“She Gets It”: Elizabeth Heaney’s The Honor Was Mine

by Michael Fay

Active duty military and veterans have low expectations of civilians getting it.   Too much Hollywood, video games and time at the mall stand between us and them. The civilian-military divide is well-documented, the stereotypes maintaining it well-entrenched. Those who’ve lived the military experience, whether deployed to war or stateside in garrison, know it’s a life neither Hollywood, nor World of Warcraft, can remotely capture. Years are devoted to training for war, followed by years engaged in it. Through it all, GIs gripe about it, revel in it and struggle with its aftershocks. What’s an intimate companion of a few, is a distant relative of the many.   Most Americans easily express sympathy for military service with thankful handshakes in airports or bumper stickers, but few will ever devote the energy to develop what’s really needed: empathy.

There is one civilian who has devoted the time, effort – and yes, risk – to move beyond the stereotypes about what it means to serve, and in doing so has written a moving and insightful book on the challenges and rewards of contemporary military life. In The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans, author and therapist Elizabeth Heaney, MA, LPC, walks us through her personal journey from vaguely sympathetic outsider to deeply empathetic insider.

Continue reading ““She Gets It”: Elizabeth Heaney’s The Honor Was Mine”

VOLATILE SECRECIES – The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Reviewed by Carmelinda Blagg
O-Dark-Thirty Contributing Editor

Eighteen years before the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, another largely forgotten nuclear accident occurred. On January 3, 1961, a bitterly cold Idaho winter night, the reactor known as the SL-1 exploded at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls. Three of its operators were killed.
Andria Williams adapts this tragedy as the compelling framework of her debut novel The Longest Night. Set against the constraints imposed by a culture of silence and conformity in late 1950s America, she explores the dangers of those early days of experimental nuclear technology alongside the complexities and mysteries of marriage, issues of trust and betrayal, the daunting loneliness faced by the military wife.
A brief prologue offers a frantic snapshot of that frigid night in 1961, as Paul Collier, an Army specialist assigned to operate and maintain the reactor, watches fire trucks and ambulances racing to the reactor site following the explosion. From there, we are pulled back to June of 1959. Paul and his wife Nat, along with their two young daughters, are newly relocating to Idaho Falls where Paul is due to begin his new assignment at the nuclear reactor (here, referred to as the CR-1). They stop their car just outside the Idaho state line to stretch their legs along the rocky shores of a lake, where Nat – a carefree California girl who grew up swimming and diving in San Diego – sees a group of swimmers on a rock and rushes to join them. After diving into the water fully clothed, she emerges, exhilarated and laughing, until she realizes Paul’s anger at her actions. Her impulsiveness is intimately familiar to him, linked to what he loves about her and what he most fears. What follows in subsequent chapters – alternating between Nat’s point of view and Paul’s, is a portrait of a marriage in a pre-feminist America where the pressures of gender norms were as much of a trap for men as they obviously were for women. Paul’s very different upbringing with alcoholic parents, “…in a rural Maine cabin as quiet as a deep snow, punctuated by outbursts of inexplicable and embarrassing violence,” has instilled in him an intrepid reserve and a need for discipline and control that at times, threatens to undermine the love he feels for Nat, and the larger hopes he has for his family after moving to Idaho Falls.
Such marital tensions play out in parallel with Paul’s growing realization that the reactor he and two other operators are responsible for maintaining is dangerously unstable. And, that his boss, a recklessly arrogant Master Sergeant Richards, isn’t much interested in hearing Paul’s concerns. Richards has his own problems. He’s close to retirement from a less than stellar military career; he has a fondness for booze and womanizing, and a marriage where hostilities and resentments simmer just below the surface. His feckless wife, Jeannie, is the only other character who gets some POV chapters of her own from which we learn a lot of unsettling truths about their married life and how she scrupulously labors to create an illusion of perfection reflected in those “vacuum marks freshly ridged into the carpet like paths to righteousness.”

Williams constructs her narrative with skill and patience, creating a tension that steadily mounts. And it isn’t just that faulty reactor that poses a danger in her story. It is more largely, the volatility of marriage itself, and of her main characters – Nat’s restlessness and spontaneity; Paul’s burdensome and rigid caution; the callousness of Richards; his wife’s neatly polished and well-honed bitterness.

