Category Archives: McSweeney’s

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: What’s Writing? I Just Want to Help People

by Aaron Dietz

It started because I was bored. I was in a fine high school in Iowa and during class, I daydreamed stories and started writing them down.
I won ten dollars for writing a second-place piece for one of the high school publications, and it was a nice little story. But I had no idea why. It had just happened.
A couple years later a small zine published two pieces of mine in their first and only issue. I kept writing.
In Denver, I wrote for some more zines and eventually wrote a column called “100 Nights” for Needles for Teeth. I didn’t make it to night 100, but maybe I made it to ten.
In the year 2000 I started collecting some of the stories I wrote into a larger tale, like making a mixed tape, heavily influenced by my friend Joaquin Liebert, who once made me a mixed tape of the original Star Wars trilogy using only songs from a specific genre of music (I think it was classic R&B but I can’t pinpoint music to his level of geekhood).
I started calling my collection of stories a novel. I stitched it together like a series of documents, obviously influenced by books like House of Leaves.
Years went by. I collected rejection letters from publishers. I kept some special ones, including a hand-written note from McSweeney’s. I kept rewriting the novel.
I moved to Seattle, and rewrote the novel again while I worked on completing an   undergraduate degree—I was back in college primarily because I could pay the rent with student loan money instead of continuing a futile search for a job.
In school I took as many classes as I could that were taught by Bryan Tomasovich. He gave me more time than I deserved and pointed me toward the beginning of experimental fiction.
On Tomasovich’s recommendation, I submitted my novel to Emergency Press. They handed it back and said, basically, “We don’t like these parts. But what about these superhero parts? We like those.”
I rewrote my novel.
Whereas before I had used the superhero as a tiny symbol throughout, now it was a full-on superhero novel, told through a series of documents. It was funny, to a special kind of person.
Emergency Press accepted the book. It was published as Super on November 10, 2010, with an amazing look to the cover and interior provided by Charlie Potter. Friends gave me more time than I deserved to help promote it.
We put on what I like to think is Seattle’s most spectacular superhero pub crawl. I met Phoenix Jones and other real life super heroes, and went on patrol with them. I hung out with Black Knight, Blue Sparrow, SkyMan, Knight Owl, and so many more. I met fantastic people in plainclothes, too.
In 2011 and 2012, I took a minor break from writing and made short movies with friends. We made films in 24 hours and 48 hours and got relatively unexciting results.
Then we made movies in 8 hours and got excellent results.
This made me think about how I had just spent ten years or more creating a novel that didn’t really make the impact I had hoped it would, despite it being what I would call a satisfying little work.
I turned things around. I decided I’d create books in less than a month. I figured, they may not turn out to be as good as a ten-year project but they were darn well going to have more impact-per-hour-spent on them.
In 2013, I tried to make 12 books. I completed 9. Friends gave me more time than I deserved in helping me, including Charlie Potter again, who produced fabulous covers for 8 of the books.
The impact was small but for the time I spent on them, outstanding. Some books I produced in a weekend. Because of the small investment in time, the impact made sense and felt worth it. I was learning.
I started catching up on being an adult. This involved acting like I owned a home, which was good, because I did own a home (this had happened in the same year in which I produced 9 books). I wrote less and less.
My writing time became precious, but I was armed with the knowledge that I could create and produce satisfactory projects in very little time. And so I do.
I’ve become efficient: I rarely write anything unless I’m 80% sure it’ll be published in some form. Larger projects I get involved with are one-year projects at the maximum. Smaller projects are a couple weekends, maybe four at the most.
I work with the best people. Earlier this year I edited a book with Bud Smith—In Case We Die, an anthology of the strangest things that have happened to people. The intention was to encourage people to talk about the weird stuff that we don’t feel like we can talk about. It wasn’t a lot of work to do the book, and I think it’s helping the cause.
Recently, I helped put together the interior layout on For They Know Not What They Do: The Letters of Peter C. Kilburn. Peter worked as a librarian in Beirut from 1966 to 1986. He was taken hostage and killed.
I’m always telling people that they should write at least one book. It felt good to help Peter with his. It was probably about twelve hours of my time. Twelve hours to help someone posthumously produce their book? That felt great.
And that’s what I want: for the projects I do to feel good and have positive impact, within the very small amount of time I have to give to the art.
And that’s where I’m at as a writer, now, if I’ve even truly become one. Maybe I just like to help people, and writing just happens to be an efficient way to do this. And so here I am.

Aaron Dietz is the author of Super (Emergency Press, 2010), an experimental novel about superheroes that is obviously written by an instructional designer (there’s a test after every chapter). Dietz has created courses on computer programming, engineering, and green design. At parties, he likes to ask strangers, “What’s the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?”

Do you know what time it is?

I can’t believe it. It’s August 25 and this is the year I promised myself I would finish my book. I know. If you read my blog, you must be sick of hearing about it, but I can’t help myself. Public admonitions seem to be the only way I can shame myself into doing anything. And since it is that LAST week of August, and the fall will be–if history repeats itself–INSANE, I have to gather myself, think about goals, and how to keep them.

