Archive for the ‘Jim Ehmann’ Category

Rooting for a Friend

Posted: February 5, 2011 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“Rooting for a Friend” By Jim Ehmann

One of my best and oldest friends is an extremely accomplished writer. His experience is as a journalist. Writing and editing for several different major newspapers, he has received top writing awards from The Chicago Tribune among others. Faced with the uncertain future of the newspaper business, my friend enrolled in an MFA writing program as a step towards opening a new career path.

One result of his Masters program was the completion of his first book-length project. He acquired a genuine agent and has been seeking a publisher for a while. I asked for an opportunity to read the book and he was kind enough to send me a draft.

Although his writing is unquestionably beautiful and professional, the agent told him there is a significant problem with the book. It is quite difficult to classify the book for marketing purposes. The subtitle – at least on the version I have – includes the phrase “A Memoir…”.  I have no experience reading memoirs, but looking at any bestseller list from the past few years informs me that memoirs are very hot stuff. I read an article months ago about the most famous circle of local Portland writers, and when asked what they were working on now nearly every one of them said they were in some stage of completing a memoir. Anyway, after reading my friends book I can see where it might be an awkward fit in that category.

His book has an unusual structure. Probably at least three-fourths of the book’s word content actually directly concerns a certain famous historical figure. My friend tells how his own recent life became entwined with this figure, literally and metaphorically. He did a huge amount of research on this person. One goal of the book seems to be about documenting a new or previously little-known angle on this person’s life. A great deal of history is presented. He adds substantial speculation about his subject’s innermost thoughts and personality based on his thorough research, including imagined conversations. He artfully finds ways of weaving his own story in and out of this history.

So is the book a memoir about my friend’s life? I think many people would more likely see it as an alternate biography of the famous person, but it is clearly not just that. The book is complex in many wonderful ways, in ways I could never have conceived or executed. In the end – not surprising to me – my friend elevates the book to a universal level, making a powerful statement for us all.

But how do you sell it to a publisher? It is obviously too personal to be on the biography shelves, but has so much historical detail that it might not be what memoir readers expect. More than anything, it is great writing, a work of art. Art and business often do not get along. I am hoping someone will give my friend a chance, and that many people can read his book and decide the meaning for themselves.


No More Excuses

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“NO MORE EXCUSES” by Jim Ehmann

The cheapest and easiest thing in the realm of human experience is an excuse. More particularly, an excuse NOT to do something. In any random situation, most of us can almost instantly come up with a list of reasons NOT to do just about anything. Unfortunately, I have known a few individuals close to me who took this “art” to a sad extreme, finding sufficient excuses to essentially do nothing at all with their lives, despite adequate capabilities.

I’m getting old. Maybe even cranky. One thing I have lost tolerance for is excuses. I must try to reserve judgment on other people and their excuses – who really knows the lives of others well enough? So I can only be hardcore with myself.

This post is a follow-up to my November 20 blog titled “What Next?” I have been writing fiction, sporadically at best, for two and a half years. I do feel that I have progressed. I have learned some things about writing and I have learned some things about myself. So far I have only written short stories – my longest piece is a mere 5,000 words. However, based on observation, personal reflection, and discussion with writers and friends, I now question whether I should stay on that particular path. I have been published several times, but I do not feel I have been read. Other than family and friends who accepted invitations to read my stories, I lack hard evidence that anyone has read my stories at all.

On the internet there has been a relatively strong market recently for very short “flash” fiction, but otherwise short stories have been declining in popularity for decades. I’m guessing the 1960s and 1970s were the heyday for short stories. Fiction readers today simply prefer novels. Commuting in Portland, it is great to see so many people reading books on the bus. But for every person reading a short story collection, there are at least ten, or more likely twenty, people reading a novel.

So perhaps I should try writing a novel.

There are so many excuses NOT to write a novel…

I have read shockingly few novels in my life, and practically none of the “classics.”

I have never read a book or taken a class on how to write a novel.

I already feel I have inadequate time to pursue my various interests and hobbies – how can I find time for a novel?

Only a microscopic percentage of novels ever get significantly published.

Well, well, well. That seals it – easy decision, right? Too hard, too unrealistic, too little of a chance for success, too much of a lifestyle change.

