Jeff, the owner, for a while. We discussed writing groups, manuscript submission, writing and publishing conventions, and how different authors (particularly Ed Bryant) can be so inspirational and encouraging to us fledgling writers. Rogers discusses this in Word Work, as well, and it’s interesting to note that he also lists Ed Bryant as one of his primary mentors. The man is certainly the hub of SF and horror writing in the Denver area; I don’t know how he finds the energy to do it, but I’m thankful that he does. I wish he had a website so I could direct some traffic his way, but the closest I can get is the Wormhole Books website. Go there. Buy books. Now.

I did finish Word Work today, and I will post a review tomorrow if I can get it done. It’s a great book, and I hope I can use it to sustain the commitment I must make to my writing. When I finished it, I felt a pang of sadness; a miniature post-partum depression, if I can get away with saying that. Or maybe it was more like the feeling young adults get when their parents say, “Okay, you have to move out now. You need to support yourself.” It’s kind of a rejection, but at the same time, it’s an affirmation of belief in their ability to survive and learn about the world.

Cutting Class

I decided to skip the Old Possum’s meeting this month. I don’t like doing that, since I’m one of the founding members and sort of the group’s secretary, but I really need the practice for this gig. Hopefully I can get together with other band members tonight and make this performance a little more polished than the last one.

I sent a note out to the Old Possum’s group, outlining my shameful choice for the evening. I knew something like this was bound to happen if I started getting my foot in the music door, and I chose to do it anyway. I guess I have to live with the consequences of my actions.

I also queried Wormhole Books about the flash fiction story, “To Be Human,” that I submitted for their product catalog. I got a good response back; it’s neither been accepted nor rejected. The editors are still “mulling it over.” That’s good news! That’s still one step removed from a rejection.

Painting and prepping

Okay, almost the whole upstairs is now painted. I ran out of paint and had to rush to Lowe’s before they closed, but we got enough to finish the bedroom upstairs and got all the furniture back in so we would have something to sleep on. All that’s left upstairs is touch-up work, which my wife says she will finish this week.

I’m glad she said that, because I will be very busy this week. John from Dante Spumante did call, and I told him I would play with them on Tuesday. He wanted to know when we could rehearse, but I told him we might not have a chance due to my tight schedule. Today, I painted. Monday, I’m supposed to attend the monthly Old Possum’s writing workshop. Tuesday is gig day, and I have to work both Monday and Tuesday during the day. That doesn’t leave much time unless I forego the Old Possum’s workshop. I don’t want to do that, but it looks like I might have to.

Wednesday, I have the Writer’s Circle writing workshop, and Thursday is the day for Melanie Tem’s writing workshop. It only happens occasionally that I have three workshops in one week, but when it does, the whole week feels swamped. Friday is relatively clear, except for a potluck and BBQ at work, but that means I will need to make something Thursday night after the workshop. Oy. Saturday, my nephew is getting married, and then we are driving to Colorado Springs to see Dot Com open for Jack Russell, the former lead singer for Great White.

Sunday, we get to start painting the downstairs. Joy.


The Old Possum’s Writing Group met tonight. Two new members showed up, and one old member who had been in absentia for a few months. My right ear started throbbing during the meeting due to an ear infection (another one! What’s up with my ears this year?) so I kind of wavered in and out of the meeting, but I think I was mostly present. I told Ed Bryant that I would not be able to make it to the Writer’s Circle group this Wednesday due to my workload and upcoming manager’s meeting on Friday.

That will probably force these creativity journal entries to be a bit thin, as well.