But Williams’ sympathies are especially sharp when it comes to Nat. She captures her struggles as a military wife adapting to their new home – a place markedly different from San Diego – with its long and frigid winters and its arid landscape of “Mormon farmland, mostly potatoes – and finally the endless-looking desert, as brown and rough as sandpaper.” She tends to her household – faithfully packing her husband’s lunches, striving to care for her toddler daughters, struggling to make new friends in a neighborhood where “One man in the house crowded out everyone else.” All the while, she reproaches herself for her growing restlessness. During one interval when Paul is away, and with little else to turn to beyond the realm of her domestic duties, Nat’s days become dauntingly lonely and boring until she meets a young cowboy, Esrom, whose warmth and easy charms threaten to test her faithfulness.

Meanwhile, Paul’s concerns about the reactor leave him anxious and guarded, unable to communicate to Nat his fears about an accident he knows could endanger his own family. “He realized that he was lying to her daily. It was in her own best interest but he still felt guilty.” Paul’s workdays at the reactor, the problems he and his fellow operators struggle with, are convincingly rendered and, at crucial intervals, downright chilling. And his resentment towards Richards is sealed during a celebratory evening of drinking where he witnesses Richards in an act of cruel misogyny. Later, he reflects: “A sick feeling stirred inside him, the gut-cold confirmation of his life-long worldview: that this darkness was really what life was. Anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction.”

In the latter half of the novel, Williams manages, for the most part, an impressive juggling of plot twists, the various pieces of which converge dramatically in her final chapters, though at times things threaten to tip into excess. But Williams keeps her balance, mostly by maintaining her focus on Nat and Paul, portraying with poignancy and honesty their mutual struggle to love and understand one another. At one point Nat realizes: “…she cared for Paul in a way that was beyond love, beyond this life, that shocking intimacy of marriage and creation. How did anyone withstand it? It was like weaving your entrails together; it was beautiful and awful.”

Rich insights such as these at once elevate and deepen Williams’ narrative. In The Longest Night she has created a landscape of multiple perils – at once intimate, existential and more largely reflective of the volatile world we’ve created. And she has done so with prose that is consistently beautiful, incisive and humanely perceptive.

Carmelinda Blagg’s fiction has previously appeared in Avatar Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Falling Star Magazine, Wanderlust Review, O-Dark-Thirty, and the anthology Best of The Web 2009. In 2010 she received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Bethesda, MD, where she is a member of The Writers Center.

Review: Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing

by O-Dark-Thirty Nonfiction Editor Dario DiBattista

If there is such a thing as a canon for Iraq and Afghanistan literature, then we’re at Phase Two of its cultivation. Many early titles, by necessity – the consumer need and desire to hear something in-depth and unique about the wars which were often distilled into nothing more than cable news sound bites or headlines – lacked much reflection. Many of them were focused primarily on the “being over there” aspect of war literature. There wasn’t much to write smartly about regarding being back home because, as anyone who’s ever gone to war and has come back knows, the aftermath story is probably even longer and complicated and harder to make sense of. As we tell our writing students here at the Veterans Writing Project, if you don’t know your story, we, the audience, can’t possibly know it either. Distance and time are necessary for those kind of reflective narratives, whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.

51M83nzSS0L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_This is the greatest part about Matthew J. Hefti’s suicide letter in novel form, A Hard and Heavy Thing. It’s a modern-day war novel, a book of fiction by one of our own, that follows a three-act structure – the full story of being a soldier, thank goodness. One: Life as a civilian and deciding to join. Two: Life in combat “over there.” Three: The insane and dull mental and physical challenges of returning home. In Levi’s case (the protagonist and narrator of A Hard and Heavy Thing), coming back to a small town where he gets cheered for the award he’d won for the worst day of his life. It is a story of love and friendship and coming-of-age, one that encompasses the entire war experience from to combat to back home.

In Act One (or Book One, as Hefti structures his novel), friends Levi, Nick, and Eris slum around their Wisconsin hometown. They play in a punk rock band and get drunk and do drugs. They kind of go to school and have some vague ambition. But they’re at the tail-end of Generation X, the last of those who made up the apathetic and disenfranchised-feeling generation that existed right before September 11, 2001. Nick and Levi one very late night decide to join the military after the nation-changing events of that day. They want to fight and have some meaning in their lives, but the War in Afghanistan is mostly “over” before they get through training, so they get redirected to Iraq.

