See that terrible title?
It’s “???” — which is technically pronounced “uh-huh-wha?” — and you might be thinking that my first guest blog entry at “A Bunch of Wordz” is titled that way because I’m lazy and don’t know what I’m going to write about, like so many other bloggers. And that may be true.
But believe it or not, those punctuation marks are actually the title of a short story I published long ago.
Well, not on purpose. And that wasn’t really the title, after all.
Let me back up and explain.
I’ve been writing horror stories and publishing them professionally (i.e., for pay) for a little over fifteen years. I’ve won a handful of literary awards for this, and I continue to get invitations to submit my work to reputable markets. Indeed, I’d say I am “sitting pretty” compared to many writers, since I not only write but also have a tenured professor job where I teach the craft full-time in the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. I have got it good: I’m doing what I love to do and I’m making a living from it. And since I draw a salary, I have a little more freedom than many writers I know; I get to pick and choose my writing projects (like this one, right now, which I’m doing for free on a whim, because Edie so kindly invited me to be a guest blogger), whereas my friends who are full-time writers are often taking just about any assignment they can get that has money attached, so they can pay their electricity bill. They end up writing greeting cards on the side while they work on their great American novel, which sadly too often goes unpublished. I get to not only write the stories I want to write, but also to do a lot of fun experiments and other independent things, like the just-released audio book, Audiovile, which I created pretty much by myself in a home studio.
I enjoy doing things differently, operating on the margins of the “independent” scene of the horror genre, but I’ve always felt that a writer should also aim for pro markets — those magazine and book contracts that pay you for your effort (because it IS work) — because it is the best way to reach a wide audience. But I also have always been a firm believer in the value of the “independent” or “small” press, too. That is, the markets that might not pay much, but which have an avid niche audience or which are produced for die-hard collectors who seek out and appreciate quality work. I still write often for the small press, because I feel like I have a lot of freedom there to write about topics (and to choose alternative storytelling modes, like poetry) which might not have mass market appeal.
I choose to write for these marginal markets, but when you’re getting started as a writer, you often have very little choice at all. The big publishers in Manhattan are less likely to take a risk on an unproven author, and you have a better chance finding and cultivating an audience in the small press. In fact, the editorial skill of the small press can be quite advanced, since its editors love to “discover” new talent (usually out of necessity, since they probably can’t afford proven “old” talent) and even work with writers in an apprentice relationship that helps them to grow into better writers than they are. But because small publishing is affordable to anyone with access to the right technology, it is a minefield with a lot of variety in quality: in any given magazine, the writing could truly be cutting edge and the storytelling could be radically fresh, or it could be abysmal, even illiterate. The editors, too, could be laboring hard to help these new writers become better writers, or they could be idiots trying to make a quick buck off their subscribers, without knowing squat about the trade, the field, or business. Writers have to know what they’re getting into.
When I was getting started as a writer, in the early 1990s, long before there was internet publishing and when most magazines were hand-crafted works of art, I wrote for a lot of small press markets; indeed, I was a card carrying member of a writer’s group for science fiction/fantasy/horror writers who worked in this area, called SPWAO (a mouthful that means “Small Press Writers and Artists Organization”). Heck, I was even making a name for myself in the independent press — SPWAO awarded me “Best Fiction Writer” one year, mailing me a fancy plaque and everything.
Even though it meant the world to me, no one really notices such awards. But one magazine did. I’ll call them “Weirdo Tales” to protect their name and reputation. (Though there’s probably no need…they were not just “small” press, they were “microscopic” and I doubt many copies of their magazine are still in existence…indeed, I hope not).
In any case, Weirdo Tales invited me to be their featured author in their brand new magazine. I was immediately jazzed, not only for the cool invitation, but because they were running a special issue where all the fiction and poetry in an upcoming issue was based on an artist’s work. And they sent me an amazing piece of art to inspire my tale. Before this point, I rarely, if ever had my name on the cover of a magazine…and now I’d get to have the main COVER story of the magazine, inspired by an AWESOME piece of art, by an artist I truly ADMIRED!
Of course, I was very excited about this. I love literary experiments, and this promised to be much like one of those quirky college class assignments that ask you to “write a story to match the picture.” And the art gave me all sorts of ideas: the story came right out of my fingers as I typed away at my old Brother Word Processor (remember: this was pre-PC, pre-Internet culture — only a decade ago!), clacking through the story in a whirlwind of creative energy. It was fun. Easy. And the cover story of a new magazine — such a great gig!
