The Snail Mail Slush Pile Rises Again

When editor Perry Terrell informed me via email that my short story, “A Stockton Wedding Reception,” will appear in The Ultimate Writer (September 2013) next month, I didn’t know anything about it. Neither the short story nor the magazine sounded familiar to me. The first thing that came to mind that this was a very old snail mail submission that sat in a slush pile for years before the editor got around to reading.

A virtual search of the old manuscripts—I’ve shredded the paper files months ago—turned up the short story. The opening line for the first paragraph was a writing prompt from The First Line magazine.

Paul and Miriam Kaufman met the old-fashioned way. They arrived in separate cars with their dates for a wedding reception at a community hall in Stockton, California, on a hot summer day where the heavy scent of cow manure hung in the air. The cavernous hall was cool inside despite being crowded with people dressed in their best clothes. The loud buzz in air was from people talking about the wedding and not the horseflies fussing over a cow pie. Paul and Miriam greeted each other when introduced by their dates, Jacob and Verde, who left them alone at their table to get some refreshments.

This particular short story was probably the last snail mail submission I made before switching over to email submissions two years ago. One short story, “The Unfaithful Camera,” was out of circulation when an editor accepted it for publication a year after submission. Several rejection slips arrived 18 months late since a putsch against the editor at a university magazine delayed sending out responses.

I’ve since rewritten and published “A Stockton Wedding Reception” as an original ebook, “Let Me Be Your Spook,” making the original version unavailable for first serial publication and the ebook version available as a reprint. I altered the writing prompt by replacing the period with a comma to extend the sentence and changing the names to make the story a prequel to my short story, “The Uninvited Spook,” about retiring old spies.

George and Gracie met the old-fashioned way in the mid-1950’s, arriving in separate cars with their dates for a wedding reception at a community hall outside of Stockton, California, on a hot summer day where the smell of cow manure hung heavily in the sweltering heat. The cavernous hall was cool inside despite being crowded with people dressed in their finest wedding clothes. The loud buzzing came from everyone talking about the wedding and not the horseflies fussing over the cow pies in the surrounding fields. They shook hands when introduced by their respective dates, Verde and Jacob, who left them sitting together at a back table to get refreshments.

Although the opening paragraphs are quite similar, the differences between the two stories are in the slant. Both have two people meeting for the first time because their dates were more interested in seeing each other in defiance of church rules on dating. The original version has the couple discussing church gossip and the theological implications. The ebook version has the couple discussing church politics in terms of a Cold War conspiracy, as both will become a future husband-and-wife spy team.

After trading emails with the editor, and reading both versions of short story side-by-side, I decided to let the original version be published after some minor editing. The editor has previously published my earlier flash story, “The Forgotten Sinner,” in Conceit Magazine (December 2009). The original version of the short story has the same spirit as that early flash story. Since the editor gave me a break, I’m willing to extend the same professional courtesy.

Plan B For The Plan B Magazine

While sending out some older short stories as reprints to face a cruel world of rejections in the slush piles, I sent “The Uninvited Spook” to the Plan B Magazine that Duotrope listed as a fledging market (i.e., less than six months). The premise for this new online magazine is to publish a mystery short story each week, pay semi-pro rates of one-cent per word and publish an anthology ebook every quarter. My spook-spying-on-spooks short story got accepted for publication—with a catch.

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The semi-pro rates are dependent on the crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo to raise $3,500 USD, which has less than 10% of the minimum amount raised and 11 days before the campaign ends. Unless contributors start pouring out of the woodwork in a hurry, there will be no funding for the semi-pro rates and all the accepted short stories will revert back to the writers.

Why anyone would need $3,500 USD to start an online magazine? A domain name and web hosting for a year doesn’t cost much these days. The amount was too small for the editor to live on. That number didn’t make sense until I re-read the writer guidelines on the payment structure, where the maximum payout is $50 USD for a 5,000-word short story each week. The funding goal represents a year or more of payments for short stories, depending on the word count of each short story.

Indiegogo is similar to Kickstarter that you can set up a project with a minimum-funding goal and offer various incentive levels for contributors. Indiegogo offers two interesting choices if the minimum-funding goal isn’t met: return the money or keep the money. Depending on your project, this offers some flexibility. Plan B Magazine will return the money if the minimum-funding goal isn’t met.