Act Two is a deft literary narrative concerning the insane challenges of modern combat: waiting with boredom and discomfort for something to happen, determining who the enemy is and the moral challenges of treating them properly when captured, and the soul-sucker punch of the waiting ending in brothers-in-arms having been blown up. That final aspect, one particularly brutal day in Levi and Nick’s experience, sets about the spiritual conundrum of being a hero but still being a failure – the hard and heavy thing.

How the hell does anyone just come home from that? In Act Three, Levi slowly, painfully descends into a poor mental state, which galvanizes his decision to write his story down as a tell-all for Nick, before choosing suicide. But something unexpected happens when Levi’s done with his draft. Something that changes both of their lives forever.

Matthew J. Hefti
Matthew J. Hefti

Beyond the gripping story, there is an intriguing commentary on war literature that occurs within the acts of a Hard and Heavy Thing. The book asks what is true, what is the value of that truth, and how does our self-reflection change the past and affect our futures? The suicidal narrator comments parenthetically on his third-person story about his life, and a reader can’t help but wonder how much of that first-person interjection is true to Hefti’s – a combat veteran himself – actual experience. Indeed, Hefti also shows up for bit role in his own novel in Book Two, nodding to the interconnectedness and universality of the story of all the men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The self-awareness and unique structuring of this novel help set it apart in this second wave of storytelling about our nation’s 21st century wars. You should pick it up and read it. Once you get started, you won’t want to stop.

Going Deep: Working on Your Story and Letting Your Story Work on You


By Carmelinda Blagg, Contributing Editor

We fiction writers often like to think we are in control of the writing process. After all, creating fiction is the active use of our imagination to conjure characters in a situation of conflict, skillfully weaving a story that is believable. It is a conscious, deliberate imagining where we get to have the last word, getting our characters into trouble, getting them out of trouble (maybe), creating chaos or restoring order. We are the ultimate chess master in this game of fictional storytelling.

But are we? And does it really work that way?

Sometimes, yes, of course. I give my characters names. I put them in situations with some obvious constraints, or hassles, or dilemmas. I create some real problems for them. This usually takes a couple of paragraphs, sometimes a couple of pages to establish. But then, once I’ve done that, something subtle happens. The world I’ve created becomes real to me. The characters do too. Sometimes, they come off the page and start following me around. They look over my shoulder when I’m picking out frozen peas at the supermarket, or while I’m gassing up the car or stirring my morning coffee. One of them might begin insisting that, with respect to a line of dialogue, for instance, it would be ridiculous for them to say the words I’m trying to put in their mouths. And all of a sudden, I feel like I’m being led around by the nose. I’m not the one calling the shots anymore.

This is when things can get weird. And a little scary. But also interesting. Especially during those early stages of drafting a story. You start by weaving together – out of seemingly thin air – one sentence then another, then a paragraph, then a page, and suddenly, you are deep into your story. And yet, often, still deeply uncertain about what is going on or what happens next.

This is not a bad thing. To be uncomfortable, mystified, even hopelessly confused, in the course of writing a story is, I have come to believe, really at the heart of ultimately creating a good story, one that has arisen from a struggle that produces something surprising, something real and true that maybe you hadn’t even intended when you started. If you insist on being too much in control, it shows – with writing that is flat and inauthentic, too much in the grips of assuaging the writer’s ego.

This uncertainty is part of the often unsettling psychology of writing.

Norman Mailer called it “the spooky art” – in fact, he titled a book to that effect, a collection of essays about the writing life. From one essay, titled “The Unconscious,” he shares insights gained through his own difficult trials. He came to understand that the unconscious mind of a writer will often come up with its own games of hide and seek.

“Over and over again,” he observes, “I discover that my unconscious is going to disclose to me what it chooses when it chooses. You can, to a limited degree, force it to respond, but that rarely occasions much happiness on either side.”

