Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'm worth six bucks.

It's fun what you find when you wander around looking for yourself.

I was checking on Amazon's ABADDON page and saw that someone was selling a "collectible" version of the book. Since I'm not familiar with a collectible edition, I clicked it.

Seems a Lisa Marie (Presley?) ordered a personalized copy of the book and never picked it up from this seller. This is quite a trick, since personalizations would only be available at conventions or by direct sales. Either this bookstore special-ordered it from us for her (and didn't get the money in advance) or they actually stood in a (very short) line at a show last year to get it done. Or, y'know, it's used. :)

They're asking $11.99. Until the price kicked up on Jan. 1, the book retailed $5.99.

Now I know what my signature is worth: six bucks. HEE. I will not be satisfied until it's at least twenty! Hey, Stephen King's early hardbacks go from $55-70 to $500-plus when he signs them, depending on how old they are.

If you're Lisa Marie, I'd go get your book fast. :)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What I Learned In College Besides My Social Security Number

In my sophomore year of college, I took a class on playwriting. I kept meaning to take a fiction writing class, but it was always cross-scheduled with something required by my theater major. I figured playwriting was the closest I would get and still satisfy my adviser.

The playwriting professor was Dr. Stephen Malin, one of the finest teachers from whom I ever had the privilege to learn. I had already taken theater history from him. Dr. Malin was not satisfied with my writing, regularly giving me C's. It was quite the conflict for me at the time - my writing had always skated me by in other classes. I might not have understood very much about World War I, but my charming prose usually got me higher marks. My writing was my strong point.

But Dr. Malin didn't grade us on what we accomplished. He graded us according to what we were capable of doing. He knew I could write circles around much of the stuff I turned in, and he would not accept the bare minimum.

Naturally, I was nervous about taking his playwriting class.

On the first day, we were supposed to bring something we had written. It didn't have to be a play, just something. I considered bringing some poetry, but the truth was, I knew my poetry sucked. I wanted to impress Dr. Malin.

So I decided to bring the science fiction novella I had written in high school. It was the best thing I'd ever written, I'd poured my heart and soul into it, and I just knew it would impress him.

The day of the first class, I had a nasty cold, but nothing was going to stop me from that class. I showed up with my novella in hand, and when it was my turn, I started to read. I read as quickly as I could, because I could feel my voice giving out. I knew I'd only read the first chapter, but there were all these historical flashbacks.

I was barely a page from the end of the chapter when Dr. Malin said, "Okay, I'm going to stop you there."

"Wait," I replied. "We're just getting to the good part."

He aimed a finger at me. "That, right there," he said. "That's what's wrong with it."

I was floored, and barely heard the rest of the lecture. I had never thought of it that way. It changed everything about my writing in one sentence. I had been rushing because of my voice, but I realized I was also rushing because the opening of the book was a lot of backstory and scene-setting and I wanted to get to the touching, horrible moment at the end of the first chapter. I wanted to get to the good stuff.

Your story STARTS with the good stuff. You have only moments to get their attention if you are reading aloud, a page or two at most if they are scanning you in a bookstore aisle, no more than a few sentences if you're on an editor's desk. (They have the attention spans of gypsy moths, I swear.)

The other professor who had the biggest impact on me was a poet named Victor Depta. Once again I was trying to take a fiction writing class, and since the schedule didn't work, I signed up for poetry workshop instead. There were only two problems, and the smaller one was that I had never written a line of poetry in my life.

The other was that Depta had a reputation - real or imaginary, I never knew - for being extremely hard on younger students. He preferred only upperclassmen and graduate students to take his workshops, believing that younger students lacked the maturity to take the class.

I was still in high school.

Yeah, I was a nerd. I was taking college classes at night because I was desperately bored at my high school and wanted to get a jump start on my general education credits. So I carefully hid my high-school status from Dr. Depta.

At the very first workshop, he told us that we would have to write two poems a week for the semester. I almost quit right there. But then he said something that has stuck with me ever since.

"There are no ideas but in things," he said. Fortunately, he went on to explain that rather esoteric statement. He said poetry often fails in its over-reliance on emotional language instead of exploring the metaphors and descriptors that truly make the reader feel. Poetry is the language of the senses, he said - using touch, taste, smell, sound and sight, you make them see, make them feel. Then you have created poetry.

Instead of saying "my sadness fills my heart," a true poet should write of anything but the emotion. To write of an endless, empty field, or the sea after a storm, or the color of blood on the snow. Describe something that makes the reader feel. The shorthand is show, don't tell.

There are no ideas but in things, and for a semester I worked my tail off creating images that would reach my classmates and make them feel something. Sometimes my poems tended toward prose, falling into my habit of telling stories. But by the end of the semester, I had scratched the proverbial surface of powerful storytelling, using words and description instead of the rote "he said she said they died" method I had used.

To this day, I owe Dr. Depta a huge debt. He helped form my writing style, and still I struggle with it daily. I still fall into rote recitation. I still lack the gift of poetry. But I am grateful - and I realized it then, even when I sent him my high school graduation announcement. (I am a stinker, yes.)

From Dr. Malin, I learned that if I cannot capture my own imagination within a few pages, my own emotions, excitement and sadness and fascination, then I have failed. From Dr. Depta, I learned that simply narrating action and dialogue is not enough. I should not summarize my story; I need to create my world out of words.

This is a long way of saying that the 1303 words I wrote tonight utterly suck, and will be completely rewritten before I let anyone see them. And what's worse, I knew it sucked as I wrote it. Each word was like pulling teeth, every sentence restarted three times. Nothing seemed right, nothing worked. I knew it sucked when I wrote it.

