Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What constitutes "professional"?

Following is a revised and expanded version of something I wrote in the comments section of yesterday's post:

"Professional" is how one group of writers attempts to distance themselves from another group of writers, and each group of writers manipulates their definition to ensure that they are "professional."

One thing that amuses me is when writers of one genre, having little experience with common practices in another genre, define "professional" in such a way that professionals in the other genre are excluded from the definition of "professional."

Here are some rather general guidelines to determine whether or not a publication is professional:

1) How much does it pay?

For purposes of obtaining active membership (membership with full voting privileges) HWA and SFWA require short story sales to publications that pay no less than 5-cents/word. MWA and PWA are less rigid. My understanding, which may be incorrect, is that RWA considers only sales of novels as a qualification for active membership.

2) Is the editor of the publication paid?

A professional publication pays its staff. Usually. Some literary magazines are staffed by volunteers and underwritten by a university or a non-profit organization.

3) Does the contract indicate understanding of copyright law?

A professional publication offers a contract or letter of agreement that clearly indicates that they understand copyright law.

Why e-zines aren't generally considered "professional":

1) They don't pay or they pay only a token amount. A few science fiction e-zines do pay "professional" rates, but writers in other genres are unaware of them and therefore tar all e-zines with the same negative brush.

2) Few e-zines have paid staff because the e-zines don't generate enough income. Many e-zines are supported by the editor/publisher's day job. Professional publications aren't usually supported by the editor/publisher's day job. They ARE the editor/publisher's day job.

3) Far too many e-zine editor/publishers indicate a complete lack of knowledge about copyright law in their guidelines. For example, their guidelines say things such as "all rights belong to the individual contributors" or "all rights return to the writers after six months" or some other nonsensical statement.

Here are some rather general guidelines to determine whether or not a writer is professional:

1) How much does she get paid?

Some organizations consider any amount of money received below a certain threshhold--for HWA and SFWA that threshhold is 5-cents/word for short fiction; for MWA it's $25/story--to be below professional level and that a writer who accepts less than "professional" pay is, therefore, not a "professional."

2) Does she pay self-employment tax on her earnings from writing?

A professional writer is, in fact, self-employed. She keeps accurate records and reports her income from writing and expenses related to writing to the IRS and, when she shows a profit for the year, pays taxes on her income.

3) What portion of her income is generated by writing?

A professional writer generates a significant portion of her annual income from writing or, by some definitions, by writing and writing-related activities (editing anthologies, lecturing, mentoring, etc.). What constitutes "significant" varies.

4) What does she write/where has she been published?

I have met many novelists who seem to believe that what separates "professional" writers from all other writers is the publication of a novel, especially if the novel is published by a "New York publishing company." Some writers believe that only ink-on-paper constitutes "professional" publication, ignoring audio, electronic, and other forms of publication.

5) What is her education?

Having a degree (B.A., M.A., M.F.A.) in professional writing, creative writing, journalism, or a similar subject is a plus, though a degree alone is usually insufficient.

6) What awards has she received?

Remember, awards from "my" organization are more professional than awards from "your" organization.

7) Does she pay to have her work published?

Vanity publication, self-publishing, or starting a company that publishes the publisher's writing in addition to that of other people is considered unprofessional. Except when it isn't.

I might could go on, but no matter how we try to differentiate between "professional" and non-professional writers, it usually comes down to a discussion of "us" versus "them," and we always want to be part of "us."

Didn't Pogo say, "We have met the enemy and he is us"?

Perhaps we should spend more time thinking about what it means to be "them." After all, someday they might be "us" and we will be "them"--stuck on the outside looking in because we no longer fit the definition of "professional."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Per-word vs. flat-rate

Earlier today I listened to a presentation about short story writing. One of the two presenters--an established mystery short story writer--claimed that professional publications pay by the word and that publications that pay flat rates are not professional publications.

What a crock.

