The 2016 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

28-1From our friends at Gulf Coast:

Gulf Coast is now accepting entries for the 2016 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose. The contest is open to pieces of prose poetry, flash fiction, and micro-essays of 500 words or fewer. Established in 2008, the contest awards its winner $1,000 and publication in the journal. Two honorable mentions receive $250 and will also appear in issue 29.2, due out in April 2017. All entries will be considered for paid publication on our website as online exclusives.

Jim Shepard will judge this year’s contest. Shepard has written seven novels, including The Book of Aron, published in 2015, which won the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature and the PEN/New England Award for Fiction, and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a finalist for the National Book Award and Story Prize winner.  His previous novel, Project X, won the…

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To Thee is This World Given turned one year old today

All week long Khel will be posting about how it came to be.

The first two posts, on being able to find the time to write  and the ideas behind the story  are already up. And over the next couple of days, the story of writing the first draft will be posted as well.

Also, from now until June 22nd, we are running a giveaway on Goodreads for five signed and numbered hardback editions of To Thee is This World Given.

There are no strings attached and you can enter for free at the link below. You can also read impressions and reactions to the novella from Goodreads’ reviewers by clicking the title link in the box below.

We are extremely proud of the fact that the number one response has been about the high quality of Khel’s prose (even by those who found fault with other elements).

Happy birthday little book. Here’s to many more.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

To Thee Is This World Given

by Khel Milam

Giveaway ends June 22, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

“The Hardest Thing in Writing is Simply to Tell the Truth”

The unifying theme behind To Thee is This World Given is that we are not an inherently selfish, callus, violent species. While I don’t believe we are inherently good, I do believe we inherently desire to be so, which is diametrically opposed to our supposedly sociopathic nature depicted by The Walking Dead and other books, movies, and television shows in the post-apocalyptic genre.

For the most part I believe we are basically a pretty decent species. After all, there is no other species on the planet willing to adopt the offspring of another, rear it as a family member, and do everything in its power to keep it safe and sound (especially the offspring of a species that used to eat them). That’s pretty exceptional when you think about it.

What I don’t believe is that we have to love each other. That’s unrealistic, even as goal. I don’t even believe we have to like each other, we just have to try tolerate each other, not harm each other, help each other if we can, and at the very least acknowledge that we’re all just struggling to stay afloat in our own way.

I tried to suggest this in To Thee is This World Given from the very beginning with a pair of quotes from Siddhartha and Charles Dickens:

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world where each person is clinging to his or her piece of debris? What is the proper salutation between them as they pass each other in this flood?” Siddhartha

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide, and if that spirit go not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” Charles Dickens

In To Thee is This World Given, two-thirds of the character interaction is cooperative, and the two best adjusted characters are the two most cooperative ones. Additionally, basic human decency comes up in dialog scattered throughout the story and is shown in the “hobo code” that people use mark to the roads to let others know that lies ahead and where to find things like food, water, and shelter.

While I made up my own symbols, the road markings in the book were inspired by the actual hobo code of the 1930s. The fact that the real hobo code developed is, itself, a testament to human nature.

A second theme in the story is our fallibility in interpreting and understanding other people’s motives and personalities, and the fact we often deceive ourselves about our own. This is alluded to by the title itself.

To Thee is This World Given is comes from one of the most famous quotes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Young Goodman Brown:

“Now faith is gone…[t]here is no good on earth; sin is but a name. Come devil, for to thee is world given.”

Young Goodman Brown centers around the title character’s shifting interpretations and opinions of his neighbors’ motives and personalities, as well as the reader’s own shifting interpretations and opinions of Goodman Brown’s motives and the reliability of his conclusions.

In the story, Goodman Brown’s neighbors are revealed to be hypocrites; however, the reader can’t be certain that the part of the story in which the reveal happens actually took place or not. It could have been a dream or a hallucination, for instance, and the only time the reader actually sees the neighbors undeniably in action, they behave the opposite of how they behaved in the dream-like reveal. So the reader must decide if the neighbors are hypocrites or if Goodman Brown is deceived. Because the story is written in third party objective and in medias res, the reader has nothing more to go on than what Goodman Brown sees, hears, and says.

But if you move beneath the superficial story, you realize there is only one character that is undeniably a hypocrite, and that is Goodman Brown. He is everything he condemns his neighbors of being, and everything he condemns them for doing, he does, himself.

