Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 1

 

I must give credit to my mom, Betty Lou, for the germ of an idea that would become a novel. She was of a literary turn of mind, and, even though she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, she loved to read. She was also a whiz at crossword puzzles, skilled enough to complete the huge ones that were featured in the combined Sunday editions of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

I remember a thick novel by Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician, that she plowed through in a couple of days. I’d begun college by this time and, being slightly overwhelmed with my reading requirements, had already fallen into the despicable habit of relying on Cliff’s Notes. I was amazed at Mom’s ability to focus. She recommended Caldwell’s lengthy book, a fictional account of Luke, the author of the third Gospel. I tried but couldn’t get into the copious layering of details about ancient life. The religious subject matter was also a turn-off. In those days I was happily avoiding Christianity, but that’s another story.

Enjoying solid ground after struggling through my difficult teenage years, Mom and I continued to recommend books to each other. I’d fallen in love with the delicious irony of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Mom read it in an afternoon and loved it too. We talked about that novel and a couple by Erskine Caldwell, no relation to Taylor. We were both mildly offended by God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road, agreeing that the sensationalized content did not accurately represent the rural poor folk of Georgia. Mom had grown up during the depression and had witnessed and suffered poverty first hand. She’d had a rough time before she met Roscoe, my dad, and not altogether smooth sailing afterwards, but that’s another story.

Six or seven years earlier Mom, Dad, and I moved from Atlanta to the Hickory Level community of Carroll County, Georgia, a few miles from Villa Rica. I was thirteen and behaving poorly. Dad wanted to get me away from the evil influences of the city, so he found this rural, out-of-the-way place. We experienced culture shock and laughed at some of our neighbors who we thought were “backwards,” taking special delight in their country expressions and pronunciations, even though we were far from refinement ourselves.

This was 1966, and some vestiges of the old sharecropper system were still evident in this area: shacks and lopsided old barns; poor black folks living in despicable conditions; dirt roads; chickens, hound dogs, and bare-foot kids resting and playing on hard-packed clay yards; pot-bellied stoves; and battered old trucks. Most of these scenes and relics have since been replaced with subdivisions, McMansions, and convenience stores, but they were common if not prevalent then. The trappings of rural poverty were engrained in our minds by the time Mom and I began discussing literature.

I’d already encountered Flannery O’Conner, probably at the hands of Ron Walton, my high school English teacher. I rediscovered her after the Caldwell books. Her renderings of poor Southern characters, while equally grotesque, resonated more deeply with both Mom and me than did Caldwell’s depictions. We read the wonderfully twisted Wise Blood and discussed it at length. We laughed and were engrossed in a Southern Gothic trip for a while. At some point during this ongoing dialogue I mentioned to Mom an idea I had for a story. Really, I only had a scene in mind.

The picture I was trying to convey involved an old shack with a warped porch and oak trees in front. Mom liked the idea of the oak trees but felt more details were needed. She gazed out the picture window and exhaled smoke from her Kent cigarette. Brain spinning, she provided this line: “In their shade a handful of chickens gossiped among pebbles, but they scattered, cackling and running in circles, as the truck approached.” That image became integral to the short story I later developed about a grizzled old pulp-wooder and a hitchhiking orphan from Pittsburgh.

But the story never quite worked. It ended with the death and burial of the old man, leaving too many loose ends. It finally dawned on me that these unconnected threads held abundant dramatic potential, so I let the threads unspool. Many years later, with Betty Lou’s line still intact, I had in hand a much bigger tangled ball—a chunk of overwritten manuscript that would become the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy.

This incomplete, mess of a tale was with me when I entered the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program. I workshopped parts of it during my studies there and managed to finish a draft that served as my thesis. It still needed much work, but that’s another story.

Now, as I flip through the final galley proofs of Ben Stempton’s Boy, scheduled for release through Unsolicited Press in October, I smile when I read Mom’s sentence about gossiping chickens. I hope she, from her vantage point in heaven, is smiling too. We both know the book wouldn’t be the same without that lovely image. Thanks, Mom!