I've sold short stories--some of them mysteries--to many publications that pay flat rates The flat rates some of these publications pay exceed the per-word rates that the top mystery magazines pay for stories of equivalent length. And sales to some of these publications were used to qualify me for active membership in the Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

So, whether a publication pays per-word or pays a flat rate for its fiction is not, in and of itself, an indication of whether or not the publication is a professional market.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Of Memories Dying

It was a small town on the northern California coast where the teenagers still cruised Main Street, stopping at both the stoplights on their trek from the A&W north to the bowling alley, then around and back again; a small town nestled against the ocean where the Coast Ranges prevented most radio and television signals from bringing in the latest fashions; a small town where progress rarely interfered and the A&W was still the only link to a world of fast food.

A full moon hung low in the evening sky, fragmented by naked branches and power lines. I stood in the shadows before the high school, staring at the faded spot on the wall where the capital B had fallen off, leaving only aker High School still intact. The school was much the same as it had been when I left, still a collection of single-story hallways intersecting to form inaccessible open courtyards.

I stood on a brown patch of grass, my knapsack at my feet. Faded green canvas, I’d bought it at an Army surplus store and carried it around the world with me, stuffing it with tiny objects I’d found in small villages and back-alley shops where tourists never went.

A breeze from the ocean blew up through town and sent a chill crawling through me. I pulled my jacket tighter around my gaunt frame, fumbling to tug the zipper upward with shaking fingers.

My clothes hung limply from my body, mismatched and out of style. The shirt, brown cotton gauze stained with sweat, I’d found in India. The jeans, now faded and frayed at the cuffs of the bell bottoms, were a pair of counterfeit Levi’s I’d found in Hong Kong. The green jacket I’d received from an Army deserter in Cambodia after spending a five-day drunk with him, helping him through a bad case of the DT’s and a good case of scotch. My shoes--a pair of low-top black tennis shoes--were new. I deserved that; I’d walked through the soles of so many others.

“Hey there!”

I was suddenly pinned against the school wall by a spotlight, silhouetted like a marionette with no strings.

“Hey there.” The voice behind the spotlight called again and I blinked my tired eyes against the light, squinting to see who was talking to me.

“What are you doing there?”

“I used to go to school here,” I said. My voice was ragged, hesitant, because I could not see the other person.

The light snapped off and I blinked again, adjusting to the sudden darkness.

“Class of ’80.” The voice came from inside a police car. “You?”

“Class of ’74,” I said. It seemed like so many years had passed, like so many things had worn away at what I was, what I had dreamed of being, that I no longer had a sense of time.

“What brought you back?” he asked. He was broad-shouldered and serious, the type who had played football and been class president, gotten good grades and been liked by everyone.

I shook my head. There was nothing I could tell him.

He motioned me over to the patrol car and offered to buy me a cup of coffee. I gathered up my knapsack and climbed into the car beside him.

“Mike Morelli,” he said as he stuck out a thick hand with strong fingers.

I grasped his hand firmly, shook it, and released it quickly. His touch burned in my memory, my palms sweaty and shaking. “Patrick Bates,” I said.

Morelli slowly swung the patrol car out of the faculty parking lot and pointed it down the road toward the main part of town. Silence between us and the faint crackling and popping of the radio as he drove tickled at the razor-sharp edges of my nerves, rubbing the exposed ends like ground glass.

“Seventy-four,” he said thoughtfully, his forehead wrinkled as if he strained to remember. “Wasn’t that the year--”

“It was,” I said, interrupting his question. I had wondered how long it would take him to remember.

Morelli grunted, silent again. He drove through town, down narrow streets between rows of houses washed pale by my memory of them, south to the A&W, pulling the patrol car to a halt in one of the stalls. He reached out his open window and pressed the button on the face of the speaker, ordering two coffees and a Papa Burger. He looked over at me, the details of my face lost in the shadows inside the car. “You want anything else?”

“No. Coffee’s fine.”

“That’s it, sweetheart,” he said to the teenaged voice in the speaker. Then he turned to me again. “They’ve all left, you know.”

I nodded. It wasn’t hard to guess that my few remaining classmates would leave town just as I had left.

“Nobody else has ever come back,” Morelli said. “Nobody I ever heard of.”

I nodded again, wishing my coffee would hurry. We sat silent for a moment, watching as a Mustang careered into the parking lot, teenaged boys hanging from the open windows, yelling and waving. As soon as they saw the patrol car, they slowed and the driver very carefully pulled the rusting car into a stall at the far end of the row.

“Now them boys,” Morelli said, pointing his finger at the Mustang, “they don’t understand what this town does.”