Every writer who’s been at it long enough understands this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat staring at that blank screen, straining for the next sentence, hoping to nail the elusive trail of my thoughts. I’ve got maybe a half dozen or more pages written, I know my story, I know the setting, the characters – I can feel it all in my bones. But, as I get deeper into it, things start to get slippery or turn blurry. I inevitably reach a point where I’m not sure what comes next, and a terrible uncertainty creeps in. By now, I’ve learned. I step back, go for a walk, have a cup of tea, or pick up those frozen peas at the grocery. Invariably, in the course of pursuing such distractions, wishing to just forget the story, or, at the very least, not to be undone by it, something buoys up – an image, a sentence, an observation, a crisp line of dialogue. It comes suddenly, as if insulted that you would dare to forget it. Then, I find myself rushing back to my desk to get it down.

I’ve reached a grudging trust with this process because it has taught me that the best writing comes from this kind of strangely aloof yet ever watchful biding of one’s time. It’s an engagement of a writer’s psyche following a path she has created, guided by nothing more than fragile hope. But one that, if she sticks with it, can lead her beyond the realm of false epiphanies, unscathed – and equally uninteresting – characters, and endings that come too quick and easy.

Resistance is as natural as momentum when creating stories inhabited by memorable, believable characters. Why? Because it is never easy to make anything believable if, as a writer, you aren’t convinced of it yourself. I hold that to be true as much for realistic fiction as for the most bizarre sci-fi or fantasy.

So, if you get stuck at a particular point in writing a story – and it will happen if what you’re doing is at all worthwhile – you might well take it as a given that something is going on you haven’t figured out yet. Something maybe your unconscious just isn’t ready to give up. That’s okay. Step back. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. But keep it going, even if it means having your character just build a fence, make a pot of soup, or take a bath. Your story must unfold from all those kitchens and bedrooms, those dingy bars, those backyards or mountaintops, those dark alleys and city high rises you’ve incorporated as the setting of your story. Such things Ron Carlson refers to as the “outer story”; a place that is “…the world of the story, the real concrete elements and places of the story that is composed of all sensory imagery.”

That world, made by the writer convincingly, can serve her in finding her story. As Carlson further observes: “In working with writers, one of the things I’ve been saying a lot in these past years is: solve all your problems through the physical world. That is, if you have a scene that is stalled or muddled, go back into it carefully and write the next thing that happens in real time. Don’t think, but watch instead: occupy.”

Occupy. It’s an interesting notion. And beguilingly simple too. One word that says to the writer, be there, pay attention, watch and listen. And, most importantly, let go, give up the need to control what’s happening.

It’s not the most comfortable place to be, believe me. But, it is where the deepest promise of your story often resides. And it’s often the place where that elusive rascal – the unconscious – can fill your ear with more than you ever thought possible.

Sources cited:

The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer. 2004, Random House Trade Paperback Edition.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence by Ron Carlson. 2007, Graywolf Press.

Carmelinda Blagg serves as a Contributing Editor for O Dark Thirty. She has published her short fiction in a number of journals, including O-Dark-Thirty, Halfway Down the Stairs, Wanderlust Review, the anthology Best of the Web 2009, and more recently, The Lindenwood Review and Barrelhouse. She received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, she was recipient of an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her parents served during World War II; three brothers served in Vietnam and a fourth brother, now a retired Air Force Colonel, served as USAF base commander with the 374th Operations Group, 374th Airlift Wing, Yokota Air Base, Japan.


How the Sausage Is Made – Part Three of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

In my last post I wrote about getting your work from submission to publication in O-Dark-Thirty/The Report. Now I’d like to share what happens to your work when it’s accepted for The Review, our quarterly print journal. It’s a bit more complicated than publishing your work online.

Because we read submissions (except for themed issues) year-round, we don’t have a particular period in which we’re looking for work that will be published in our regular print issues. As submissions come in, from time to time one will catch the eye of an editor: a distinct voice, a different or unique take on one of the typical themes of war literature, a story or poem that’s interesting but not about war, a piece that packs more than the average emotional punch without slipping into simplistic sentimentality, or something that otherwise surprises us in some way.

For fiction and poetry, the editors will give that one a “thumbs-up” in Submittable and reassign it to me with a note that says, “Accept for Review.” For nonfiction, Dario often prefers to work directly with a contributor on revisions to an essay; he sends me the final version when they’ve finished with it.

