Burnt Tongues: A Behind the Scenes Chronicle
If you're reading this, then you already know I made it, I won, I got in. Out of the thousands of people dropping their shit in the "Chuckshop," somehow I beat the odds...beat them. I don't really know. We tried not to use the word "contest". Even though we knew that's what it was, to call it a contest would mean we weren't workshopping or helping each other. It would mean that we were competing. Then came the paranoia of who was in there for the right reasons and all those little spats claiming so-and-so fucked over another dude on his star rating. The workshop at The Cult brought out the best in us; it brought out the worst in us. It gave us a goal, and we found out together just how far we were willing to go to get there. This was five years ago, back when we had nothing, were nothing, and were offered just a little bit of hope by an author named Chuck...
I heard about the contest on Chuck's MySpace page. Pardon me while I burst nostalgic over all things Top 8, and glittery GIFs proclaiming "just showing ur page sum luv." Social media was something I was only beginning to get into, usually leaning towards social proclivity rather than literary. My first novel had been out less than a year and had already run out of steam, and so I became crazed with this idea of networking-networking-networking, because I had been led to believe that it was "the answer" to a professional shortcoming. So I added bands and models and actors and celebrities (usually fake pages) and authors, one of which was Chuck Palahniuk, whose work had a large impact on me back in those days. Unlike the majority of connections, I actually kept an eye on the Chuck Palahniuk page. It was one of the few blogs I subscribed to. He talked about his upcoming books, his readings, his merchandise. The little Fight Club kids would chime back with the same tired-ass responses like, "You are not your fucking tee shirt." I was at a crossroads in my career as an author, debating on whether to start another novel fresh or attempt to keep pushing the one I had. On MySpace of all places, Chuck presented me with a third option.
Don't call it a contest:
It broke down like this: you paid X amount of dollars to join the writers' workshop. You submitted your stories and received peer feedback from the other workshoppers. At the end of the month, the four workshop moderators would then read every story and compile a list of nominations (usually around fifteen stories). Those nominations would then be culled down to a final six which would be read and critiqued by Chuck himself. The plan was for submissions to be open for a full year and, once concluded, Chuck and the staff would cull down those finalists even further for an anthology. Chuck committed to both putting his name on it as well as writing the introduction for the final product.
Now there were a lot of unknowns at the time. We didn't know how the moderators picked these stories. We didn't know what kind of stories they were looking for (we assumed transgressive with a minimalist writing style). We didn't know how many stories they were going to include in the final product. The only thing we knew for certain was that whatever this thing turned out to be, it was going to sell like a motherfucker because it had Chuck's name on it. It would be a credential unlike any other, but a credential that only a select few were destined to have. Numerically, the odds of making it were slim based upon the sheer volume of workshoppers and stories. We all became each other's competition, and as a hyper-competitive individual myself, I was fine with that.
Not since college had I done anything remotely close to critiquing/reviewing someone's story, and even then it was more to the tune of "how do we pull a C in this class" a la Jeff Winger...not a means to a career. Writing, up until that point, was a solitary venture for me. I had no friends that wrote nor did I know anyone else who did it, even in a hobbyist sense. So to go from that to being inundated with all these writers ripping at each others' throats for an anthology spot was culture shock to say the least.
It was June, and most of that initial month was spent getting acclimated to the workshop culture and its writers. There was an excessive amount of new members who had joined specifically to pursue the anthology, like I did. A lot of them treated it like the lottery: submitting that one piece of writing from however many years ago and hoping for the best. Some of them didn't even bother to edit beforehand. And then, of course, there was the fan fiction...the young twenty-something's rehash of "Guts" in which gross things happened for the sake of being gross. It was Murphy's Law taken to the literary grotesque: if we could make it vomit, shit, bleed, or fuck—it did. Chuckshop was flooded with these little stomach-turners. No story. Just shock for the sake of itself. And you had to ask yourself: would the guy who wrote "Guts" want a story like "Guts" in the anthology? No one knew, but assumption reared its ugly head in a resounding yes.
I could've played that card, too...the "Guts" card, but what I figured out early on was that I was better off trying to beat everyone else rather than pandering to what I thought Chuck wanted. So I critiqued my ass off in workshop...sometimes as many as three or four a day (I was banking up workshop points to submit). If a story had a four or five-star rating, I at least read it to see how good it was. I was giving feedback but I was also scouting the competition. Neil Krolicki, for instance, scared the shit out of me because when I read one of his stories I knew the guy was a fucking ringer. He was like Lebron showing up at his old high school just to dunk on kids. I couldn't critique Neil's story because it was too goddamn good, which basically lit a fire under my ass to get better quick. There were a lot of pieces I knew weren't going to make it, but for every fifteen or so that I read in that class I'd come across one like Neil's, or a Richard Thomas story where I knew I was in trouble. I'd read it and know that their piece was going to Chuck unless I wrote something better. Workshop's cream of the crop wasn't featured prominently at the top; they were quietly hiding in the reeds waiting to be discovered.