I’m thinking about putting together a full-length collection of my speculative short stories as a print book. if I put together a print-on-demand (POD) book, I could take pre-orders on Indiegogo and keep the money to order the books without worrying if I set the minimum-funding goal too high. The difference between a successful and unsuccessful campaign is on whether or not you have an audience.

The alternative for Plan B Magazine—let’s call it Plan B—is to provide writers the option to have their short stories published online for FREE to help build up the new magazine so that it could semi-pro rates someday.

Although I would rather see the money (one-cent per word is better than my usual 1/4-cent per word), I’m more interested in seeing this new market establishing itself. Since “The Uninvited Spook” was first published in a print-only magazine in 2008, and published as a short story ebook in 2010, I don’t mind it being reprinted for FREE to help expand my reading audience and grow a new market at the same time.

UPDATED 02/23/2013: The editor announced that the funding campaign at Indiegogo has failed and she is switching to Plan B to pay out of her own pocket. Twelve short stories—including my own reprint, “The Uninvited Spook”—will be published bi-weekly for six months, collected into an anthology ebook for sale, and all the writers will get paid their one-cent per word rate. We will see if this online mystery magazine can fund itself after six months.

The First Line Challenge

One of my favorite sources for short story prompts is The First Line Literary Journal that provides a new first line every quarter. The first line cannot be altered in any way unless otherwise indicated (i.e., fill in the blank). Everything written after the first line is fair game. I have written and submitted many short stories inspired by these prompts, but none were ever accepted for publication. Some of them did get accepted elsewhere for publication.

The Fall 2010 prompt became the basis for “The Kitterun Five Tourist Trap,” first published in Short Sips: Coffee House Flash Fiction Volume 2 (Wicked East Press, March 2012), and will be available as a short story ebook in March 2013.

Three thousand planets in the known universe, and I’m stuck on the only one without [a decent toilet].

The words in the brackets were the part that I had to change in the original prompt. A human visiting a feline-humanoid world in pursuit of seeing the mysterious tail of a sexually aroused female Kitterun finds the accommodations for his hotel room quite different from what he expected.

The Summer 2012 prompt became the basis for “The Wizards of Flushington,” slated for publication in Fresh Ground: Coffee House Flash Fiction Volume 3 anthology (Wicked East Press, Spring 2013).

Rachel’s first trip to England didn’t go as planned.

A young witch magically flushes herself down the toilet to arrive at a public toilet in England for a renaissance fair, but ends up being thrown out of an outhouse in the Australian outback to meet two strange old wizards.

The forthcoming Winter 2013 prompt was somewhat more challenging than usual to come up with ideas for a speculative short story.

On a perfect spring morning with flat seas and clear blue skies, Captain Eli P. Cooke made a terrible mistake.

I’m thinking that this story could take place on a fishing boat. Eli is the Biblical name of a high priest whom knew that his sons were mishandling the temple services but did nothing about it, his family line through his sons fell in battle and he died from hearing the news as God’s punishment, which suggests a knife, a sacrificial offering and a struggle with nature. This would be enough to start a short story under most circumstances. Not this time. I was missing something to tie the whole story together.

Last year I read a story about a giant blue eyeball washing up on a Florida beach. No one knew where it came from, perhaps it belong to a sea creature from the dark depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Wildlife experts confirmed that the softball-sized eyeball came from a swordfish, probably cut out and tossed overboard by fishermen.

Putting the first line prompt and the giant blue eyeball together, I have enough to get started. As I thought about how to write the short story, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea,” where an aging fisherman goes after a giant marlin, became an inspiration. Except my short story is a speculative tale.

A fisherman spends all night to pull in a giant squid on to his small fishing boat. The first thing he does is to cut out an eyeball. The giant squid, not yet dead from being out of the sea, starts thrashing on the deck and falls back into the ocean. The fisherman curses at his misfortune of losing his catch, keeping the worthless eyeball that watches him.

Will I get this short story done by the deadline at the end of the month? Probably not. I just started a new non-writing tech job. My writing priorities will probably change over the next few months. Not all First Line prompts will turn into finished short stories. Most end up with two pages being written before going on the back burner. Those unfinished stories that do get published are so heavily revised that the first line prompt disappears in subsequent drafts.

The Rock Bottom Remainders Final Swan Song

This week on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, the literary rock band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, played their final performance. Following the death of Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who founded the band with some really famous authors—Stephen King, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Dave Berry and many others—20 years ago, they had their final concert at the American Library Association convention this past June.


