11 More Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers By Matthew Burnside

In correlation with this previous piece.

RULE: Slow the fuck down.

In this game, taking the scenic route is better. Taking shortcuts will only get you stranded in the big city of opportunity without so much as a poncho to protect your happy ass from the pressure police when they start raining rubber bullets at your head. Here at Iowa, the agents have begun to visit campus and the little signup sheets call out in the Dey House (pronounced DIE), and to be fair, a great many of my more talented peers are ready for such a step. I personally am not. Ain’t that the checklist, though? MFA(x)  Novel(x)  Agent(x) Sweet tenured teaching gig, one of three available at any given time(x)  Sell your novel to HBO under the stipulation they’ll hire Peter Dinklage because you wrote that role just for him (x) Marry a Swedish pop star(x)  Buy a hovercraft(x)  Buy another hovercraft because you can(x)  Ride around in hovercrafts with Peter Dinklage(x). First of all, this whole checklist is bullshit except for the novel part. At some point, you will need something made of words that you have wrought with your own sweat and blood and piss and tears and any other bodily fluids I’ve forgotten to mention. The point is, whatever that first novel is, you want it to be worth all the waiting. You want it to reduce Peter Dinklage to tears, it’s so heartbreaking and funny and twisted and poignant. You don’t want to rush into just having a manuscript for the sake of having a manuscript. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being ambitious, but like virginity, your first novel can be a beautiful occasion or it can be just as easily sent away in an Arby’s parking lot while two dudes watch you in an adjacent Taurus eating Big Montanas and slurping Jamocha shakes.

(If you’re reading this Pete, contact me at Willock77@hotmail.com with your preference of hovercraft interior upholstery color)

RULE: Read for a magazine.

It is good to have a pulse on what’s going on in literature. Like in workshop, you’ll always get more from reading the work of others than receiving feedback yourself. You learn what works, what doesn’t, see the glaring mistakes in your own work magnified x 1000. Plus you get to read really cool cover letters in which people tell you all the names of their seventeen cats, where they attended pre-school, how they found your magazine through dumpster diving, and describe in detail what their story is meant to be and do and how it was inspired by a dream Fred Savage once told them at a rave. Consider finding yourself a magazine you’re a fan of and offering to help. You may not get paid (you won’t get paid) but the investment will be worth it. And don’t just do it to add another shitty notch to your CV.

(But if they begin to take advantage of you, drop that shit like it’s physics for physics majors instead of physics for clown school majors, like you signed up for) Continue reading

This Modern Writer: An Interview with Vaughan Simons and Joseph Scapellato

The editors of the much-loved online literary magazine > kill author put out twenty issues between June 2009 and August 2012. These editors, who chose to remain anonymous, “wanted writing that took risks: words that surprised us, shocked us and roused us from our slumber.” In the final issue, the editors revealed two things: that there was only ever one wizard-behind-the-curtain, and that his name was Vaughan Simons. Over the course of several emails, the very gracious, thoughtful, and eloquent Simons spoke with me about the pleasures and challenges of editing, literary magazine design, and the uncertain future of publishing.

1. Was > kill author your first crack at editing a literary magazine? I’d love to hear about your previous relationships with literary magazines, literary blogs, and the publishing world in general.

No, it wasn’t the first literary magazine I edited. From February 2009 to August 2010 (so yes, for a year it overlapped with > kill author– I clearly have too much time on my hands) I edited Writers’ Bloc. This was a weekly updated literary magazine, though perhaps more accurately described as a blog, on the subject of writing. As I admitted at the time, it was a rather pretentious idea. It sounds even more so now. The whole venture was a little hurriedly and, I’ll confess in retrospect, somewhat amateurishly done. For instance, if I’d planned it more thoroughly I’d quickly have discovered that there was already a very well-established online literary journal with the same name. I’m not disowning it, though: Writers’ Bloc featured some great pieces and a number of notable contributors during its short existence, while the whole experience also taught me a lot about editing a literary magazine which I then put into running > kill author. The reason I eventually stopped Writers’ Bloc was because I was investing much more time in > kill author and getting greater enjoyment out of the latter. To be honest, too, the idea of a site with a raison “writing about writing” was always going to have a limited lifespan. The site is still online – though the aging design is a little broken now.

Otherwise, apart from spending a few years avidly reading literary blogs, contributing a few guest posts to We Who Are About To Die and, I suppose, hanging around on the fringes of what people were calling the”online literary scene”, Writers’ Bloc and > kill author have been my only experience of publishing.

2. I’ve witnessed many readers rave about > kill author, so it was no surprise for me when, last year, I saw that your magazine was voted #7 “hottest lit mag” at HTMLGIANT. To what degree do you think that the editorial anonymity- and the mystery this evoked- increased the magazine’s profile?

To be honest, I completely missed that list when it was published. I’m surprised to see it that placed so high because, rightly or wrongly, I often got the feeling that HTMLGIANT, during the period when it was considered the hub of the online literary scene, didn’t really care much for > kill author. Its team of writers included some of the best-known faces in the literary community and a lot of the coverage pushed that community ideal. I suppose that placed it in diametric opposition to what > kill author was trying to do.