My most recent excuse was that I had another writing project to do instead. I have been shopping a good short story around for over two years, and it has been rejected about seven times. I had decided to try expanding it into a novelette and was ready to start on it. But today I received an email that the original short story has finally been accepted for a print anthology, derailing the need to revise the story.

I choose to take that as a sign.

So I’m writing this blog partly as self-motivation. If I put it in writing, I will feel more committed – hopefully.  I will try to write a novel. I have a basic concept for the book. I will attempt to educate myself somewhat about novel-writing. I will do outlining this spring. I will need to do physical research involving travel this summer and fall. I will give up my Portland TrailBlazers season ticket next winter so I will have time to write. And by the summer of 2012, I will have a novel.

Thanks to all who have encouraged me to come this far. I look forward to a day when I can show you my work.


Recently I looked back at the short stories I have written over the past two and a half years, trying to discern trends and tendencies. I have about fifteen well-finished stories, a number that includes several flash pieces. I thought some retrospection would be useful as I plan my next projects. I wanted to look for progression, identify strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully avoid getting trapped in predictable patterns.

There are a handful of stories involving revenge. It is an obvious, versatile, and popular plot device in many genres. I believe both the Crime/Detective and Speculative/Horror/Macabre genres, which are the focus of this blog, are especially rich with this theme. One difficulty with the revenge theme is that it often makes plot outcomes easy to guess. Once you know who wants revenge, why they want revenge, and who the target is, your options as a writer are limited. Probably ninety-nine percent of the time, the revenge is achieved. In these stories, there is little interest in failure – people want the payoff. The creativity often centers merely on the method of the revenge.

I have featured an adolescent boy as the central character a few times. I have some unused ideas along the same line. Oh well, if the plots are interesting and varied it is does not seem like a big problem. I have also used young adults (both male and female) and mature individuals as main characters. I make sure to consider having female lead characters because some genres have been excessively male-dominated until recent years.

The one trend that stands out the most to me is my use of the Unknown. My stories are in the Horror, Speculative, and Supernatural genres, so naturally I sometimes make use of creatures and monsters. However, I have a strong aversion towards writing about “’established” creatures. I have not and will not write about vampires, werewolves, evil leprechauns, mummies, or brain-eating zombies. So far my creatures have been absolutely unknown and unexplained. I have never given them any name, detailed their history, or revealed their sinister plans for the future.

I can see how this relates to my taste in fiction as a teenager. H.P. Lovecraft was my favorite author in theses genres. The Cthulhu Mythos includes a wonderful, impressive pantheon of creatures previously unknown in literature: the fishy Deep Ones; Shoggoths, so horrible they cannot be described; the winged, faceless Night Gaunts of the dream-plane; the physically complex, utterly alien Great Race from fantastically ancient eons. In my experience, Lovecraft was the first writer to create a body of work in which the creatures were truly separated from human experience.

These creatures were not related to humans, not created by humans, in some cases did not exist when humans existed, and in my mind most significantly were not particularly interested in humans. Unlucky or overly inquisitive humans do meet these creatures in his stories, but I admire the intellectual concept that the monsters have other things on their minds. The Sun was found to not be the center of the Universe; Lovecraft found that humans need not be the center of the Alien Universe. You do not know the history or motives of these creatures, which makes them much creepier. You do not know what use they have for humans, if any. Today in literature, I do not know if a vampire can ever be scary again. I want my creatures to be truly creepy, scary, and unpredictable. This is my calling – the Call of the Unknown.

“METAL MAN” by Jim Ehmann

A gust of wind blasted through the front door of the #45 bus. The small photo of Mary Hodge’s son Aaron blew off the dashboard onto the wet floor, where the onboarding passenger nearly stepped on it. Mary gave a small cry, straining against her seatbelt to snatch it up in time. She carefully wiped the muddy spots off the photo and absorbed the image for a moment – Aaron under the Christmas tree at age three. Could it really be eight years ago now? And Christmas coming next week. She slipped the photo in her shirt pocket.

Mary sighed as she flung the bus around the hairpin curve at 60th Avenue. She knew the passengers did not appreciate being lurched into attention out of their little iPod and iPhone worlds, but today she was past caring. It was Mary’s last day on the route and she would likely never see any of these people again.