June nominee: "Secondhand Strippers"
I decided to be a huge pussy and do what everyone else was doing: submit a transgressive story written in the minimalist style. The fucking thing wasn't even self-contained; it was a novel excerpt from a WIP that I had written months prior. At the time, my thinking was "let's just get something in there and see what happens," because I didn't have any short stories on my hard drive nor had I written one in some years. It was a bitch move, a way to throw my hat in the ring, but it wasn't even close to a honest, solid effort. In hindsight, I think I just got lucky.
July nominee: "Dietary"
A story about crash dieting that goes too well. It was the first short story I had written since college, the one that made it...but not yet. There were improvements to be made and character flaws that needed to be remedied. Workshop pointed them out and I was inclined to agree with their suggestions, even if I didn't want to initially. For the second month in a row, I found myself a nominee.
August finalist: "Diamonds"
Right around writing "Dietary" I read Chuck's essay on Establishing Authority. See...there was this rumor going around that the Chuck anthology wasn't going to be just stories of high merit, but stories that applied the lessons Chuck taught in his essays. The final product would essentially be a book on how to apply the lessons. So when I wrote "Diamonds", I wasn't so much writing a story as I was playing strategy. I was writing a Head Authority story, the one in which I showed off how much I (my characters) knew about gemstones and conflict diamonds. I didn't pander to Chuck; I folded under the weight of a seemingly valid rumor. It worked and didn't work. The story didn't make the anthology, however, it did make it to Chuck.
If you're watching closely, then you've already noticed the lag: the period of time taking place between when a submission went into Chuckshop and when we'd actually hear back on it. June finalists were announced in August. July finalists were announced in October. August finalists were dealing with a six-month delay. It was maddening as all hell, and fueled even more rumors of a "this shit is never gonna happen" tone. For anyone that asks me what I remember most about Burnt Tongues, my answer would probably be the waiting. Don't get me wrong, I wrote a lot, critiqued a lot, read a lot, made a lot of connections—but more than all of that combined—I waited. We all had to get really good at waiting.
October finalist: "FaceSpace"
By October I had yielded two nominations and no finalists spots. I was pissed because "Dietary" felt like a sure thing and the lag between submissions and hearing back was fucking ridiculous. I got it in my head that I needed to start playing the odds. That meant writing better stories, and writing more than just one per month. I could do two or three if I pushed myself. All I had to do was not sleep as much and start writing at my day job. Also, the whole transgressive/minimalist/"Guts" thing was getting worn the hell out in workshop. Everyone was doing it. I think the reason "FaceSpace" made it is because it's the exact kind of story you wouldn't send to Chuck: sci-fi/alt lit.
November finalist: "Dietary" (revised)
This is the one that made it, but at the time I was just playing the odds. I figured since it got nominated last time, a revision would make it a finalist the next time out. I was right. The majority of 2009 very much had a busy feel to it. We were submitting, critiquing, doing our best to give ourselves an edge. By the end of the submission period, you could tell people were getting frazzled (the ones who had been submitting for months on end, anyway). We were all impatient with how quickly things weren't moving along, which only added to the "this shit's never gonna happen" speculation. By the end of the submission year (Jan. 2010), the serious workshoppers—the ones who had been doing this for months on end—were spent.
December nominees: "Black Friday" and "Reverse"
January nominees: "Gourmet" and "Signs"
When Chuck Critiques Your Work:
Chuck Palahniuk critiqued my work three times in a four-month period. The mere idea that he was reading my stuff was cool as fuck; the fact that the dude was passing me back notes and suggestions was something beyond that. Here's the thing though: Chuck was always the last guy to critique a piece of writing and he didn't read the other critiques before writing his own, so his advice tended to overlap with the advice we had already received in shop. It was next to impossible for the guy to generate original feedback because he was getting sloppy sixteenths. As for the critiques themselves: he didn't gush nor did he go after the throat. He was extremely even-keeled, and that scared the shit out of me considering that this was the guy who would ultimately decide if one of my stories was going to wind up in his anthology. When it was all said and done, I had three finalist spots but no idea where I stood with the guy. I had to sit on that uncertainty for over two years.