I don’t kid myself. I absolutely know that the editorial anonymity of > kill author was the USP that initially won the magazine its high profile, just because people were obviously wondering who was running it behind the scenes. When I decided to edit the journal anonymously I thought the idea might garner a little interest, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be quite such a talking point. However, once the magazine was established and readers could see it was publishing great fiction and poetry, the anonymity faded into the background and > kill author continued to be successful on its own merits, which was hugely gratifying. Continue reading

This Modern Writer: Hope. Solo. by Amorak Huey

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

UCLA football coach Red Sanders

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The Olympic Creed


Is it possible to believe in both of those quotations? Because I do. I want one of those inspirational posters that includes both of them. Say, a tiger climbing a cliff with a gazelle carcass slung across its back: an image to remind me that competing is its own reward-and that winning trumps not-winning, by a long shot.

In 1996, shoe and apparel behemoth Nike posted a billboard in Atlanta, site of that year’s Olympic Summer Games, that offered a sentiment in tune with Sanders and a generation of football coaches he inspired: “You don’t win silver- you lose gold.” Comedy behemoth Jerry Seinfeld has a standup routine with a similar theme, suggesting that the silver medal says to a competitor, “You’re the No. 1 loser. No one lost ahead of you.” Mimicking the photo-finish of a race, he holds his face still and says “Greatest guy in the world,” then he moves his face back a millimeter or so and says, “Never heard of him.”

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This Modern Writer: 11 Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers by Matthew Burnside

RULE: Don’t do a lot of other shit while writing

Because you wouldn’t eat a TV dinner while taking a dump would you?


(As I write this I’m watching The Seventh Seal. Antonius Block is losing to Death in a game of chess & I just want to scream at the screen: You can’t win against Death, you dick. It is cold in this room. I can’t remember where I left my camouflage Snuggie. I poured this cereal 10 seconds ago & now it’s already soggy. Wikipedia is open to Steve Buscemi & for the life of me I don’t remember how it got there, but I really admire that he refuses to get his teeth fixed. My Facebook status has 23 “likes” & somehow this isn’t nearly enough. Why does it smell like cat pee when I don’t even own a cat?)

RULE: Don’t write about writing

Because only assholes do this. Something incredibly tacky about romanticizing the lifestyle. Not just romanticizing, fetishizing. Look, don’t talk about the thing so much just do it. It’s not like you’re an astronaut or something. Now that would be impressive. Writing about writing is akin to talking about all the cool things you could build with Legos. Nobody cares about all the cool things you could build with Legos – they just want to SEE all the cool things you built with Legos.


(…so I decide to write something called 11 Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers.) Continue reading

This Modern Writer: Katy Perry Has A Broken Heart: A Review of Part of Me by Brian Oliu

(with apologies to Gay Talese)

Katy Perry, holding a bottle of Pepsi in one hand and an iPhone in the other, sat down underneath the bright lights of a nameless backstage room in one of Brazil’s largest amphitheaters while countless stylists, faceless assistants, and her sister huddled in a separate room waiting for her to say something. But she said nothing; she had been silent during much of the evening, but as the scene renders, she seems even more distant, staring into the sleeve of her pink satin robe in hopes that it will change the world around her to pink: think pink, perhaps, the colors enveloping the mirrors and dressing room, making the foreign Portuguese words that seem so difficult to understand melt on the tongue and whisper away like there is some sort of understanding. The assistants, her sister, her friends knew, as did the stylists, though less so, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon her when she was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that was truly uncommon.


The subtitles tell us that they had never seen her like this: had never seen Katy cry—perhaps they expected white lines to burst out into the air like a cartoon: her eyes big and round, her hair a lovely shade of blue. The words underneath add gravity to the situation: that there is weight here—this is something that we can certainly mishear, but we cannot misquote; everything captured where it should be. Katy Perry was ill. She was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Katy it can plunge her into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, though never rage—no, that is so not her, no sides coming through, nothing jarring, no lashings out.

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This Modern Writer: Wait With Me Here by Carmela Starace

A few weeks before a CT scan revealed a tennis ball sized tumor on the frontal lobe of my brain, I happened to be in the Beijing Airport.  Truly, I had no business being in the Beijing Airport or anywhere else in China for that matter.  I should have been home in New Mexico, working as an attorney, teaching at the university, revising the second draft of my novel.  And yet there I was, fresh from the twenty-two hour flight, watching a late March snow fall on the other side of the glass wall in the gleaming ultra modern Olympics worthy hanger.  The impromptu trip to China was just one in a series of increasingly curious decisions I’d made recently including taking a break from my ten year marriage, selling my house in the suburbs to my ex, and quitting my well paying job as an attorney to drive around the country in a BMW SUV I’d bought on a whim.  I was living high on the hog—and by hog I mean my credit cards—traveling to random places I had absolutely no reason to visit like Providence, New Orleans, Kennebunkport, Nashville, Durham, and Kentucky (to see the Derby.)   And now this.  China.