I track all the acceptances for The Review separately from those accepted for The Report. If one of the editors sends me a note to accept a piece that’s too similar to something else we’ve already accepted, or if we have enough material in that genre for the next issue, I’ll send a note back to him asking if he prefers to hold it for a future issue, publish it in The Report instead, or make a case for lengthening the number of pages of the print issue. (We have some flexibility with this, but generally we’re able to publish three or four short stories and essays and three to six poems in each issue.)

Our basic acceptance letter template for The Review says that we’ll publish it in “an upcoming” issue – without a commitment to a specific issue – because we don’t always know at the time we accept work which issue it will end up in. When the first deadline on our production calendar for the next print issue is coming up, about five or six weeks prior to the date we’d like to have the books in hand, I’ll send all the editors back a list of accepted work. That’s when we consider which pieces work well together and will go in the next issue, and which we’ll let the author know we plan to hold.

Some journals offer contributors a contract that must be signed before the acceptance is final. We don’t do that. We don’t have a lawyer on staff. We like to think that if you send us something you want us to publish it. And if we say we’re going to publish it, our word is our bond. As it says on our submissions page, we take first North American serial rights, which means that once it appears in print the rights revert back to the contributor.

Once I’ve sent the acceptance letter and logged the submission into my logbook – Submittable doesn’t allow me to separate work accepted for publication online from work accepted for print, so I list every submission we receive in a notebook – I copy the submission into a MS Word file and send it to our contributing editor, Carmelinda Blagg, for a first round of copyediting.

Carmelinda and I don’t argue much; I usually take her suggested changes with a cheery “Aye-aye, ma’am.” I suspect that she has large sections of the Chicago Manual of Style committed to memory. Sometimes we go back and forth over military terminology a few times, and occasionally we have to reach out to a soldier or Marine for help with land warfare terminology that we’re unfamiliar with. We both enjoy kibitzing over the finer points of grammar and style, and if we can’t agree, senior editor Jim Mathews makes the final decision.

When Carmelinda and I have both gone through all the accepted work for spelling, punctuation, and minor style/usage errors, I start building a master file. I add in the author bios to each piece and tack the interview onto the end. Jim and I take turns writing the Editor’s Note. When it’s his turn, I can always build it right into the master draft. If I’m writing it? I snivel to the production manager, Janis Albuquerque, and beg her to let me put it in last. I don’t feel comfortable writing an Editor’s Note until I’ve assembled the entire file and read through it at least once, but sometimes we run so close to our deadline that I want to get the master file to Janis so she can start the layout before I’m ready to write.

Janis takes our master draft and drops it into a template she built in InDesign, a layout program. She converts it to our preferred font and enlarges initial capitals after each section break; she adds a Table of Contents, the masthead, and the end pages that usually remain the same for each issue; and then she adjusts, page by page and line by line, to remove widows/orphans (single lines at the beginning or end of a page), excess hyphenation, and the bizarre things that InDesign sometimes does to paragraph indentations and em-dashes. She also suggests copyedits if she sees potential typos that we overlooked in the first two rounds of copyediting. To get the work looking exactly right on the page, she adjusts margins, the font size of a line, the “leading” (space between lines), or the “kerning” (space between letters) – sometimes just by a tenth of a point (a “point” in standard typeface is 0.353 millimeters). Those changes are invisible to the naked eye, but professional layout makes the business of reading more pleasurable for the reader. This is why, if you catch a typo that we missed in our copyediting after an issue has gone to print, we will almost never consider “fixing” it. It’s seldom a simple fix. Inserting a single character can change all these adjustments on every page that follows it – hours of work for Janis.

When Janis is done with the layout, which can take as much as a week for a seventy-page issue, she uploads it to Google Drive as a .pdf file – we call this the “galleys.” Carmelinda, Jim, and I each print a copy and go through it slowly, line by line. For some reason, the change in font and layout often highlights typos and other small problems that we missed the first time around. I’m not sure how long it takes Jim and Janis, but when I’m proofing the galleys I can only do about ten pages an hour at maximum – so six or seven man-hours for a typical issue.