The outsized personality of the band has always been Stephen King. A biography about him quoted a band member saying that if the tour bus ever crashed and everyone died, the headlines would say, “Stephen King and 30 Others Dead”.

The first guest being interviewed was Stephen King, promoting his newest book, “The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel” (the eighth book in the series). This book better be good. Like many readers of the Dark Tower series, we were finally relieved to finish the series with book seven. The circular ending that links the seventh book to the first book was an interesting but not satisfying ending for a great quest.


He talked about a short story called “The Lady’s Room,” where husbands are left stranded outside as their wives disappeared inside and were helpless to do anything about, that he left unfinished because he couldn’t figure out what went on inside the lady’s room.

Seriously, the literary master can’t finish this story? His mother never took him in the lady’s room when he was a small child?

Having been forced many times by my mother into the lady’s room at Gemco in the early 1970’s, sometimes kicking and screaming as she took my hand to force me through that sinister door, I know exactly what goes on in the lady’s room.

  1. For little boys, your eyes must always be on the worn black-and-white floor tiles to avoid seeing fat bearded ladies do makeup and/or smoke cigarettes.
  2. You must turn your back on your mother to study the flaking lead paint on the stall door before she can mount the ivory throne.
  3. You MUST ignore all sounds as a tentacle monster from deep inside the toilet bowl sexually assaults your mother. If you cry or throw a fit, a squishy thing will press you flat against the stall door.
  4. You exited the lady’s room in a daze, wondering if your mother was still your mother and not a monstrosity in disguise.
  5. Unless you become a writer as an adult, you will NEVER EVER REMEMBER what happened inside the lady’s room and stand around clueless when your wife takes your little boy into the lady’s room.

If Stephen King can’t finish a story like that, I might as well. Heck, I might even submit it to The New Yorker and win an O. Henry award.

Writing And Editing On Public Transit Again

After my father passed away from lung cancer in early May, my car—which was his old car—finally kicked the hub cap a few weeks later when—ironically—I went to the post office to pick up his ashes. Without a car to drive, I had to rely on a friend to drive me to work in the mornings and take the light rail home in the evenings. Since public transit takes forever to cross Silicon Valley, I spent my commute time writing and editing. Something I used for many years before I got a car.

After getting off work at the hospital, I’ll cross the street for the bus that will take 15 minutes to get over to the light rail station in Mountain View. I’m usually listening to an audio book on my iPod Touch for this part of the trip. I don’t want to get distracted with writing and editing that I miss the stop at the transit center. After I get off bus and walk over to the light rail station, I’ll pull out my clipboard and spend the next 15 minutes to see what I need to do for that day. When the light rail train pulls into the station, I’ll take a seat inside and work for the next 75 minutes. Walking home from the light rail station takes ten minutes.

My clipboard almost always has four unfinished short stories at various stages of being written or edited. If I’m writing new material, I’m using a black Pilot G2 pen. If I’m editing old material, I’m using a red Pilot Precision V5 pen. If a short story has a submission date, I’ll focus on that one. Otherwise I’ll jump around to the different short stories until I’m done or stop in mid-sentence. If get stuck on something that won’t budge, I’ll doze off for the rest of the trip like so many other passengers do. After I have dinner, I’ll update the corresponding e-files and print out new copies to re-load the clipboard.

This break from driving came at a good time. I was going through a creative drought prior to my father’s death and taking a summer break from publishing ebooks. I’m using the “spare time” from riding public transit to get back into writing and editing short stories again.

Writing and editing on public transit will soon end as I get a new used car to resume driving again. The extra 90 minutes spent on the public transit will be behind my writing desk at home, where the distractions are numerous and my motivation diminished. If only I had the discipline to haul my sorry ass out of bed before the crack of dawn to take the public transit in the morning, I would have three hours of enforced writing and editing time. Like that will never happen.

Taking Summer Break To Restructure The Writing Business

After writing a three-part blog post about forming a revocable living trust for my personal life, converting my writing business into a limited liability company (LLC), and using the two together, I felt it was time to take a break for the summer. With my father’s death from lung cancer and starting a new non-writing tech job last month, writing short stories, four 500-word blog posts every week, and a new short story or essay ebook every other week have left me stretched thin. I’m halting the publication of ebooks to work on several projects for the next three months.