 

 

 

Creative Writing

Yates Speaks Candidly about His Lackluster Performance

Ron Yates has pursued various career paths with limited results. Fresh out of high school in 1971 he went to work on the graveyard shift at a wire manufacturing plant in West Georgia. The factory comprised acres of noisy machinery devoted to refining, milling, drawing, stranding, and insulating copper in a multitude of sizes and types. Yates soon discovered that copper wire in big coils is heavy. He mastered the operation of the machines, making high production numbers and decent money at the expense of his lower back and normal sleep patterns. During those long shifts he would often remember the encouraging words of former teachers. One in particular, a young man named Ron Walton (whose gentle manner and methodology could be characterized as hippie-influenced avant-garde), had noted Yates’s knack for writing and ready grasp of literary concepts. Walton—whose favorite group was Crosby, Stills, and Nash—had assured Yates that a college degree would be a desirable, attainable thing.

Yates was also fortunate to have a concerned girlfriend named Helen who reinforced the idea that using his brain could be more rewarding and less damaging to his body than enduring a life of hard labor in a grimy factory. This discerning young woman led Yates by the hand through the registration process at West Georgia College in Carrollton, GA. He was lost for a quarter or two but soon became adept at scheduling study time around the party schedule. In 1977 he became the first in his family to graduate college, earning a BA in English and a teaching certificate. He acquired these credentials without much distinction, maintaining a B average and making the Dean’s List a grand total of one time.

Yates still wasn’t ready to embark on what he perceived to be a stifling career inside a classroom. His blue-collar roots held him back, along with his desire for a free-spirited lifestyle, acquired through four years of wild living while attending what was then Georgia’s number-one party school. By this time Yates thought of himself as a writer even though he was too distracted to actually produce much writing. Drugs, sex, and rock music were pervasive, and Yates, through Herculean efforts (and the prayers of loved ones, he readily admits), was barely able to avoid succumbing completely to the debauchery that swirled about him in sexy shapes and psychedelic colors. After graduating he tried to maintain a hippie lifestyle but soon discovered that money was required for basic necessities.

He stumbled through a series of lumber yard, warehouse, and factory jobs before finally landing a teaching gig at Heard County High in Franklin, GA. He didn’t hate it and held on there through most of the eighties. He eventually worked at two other high schools before retiring in May of 2013, but his career was not a continuous stream. About midway through, as he was growing increasingly burned out, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Having always been a hands-on guy with plenty of experience at fixing things, he decided to open an automotive repair shop, which he operated through most of the nineties.

When asked about that experience, Yates shook his head. “It was tough. My fingernails stayed black and my knuckles were always scraped up. I finally had to admit that teaching, with all its headaches, was much easier.” Having swallowed his pride, he jumped through hoops to renew his certificate and landed a job at Haralson County High near the Georgia-Alabama line. He managed a long, uninterrupted streak there—fourteen years—before retiring. As with his other endeavors, his time at Haralson was characterized by the lack of any real distinction, although he was once honored as STAR Teacher and twice nominated for Teacher of the Year.

He never led teams to state championships, but many of his students have accomplished great things. Some of them it seems (through anecdotal evidence and hearsay) appreciate the instruction, guidance, and encouragement Yates provided. He continues to track the adventures of many of his former students on social media, and he likes to think that he may have made small contributions to their success. When asked what he considers to be his greatest teaching accomplishment, Yates replied, “Navigating the waters of that complex system without getting fired wasn’t easy. Some of my administrators commented that I was ‘wound a little tight,’ and I guess that’s true. The kids, though, are what’s important. I take pride in knowing that many of my former students value the time they spent in my classroom and that they probably learned something about writing, literature, or life in general.”

Yates earned an MA in English from the University of West Georgia in 1986. In 2009, after finally realizing it was time to get serious about his true calling, he received an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He has since published stories in a variety of literary journals. Make It Right: A Novella and Eight Stories is his first published book. He will be sixty-five years old when it’s released.

When asked about the experience of pushing a book into the world, Yates said, “It’s exciting to have a dream come true, even if it happens years later than it should have. I appreciate the confidence Steve and Doyle at Ardent Writer Press placed in me and this book and the effort they applied toward producing a finished product we can be proud of.” Yates is also anticipating the publication of his novel Ben Stempton’s Boy in October of 2019.

Yates and his wife Carol enjoy life on Lake Wedowee, near Mount Cheaha in Alabama. Ron Yates blogs about writing and other subjects at https://ronyates.net/. He can also be found on Facebook.