“They will,” I said. “Give them time.”

Before he could respond, our coffee and his hamburger arrived. He passed a steaming cup to me, then unwrapped his hamburger and took a bite. Catsup and mustard spewed out the other side of the bun. He wiped at his uniform with a napkin, the stain already evident and too late to wipe away.

“You surprise me,” Morelli finally said.


“You’re not what I expected.” He took another bite of the hamburger, more carefully this time. “You look late sixties,” he said. “Like you forgot to leave an era behind.”

“Here?” I questioned. “This town’s always been an era behind.”

Morelli didn’t know whether to laugh or take me seriously. He considered a moment, then agreed with me. “This town moves slow. It always has.”

A blonde waitress wiggled past, carrying a tray full of root beer mugs to the Mustang at the end of the aisle. Morelli’s eyes followed her to the Mustang, then back into the restaurant.

“You must have a lot of bitter memories,” Morelli said. “The whole class of ’74 must have bitter memories.”

I nodded. “It pushed them away. Kept them from coming back.”

“It was a hell of an accident,” he continued, oblivious to my comment. “Damn near the whole senior class.” He shook his head as if to shake away the memories; then he said, “I lived three blocks away from the hotel. The explosion woke me up. My father and I watched the fire from down the street. I must have had nightmares for a month after that.”

I knew what he meant. The nightmares would never end for me, had never stopped, and I didn’t expect to free myself of them.

“Where were you when it happened?” Morelli asked.

“Outside,” I said. “In the parking lot sneaking a drink from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. My girlfriend was inside.”

“Jesus.” Morelli finished his hamburger and crumpled up his napkin. “You were lucky.”

“Maybe.” I pulled aside my long, greasy black hair and showed him the purple splotches on the side of my face and the back of my neck. They extended far down my back and across my chest, a tattoo of burning tuxedo etched into my skin. “I went in after her. There was nothing I could do.”

We sat together watching the boys in the Mustang as they piled out of the car and took their places on the hood. They laughed and swore at each other, pushed one another off the car, spilling root beer on the pavement. They were rough-and-tumble, as I had once been.

“Can I drop you someplace?” Morelli asked as he started the car. “I have to make my rounds again.”

I looked over at him in the darkness of the patrol car, seeing the hard lines already forming in his young face. “I want to go back to the school.” I said.

“I could take you to a motel if you want.”

“The school will be fine.”

He shrugged and pulled from the parking lot. “They don’t know how lucky they are,” Morelli said as he motioned toward the boys. “In a few years they’ll realize they can’t escape from this town. Nobody does,” he said. “They come back sooner or later.”

I listened to him ramble, watching the town crawl slowly past the car window. In ten years, nothing much had changed. D’Grasso’s Hardware Store had a new coat of white paint. Henderson’s Floral Shop had become Johnson’s Floral Gallery. The Hi-Ho Inn had expanded into the next building. And the remains of the old hotel had been swept away, replaced by a small park in the center of town. But the Standard station where I’d had my first part-time job still had full service and the weekly newspaper still posted the front page of the most recent edition in their front window. And the houses were still the same bland blend of clapboard and vinyl siding.

“I came back,” he said. “I had dreams. Big dreams. But I came back.” He looked over at me. “Your class had dreams, too. But you’re the first one to return.”

“Most of us never had a chance to leave,” I said.

“Hell of a tragedy, wasn’t it? I mean, so many kids on their graduation night. They never really had a chance, did they?”

Morelli pulled the patrol car to a halt in the faculty parking lot and I climbed out with my knapsack firmly in hand.

“You sure you don’t need a ride someplace else?” he said. “I’d be happy to take you.”

“No thanks,” I told him. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll wait here a while.”

I watched as the patrol car pulled away and I wondered if Morelli understood. Ten years is a long time for some of us.

I sat on the front porch of the school and waited, watched the moon and felt the breeze from the ocean sweep up from town to chill me. As chairman of the ten-year reunion committee, it was my responsibility to send out the invitations.

I began unpacking the knapsack; they would be arriving soon.

My classmates.

All of them.


“Of Memories Dying” copyright © 1985 Michael Bracken. First published in Midnight, an anthology edited by Charles L. Grant and published in paperback by Tor Books.