Except for Suzy. Suzy’s daughter attended the same school as Mary’s daughter. Suzy always sat as close as she could to Mary, leaning forward with the bare minimum of her butt perched on the edge of the seat, yammering endlessly about every stray thought that entered her head. Mary supposed that Suzy did this all day long to a succession of hapless victims. It was just white noise to Mary. Usually it was aggravating, but sometimes it was curiously soothing.

Suzy did not know about Aaron. He had died before Mary and Suzy met. Unlike Suzy, Mary could keep her thoughts to herself. Suzy expressed great regret about Mary’s imminent transfer to the other side of town but Mary was looking forward to a change. Scanning ahead to the next stop, Mary spotted another reminder why.  There he was. Metal Man.

His age was hard to discern. His filthy dreadlocks snaked down his heavily stained clothes nearly to his knees.  Dozens of metal rings and studs pierced his face, lips, tongue, and ears. Tattoos covered nearly every exposed inch of sickly, pock-marked skin. Mary opened the door and instinctively held her breath against the stench she knew Metal Man brought, hoping she could hold out long enough as he fumbled pitifully for the correct change.

Mary had enduring him for almost six months.  – the smell, the blackouts, and the vomiting episode. This was the last time. Something to be thankful for.

Suzy fell silent for a moment and cringed as Metal Man heaved himself down the aisle, but quickly restarted her ramblings. Two more hours, thought Mary.

As the bus approached downtown, a string of brake lights indicated a traffic jam ahead. Probably an accident. Mary cursed inwardly as Suzy detailed her battles with a supposedly rude math teacher at her daughter’s school.

Ten mostly motionless minutes later Mary was reaching the breaking point when Metal Man staggered to his feet and approached the front.

“Let me off,” he said, gargling the words.

Mary grimaced.”Not until the next stop. Rules.”

“Let me off. I gotta get off.”

Mary turned and glanced at his face. Metal Mans eyes were bleary and distant, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.

Damn, maybe he’s going to piss or get sick, Mary thought. What the hell. Get rid of him while we are stuck here.

“OK,OK…”she sighed. “Hurry up.”

Metal Man stepped past Suzy and hesitated. He gave a shiver and stood straight up, stiffening for a moment. Then he reached a grimy, calloused hand into his jacket pocket. Alarm bells rang in Mary’s head and she braced herself against what might happen in the next few seconds.

His hand withdrew from the pocket and Mary caught a glimpse of shiny green wrapping paper. Metal Man slowly offered the tiny package, tied with a silver ribbon, to Mary.

She stared at him, his red, faraway eyes.

“Aaron wants you to have this,” he said.

Mary took the package, not remembering to be revolted by the fleeting touch of his hand.

Metal Man turned and stumbled down the stairs off the bus.

“Omigod, can you believe it…” blurted Suzy, going off again.

Suzy’s monologue failed to penetrate the crushing fog than had seized Mary. She numbly closed the bus door.

Mary gently removed the simple bow and unwrapped the gift, revealing a cardboard box. Her pulse pounded in her fingers as she opened lid and looked inside.

She took the heavy, heart-shaped red crystal from the box and brought it into the last sideways light of the winter sun. She had to tilt it just right to make out the crude letters etched into the heart. The boxy, plain letters of a young child:


In Public

Posted: December 20, 2010 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“IN PUBLIC” by Jim Ehmann

I am slowly trying to explore the varied writing events and opportunities in this literary oasis we call Portland. It seems silly to not check at least the free or cheap ones. Unfortunately I was out of town for Wordstock this fall. I will not miss that again if at all possible. On the pricier side, I did not have anything to pitch at the Willamette Writers Conference. Maybe next year…

Of course there is either an author reading or a discussion group nearly every day at Powell’s. I have been to some readings but I have never been drawn to group discussions of a particular work or author. One pathetic excuse is that I am just not a volume reader these days, especially of the material that gets usually gets chosen for these groups. Wow, that is a weak excuse. They have a good variety and it is easy to check out the opportunities online. I’m just not that kind of joiner.