Edison is thought to have said that he did not fail 200 times in his most famous endeavor, but he found 200 ways how not to make a lightbulb. I have found at least 200 ways how not to write a story.

I'm still working on the lightbulb.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Last night I dreamed I was flipping through an electronic Writers' Market, which is funny because a) I haven't used WM for years, and b) I don't own a Kindle. Maybe it was actually, best market listing on the web - sort of Ralan if it was on a booklike reader. I was flipping through guidelines searching for new novella markets, because I have this really great novella and I can't find a good home for it.

That part is true. And clearly it's taking over my subconscious.

So I'm reading the guidelines for market after market, and for some reason I'm also sitting beside the lovely pool at my ex-husband's house, which is funny since I've never been there. And I find a great market, but oops!

It pops up a preemptive rejection note, very polite but very firm. Addressed to me. Yes, in my dream I am rejected before I even submit.

Methinks the whole slush fight might be getting me down a bit. But we all fight the slush wars, don't we? Okay, maybe not Stephen King. But the rest of us still have to sub and sub and sub. It gets discouraging, stacking up the pile of rejection letters (and rejection emails - I have a whole folder of them to walk through whenever I start feeling too good about myself 'cause I'm Just That Fucking Good).

Still, I am reminded of what Harlan Ellison said. If you can be discouraged, you should be. I think about quitting all the time, particularly in my fourth straight night staying up until 2 a.m. when I have to get up at 7 a.m. with the boy. But I am never tempted to do so, because it is all I know how to do: put words together.

You either hear the music, or you don't. And if you do, how can you help but dance? - Harlan and me

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Shirley Jackson Awards

Reposting from damn near everywhere: Online "Lottery" to Benefit the Shirley Jackson Awards

Takes place from February 9 through February 23, 2009

Boston, MA (January 2009) – The Shirley Jackson Awards will hold a "lottery" to raise funds for the award. This on-line event takes place from February 9, 2009 through February 23, 2009. Persons buy as many "lottery tickets" as they want in hopes of being selected the winner for any of an array of donated prizes from well-known authors, editors, artists, and agents.

"Lottery" tickets are $1 each and can be purchased from

Persons may purchase as many tickets as desired. Tickets will be available from February 9th, 2009 through February 23rd, 2009. At midnight on February 23rd, "lottery" winners will be selected randomly for each item and announced on the website. Prizes will be mailed to the lucky winners.

In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson's writing, and with permission of the author's estate, the Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) wrote such classic novels as THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, as well as one of the most famous short stories in the English language, "The Lottery." Her work continues to be a major influence on writers of every kind of fiction, from the most traditional genre offerings to the most innovative literary work. National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem has called Jackson "one of this century's most luminous and strange American writers," and multiple generations of authors would agree.

Partial List of Donations to be Awarded:

• From Ash-Tree Press: Collections of Sheridan Le Fanu: Mr. Justice Harbottle; The Haunted Baronet; Schalkin the Painter.
• From Laird Barron: A signed/personalized copy of his award winning short story collection, The Imago Sequence (Nightshade), plus an original piece of short fiction, in a separate, unbound manuscript.
• From Elizabeth Bear: Personally inscribed copy of The Chains That You Refuse, an out of print collection of short stories
• From James Blaylock: Signed copy (by James Blaylock and Tim Powers) of The Devils in the Details (Subterranean Press)
• From Douglas Clegg: Signed copy of the Vampyricon trilogy
• From Jeffrey Ford: Keyboard used to write several novels & collections, signed by Jeffrey Ford, to the winner.
• From Neil Gaiman: Keyboard, signed by Neil Gaiman, to the winner.
• From Brian Keene: Signed galley for Scratch, his forthcoming novel
• From Nightshade Books: Limited edition of Tim Lebbon's Light and other tales of Ruin
• From Stewart O'Nan: Signed copy of unproduced screenplay, POE
• From Paul Riddell: Carnivorous plant terrarium
• From Peter Straub: A reading copy of The Skylark, Part 1, read at ICFA in Orlando 3/2008.
• Tuckerizations by Ekaterina Sedia, Laura Anne Gilman, Nick Mamatas
• Manuscript/Proposal critiques from John Douglas, Alice Turner, Beth Flesicher, Helen Atsma, and Stephen Barbara

"Lottery" Rules

Tickets will be on sale from February 9th through February 23rd, midnight, Eastern Daylight Time. The lottery will be held on February 23rd at midnight. Items will be raffled off individually. Persons may purchase as many tickets per item as desired. For example, a person may purchase ten tickets for the "ITEM" and fifty tickets for "ITEM 2." Each ticket purchase increases your chances of winning. For example, if you purchase five tickets of the "ITEM 3" and a total of ten tickets for that item have been sold , your odds of winning are 5 out of 10.

For each item, one winner will be chosen using a computerized random number generator. The winning names and prizes will be announced on the Shirley Jackson Awards website, The donating party will mail or deliver the prize to the lucky winner.

All proceeds from the lottery go to support the Shirley Jackson Awards.

Lottery Information website:

List of All Lottery Items:

Contact Information:
Media representatives who are seeking further information or interviews should contact:
JoAnn F. Cox, Awards Administrator, admin [at] shirley jackson awards [dot] org

For more information about the on-line "lottery", contact:
Matthew Kressel, Lottery Administrator, matt [at] senses five [dot] com