Writing A Business Plan

One of the reasons why I converted my writing business from a sole proprietorship to a LLC was to impose structure. I’m no longer a writer sending out short stories into a cruel world of rejections in the slush piles, but a business owner with copyrights, ebooks and websites. All these areas require my attention to make the new structure successful. Writing a business plan will put everything into focus.

Re-branding Existing eBooks

When your business becomes a LLC, you need to let the entire world know that you have a LLC. I’ll be adding “Published by C.D. Reimer & Associates, LLC.” to the title page of existing and future ebooks. This will also be a good time to update each ebook with a new cover, navigation structure and content changes.

Filling Up The eBook Buffer

Although I have 24-month publishing calendar for my ebooks, I don’t have a four-month buffer with ebook titles ready for publication. Every other week becomes crunch time to put together a new ebook. Unlike reprint short stories ebooks, original short stories and essay ebooks require additional work. I can fill up the buffer before I resume ebook publication in September.

If this summer break works out well, I’m hoping to take every summer off to work on longer writing projects (i.e., my unfinished first novel that’s been gathering dust since 2009). As a writer, I want to write without worry about the business side. As a business owner, I need to make the business run well enough to make that happen.

Are You In The Writing Profession Or The Writing Business?

There’s a story in “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki about Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, challenging a group of MBA students with a simple question, “What business am I in?”

Everyone laughed but didn’t answer him. He repeated the question. Finally, someone told him the obvious answer: the hamburger business.

Ray chuckled before announcing that he wasn’t in the hamburger business but the real estate business. Although his profession was selling hamburger franchises, his business was owning the real estate underneath those franchises. McDonald’s today owns more real estate than the Catholic Church, including the best street corners and thoroughfares in America.

The point that “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” made from this story was not to confuse your profession with your business. Your profession is something you do; your business is where you make your money. Most people don’t know the difference.

I thought my business was being a short story writer. I wrote short stories, sold them to the anthologies, and republished them as short story ebooks.

As ebook sales continued to outpace short story sales, I found myself spending more time on developing ebooks than writing short stories. This frustrated me. I started missing the “old days”—about six years ago—when I wrote short stories, dropped them in the mailbox and collected 300+ rejection slips before I sold my first short story. Since my ebook sales were dependent on my short stories and essays, I would never find the time to write a novel to earn bigger ebook sales. I saw a vicious circle forming in my life with no easy solution.

Are you in the writing profession or the writing business?

I started thinking hard about that question since the beginning of the year. The answer I came up with is that I’m in the writing profession—when I’m not consoling hurt computers and broken users as an anonymous technician in Silicon Valley—but I’m also in the content producing business. Writing is central to everything I do, but not the only thing that I do.

Since I’m in between non-writing jobs at the moment, I’m in the process of revamping my family of websites. I spent the past three weeks updating my free open source software to get back into web programming, quadrupling web traffic and click-through for advertising. Updating the personal blog will be every week and this writing blog twice a month. (The key for writing multiple blog posts is to stay under 500 words for each one.) I’m still publishing two short ebooks every month. Writing new short stories are on hold until I can revise or spit polish a dozen short stories for submission.

If everything falls into place over the next year or two, I should  make enough money from my business to ditch the non-writing job and start writing novels as my profession.

Getting The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market For This Year?

After I got serious about being a fiction writer five years ago, I always bought a copy of “The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market” (Writers Digest Books) to find new markets for my short story fiction. Every six weeks I would spend a weekend browsing through the current N&SSWM, finding markets that fit my short stories, and preparing 20 or so snail mail submissions. (I had 50 manuscripts floating in the slush piles for several years.) And then the Great Recession in 2008 made an impact: submissions started returning unread as magazine publishers went out of business, and I could no longer afford to buy envelopes and postage for snail mail submissions. A year ago I started revising my work on the computer, submitting my manuscripts online, and publishing my short stories as original or reprint ebooks. I’m wondering if I should even bother to pick up the 2012 N&SSWM when it comes out in September.

These days I’m browsing Duotrope’s Digest for new markets for my short stories. Since I made the transition from literary to speculative short stories three years ago, the majority of my sales have been to genre anthologies that get listed for a few months at a time. N&SSWM caters to the traditional literary magazines and annual anthologies that accept submissions year round. I haven’t tried the online version of N&SSWM but I don’t expect those listings to be different from the dead tree edition. You can also find new markets on Twitter as editors reach out to find writers for their new anthologies, such as One Buck Horror and War Of The Words Press.