2011-2012: A Very Long Wait
The last round of the Chuck critiques were done sometime in early 2011. Then things went silent on the anthology front. I got good at not thinking about it. Kept moving. Got a book deal. Got an agent. Wrote/published more stories and started doing regular column work. I was more of a "working author" by that point, so my attitude about the anthology and whether or not it was actually going to happen became cavalier. If it happened—great...if not...fuck it. I had done enough on my own that it didn't feel as important as it once did. In fact, many of the authors who had made finalist were either actively publishing or working on novels. Fred Venturini came out with The Samaritan (to be published Nov. 2014 as The Heart Does Not Grow Back) and Phil Jourdan dropped Praise of Motherhood. Most of 2012 for me was spent writing Good Sex, Great Prayers. There was nothing we could do to make the anthology move forward, so we all took it upon ourselves to stay busy and try not to think about it unless we needed to.
Then, on December 3rd, a gamechanging email came in from Richard Thomas. It was lengthy so I'll summarize:
- If we were included on the email, that meant that we were one of the twenty authors selected to be in the anthology.
- Richard was taking over as editor.
- Things are finally going to move forward again. No more waiting.
- Questions: Are your stories still available? Do you still want to be part of this?
Out of the twenty authors emailed, not a single one had cracked and sold their story off elsewhere. And Richard was right...the waiting pretty much ended once he took the reigns.
2013: Saint Richard Thomas:
Do you want to know who put in the most work on this project? I'll give you a hint, it wasn't Chuck Palahniuk. It was Richard Thomas. But here's the thing about Richard...he's modest to a fault. He would never be "that guy" to talk about how much of a contribution he made to something, which is why I'm going to do it for him:
- Richard was one of the four workshop moderators that vetted the submissions so that they could be culled down to nominees/finalists. That meant he read every single story that came through workshop on a monthly basis. Every story. Every month. I don't even want to know how many hours that took.
- Richard was one of the most active members of workshop. Not only was he reading everything, he was also giving out fantastic critiques. I specifically remember him giving me one for "Dietary" and many others.
- When the original editor fell out, Richard stepped in and took over. He went over all twenty stories to make sure they were polished. He got all of our contracts organized. And he was also in charge of doing the pitching to the presses.
- Finally, Richard sold the shit out of this thing...and he got us a damn good deal with Medallion Press. That happened on March 15th, 2013...a little over three months after he got put in charge.
I talk up Richard because what he did for us bordered on heroic. If Dennis Widmyer (founder of The Cult and co-founder of LitReator) was the brains behind this operation, and Chuck was the face, that'd make Richard Thomas the heart. He had been pumping blood through this project for years. Burnt Tongues couldn't have happened without him.
2014: Burnt Tongues:
We (the authors) starting working with the editors over at Medallion in early January. It was awesome. Lorie Jones had so many fantastic suggestions and was a dream to work with. The entire process—from getting my redlined files to sending in the final draft—took a little over a week, which is extremely quick. In fact, ever since Richard took over as editor, the entire Burnt Tongues project moved at a breakneck pace. News and updates became more frequent. We got a foreign rights deal. We finally got to read Chuck's introduction. We got cover art. We got a ARC PDF copy to look over. This thing was becoming more and more real by the week, and then it went live for pre-order on Amazon...and I was right—this thing sold like a motherfucker. It blew up. And then reviews started to come in: from Booklist, The Guardian, and Kirkus. All positive.
But the definitive "update" came in mid-July. I came home from work and there was a package waiting for me: it was Burnt Tongues. I opened it and found my story. The weird thing is I didn't feel happy looking at it. I felt closure. The "contest" or whatever we were or weren't calling it...it was finally over.
To Continue, Not to Conclude:
Our official release date is August 12th, 2014. Even though Amazon jumped the gun and there are people who have literally had copies in their homes for weeks, August 12th is the day of Burnt Tongues.
This is a different kind of anthology: in regards to its stories, the authors that wrote them, but more than that...how it came to be (and all the times it almost wasn't). Most anthologies are easy. Someone decides they want to do one and puts out a call for submissions. We, on the other hand, had to compete. We had to beat each other up and bleed a little. Being a writer is hard enough on its own. This process though...it was hell. And it was worth it.
I hope you support this book and the authors that are in it. The best way to do that of course is to buy it, read it, and review it on Amazon and Goodreads. Pimp it to your friends. Tweet about it. Whatever you can do to spread the word. Now that you know exactly how much went into making this thing, maybe you'll be more inclined to do this.
And now some personal notes:
To my nineteen fellow authors,
You are the toughest, most talented group I know. I'm honored to have gone through this with you.
To Mr. Dennis Widmyer,
Thank you for not giving up on this. You had ample opportunities, but you kept pushing.
To Mr. Richard Thomas,
You're a champion and a hero, sir.
To Mr. Chuck Palahniuk,
The "secret" works.
And finally, to the readers,
You're in for one helluva ride. Thanks in advance for supporting this ragtag crew.
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