A little history:

“Of Memories Dying” was was written early in my career and was the first of my short stories to be published in an anthology. It appeared on the preliminary ballot for a Nebula Award.

It was later expanded and released under the title “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn” as part of Even Roses Bleed, an audiobook collection of seven of my stories released by Books In Motion in 1995.

After a slight revision, In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn was released in 2000 as a small-sized paperback by Barley Books in England. Reviews sere solid: “A truly terrifying tale in the Stephen King tradition. Michael Bracken is a horror writer to watch out for.” (Writers Block) and “Nicely understated and atmospheric....” (Science Fiction Chronicle). Barley Books promptly went out of business.

In 2002, Wildside Press released Canvas Bleeding, a hardback collection of my horror short stories that includes the original version of “Of Memories Dying.”

“Dreams Unborn,” a prequel to “Of Memories Dying”/In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn was published in Small Crimes, a hardback anthology of crime fiction I edited that Wildside Press published in 2004. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed the anthology and said, “... the concluding novella, ‘Dreams Unborn,’ which though much grimmer may remind you of American Graffiti, is the best piece of fiction I’ve read by editor Bracken.” “Dreams Unborn” was named one of the year’s best mysteries by the editors of The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.

Maybe someday the two halves of the story--“Dreams Unborn” and “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn”--will be published together.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bad review of an old story

Koi's notebook reviews Midnight, an anthology of horror stories edited by Charles L. Grant and published by Tor Books in 1985, and has this to say about my contribution:

Of Memories Dying is a failure as a horror story. Two men meet in front of a school, drive to a burger joint. One eats a burger. They drive back to the school. One gets out, the other drives off. There is a nebulous hint that something out of the ordinary might happen a few pages after the story has ended. This is not a horror story. This is not even a prologue. This is ... pointless, utterly pointless, and the worst proofread part of the book to boot.

Of Memories Dying appeared on the preliminary ballot for a Nebula Award. Different strokes, different folks, eh?

Monday, June 15, 2009


In the June 9 entry at the Make Mine Mystery blog, "Stop Shouting Already," Marvin D. Wilson comments on the overuse of exclamation points. If you read the comments following the post, you'll notice that Mark Troy quoted the complete text of "The Shootout," an incredibly short story I wrote that contains 10 exclamation points but only two words. Of course, most people won't understand the story without reading Mark's comments before and after the story.

Go. Read. Now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Day one-hundred-sixty-three, story forty-two

I just finished and submitted my 42nd short story of the year. I started writing this on Wednesday in response to an open call for submissions I received on June 4. It's 2,100 words, contains a crime, but it's not crime fiction. It's a relationship story. Sort of.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Day one-hundred-fifty-eight, story forty-one

I finished and submitted my 41st short story of the year earlier this evening. It's a 2,400-word confession I started writing on May 27, 2008.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Last weekend I went to the theater to see Up. The theater charged $2 extra because the movie was in 3-D.

This evening I went to a porn theater. They charged me $1 extra because the movie was in Double-D.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Career reboot

When I started writing again in January, 3.5 months after my quadruple bypass, new material began pouring out of me, and it continues to pour out of me. I've completed 40 short stories since January 1. At this pace I'll complete 100 short stories this year, nearly double the production of a typical year.

Much of what I've written has been outside my "box"--stories written for new markets, "old" markets to which I've never sold, and themed anthologies I might not have looked at twice a year ago. The downside of writing outside my box is that my sales rate is down and my rejection rate is up. Despite that, income from short fiction is holding steady and is comparable to this point last year.

In a way, the 3.5-month drug-induced stupor that prevented me from writing during the closing months of 2008 helped to reboot my career at the beginning of 2009.

Go figure.

Prone to error

Too often I read stories--especially various forms of crime fiction--in which a person or a body is described as "prone," and yet the context makes it clear that the person or body is actually "supine."

It frustrates the bejesus out of me.

Direct from the dictionary definitions:

Prone = "lying face downward"

Supine = "lying on the back, face or front upward"

I hope you're not prone ("having a natural inclination or tendency to something") to making this error.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


I received my 16th acceptance of the year today, for a 5,800-word confession I submitted on April 22.

Monday, June 01, 2009