If I do pick up the new N&SSWM, it will probably be for the literary agent and book listings. Unlike the fast changing short story markets, the traditional publishing industry is still slow to change and a dead tree listing is still relevant months later. By the time my first novel is ready to be submitted, I just might publish it myself as an ebook.

Keeping A Secret Writing Identity In Silicon Valley

When I became serious about writing five years ago, I did Google search on my name before I started submitting my short stories. Lo and behold, there was another “writer” with my name, who hasn’t published much of anything from what I can tell. I decided to combine the initials of my first and middle names to come up with C.D. Reimer to avoid being confused with the competition. Six months ago I decided to separate my professional technical life from my personal writing life.

I removed my middle initial from my resume and all the job search websites to become another somebody in Silicon Valley, and my full name from all my websites. C.D. Reimer became the “brand name” for my Internet existence. By day I’m the sophisticated Bruce Wayne who works as an anonymous technician for some Silicon Valley company. At night I’m the Batman who is breaking knuckles to get another short story out of the typewriter. (Sorry, Superman, but Clark Kent can suck it.) As any cape crusader knows, you need to keep your secret identity a secret from the outside world.

Why keep your writing identity a secret in Silicon Valley?

Most Silicon Valley companies, either officially or unofficially, discouraged moonlighting by their employees. A manager’s worst fear is a group of employees working together in a garage on the weekends to come up with the newest technological wonder, take one-third of the employees with them in a mass exodus to form a new company, and make a few billion dollars after Microsoft/Google/Facebook buys them out. Everyone and their grandmother were doing this before the dot com bust. Now people are being more discreet about moonlighting in fear of losing their regular paying job when the unemployment rate is at 10% and the overall job market is slowly improving.

I find it easier to be an anonymous technician while crawling underneath the desks of Silicon Valley. When people knew I was a writer, I would get all kinds of odd questions and weird looks. Being regarded as the eccentric uncle in a non-reading family was one thing I didn’t want to repeat at work. That was before I started publishing regularly. With my work being more accessible through ebooks, I’m sure the odd questions and weirder looks would have gotten odder and weirder if I wasn’t hiding behind a secret identity.

Now that I’m doing contract work after being unemployed for two years, no one knows I’m a writer when I show up for a new assignment. More specifically, I’m a Silicon Valley fiction writer. There are a bazillion non-fiction books about Silicon Valley, but almost no fiction books about Silicon Valley and certainly no writer making a name writing fiction about Silicon Valley (although the parody memoir, “Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs” by the Fake Steve Jobs, is a close competitor). Besides, this is California. If you’re a writer, everyone assumes you’re writing a Hollywood screenplay that will fetch $50,000 the moment you type THE END on the last page. I got some oddball looks when I told people that I write fiction. Everyone knows that there is no money in fiction if you’re not Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Sarah Palin.

I’m an anthropologist of sorts studying the Silicon Valley culture, which is an ongoing project at San Jose State University that I may pursue a degree in if I ever won the lottery to go back to school, trying to relate a strange world through fiction to ordinary readers. Working anonymously in Silicon Valley is key to being a good observer and finding fresh material for my short stories and novels.

I had just finished a three-day assignment at a college textbook publisher that brought back memories of working at the San Jose City College bookstore warehouse, where I was once familiar with all the imprints that this company had bought up over the last 20 years. A boring job involving too many mouse clicks to convert online courses from the legacy platform to the new platform. The green palm leaves made from lightweight fabric to shade the desks from the overhead lights will make a fantastic detail for a story someday.

But maintaining a secret writing identity and being successful in two lines of work is a difficult task. This week we learned about the secret identity of romance author Judy Mays from a busybody parent looking for trouble and a TV station looking for a sensational news story about a female high school teacher writing racy novels under a pen name on her own time. If being exposed wasn’t bad enough, they also demanding that Mays choose between being a teacher or an author.

As I commented on Jess Haines’ blog, would there be a controversy if a male teacher wrote action/adventure novels about big guns, fast broads and shagging the carpet every other chapter? Probably not. If I was Judy Mays, I would send the Batman to break some knuckles and watch her book sale numbers spike from the controversy.