I consolidate a list of our changes by page and line number and send it back to Janis, who makes the changes and uploads a new version of the document to Google Drive for us. At that point, we’re usually just checking the changes that we requested – hopefully we won’t see new errors that need fixed. If the original submissions were fairly clean copy, we can often stop after a second round of proofreading.

In the meantime, Janis is working with the cover art. Her husband Mike Fay, our art editor, makes the rounds of art shows that feature work by military and veteran artists, and often contacts the winners of juried competitions for permission to use their work on our covers. Janis takes a high-resolution image of the artwork and manipulates it to fit our standard 6” x 9” cover. Sometimes the image wraps onto the spine or the back cover, and sometimes it has to be cropped to fit just the front. She then chooses a color from the art that she thinks will work well as the O-Dark-Thirty banner on the cover. Sometimes she’ll send the editors two or three sample covers and ask us to choose a preferred color.

When we’re all satisfied that the issue is as good as we can possibly make it, Janis uploads it to a print-on-demand company. We’ve tried several, and have settled on Lulu as the easiest to work with. I review our list of subscribers, add it to twice the number of contributors, and then place an order for that number of copies plus a couple of dozen extras which we use to fill orders for extra copies and to sell at readings. Now that the books are delivered to my house instead of Ron’s, the FedEx guy and I are on a first-name basis! My husband rolls his eyes at the boxes, but dutifully breaks down the empties and hauls them to the recycling station. Ron orders some books separately for use at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence and our seminars.

I then run the mail-metering program, print out postage and labels, and sit in the living room floor with stacks of books and envelopes and enough adult beverages and old movies to get me through stuffing and sealing all the envelopes. The next day, after the hangover clears, I drop the boxes of filled orders at the post office and they’re on their way to readers.

In the final step, Janis creates a .pdf file of the issue that Ron mounts on the “The Review” page of the O-Dark-Thirty web site. Mounting the latest issue takes about thirty minutes.

Somehow, within a week or two of getting all the copies in the mail, we’re starting to discuss acceptances and artwork for the next issue. I can’t imagine producing a journal more frequently than once a quarter! But for every single member of our team, bringing your work to the public in print is a labor of love.

How the Sausage is Made, Part Two of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

So one of our editors has accepted your work for The Report. What does that mean, and why does it take so long for your accepted piece to appear there?

The Report is our online edition. It gives us more flexibility in accepting work – for example, let’s say that we’ve already accepted a personal essay on PTS or a humorous boot camp story for our next print issue, and someone else submits another well-written essay on the same theme that we would also like to publish. The two works are too similar to run together in the print issue, but having the online journal gives us the flexibility to publish both pieces. With the online journal, readers see each work individually: we could run two poems on aviation consecutively, or two sonnets on the sands of Helmand Province, but because the pieces are read individually instead of side-by-side, readers aren’t overwhelmed by an abundance of work with similar themes. They’re more likely to appreciate work posted in the online journal for itself, not for the way that it works with other contributions. Finally, I can post two or three times a week in the online journal (I like to let each contribution stand for at least 48 hours before posting new work). In one quarter, I can post almost four times the number of contributions that I can publish in print. The Report lets us get more of your work out to the reading public.

Once a submission is accepted for publication in The Report and I’ve sent your acceptance letter, I copy the submission into WordPress as a draft and then archive the submission in Submittable. If you included your third-person bio in your cover letter, I copy that in as well.

Unfortunately, depending on how your work is formatted (and I haven’t yet figured out what makes the difference but I suspect it has something to do with how you set up your paragraph indentation), the transfer from your word processing program to WordPress can scramble the format. I often have to put up the original submission side-by-side with the version in WordPress and manually insert paragraph breaks, delete extra lines that appear mysteriously out of nowhere, or re-italicize what you emphasized or your characters thought – and don’t even get me started on what the computer gremlins do to your em-dashes.

If you’re a poet, I have to put your submission up beside the WordPress draft and go through it line by line to make sure your original line breaks are intact. Be warned: WordPress is going to chew up your indentations, and then left-justify everything. So if you send me a poem about Swiss cheese that’s intended to look like a wedge with clever little holes you made using tab stops and missing words? When WordPress is done cooking it, it’s going to look like a bland, square slice of Velveeta. And it doesn’t give me much capability to put indentations back in. I try to let poets know about this when we accept work with indentations in it for The Report – with poetry, I assume (correctly or otherwise) that the poet has indented deliberately, for effect, even if I’m too ignorant about poetry to figure out what that effect is.