I did attend two free writing workshops at the Central Library this summer. The first was rather disappointing. The speaker did not seem to have a plan and mostly just said “Does anyone have any questions?” He used a peculiar, awkward example to set up the obligatory writing exercise. I have quickly concluded that I do not like these exercises at all. Twenty minutes to write, with no preparation? What is the point – what can be gained? I have no idea if others value the experience, but it can be rather excruciating listening to people reading the results aloud. I cannot imagine trying to “critique” the writing that is produced.

In any case, I would prefer that such a workshop focus closely on a specific topic – outlining, or dialogue, or first chapters, or character arc, for example. An in-depth presentation followed by questions and answers. I do not think that novice writers gain much by listening to fifteen other amateurs read their hasty scribbles aloud. But I suppose that is why it is called a workshop instead of a lecture.

Tom Spanbauer, a widely acclaimed and successful novelist, conducted the second workshop. He’s a good friend whom I met by chance before I wrote any fiction. He teaches “dangerous writing” at his house. His professional workshops have inspired and advanced the careers of several important writers. Chuck Palahniuk wrote “Fight Club” in Tom’s basement. I learned more listening to Tom for five minutes than I did in the three hours at the other workshop. I was very glad I attended. Alas, the workshop did include the dreaded twenty-minute exercise.

Recently I attended a writing event called Mini-Sledgehammer. Details can be found at . It’s a free, spontaneous writing challenge held at a small wine bar with prizes for the winner. Participants are provided with four prompts – a character, situation, object, and event. You then have thirty-six minutes to write a short story using all four prompts. Stories are judged for creative use of the prompts as well as overall quality. This time the prompts were “transit driver”, “traffic jam”, “sparkly wrapping paper”, and “a surprise”.

I gave it my best shot. My story was clearly the shortest among the nine pieces. All stories were read aloud by the authors. I was astonished at how much material several people produced. Eight pages in thirty-six minutes? I could hardly fill eight pages with random keystrokes in that time. Certainly talent of some sort was on display. But I could hardly judge the stories. The readings were fast and fumbling, and moved directly from one to the next. The winner gets published online, so at least I will be able to read that one at my leisure. It was an interesting experience but just not my cup of tea, or my glass of wine in this case.

My most recent stab at public writing was last night at Live Wire. They run a haiku contest before the start of each show, providing three potential topics. Last night the topics were “Psychos”, “Drums” and “Portlandia”. You turn in your entry before the show starts. The Live Wire cast reads three chosen favorites to the audience near the end of the show, and the winner gets to go onstage and read their own. I thought I would be clever and use all three topics. My entry was not selected. However, I will share it here in closing:

Exquisite psychos

Drums, beer, pirates and strippers

It’s Portlandia

The “Idea” Story

Posted: December 5, 2010 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“The ‘Idea’ Story” by Jim Ehmann

Arthur C. Clarke was my first favorite author as a kid. It was during the 1970s and science fiction was finally really exploding. The Apollo missions allowed fiction writers to work some actual facts about space and space travel into their stories. The moon could no longer be portrayed as being made of cheese, or to be populated by hordes of exotic creatures. A large amount of utter nonsense was wiped out and many exciting new doors were opened. We now knew that space travel would be an ongoing part of the human experience.

Clarke wrote hundreds of short stories and novels and I read nearly every one that was ever published. There are obvious patterns in his stories. Probably over ninety percent of the stories take place in the “near future” and are based on the exploration of our solar system. His speculations regarding the technological challenges of space exploration and the directions technology would take were amazingly insightful. He was famously the first person to accurately describe the concept of communication satellites, shortly after World War II.

Clarke’s focus on scientific possibilities made his fiction a joy to read for millions of people. But I believe there are aspects of his style that have fallen deeply out of favor, at least in the publishing world. His stories were nearly always “idea”’ stories, or alternately “what if” stories. What if there was life on Mars but human explorers accidently killed it all by transmitting viruses? What would an organism living inside the sun be like? What if an astronaut was stranded on Mercury? What if whales communicated with aliens? What if a large comet struck Earth?

Reading these stories, you remember the ideas, but not the characters. The characters are believable but not significantly developed. There is very little variety in their nature. Their character arcs – if any – are driven by events, not by emotions or human relationships. Clarke’s characters often interact more with machines and alien lifeforms than with other people. In several stories there is indeed only one character, a space explorer lost, abandoned, or working on his own. It is telling that by far his most famous character is a computer – HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My experiences as a writer of short fiction tell me that there is only miniscule interest in such stories today. Publishers want memorable characters. They want emotion. They want complex human relationships and tons of snappy dialogue.