Listed below are a few of Yates’s published stories that aren’t included in Make It Right:

“Last Stand” — http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/laststand.htm

“My Life Story Involves Spit — https://www.press53.com/issue-23-prime-decimals

“Nanner Warriors” — http://www.stilljournal.net/ron-yates-fiction.php

“Incident at the Geemer Café” was published in Hemingway Shorts, Volume 2. This journal is not available for online reading but a print copy can be ordered from their website. Be sure to specify Volume 2: https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/hemingway-shorts

 

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Creative Writing

Abuzz with Anticipation: Waiting for the Release of Make It Right

I’m trying not to become a nuisance with self-promotion, but it’s difficult. This is all exciting and I feel more like a real author than I ever have. Before I was kinda faking it. But, hey, with an author page up on Amazon and several other sites, and with two books scheduled to hit this year, I feel like the marginal effort has finally paid off. Becoming an adroit faker, I’ve learned, is an important life skill.

Self-promotion is a big part of this whole authoring thing. Unless you’re signed with a major publishing house, which is about as likely to happen as Georgia schools staying open when there’s snow in the forecast, much of the promotional work falls to the author. Getting reviews is crucial. Best I can tell reviews posted anywhere on the internet are important, especially Amazon because of metadata, algorithms, and other stuff I don’t understand. There’s also Goodreads and other social media book sites that solicit member reviews. So keep this in mind when you stumble upon a good read: your posted review helps potential readers as well as the author.

My anxiety over waiting for Make It Right to finally make it into the world is alleviated by favorable advance reviews that are coming in. Let me explain. Before a book is officially released, galley proofs or advance reader copies (ARCs) are produced and sent to potential reviewers. These advance copies are not the finalized version of the book and may (probably) contain a few errors and formatting glitches. I know mine did (do). The fact that a reviewer is reading an imperfect version of your soon-to-be realized vision is disconcerting, not to mention the possibility (albeit slim) that he or she may not even like the book! These are issues real authors have to deal with in hopes of generating buzz.

 The buzz grows louder as reviews roll in, like this one from “over.the.edge,” a LibraryThing reviewer:

The harsh realities of life explored in this anthology bring life to the power of our choices, our own resilience and the spirit within us all. Ron Yates is a wildly talented writer whose stories I welcome. Wonderful stories.

This excerpt is from Wendi Berry’s kind review:

In the Eastern hills of Alabama, abandoned barns and houses invite lurid inspection, and Yates’s characters inhabit them. Perhaps the most eerie of the stories is “Spooky House,” where the narrator’s companion Jack convinces him to enter the house where four people were killed and burned. Instead of the house’s spirit trapping them inside like Amityville or a hotel like The Shining, what the narrator can’t stop recalling are what his companion accrued from the dead brothers. …

Here’s one more from the blog (Discursus) of Jessica Upshaw Glass:

Yates’ characters are great because they are — most of them — very typical Southern blue-collar folk who are fully realized enough to resist being typecast. Some of the stories, “Inertia,” “I Sank the Mandolin,” and “Barbecue” come to mind, turned my thoughts immediately to their kinship with Denis Johnson’s writing. There’s something about the dark, slightly unhinged quality of the characters, the gritty and visceral writing, that speaks to the connection. If a slightly less drug-addled Johnson character lived in rural Alabama, he’d be here in these pages.

As you see, the buzz is building. Soon it will sound like the humming symphony of night creatures heard from a rural Alabama back porch in summertime. You, dear reader, can be a part of the music. After you read Make It Right, please post a review, on Amazon and wherever else strikes your fancy. It doesn’t have to be long, fancy, or “literary”; just share your impressions of the book. If you can’t wait till the April 15 release date, let me know and I’ll send you an ARC, (regrettably a PDF file as I am all out of physical copies).

Thanks, and keep reading and posting those reviews for all of your favorite authors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Writing

When Is It Sensible to Give Up?

I didn’t track my submissions very well back in the day before spreadsheets and the internet, so I don’t know how many rejections I received. Not that many because I submitted sporadically back then. I sent a few regrettable stories to magazines like Playboy and The New Yorker. They would stamp them and return the manuscripts (in the SASE I provided) with a form rejection. I finished an adolescent novel in the early 80s and pitched it via snail mail to maybe thirty publishers. Got a few encouraging rejections but no deal. Damn! I worked hard on that thing. Typed it out on an IBM Selectric. Used a bunch of correction tape. For a while my dreams were squashed but not quite buried.