I dropped it in the mail. Waited. Then a letter from the editor of Weirdo Tales appeared in my mailbox. He adored my story, but asked me to reformat it, in order to leave more white space on the top and bottom of the pages. He was going to use the manuscript itself as “camera ready copy” — which is another way of saying that he wasn’t going to do any layout on a computer. He was going to use the printed manuscript, as-was, to reproduce the printed pages of the magazine.
Now, I should have realized right away that something was terribly amiss and that this wasn’t going to be a venue that I’d be proud to appear in. But these were the days before everyone had a computer and most magazines were done with physical “paste-up”: almost all magazines worked with “camera ready copy” that they handed over to a printer. So I obliged, trusting that the editor — who was a good artist, himself, I knew — was going to do something really crafty with the layout, like many small presses do. And indeed he did.
To my surprise, the magazine showed up in my mailbox a month or so later. I tore open the package eager to see the final product. The cover art was great, but to my dismay it was hand-colored in crayon, which had rubbed all over the place in the envelope. The magazine itself was stapled in the corners, rather than bound like most magazines are. And my big moment in the spotlight — my wonderful cover story — was entitled “???”
Actually, it was entitled “Nirvana by Noon.” But you wouldn’t know that from the magazine. Instead, in large “rub-on” letters, were the punctuation marks in big black print on the top of page one: “???” by Michael A. Arnzen.
Now, to his credit, the editor had the courtesy to actually call my piece “??? (Cover Story)” in the Table of Contents page.
(Actually, I think my reaction at the time was “Urm-hrrrrm…WHAT!?”)
I was, in a word, astounded. Where the hell was my title? “Nirvana by Noon” wasn’t that bad was it? Why did he change it to a bunch of question marks? Where did he get the audacity? Out of the crayon box? Why didn’t he contact me?!
Well, I tried to keep my cool and I immediately wrote him a professional letter reporting my dismay, but mostly just asked for a simple answer to the question, “What happened?” For surely he couldn’t believe that “???” was a better title than the one I came up with, let alone anything resembling a title at all.
It turns out that he had trimmed the title off my manuscript simply for space, since he was using “rub on” letters for the pasted-up “camera ready” pages…but in the process he somehow misplaced and lost the original title. The kicker, of course, was that in his rush to get the magazine to press, he didn’t bother to write me for the real title, but instead just rubbed those question marks on there and called it a day. “I wanted to get it over with,” I think he said, somewhat apologetically, but mostly disappointed, I could tell, from the lack of interest from readers (i.e., the lack of sales).
I was furious, but the damage was done. I think I would have been happier if he just would have called it “Untitled.”
But thankfully, this was the “small” press, and I doubt more than 50 people actually paid for that magazine, if anyone did. So I didn’t let my anger fester into an ulcer and I didn’t sweat the damage it might have done to my reputation if readers actually believed that I would write a story called “???” that had nothing whatsoever to do with question marks.
But it was a learning experience for me. Afterward, I wrote less-and-less for small press markets that I hadn’t seen sample copies of with my own eyes. I bought sample copies of those I was thinking of writing for. And I began only submitting my work to magazines or editors who had a proven track record of some kind. I stayed away from ANY market that asked for “camera ready” manuscripts, because I learned the hard way that “camera ready” is actually shorthand for “very little editing” and “we take shortcuts here” and “do it yourself, why don’t you?”
This is just one of many “horror stories” I’ve had with the publishing world. But it’s also the funniest. I was pretty upset at the time, but now, a decade-and-a-half later, I just chuckle even thinking about it.
I didn’t get a wonderful cover story gig for Weirdo Tales out of it. I got a good anecdote. I’m cool with that.
And you know what? I bet that crayon-colored, corner-stapled bundle of papers is probably quite a collector’s item by now. Maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t burn my issue right when it arrived. “???” might be worth, what, at least uh-huh-wha dollars, I’d imagine.
Guest blogger Michael A. Arnzen is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the flash fiction collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories, and the novel, Play Dead. His most recent project is a spoken word cd called Audiovile. A collection of his best fiction and poetry to date — called Proverbs for Monsters — is due soon from Dark Regions Press. It does not include “Uh-Huh-Wha?” but you can find out more about it by subscribing to his award-winning newsletter at gorelets.com.