Working Writers Series: Eric Carter

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s working writer is Eric Carter

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a self-taught writer living in Bloomington, Illinois, where I was born and raised. I’ve never quite figured out what to do with my life. I studied architecture at Illinois Central College for a few years and dropped out. It wasn’t the creative discipline I had hoped for, I guess. I remember using the college library to check out books by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Edith Wharton, Brian Moore, and Anne Sexton. I was reading constantly and almost none of it was about architecture. I probably would have switched my major to creative writing if I had known you could get a degree in that. This was when David Foster Wallace was teaching across town at Illinois State University, but I didn’t know anything about him either. I didn’t know anything and had no one to guide me, but I knew I wanted to write because I was already doing it.

I made the most of mid-twenties crisis, lived at home, and did a ton of reading. I wrote novels because that’s what I was reading. I completed three novels that I’m pretty happy with, but I didn’t really know what to do with them. I started writing short stories in an attempt to build up some credits before pitching the novels around. I wasn’t in a hurry to publish. Too many beginners are satisfied just to see their name in print. They go for vanity presses and instant e-gratification. They get excited and start building their web presence. I waited until I thought I had a story good enough to send it somewhere worthwhile. My very first submission received an honorable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition in 2005. That was a promising start, but it was followed by several years of rejections until I finally had a couple of stories accepted in the past year—in Midwestern Gothic #6 and Rosebud #54. I never stopped writing during those years. I was revising novels and developing new stories, while trying to meet other writers online and familiarize myself with more markets.

My last “real” job was temp office work and my next one will probably be just as pointless. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing occasional freelance editing for other writers. I’d like to find more work in that field, but I don’t want to read a lot of idiotic thrillers and clit lit.

I have an introverted personality, which has its pros and cons where writing is concerned. I’ve mastered the self-absorption thing, but I’m not good at self-promotion. Writers today are expected to be present and available to their public. I don’t even talk about my writing to people around here. I’m perceived as the family failure, I’m sure. But if you’re going to write, you’re going to write. And introversion is a personality type, not a chosen attitude. I can’t measure my life against the lives of extroverts and non-writers.

Rejection is one of those universal experiences all writers go through (unfortunately!) no matter if you go through the MFA or work outside of academia. One of the benefits of the MFA is that you get a group of similar-others to gripe and comfort one another when the inevitable happens. How have you dealt with rejection over the years? 

First off, I’m a mild-mannered submitter. My Duotrope submission tracker includes a congratulatory message about my acceptance ratio being higher than other writers who have submitted to the same markets. I’ve had two acceptances. The ratio is high because my overall submissions are low. I try to find appropriate markets rather than submitting blind. My two acceptances came from magazines I’d actually read.

I would submit more, but I’m a slow writer. The entire job of writing comes down to endless rewriting. Writer’s block isn’t a lack of ideas; it’s when you know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t seem to frame it intelligently. A single short story can take me months to complete. The best way to deal with rejection is to have a project going that you’re still struggling with. A rejection seems small compared to a day of unsuccessful revision.

Working outside the MFA programs has its disadvantages, of course, but I don’t really feel the need to compare rejections and vent my spleen with other writers. What’s missing is the peer evaluation before the work is submitted. Those rejection slips might contain the only feedback I will get on a story. Networking online with other authors has been mostly fruitless. The MFA writers have little time for outsiders, which I can understand, and the self-taught writers seem too timid to provide honest feedback, which I don’t understand—in fact, it pisses me off. You’ll never be a professional if you are too timid to show the other guy his mistakes. The problem with networking is that you look up to the writer on the next rung of the ladder for help, but he’s looking at the rung above him. Nobody is looking to help the guy below, so we’re all just giving each other the ass.

The benefit of working alone is that I feel no peer pressure to write a certain way. I don’t have to worship, or pretend to worship, Raymond Carver or whoever is in vogue now (don’t tell me). I don’t have to read my embarrassing early drafts in front of people. I see such similar stories over and over in journals that I assume they are all products of the same classroom exercise. Nobody likes to exercise and it shows in these stories. I hope my stories never look like I’m just going through the motions to get a passing grade. I only write what I want to write. I will never be published just because I know somebody on the masthead. An acceptance means a total stranger likes my work.

It sounds like you’re a very conscientious writer, one who takes the time to consider both the market and your own writing at a measured and thoughtful pace. You’re right on the mark – I think a lot of young or beginning writers do rush to publication, mostly because that’s an end goal we’re told to achieve. What made you want to slow down this process?