The final theme in To Thee is This World Given is that we are our actions. There are no good or bad people, just good or bad actions. The difference between a hero and a villain is that the villain is honest and up front about doing bad things, while the hero creates elaborate excuses to justify doing bad things. Hero’s suffer from Goodman Brown syndrome.

This is why I did not give my characters’ name. Names are authorial and reader short cuts into character personalities — “Bubba” forms a completely different picture than “Allister,” for instance. Even common names influence one’s perceptions of a character — John tells a different story than Jack does. If a character doesn’t have a name, they can only be evaluated by their actions, which are either good, bad, or neutral, or more typically a hodge podge of all three

I also had the main characters address this theme directly when they argue about Superman and Lex Luther, and indirectly when they argue about the refusal of the leader of Britain’s south pole expedition to let his surviving men try to continue on to get help.

I think of my story as sort of a moebius circle. Every element can be traced back around itself to one of these themes, all of which are already inherently intertwined with each other to begin with. Each time you run your finger along the story’s edge you end up in deeper layer. There is the superficial story, and beneath this, a story about the fallibility of perceptions and expectations and conclusions and justifications, and then at the deepest level, there is a story about the world as it is today.

Plots to me are not the stories, to me they are just the way stories are made sensible to other people. The stories are the truths about the spaces between people, and between what we believe is the truth and what the truth really is.

 

-k-

You can read about my experiences writing the first draft, in my post The First Draft of Anything is Shit.

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the Time to Write To Thee is This World Given

Virginia Wolf once said that one needs money and a room of one’s own to be able to write. But what one really needs is time. Money and a home are just the currency needed to purchase it.

Ever since graduating college, I had been trying to find a way to both support myself and have enough spare time to write.

In the 1990s, I lived in Manhattan, attended NYU’s Publishing Program, and worked in the editorial departments of various houses, hoping that by working in publishing I’d have a better chance of my manuscript being read.

But as you probably already know, it’s challenging to be able to write while working full time, especially if you don’t write in a heavily formulaic genre and you have to share 800 square feet with five people (publishing doesn’t pay so well). So, while all that time I had an “in,” I didn’t have a finished manuscript.

After a while the realization set in that the whole point of my working in the industry was moot and I ended up in law school (all but two of my roommates from that time also went to law school, of the two others, one stuck it out in the industry and one I have know idea).

I chose law because I had the grades, did well on the sample LSAT test, and wasn’t good enough at math to go to med school. My plan was to work for a few years, scrimp, and be able to buy an inexpensive house outright, which would free me from having to work so much that it would interfere with my writing.

What I didn’t know was (1) that I’d leave law school with student loans that rivaled most people’s mortgages; (2) that I’d have to work at least eighty hours a week at a firm; and (3) that the housing market would experience the worst inflation in history. So, as you can imagine I didn’t get much writing done.

During this period, the thought that I was running out of time and not doing what I was supposed to be doing became more and more urgent, until around 2006 or 2007, when it turned into an all encompassing preoccupation that didn’t let up until I actually began writing To Thee is This World Given . I would sit at my desk every night researching cases and typing memos, thinking, “I am not supposed to be doing this,” over and over and over.

Then something happened. It would end up providing me with enough money to live off of for about a year and half without having to work.

In March 2014 I was offered a settlement from my firm, and so I had a decision to make:  refuse the money and continue working for an employer I’d grown to hate; take the money, be responsible, and find another job right away; or take the money, be irresponsible, and begin writing, knowing that the longer I remained unemployed the harder it would be for me to find another job.

I chose to write.

And I wrote every day, four to six hours a day, for nine months. As soon as I started writing, I felt for the first time in my life that finally I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. For the first time, I felt absolutely content.

It’s been two years since I began To Thee is World Given  and one year since it was released, and now I’m back to where I was before  trying to figure out how to have both enough money to live and enough time to write. But I’m no longer frightened by an insecure future, and I look at the problem now as finding enough time to work, not finding enough time to write.

You can read about my experiences writing the first draft of To Thee is This World Given, here.

 

You can read about the themes in To Thee is World Given, here

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

-k-

 

 

Happy 1st (Book)Birthday!

We hope you’ll join us in wishing Rachel R. Smith a very happy first-book-birthday. Way to go Rachel!

Records of the Ohanzee

reflection low res Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to my first book, Reflection: The Stranger in the Mirror! The book was released one year ago today, and it’s hard to believe how much has happened since then.