During my years of career striving and raising kids, I didn’t write much, but I thought about writing a great deal and read many books, dreaming of the day I’d see my name on the front cover. I finished a few stories and an essay or two. I entered contests without winning or even placing. I journaled halfheartedly and cultivated ideas, most of which came to naught.

My mom, Betty Lou, was also of a literary turn of mind. She could complete those huge crossword puzzles in the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and she’d finish 1,000 page novels in a couple of days. She never had the opportunity to formally train and direct her prodigious talent, but she passed on her penchant for dark humor and irony to me. We sometimes discussed books we were reading. I believe it was after a Flannery O’Connor stint when we playfully batted an image around—something about chickens that gossiped among pebbles, then scattered, cackling and running in circles as a truck approached. I have no idea what spawned this, but it became the germ of an idea that I laboriously developed into a short story titled “Ben Stempton’s Boy.” I finished it in the mid-eighties, and it was the best work I’d ever done.

I sent it out and it was rejected. Over and over. I took this as an indication that it needed more of the magic sauce I’d larded it with. The story did, in fact, beg for development. After ten years or so of work, Ben Stempton’s Boy was a novel.

Then a bunch of other stuff happened. Life. I kept writing through the career changes and hard knocks, and by 2002 I was tracking my submissions on a spread sheet. I kept several stories in circulation among the small literary journals, and I continued to revise as I received more rejections. Every once in a while I’d finish a new story and send it out. The process continued ad nauseam.

I read as much as I could, mainly literary authors who’d won major awards: John Updike, Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, et al. I also reread some of the classics, trying to learn craft from those accomplished writers. I learned much more when I enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program through Queens University of Charlotte. I got my ass kicked but survived, coming out with enthusiasm, a clearer vision, and sharpened skills. During this period I wrote and submitted with much more intensity than before, realizing that time was fleeting.

Frustration, though, crept back in. Still nothing but rejections, even though the encouraging ones came more frequently. I couldn’t stop because—besides investing a significant sum in earning my MFA—I’d made a vow with an old college friend, Rod Hardeman, an accomplished painter who’d also struggled with rejection. Back in the 70s we promised each other that we’d continue to pursue our art for as long as we had life and breath.

The persistence finally paid off in 2010 when a short piece titled “Last Stand” won story of the month at Bartleby-Snopes. My first publication! This minor achievement was enough to rekindle my desire. I continued, craving larger success and a publishing contract for that unwieldy novel, BSB, or my novella, Make It Right. But I almost stopped. I found myself trying to come to terms with giving up, abandoning the vow. I’d published infrequently since that first story, nothing that garnered much attention, much less a book deal. A voice in my head was growing louder, telling me that my dream wasn’t going to materialize. Wasn’t it enough, the voice said, to have pursued your dream? I was beginning to agree. After all I’d tried, right?

I became self-indulgent with another old college friend, Larry Hannah, when he was visiting one weekend not long ago. We’re old retired guys now who talk about music, movies, and books. He had followed my writing travails with interest for forty years or so. He grinned and shook his head when I showed him the spread sheet that now numbered around 850 submissions with only a dozen or so acceptances. With him as witness, I impulsively made another vow: I’m gonna quit if I don’t get a book deal by the time I reach 1,000. He said, “I don’t blame you.”

You’ve read this far and are expecting the good news that persistence pays off. Well, I hate to disappoint you. I’ve reached 1,000 submissions and given up . . . NOT! Just kidding. Here it is, the sentence that would have been the lead if I were a newspaper writer: Alabama author Ron Yates, after decades of disappointment and rejection, signs publishing contract with Unsolicited Press to publish his Southern Gothic novel Ben Stempton’s Boy. I’m not kidding. This acceptance (submission number 875) comes on the heels of a contract with Ardent Writer Press for a short fiction collection, Make it Right: A Novella and Eight Stories (submission 871).

So, two book deals in one year, and the joy of 2018 is not yet over. In September I’ll wed my beautiful sweetheart and friend, Carol O’Gorman Mitchell, after almost giving up on love. I’m very happy to have her by my side as we continue this amazing journey called life. So, the point of this story is _______________________________.

Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I believe this with all my heart.

 

 

 

Creative Writing

What Is Fiction For?