One of the advantages to introversion is being able to stay focused on a single task for long periods of time. Extroverts are go-getters, more social, and I suppose they see publication as a conversation they want to join right away. I wanted to listen awhile and have something original to say before I jumped in. Ideas need time to develop. I can be right in the middle of a great story and not even know it yet. The layers and subtleties come out through revision and reflection. The initial idea that got me started is probably only a surface effect—it’s the bait for catching a bigger idea. I don’t need that little worm once I’ve hooked into something meatier. This meatier catch is the one that hooks publishers. I guess extroverts cast outward too soon, baiting publishers, while introverts cast inward, baiting themselves in hopes of dragging something up from the deep places. Publishers don’t want the puny worm.

In other words: The idea that made you want to write the story is never as interesting as the ideas you discover in midstream.

What are the themes that you write about? Do you take inspiration from your own life? What are some of the ways that your stories change midstream? 

I was afraid you’d ask me that. I don’t always remember the little bait that got me started. That’s how insignificant it can turn out to be. I know I often start writing before I’ve figured out the viewpoint. I find myself writing fragments of the story in different viewpoints. I’m working on a series of stories about a married couple where the wife is often the protagonist, and yet I often start writing in the husband’s voice. I tell myself he’s a peripheral narrator and keep focusing on her, and then something happens where Michael is struggling to tell us about Aimee and he discovers something unexpected in himself. This seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s never clear at the start. It may change my whole idea of what the story is all about. I don’t mind ditching an idea when I think I’ve hit on a better one.

Aimee is a hapless exhibitionist. She’s struggling to overcome her deep shyness by contriving the most intimate invasions of her own privacy. Michael thinks she’s courting disaster, but he’s trying to figure out how to be a good husband to a woman he can’t predict. I often write about people coming up against their own inhibitions and what happens when they try to push past them. That theme may come from my own life, but the bizarre situations that arise are pure fiction, which is why it takes many rewrites to make it seem plausible.

Are Aimee and Michael’s stories something you’re thinking about ultimately collecting into a novel in stories about their lives? Have you read those sorts of novels before, and what do you think of that form?

I have mixed feelings about the form. The advantage for the writer is that he can publish each “chapter” as a stand-alone story and still sell the book as a novel, since publishers don’t like collections. The disadvantage is that the reader rarely feels like he’s reading a true novel. It feels episodic. The protagonist may be the same in every story, or maybe not, but is there one developing plot or theme that arcs over the whole book? The best examples I’ve read don’t call the book a novel or a collection. Recent editions of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club feature the words “a novel” on the front cover, but the first edition gave no indication either way. Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad is the same. These are great books with different structural approaches, but they didn’t feel like novels to me. (I set them aside between chapters like I would a story collection.) On the other hand, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is stitched together with such skill that few readers realize it’s a patchwork novel. A close inspection of the original stories reveals just how much Bradbury cut and re-framed the stories to create a true novel with a steadily developing theme. He changed entire viewpoints and endings to give the book more continuity. He further obscured the line by removing the story titles.

I’ve been wondering what type of book Michael and Aimee might make. I’ve written novels that were meant to be novels. I need a lot of material before I can see an overall shape. Once I see that shape, I start removing what doesn’t fit. With Michael and Aimee, I try to keep a bigger picture in mind, but I’m worried that my focus will be sacrificed if I’m always thinking of the project as two things at once. Basically, I’m trying to create developing themes and escalating risks as their marriage wears on, but I work so hard to make each story self-sufficient that I can’t see myself recasting them as Bradbury did.

How did you get involved with freelance editing? What is your process for that?

That developed from what little networking I’ve done online. I would swap stories for critiquing, and eventually I was offered money to look over a novel. I prefer to have a hard copy in front of me. I mark it up like a teacher grading papers. I look for the shape and suggest the same cuts I would make on my own work. I set my shit detector to kill subplots that don’t reflect on the main plot, implausible character development, viewpoint problems, clunky dialogue, etc. I can’t stand what George Carlin called soft language. Oddly enough, educated people use more of it than lowbrows like me. They avoid vulgarity by being vague. Then they confuse vagueness for ambiguity.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got an editing job lined up–a YA novel–and then it’s time to take another look at my novels. I’m pretty happy with two of them, but there’s one I’ve been meaning to go over again. Now that I have some work published it’s also time to look into grants. Anyone can call himself a self-taught writer. I figured an arts council wouldn’t take me seriously until someone in the industry had shown interest. This interview is another step in that direction. Thank you for the opportunity!

You can follow Eric Carter on Facebook.