While I’m working through all the formatting issues after a transfer, I’m also lightly copyediting. We use the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam Webster dictionary, and we’ve also started our own style guide for issues unique to military writing that CMS doesn’t cover, or where we feel a deliberate violation of their guidelines is in order. If I catch a misspelling, a typo, or something you’ve written that doesn’t conform to our style guidelines – this happens most frequently with dialogue tags – I’ll change it. In poems, I only correct blatant typographical errors and misspellings; if something else seems to need a tweak, I contact the contributor for permission to make the change. If I can’t find the guidance I need in our style manuals, I’ll bounce questions off our associate editor Carmelinda Blagg (the goddess of hyphenation!) or our senior editor Jim Mathews – the only person in the entire world I allow to correct me about comma placement. Yes, I have comma issues.

Our editorial policy is that we will not make significant revisions that alter the meaning of your work, or your voice – we’re not going to clean up grammar errors in your characters’ dialogue, for example – but we will make minor copyedits to tidy up spelling and punctuation without discussion with the contributor. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do otherwise.

While we aim for accuracy, we’re human and don’t always catch every typo or format change. Another great aspect of an online journal is that if I post something and you see a typo that we missed in your published work, I can make a correction in under five minutes. Hint: the cleaner the copy you submit, the less likely it is that your work will be published with errors.

Prepping a contribution for posting in The Report can take me anywhere from ten minutes for a short poem, to two or three hours for a five thousand-word short story with lots of dialogue. If a contributor didn’t include a short, third-person bio, and doesn’t send one despite my e-mailed requests, I will sometimes try to write one myself from information submitted in the cover letter. So please include your third-person bio in the cover letter! It will make life easier for both of us. Take a look at work we’ve published if you’ve never written one before.

We publish accepted work in the order in which it was received, except in special cases involving a themed issue or holidays. So if I have a lot of already-accepted work in the posting queue at the time your work is accepted, it may be several weeks more before I can hit the “Publish” button on your story or poem.

Once we’ve published your contribution, we’ll always send you a short e-mail letting you know that your work is live on line. I then post the link on Facebook and on our Twitter feed. We love it when you share our Facebook posts with your friends and re-tweet our news about your work! So be sure to “Like” and “Follow” the Veterans Writing Project on Facebook – and don’t be shy about sharing your work when it’s published!

How the Sausage Is Made, Part One of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

I get a lot of questions from submitters about what’s happening to their manuscripts, especially if we’ve been backlogged and haven’t been able to respond in our ideal ninety-day window. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to your manuscript after you hit “Send” in Submittable.

Submittable takes the first step for us. It sends you a form e-mail to confirm that the submission is sitting in our queue, and you’ll see the status “Received” in your Submittable account.

Then, Plink! I get a notice in my e-mail inbox that there’s a new submission. I open Submittable and check the cover letter to make sure that the submitter is a veteran, is on active duty/in the Reserve or Guard, or is a family member. I also give the submission a quick scan to make sure that it meets our other guidelines – word length, maximum number of poems, not previously published, that sort of thing. If the contributor’s military affiliation is not clear from the cover letter, I send a quick e-mail requesting more information.

If the submission fails to meet other guidelines, I may send an e-mail requesting a change to the submission (please choose only three poems and withdraw the other six!) or, in the case of previously published work, declining the piece – that one’s not negotiable. In my experience, this is unique to O-Dark-Thirty: most literary journals simply reject submissions that don’t clearly meet guidelines – it helps keep the “slush pile” to a manageable level.

I only go into the Submittable queue once or twice a week, so the status of your submission may remain “Received” for a few days. As soon as I’ve opened it, you’ll see its status in Submittable change from “Received” to “In Progress.”