I found an awesome book cover designer in West Coast Design that improved the look from my original attempt (I tried hard, but there’s no competing with the pros!) to something gorgeous!

Reflection: The Stranger in the Mirror cover Original Cover

In September, Book 2, Reflection: Harbinger of the Phoenix was released.

27827443 Book 2

In October, Book 1 became available on Netgalley, and it ended up being among the most requested books in Sci Fi & Fantasy.netgalley 381

In March, my books were added to the collection at the Cincinnati Public Library.

IMG_2862

And in just a few short weeks Book 3, Reflection: Thorn of the White Rose, will be released!

Reflection: Thorn of the White Rose Book 3

It’s been a great year, and its all because of your support, dear readers! Thank…

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The Science of Writing Slowly

When I wrote To Thee is This World Given, both my first and second drafts were written longhand on yellow legal pads, and even as I typed the third draft, every iteration of each reworked sentence and paragraph was handwritten on a combination of legal pads and post-it notes. The revisions to the fourth through the tenth, and final, draft were also longhand changes scribbled between the lines of the printed manuscripts.

I always assumed that my preference for longhand was just an old-school crutch, because my writing always seems to have a clarity that my typing does not.

But it turns out that writing slowly actually does improve the quality of one’s writing. The results of a study in the British Journal of Psychology, released in January, showed that participants who were forced to slow down their writing by typing with only one hand wrote with greater sophistication than those who were allowed to type quickly with both hands.

Typing can be too fluent or too fast, and can actually impair the writing process….It seems that what we write is a product of the interactions between our thoughts and the tools we use to express them.

[S]lowing down participants’ typing by asking them to use only one hand, allowed more time for internal word search, resulting in a larger variety of words. Fast typists may have simply written the first word that came to mind.

Another study released in 2011 found that writing by hand strengthens the learning process, while typing impairs it. 

The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses….When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

Our bodies are designed to interact with the world which surrounds us. We are living creatures, geared toward using physical objects — be it a book, a keyboard or a pen — to perform certain tasks.

For myself, I’m able to see inconsistencies and weaknesses in my writing more vividly when I write by hand, and they bother me more intensely, to the point I that can’t ignore them, then when I type.

One thing I’ve noticed in works by the indie authors that I have read, both fiction and non-fiction, is a hastiness. Even when the writing and editing are sound there is a hasty, rushed quality to it as if the author is not fully aware of what he or she has written.

It may be that the real difference between great authors and ordinary writers is not just innate talent, but the speed and haste with which they write.

Consider this quote from Hemingway:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review, Interview, 1956

Or this one from Faulkner:

Faulkner: Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish.

Interviewer: What work is that?

Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. I wrote it five separate times, trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream which would continue to anguish me until I did.

William FaulknerThe Paris Review, Interview, 1956

Or this one from Renard:

Style means the right word. The rest matters little.

Jules Renard

Or even this famous one from Twain:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain

If you would like to improve your writing just slow down.

You might also like my posts: A Few Thoughts on Writing, The First Draft of Anything is Shit, and The Hardest Thing to Do is Simply Write the Truth.

-k-

 

 

 

The Promenade of the Ghostly Subtitles

A poem from the inventive pen of Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), who helped us think about language and its stuffy forms in new and liberating ways.

The Promenade of the Ghostly Subtitles

It was the time of the promenade of the ghostly subtitles
No one could prevent their walking forth
Everywhere you looked you would see A Girl’s Story or
Vignettes of the Andalusian Forest or something of that sort,
While the real titles, slumbering in ignorance of this,
The great, heavy, burdensome, entitled titles,
The big, even gigantic refreshing and obvious titles,
The gorgeous titles, the fine titles, the magnificent ones,
Home for the Holidays, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, David Copperfield, The Red and the Black, Father Goriot, Barchester Towers, Emma, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Death on the Installment Plan, Wozzeck,
Lay dead to the world in castles, chateaus and villas
All round the earth, while the subtitles sauntered forth
As if they were titles, showing the world their value
Which once the titles awoke they would never have.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

**We are definitely violating copyright by posting this in full but hopefully Knopf will forgive us and welcome the free advertising. Knopf is one of the last great imprints publishing true literature, despite having been purchased and consolidated by Random House in the late 1990s. They publish poems daily on their tumblr account — we highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys poetry.