It's that time of year in south Georgia: hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. Whether you're headed to the beach or turning the air conditioning down and staying indoors, summer is a great time to catch up on some reading. Many websites are offering lists of summer reading, too, so recommendations are everywhere. Of course, I have my own ideas (as do you--drop me a comment with your own suggestions).
In no particular order (they're all excellent), here are my Top Ten Summer Reads:
S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep (Harper, 368 pages)
Novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River and Shutter Island) describes Watson’s debut novel as “Memento on crystal meth.” Featuring a first-person narrator who can’t make new memories, Before I Go To Sleep is a genuine page turner, the kind of novel that will have you saying, “I’ll go to sleep after one more chapter” over and over again.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harvest Books, 191 pages)
Hamid’s 2008 novel could be described as a number of things: an allegory, a cautionary tale, or a love story to a bygone era. Whatever you call it, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both accessible and challenging. Ostensibly the story of a young immigrant’s education in America, the novel explores the devastating global and personal after-effects of 9/11. The book is worth reading, given that we are approaching the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 this September.
D.B. Grady, Red Planet Noir (Brown Street Press, 216 pages)
Grady’s debut novel is simultaneously a homage to hard boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as well as science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. The story of a private eye investigating the death of a prominent military official on Mars, Red Planet Noir is a page-turner that asks some very tough questions about the government, the military, the police, unions, and the sometimes uncomfortable alliances among these strange bedfellows.
Lisa Turner, A Little Death in Dixie (Bell Bridge Books, 298 pages)
In Turner’s debut novel, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is as much a character as Billy Able, a detective with the city’s police department. Able’s investigation into the disappearance of a young debutante uncovers all sorts of nastiness that the upper crust of southern society would like brushed back under the rug. Turner’s prose is crisp and kinetic. A character-driven story that also has a plot, A Little Death in Dixie is a book for fans of thrillers as well as southern literature.
James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues (Avon Books, 384 pages)
The third in Burke’s hugely-successful sequence of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, Black Cherry Blues shows what Burke does best. As a writer, he rests one foot firmly in genre fiction, the other firmly in character-driven literary fiction. The first-person narrative allows Burke to explore Robicheaux’s flawed psyche, yet it doesn’t distract from the novel’s tightly-woven plot. Readers who’ve not read the first two books in the series shouldn’t worry. Burke’s prose allows you to jump right in—no previous reading experience required.
Victor Gischler, The Deputy (Tyrus Books, 256 pages)
Gischler’s fifth novel, The Deputy explores some familiar terrain for the Edgar Award nominee, whose previous works include Gun Monkeys, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse and The Pistol Poets. What starts as a simple assignment for small-town Oklahoma deputy Toby Keith (keep an eye on a dead body until the county medical examiner arrives) turns into an action-packed thrill-fest that delivers, page after page. As always, Gischler’s prose is tight and economical, a trait that keeps the book moving a mile a minute.
Anthony Neil Smith, Yellow Medicine (Bleak House Books, 256 pages)
Founding editor of the online noir literary magazine Plots with Guns (http://www.plotswithguns.com), Smith knows the terrain of crime fiction very well and Yellow Medicine demonstrates his mastery of the form. The story of anti-hero Billy Lafitte, an exiled deputy from the Mississippi Gulf Coast who’s now a deputy in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, Yellow Medicine begins innocently enough. The bassist of a local pscho-billy band called Elvis Antichrist asks Billy to look into the disappearance of her boyfriend. The novel quickly becomes an action-packed romp featuring corrupt cops, backwoods meth dealers, and Malaysian terrorists. A page-turner that has all the action of a big-budget Hollywood production, Yellow Medicine kicks the tires and lights the fires on the very first page and hurtles toward its conclusion with gasoline-soaked abandon.
Michael Lister, Double Exposure (Tyrus Books, 240 pages)
Florida panhandle native Lister explores his home terrain in Double Exposure, the story of photographer Remington James, who returns to the small north Florida town of Apalachicola following the death of his father. James is not only mourning the death of his father, but he’s also stinging from a recent break-up with his girlfriend. On an afternoon trip into the thick woods surrounding Franklin County, James stumbles into a murder plot. This set up coupled with the novel’s use of present tense allows Lister to build tension and urgency as the night deepens around James. Lister’s a fine writer with a Faulkner-esque interest in landscape and characters. Double Exposure delivers, page after tense page.
Mary Jane Ryals, Cookie and Me (Kitsune Books, 330 pages)
Poet Laureate of the Florida Big Bend and first-time novelist Ryals explores an interracial friendship in the turbulent late 1960s in Cookie and Me. A coming of age story about the friendship between the white and somewhat privileged Rayanne and the African-American and decidedly underprivileged Cookie, the novel demonstrates Ryals’ ear for regional speech. Her first-person voice is believable and endearing. Recalling such southern classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Cookie and Me explores the Civil Rights movement as it reaches Tallahassee, Florida. A beautifully-written novel, the book has the quiet power of classic. It’s not to be missed.
Thank you for your submission to Totally Awesome Journal. However, this work isn’t for us. Good luck with place it elsewhere.
Rejection stings, but it’s a fact of life for writers. If you’re going to submit your work to journals, you’re going to have to get used to this fact: you’ll be rejected more than you’ll be published. There’s no easy way to deal with rejection, but seasoned writers know how to deal with rejections constructively. Rather than beating yourself up and wallowing in self pity or dismissing the journal editors as shortsighted idiots who’ll regret the day they let your manuscript slip away, consider the following suggestions.