A work of fiction is capable of not only entertaining, but also conveying truths about the human condition, often with greater impact than is attainable through nonfiction. Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn was commercially successful with lots of action, humor, and plot twists, but is classified today as classic literature because of its deep probing into the heart’s enduring problems.

A defining quality of great writing is purpose, what the work is trying to do. Does it point to universal truths about life while inviting the reader to participate in discovering them? The primary purpose of fiction is to entertain, but enduring fiction has a broader scope. In struggling with underlying ideas and themes, serious writers wrestle, wrangle, and prod language toward a higher purpose, which necessarily requires sophisticated technical skills that are often just beyond reach.

I try to achieve these basic goals: employ crisp, character-driven prose that evokes place and textures the fictional dream; write honestly about humans, not stock figures; and follow Hemingway’s advice to “. . . write one true sentence.” Once that goal is attained, other true sentences follow. Another guiding maxim comes from Chekhov, who maintained that the artist is not required to solve the problem but to correctly formulate it. I hope my stories produce anxiety as well as pleasure as the reader struggles to derive answers from correctly formulated problems.

Great fiction is born of pleasure and pain. Producing it is a daunting challenge that when successfully met will echo inside the reader. William Faulkner explained the struggle this way in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:

        Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear, so long sustained by now  that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man, young woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

Welcome to the struggle! You can read all of Faulkner’s speech here: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGNzZGsxMi5vcmd8c3RlY2gtcy1jbGFzc2VzfGd4OjNjNDNmODNlMTdlNDEzNjA

 

Creative Writing

Ron’s Guide: Dealing with interrupting elements

Ron_s Guide

Grammar rules aren’t set in stone, especially for the creative writer. But anyone who writes to be read should devote time and energy to learning the rules before they abuse them. If you’re writing a story, poem, or personal essay, consider rules as conventions and let the standard practices guide your decisions. Also pay attention to how writers you admire conduct the physical business of getting words down so that they convey the intended meaning. I’ve provided a few suggestions (conventions) regarding those pesky elements that interrupt the core meaning of a sentence. Are they essential or nonessential? Do I need commas, dashes, or parentheses? When is the ellipsis appropriate and how many dots do I use? Go ahead, put an end to the torment. Click the link.

Creative Writing

Thankful yet somewhat bewildered

I find myself different from the young Ron Yates in outward manifestations, but the roots are the same. Is it true that our personalities are fully formed by age seven? Maybe. I feel like I’m changing constantly, but it’s probably a sense of dumb wonder that makes the experiences of each day seem new and different, even the lessons that I know I’ve learned before.

I started writing at an early age and always enjoyed my English classes. I majored in English in college and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s from the University of West Georgia. I taught high school English and journalism for many years in the west Georgia area.

I ran an automotive repair shop for five years and made forays into the business world on several occasions. These ventures were not very successful. I always felt I should be writing.

After waiting too long to begin, I finally earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. The experience of working with other dedicated writers and the amazing faculty at Queens was life changing. It’s possible to achieve success as a writer without earning a formal degree in the field, but for me doing so was a giant step up and served to validate my dream as well as hone my skills. These studies made it painfully obvious that I had much to learn.

I’ve gone on to publish work in various venues and journals including Hemingway Shorts; KYSO Flash; Serving House Journal; Shark Reef; The Writing Disorder; The Oddville Press; Still: The Journal; Bartleby Snopes; Rose & Thorn Journal; and Prime Number Magazine.

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve signed a contract with The Ardent Writer Press of Huntsville, Alabama to publish a book of my stories. The working title is Make It Right and Other Stories. The collection features eight short stories, along with its eponymous novella. The selections fall, more or less, into the Southern Gothic genre.

The aesthetic components that drive my work are as follows: a desire to create crisp, character-driven prose and to evoke place in a way that furnishes and textures the fictional dream. I strive to write honestly about humans, not stock figures, and to follow Hemingway’s advice to “. . . write one true sentence.” Once that goal is attained, other true sentences follow. Another guiding maxim comes from Chekhov, who maintained that the artist is not required to solve the problem but to correctly formulate it. I hope my work produces a pleasurable anxiety in the reader as she struggles to derive answers from the human problems I have correctly formulated.

I’ll keep you posted on the publishing progress of the forthcoming Make It Right and Other Stories and other writing ventures. Stop in often. I plan to blog about writing, the creative process, and other topics that you may find helpful.