Anyway, that was the moment, standing in the Beijing Airport having made my way through customs and successfully retrieved my luggage, that I saw the sign.  Literally—a sign hanging on the wall three floors up from customs, next to the escalator.  It was meant to be helpful and, I’m sure to anyone who read Mandarin it was.  Beneath those neat Chinese characters, however, a less than helpful English translation was provided.  “YOU ARE HERE.”

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This Modern Writer: Too Human by Nishant Batsha

“These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen”

—Lord Byron, in a speech to the House of Lords in defense of the Luddites.


When the web we weave is complete


Five years ago, I fell ill. After a few weeks of severe sickness, I managed to shed nearly forty-five pounds and withdraw from my second semester of college. My ailment, with its profound physical presence, too left metaphysical contusions. To utilize the melodramatic, it changed the direction of my life.

Five years ago.

Five years is a comfortable amount of time. If I were to treat distance like a relationship, this year would be our “wood anniversary.” I wanted to somehow commemorate this chronology; what better way to do so than to revel in memory?

But nothing was there.

At least, in my Gmail. Continue reading

This Modern Writer: Gator, Florida by Vanessa Blakeslee

It’s autumn in central Florida. This year, summer’s heavy humidity and torrential thunderstorms stretched throughout September without respite, but at last, the trees across from your condo have turned a dusty pink. The clouds blow over, bestowing one perfect day after another—temperatures in the low eighties and seventies, blue sky and breezes capable of tricking you to think you’re somewhere in the Hawaiian islands, or the Caribbean. This is why you live here, of course, in this quirky, crowded, southernmost state. Weather might not matter much to some. But after a childhood of dark, frigid mornings awaiting the school bus, you drink up the sunshine, all three hundred days a year of it. To you, living in the ice and dim winter light is like being hungry, when all you can think of is food. And warmth.

Sunshine is life.

To celebrate the change of seasons, you and two Floridian friends decide to take your boyfriend, Frank, a recent Yankee transplant, on a kayak adventure. One Saturday morning, you drive from your neighborhood in Maitland, the upper-middle class suburb on the northern fringe of Orange County, thirty minutes to Wekiva Springs. You’re not the outdoorsy type, but a canoe or kayak trip on the Wekiva River is almost a rite-of-passage for those who have only previously known Orlando through its theme parks and strip malls. The sounds of the roadway fade as you step out of your jeep at the kayak rental site—a bungalow in a clearing, a few dozen yards from the riverbank. A woman in a loose t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and biceps as big as your thighs charges across the yard behind a push-mower. She cuts the engine, approaches. This is the real Florida, you impress upon your boyfriend.

The woman exchanges hearty handshakes with the four of you, introduces herself as Martha. Continue reading

This Modern Writer: Where We Are by Brian Oliu

After the tornadoes that affected Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27th, 2011, I decided to assemble an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers writing about Tuscaloosa. The works in this anthology are attempts (essays, Montaigne would call them) to capture what it is we love about this city and what it means to us to repair and rebuild our home. The quality of the people of Tuscaloosa is only matched by the quality of their writing. Here, we have some amazing work from amazing people—all with our city on our minds and in our hearts. Some of the work has been written long before late April, other pieces written shortly after the storm.

After the success of the eBook, I was approached a few months ago by Bob Weatherly, the owner of our local bar about potentially removing the “e” from the “eBook” and making it a tangible object. We are selling the anthology for $12 (plus shipping & handling) and after recouping our printing costs, the funds will go towards the continuing relief effort here in Tuscaloosa. As I was re-reading and reassembling the pieces in preparation for the print edition, I wrote a
‘reintroduction’ to the collection, which is below. I hope you enjoy reading and I hope you consider purchasing Tuscaloosa Runs This.

I could tell you where I was:  on the floor in a dark hallway with all of the doors shut, a blanket over my head like I was a child—that a combination of cotton and comfort could keep the roof from caving in, would cause the tree to simply bounce off of my head and roll away with an exhale. Continue reading

This Modern Writer: John D’Agata Is Not the Timothy Leary of Essay Writers, But I Do Like How that Characterization Sounds

The current debate swirling around essayist John D’Agata’s ideas about the role of facts in so-called creative nonfiction has me thinking about memory. I got gas at ARCO recently, and standing there beside the pump, I had a flashback of a morning back in, I think, 1993.

While attempting to eat breakfast at a truckstop café in Cabazon, California, I’d poured half a shaker full of granulated sugar into a jelly jar and hid my grimacing face behind the menu. Everyone who was there tells me that I poured the sugar before the Down Syndrome busser filled our plastic cups with water. I say I poured the sugar after. Really, I have no clue. Whose memory should I go with: my warped one or their warped one?

My best friends D, J and JT and I had spent that entire Saturday night awake, frying on acid in a Newport Beach motel room. We hadn’t planned it. We were walking down the street by the beach, headed back to our car around midnight, when a stranger passed whispering, “Doses, doses.” Before we could discuss our options, we bought four hits and J popped the tab on his tongue seconds after. “What are you doing?” JT asked him. J looked at us and shrugged. It was the last night of vacation. We popped the tabs in our mouths.

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