Send the work out again. I use this method often. If you’ve sent the work out already, then I assume that you feel confident about it. If after rejection you still feel confidence, send to another journal. Sometimes poems, essays, and short stories make many trips through cyberspace before they find a home. Sending out again also keeps your work in circulation, an added plus.
Reread and revise. I can easily kill two or three hours preparing one submission. Once I begin to imagine an editor reading my work, I become hyper aware of every sentence or line break and every image and word. Naturally, I find myself rewriting certain lines or sentences or perhaps playing with paragraphing or line breaks. Reworking a rejected poem or piece of prose can be generative, too, and inspire you to write a new piece. Now, you’ve got a new and improved submission packet as well as a new writing project.
Consider asking someone to read your work. Unless you’re enrolled in a writing program or active in a writer’s group, finding good feedback for your writing can be difficult. When one of my poems has been rejected four or five times (even after rounds of revision), I ask a trusted reader for some line-by-line feedback. Another set of eyes can help you see issues, weaknesses, and potential strengths in your work that you otherwise might not see.
Resist the urge to beat yourself up. Rejection can be a number of things: the magazine’s publication roster was already filled; the editors had already accepted work very similar to yours; a careless reader may have scanned your piece too quickly; your poetry or prose might not fit into the theme of this particular issue. And sometimes, rejection means that your work isn’t ready for publication. However, rejection rarely if ever means that the editors think that you’re a talentless hack who should give up writing for food (though, admittedly, there are some submissions that make editors wonder . . .).
Ultimately, you can treat rejection as a badge of honor. When I was the graduate student editor of the Panhandler, the University of West Florida’s literary magazine, I used to tape rejection slips to the wall in the Panhandler office. This way, I at least knew that I was sending out my work. Some writers even keep rejection slips, saving them in large boxes as the years go by. Of course, that practice was much easier when journals only accepted hard copy/snail mail submissions.
Whatever the case may be, the worse thing that you can do is contact the editor, demanding to know why he or she didn’t print your work. Doing so is a great way to get blackballed from a journal and develop a bad reputation among journal editors1. Instead, understand that rejection is a part of a writer’s life and no reason to stop writing. Rather, rejection is reason to keep writing and sending your work out.
1 At the 2009 Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers annual conference a the University of South Alabama in Fairhope, I was in the audience of an editors' panel in which the panelists all discussed (without outright naming) one particular contributor who'd hounded each of the editor's journals.
While it is summer, a number of literary magazines are actively seeking submissions: Sweet: A Literary Confection, Diode, Hobble Creek Review, and scores of others. The dedicated editors of those journals must read and respond to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of submissions of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. As the advisory editor of a regional literary magazine (and faculty advisor), I often forget that the etiquette of magazine submission isn’t something one knows intuitively. Of course, all editors have their quirks and pet peeves. With that fact in mind, I offer my own list of submission advice:
Read to the journal to which you are submitting. I know that this seems like no-nonsense advice, but I’m often surprised by how many submitters to Pegasus are unfamiliar with the journal. If the journal focuses on regional writers, and you’re outside the region, then don’t submit. If the journal publishes literary fiction, then don’t send them your detective story (try the fantastic Plots with Guns instead). If the journal publishes narrative poetry, and your work tends to be narrative; then don’t send. And don’t assume that you’ll be the exception. At Pegasus, we’ve gotten cover letters that begin, “Dear Editor, I know that you publish . . .” followed by a *but*. Bad idea.
Read the submission guidelines. If the guidelines say that the journal doesn’t take hard copy, then don’t email to ask if you can send hard copy (it’s happened). If the guidelines say to use Submishmash, don’t email your submission. A writer once emailed me with an .RTF attachment and a note that said, “Sorry, I can’t figure out how to use the submission manager.” We didn’t print that writer’s work. Magazines have specific reasons for publishing guidelines. Follow them.
Formatting matters. When you are preparing a submission, place no more than one poem on a printed page. Use a serif font like Times New Roman, and triple space between your title and your poem. If the poem is longer than a page, indicate in brackets whether or not the page break is also a stanza break. For prose submission, use a standard serif font, and double space your document unless the submission guidelines indicate otherwise. For prose, be sure to number your pages. For all submissions, be certain that your contact information is on the page, usually in a header or a footer.
Cover letters. Unless the submission guidelines indicate otherwise, most editors expect a short cover letter with your submission. Some disagree, but I think that best cover letters are business-like and to the point. Simple is usually better. Don’t waste an editor’s time with a long summary of your story or a treatise on your poetics.
Usually, cover letters include a short biographical statement. Some writers write these in third person, some in first. I’ve heard the argument that third person seems presumptuous, but as an editor, I like third person bios. That way, should we accept the piece, I can cut and paste it. Biographical statements should be short and list only your most recent publications. If you have no publications, then don’t list any. Try something like “Jane Doe is an undergraduate at Harvard University” or something along those lines. Don't be cute and don't waste an editor's time. Best bet: read a copy of the journal to which you’re submitting and mimic the biographical statements it publishes.
Whatever the case may be, remember that the cover letter is not the submission. It should be professional, but not the thing an editor remembers—leave that to your writing.
I could say much more about submitting, but I’ll end by saying that I think submitting your work is important, and doing it correctly matters. We at Pegasus would love to read it, but be sure to read our submission guidelines. In a future blog entry, I’m going to talk about constructive ways to handle rejection, a fact of a writer’s life. Until then, keep writing and keep sending out your work.
O for a muse of fire,