Sometimes the submission guidelines make me laugh. “Flash” fiction has been the hottest thing in short fiction over the past few years and consists of very short stories. Usually there is a strict word limit of 500 or 1000 words. So some publishers will impose a 500-word limit, but then say “we only will consider stories with well-developed characters and complex plots”. Of course most of what they end up publishing falls short of that criteria, but the message is clear.

My early story concepts tended to be “idea” stories. It’s OK if they start that way, but now I know that you will greatly increase your success by adding on the layers that publishers and readers are most interested in – people and relationships that fascinate. Times change. If you can buck the trend, well, more power to you.

I still love to read Clarke, but I’m hoping I can become a different sort of writer.

What Next?

Posted: November 20, 2010 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“What Next?” by Jim Ehmann

When I first attempted writing fiction in 2008, my motivation was curiosity. I had always heard and read how hard it was to get a story published, at least by a publisher more challenging than your school literary magazine. Although I devoured short stories all my life, I had never considered myself a storyteller. I knew I had a talent for writing but felt essays were my niche. So I decided to take on a challenge – could I get a fiction story published?

I should clarify that I considered only hard copy publications to meet the goal of “getting published”. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of online fiction publications. They come and go like fireflies in a swamp. Some pay, and some are even prestigious. But I still feel that an actual book or print magazine is a different thing, a loftier and more interesting thing. Perhaps I’m just old.

I targeted my first fiction piece at a themed flash fiction anthology by an established small-press publisher. They needed a large number of stories, and my story was accepted. It was a surprise and certainly a big thrill. My story was trivial, but hey – I had become an author! That first, unexpected success encouraged me to continue writing. I quickly came to somehow enjoy the challenge of getting a completed story published – it became a game, a hunt.

After a few more successes with themed anthologies I began to consider “the big picture”. What was the purpose of my writing? What was I trying to accomplish? I had originally thought “getting published” was a big enough goal. After achieving that in a surprisingly short time, I needed a new goal. It turns out I liked writing fiction. What now?

A few of my published stories, included the first one, came out in publications that I found disappointing in some way. One had extremely poor layout and editing. Some lacked sufficient overall quality in the stories selected. I learned something about magazines: you had better look at a previous issue before submitting a story to a magazine. Otherwise you might end up in a publication where you feel you do not belong, or do not want to be.

I have never even considered making money as a goal of my writing. I do not plan to make a living from writing. However, I nearly always submit stories only to publications that pay something – a token amount. I have been paid $6, $10, $17.62, $23.47… Why bother? Because when you list your writing credits, you can still call them paid publications.

I concluded that I should continue with a goal of getting a collection of my own stories published. At least this way I could not complain about the quality of other writers’ work. I have heard that this is VERY, VERY, VERY difficult to achieve in the publishing world today – who am I, and why should publishers care? Who would buy such a collection? But I love challenges, and I seem to have found a comfort zone with the type of stories I have been writing. I’ve had seven stories published. Since my stories are quite short, I think a collection would need at least twenty. To help persuade a publisher, I assume that the great majority of stories for a first collection should have been previously published. So perhaps if I can reach fifteen published stories, I could add in five or more unpublished works…

After settling on this new goal, I have recently been pulled in a different direction. John Caruso, who helped me start writing, says he has become persuaded that his energy should be spent concentrating on novels, not short stories. The market for short stories is so small. We discussed the subject and I now think he is generally correct. I think it is certainly true if a fiction writer aspires to earn a living or become well known. I still do not plan to earn a living as a writer, but being known would be great.

I have been published, but I have no evidence that I have been read. How many people in the world, other than my family (none of whom like speculative fiction at all), have read even one of my stories? A few hundred at the most, I suppose – mostly the other authors in my anthologies. I have not had a single piece of feedback from anyone but friends and family. It would be immensely pleasing to know that people have actually read my work. So I have begun to ponder the subject of novels, searching for a worthy concept – a book that I CAN write, WANT to write, and that OTHERS WANT TO READ. What next?