I taped a sign on my fridge about a month ago. It says, “Nothing is more important than the book,” and yet today at 8:15 I’m heading out to South Pas to do my Monday morning exercise for two hours. That means by the time I get back it will be 10:30 and I will be whipped. But today, instead of making a face plant in the middle of the couch after I down three 8 ounce glasses of water, I will sit down at the computer.

However, what will grab my attention? Novel or short story? It is, after all, SUBMISSION SEASON! The recognition of submission season a couple of years ago is what finally got me published. I realized that I had to change my slovenly ways and begin to market in an organized way. The first thing I did was set a goal: 100 rejections. This is not an original idea. I’d read about it somewhere and liked the logic. Instead of worrying about how many acceptances I might get–a goal that feels self-defeating from the get-go–I decided to go for the 100 “your piece has no place in our immediate plans” target.

And it worked. Everything I had ready to go since then has found a home except for “Wanting Steven” and at least I got a personal letter from Ellery Queen saying they almost published it. It think Janet Hutchins was on vacation at the time, but I’m still taking it as a triumph!

So of course my consciousness is heightened toward short pieces this time of year, but unfortunately I have nothing really ready except for “Wanting Steven” which I probably need to look at again and figure out why it hasn’t found its place before I submit again. So the dilemma: write short stories to submit or finish the book.

My good friend Kev says he spoke to a famous author recently and that author encouraged him to abandon the shorts for the novel and he had lots of legitimate reasons. The market for shorts is steeped in honor and tradition, but only a few of these journals actually reach many people and those people are more likely than not, college students, other writers, academics, and perhaps an small elite of avid readers. To be published in any of these can be good and if you get into say The Georgia Review you are golden, but since most pay in copies of their magazine, it isn’t a good way to put a Lean Cuisine on the TV tray.

Kev’s author suggested that the “where it’s at” in writing is the novel. That’s where the money is, where the mass audience is, that’s where self-satisfaction can be gained.

This logic makes perfect sense to me, but the novel is sooooo long, soooo indefinite, that it’s a struggle to actually dive in day after day with out being tempted to take a writing break with a 1000 word flash for Every Day Fiction, or maybe a 4000 word short. I’ve got enough starts and if they don’t work, there’s more cooking up in my brain pan than those.

I suppose I’m rambling this morning because I’ve just realized I have the months of September, October, November, and December to meet my goal: a little over 120 days. That means I’ll have to edit around 3 pages a day to have a somewhat edited manuscript by the new year. It’s certainly do-able, but can I do it?

Final note: I did hear from McSweeney’s and yes they did reject “Monsoon,” but some one jotted me a personal note and I have to say, that got me flying….

Secret: “Monsoon” will be published soon (I hope) by Quality Women’s Fiction.

Submission Season

It’s summer and toodling through various writing sites this week, I remembered that August kicks off “Submission Season,” the time when college literary types head back to school and brace for the mudslide of submissions coming their way. This might be a literal description at the University of Iowa after the flooding this past year, but hopefully the Hawkeyes will return to freshly scrubbed floors, gleaming walls, and no dead fish hiding in the school server.

August means it’s time for writers to polish their pieces one more time, buy 9X12 envelopes, and a slew of postage. I’m ready, but scared. I’ve got a lot to do, but I absolutely must send out. It’s the only way to get oneself read. So I too must brace myself.

A writer friend reminded me last week that for her, July is the beginning of a new writing season. July because for Sharon and me, as well as Jim, Ellen, and the rest of my old Iowa Summer Writing Festival buds that’s the month we used to meet in Iowa City to attend workshops, drink Blue Moon, and work up a sweat (literally) at keyboards only to have our butts frozen off at the EPB.

I hope it happened this year. I hope they all went. I did not. Haven’t for the last two years and have to admit this year, I really missed it. Maybe it was the pictures of the campus underwater my sister sent me triggering my angst. Or maybe it was just realizing that I’m so out of touch now, me in California and my “Iowa” friends scattered over the country: Sharon in Galesburg, Jim in Chicago, Ellen in St. Louis. I also miss Elizabeth, Lisa, and Enza. We had good times. But that was then and this is now. And now means getting writing, get submitting!

This DRIVE to SUBMIT has paid off. I started two years ago with the goal of 100 rejections. Yes. I know. That’s weird. But for me if my goal is called a DRIVE to PUBLISH, it’s too easy to get disheartened, so I changed the language. What that did for me was gave me something I had power over. No one can stop me from writing something, sticking it in an envelope, and sending it out. That’s in my power. Also in my power is the make that submission the best piece I can.

With those goals, I’ve had actual PUBLISHING success. Not big success. The editors from Tin House and McSweeneys (actually McSweeney’s owes me a rejection, but since I can barely navigate their site, it’s okay) are not pounding down my door yet, YET, but enough success to keep me striving and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s the necessity for persistence. Persistence has over the last two years gotten me three pieces in print, three publications on line with two other pieces accepted, one coming out in August at Women’s Quality Fiction and another in the fall at EDF. So now I’m into my third submission season and I’ve got to make the best of it. (Yes, Jane, I hear you. The novel. THE NOVEL!)