This is all you’ll see in Submittable until we’ve made an editorial decision, but things are happening to your work behind the scenes. When the submission clearly meets our guidelines, I assign it to one of our editors: fiction (Jim Mathews), nonfiction (Dario DiBattista), poetry (Fred Foote), or drama (Bryon Reiger). I may note that the writer has confirmed in a separate e-mail that his grandfather served in WWII, or that the writer has submitted work to us before. Although I usually read at least a page or two of the submission when it comes in – the whole thing, if the first page gets my attention and if I have time – I don’t offer the other editors an opinion on its suitability. It’s best if they come to your work fresh, with no preconceived notions about it.

Each of our editors has his own style for reviewing work. They all have day jobs, and they read your work at night, on their lunch hour, or on weekends and holidays. Fred Foote likes to look at poems in groups of ten or fifteen every few weeks (I always picture him spreading them out side-by-side along the back of a sofa for some reason, though he probably uses a desk or his kitchen table). Jim Mathews prefers to read smaller batches of submissions on weekends – I often get three or four responses from him on Sunday evenings. Dario has so many irons in so many fires that I have no idea how he finds time to read at all, but he not only reads – he likes to work with our contributors. When he accepts a submission, he often initiates a dialogue with the writer to fine-tune the essay; he’s one of those editors who seems to have a gift for understanding what a writer is trying to do, and for somehow making the work more of what it originally intended.

If Jim or Dario wants a second opinion on whether we can use a submission, or whether it’s a better fit for The Report or The Review, I’ll re-read it carefully and weigh in. (Fred knows better than to ask me what I think about poetry! Any discussion between us is me asking an elementary question and Fred making time to explain and teach. I don’t know much about poetry, but most of what I do know, I learned from Fred.) More often, I’ll get a notice from Submittable that one of the editors has reviewed a submission and reassigned it to me for further action. Editors can “vote” on a piece with a little thumbs-up/thumbs-down button: if we can use the submission, I’ll see the vote as a little green rectangle with a note attached indicating whether the editor thinks it would work best in a future print issue or in the online journal. If the editor has declined to publish a submission, the rectangle is red.

If the piece is a no-go, I send the dreaded rejection letter. Although it starts with a basic template we created in Submittable, and often that’s all we have time to send, the editors sometimes add personal comments that I can include. Often, if a piece isn’t right for us but the writing is good, we’ll ask for a different submission later. Very occasionally an editor will send specific feedback on the submission.

I always feel a little sad pushing the button to send rejection letters. They’re never personal, and they’re just a part of the business for everyone who writes and submits. But I’ve received dozens and dozens of them myself, and I know exactly what it feels like to open that e-mail. I always hope that the potential contributor won’t lose heart, and will keep honing his or her craft and submitting, so that one day I can send an acceptance.

Sending acceptance letters is much more enjoyable. I’ll talk about how we process accepted work in my next post.

Keeping It Reliable…or Not!

by Jim Mathews, Fiction Editor

In many workshops I’ve taught, we often touch on the concept of reliable vs. unreliable first-person narration. Most first-person narrators are reliable because of the advantages it affords in gaining the trust of readers.  Being open and not hiding any personality warts can play to the reader’s engagement and sympathy because they know they’re not going to get a punchline ending or some other form of surprise manipulation – also known as a “shaggy-dog story” or “After-all-I’m-really-just-a-cat” story.

The break in reliability and trust can also occur when the writer attempts to inject his/her own agenda into the narration – also known as a “message story”. Nothing turns a reader off quicker than a writer trying to deliver a message via a story’s narrator or characters – even if the reader happens to agree with it. Richard Bausch put it best when he said that if your main character delivers a speech, you (the writer) better not believe a word of it.

Of course, the above example is unreliability by accident or bad writing. Less common these days but still a valid technique is the intentional unreliable first-person narrator. Here the narrator is clearly withholding information, either because he/she is lying or has convinced his/herself otherwise. This technique is used not to trick the reader but rather to include the reader in the narrator’s delusion – a delusion that ultimately part of the story. A classic example is the narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” When he attempts to convince the reader that his insanity has actually made him smarter, we know he’s deluding himself – an effect that adds credibility and pulls us deeper into the story.

Eudora Welty uses an unreliable narrator in her classic (and wonderful) short story “Why I Live at the P.O”, this time for humorous effect. Note the immediate establishment of the narrator’s defensive and self-serving tone. By the end of the first paragraph, we know that we’re only getting one side of the story…which ultimately becomes a key element of the story.