Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Special Guest Author, Michael Kechula

I have the great pleasure of introducing today’s blog guest, Mike Kechula. Mike is a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His fiction has been accepted in publications throughout the world. Sit back and learn from this veteran pro.

Katie: Mike, can you give us a brief biography? Many of us know you through your flash fiction, but know little about your background.

Mike: I’m a sixty-nine year old retired technical writer and course developer. I’ve been writing nonfiction forever, but I didn’t start writing fiction until I was sixty-three. Twenty-nine of my nonfiction books have been published since 1979. I also wrote and self-published two nonfiction books.

I live near Phoenix, Arizona. Before that, I lived in Las Vegas for three years where I wrote installation, test, and maintenance manuals for casino slot machine technicians. Before that, I lived in California in the Silicon Valley where I worked for IBM for twenty-seven years. While writing books for IBM, I also wrote nonfiction books for several other companies for royalties and fixed fees.

I no longer write nonfiction. Now, I critique a couple dozen flash fiction stories every week. Sometimes I critique chapters from novels in progress.

Katie: Can you outline the types of fiction you write and what the requirements are for publishing each type of fiction?

Mike: When I first began writing fiction at age 63, I tried my hand at huggy-kissy romance short stories. My first fiction piece was submitted to the New York confession market where it was accepted and I was paid $300.

However, I quickly discovered the market for very short romantic stories was almost nonexistent, and still is. Consequently, I switched to writing speculative fiction, because that genre is in great demand by hundreds of magazines around the world. By speculative fiction, I mean sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I wasn’t sure I could write spec fic, but when I tried, I was successful. Imagine discovering so late in life that you have a knack for something you never even guessed you could do.

As to the requirements for getting short romance or speculative fiction published, that depends on the tastes of editors, as expressed through their guidelines. I’ve found their selection processes uneven; sometimes, it seems they devise new guidelines on the spot, while reading our work.

I’ve probably set records for rejections. Last year, I had 84. However, last year 140 of my stories were accepted. Rejections don’t bother me. I just send the manuscript elsewhere, and it usually finds a home.

Katie: You have written a children’s flash fiction story entitled, “One Million Jeboolas.” Can you tell us more about it, as well as the rejection notice you received?

Mike: “One Million Jeboolas” is the only story I’ve written for children. A flash fiction tale, it’s 900 words long. It’s about a boy who’s taught by his mom to be charitable to those in need. But she also taught him to wary of strangers. This presents a conflict when his mother is out of the house, the boy is home alone, and a stranger knocks on the door. Though the boy is unwilling to open the door, the stranger speaks only two words that arouse the boy’s sympathy: hungry, thirsty.

The boy’s charitable instincts win out. He opens the door just enough to pass the stranger water and some crackers smeared with peanut butter. All the boy ever sees during this encounter is the stranger’s purple, furry paw with two little stumps for fingers. This is obviously an alien from another world.

The grateful stranger, who speaks only five times and in one-word sentences, then asks for paper. He draws something extremely beautiful and unusual as a reward for the boy’s compassion. The stranger asks, “Name?” and the boy gives it. The stranger’s final act is to add this to the drawing, “Pay to the order of Billy Lane One Million Jeboolas.”

After passing the artistic work back to the protag, the alien disappears and is never seen again.

The boy becomes a journalist, and is assigned to interview astronauts as they return from visiting other planets. He asks all returnees if they heard of jaboolas during their interstellar travels. None ever did.

Now an old man, Billy passes away. Carried on a cloud, he arrives at a wonderful place full of golden gates. Beyond the gates is a mist from which come sounds of joyful laughter. He asks what it costs to enter those gates. The answer is, “A thousand jeboolas.” Flashing the artwork once given to him by an alien on which is written, “Pay to the Order of Billy Lane One Million Jeboolas,” Billy has accumulated far more jeboolas than necessary to enter a gate.

Once admitted inside, Billy finds very friendly aliens who are overjoyed at his arrival. A diamond-encrusted path appears on which stands a magnificent, purple being. This being welcomes him enthusiastically and asks his favorite game. Now transformed into a young boy, Billy says, “Baseball.” The being hands Billy an emerald bat and a ruby ball, and says, “Come along. Let’s go play…forever.” The alien’s final words ask what was the delicious substance on the crackers Billy had given him to eat so long ago.

This story was rejected by a children’s magazine. Though I’d read the guidelines very carefully, the editor objected to something that offended her personal philosophy and world view. I put the story away for a couple years, but decided to submit it to a new sci-fi magazine aimed at adults, in which guidelines indicated manuscripts were preferred that included a touch of theological beliefs. They accepted “One Million Jeboolas” for their first issue.

The story was also accepted by a British anthology of children’s stories.

Katie: You mentioned that you have a daughter that you told stories to at bedtime as she grew up. Did you do anything special with those stories?

Mike: When my daughter was four, I started telling her bed time stories in lieu of reading tales to her. That meant I had to invent a new story every night. So, off the top of my head, I began to weave tales. They entertained her and made her laugh---even when I took the same plot lines and embellished them in various ways to make them sound different.

Then it occurred to me that I should tape record my stories while telling them. I ended up with a large collection of tapes containing my tales of various lengths. I copied them over to master tapes so that the stories were contiguous. To my amazement, I ended up with 9-1/2 hours of tapes containing 96 stories. By the way, I made master copies of the story tapes for my daughter. My daughter will be 21 soon. She reminded me recently that right into her teen years, she listened to those stories at bedtime on a tape recorder.

For awhile I was a storyteller creating new stories suitable for children. I never wrote them down. Thus, I consider myself a storyteller first, and writer second. The world is overloaded with fabulous writers who can develop fancy, artsy prose. But many aren’t effective storytellers. So, if you want to get your short works published quickly and often, tell stories. Come up with a good story, apply your knowledge of writing techniques, condense, edit ruthlessly, and submit like mad.

Katie: How long have you been writing? How many pieces of fiction have you had published, and what has been your greatest writing challenge over the years?

Mike: I’ve been writing nonfiction seriously since I was in my late twenties. That’s because I made my living as a technical writer for the IBM Corporation in California’s Silicon Valley. I did that for 27 years.

While working for IBM, I also wrote six technical reports to express some ideas I had on teaching methods, and new business opportunities. Three reports were converted to magazine articles in the 1970s which were published by Data Management Magazine.

IBM gave me an Outstanding Innovation award in 1978 for my work in educational development.

I’ve also written and self-published two books on sexual harassment in the workplace; one was for college students, and the other for non-students. A few junior colleges made these books required reading in Supervisory courses, so I sold enough copies to buy a good used car.

When I took a buyout from IBM in 1992, I thought I’d pass the time by switching to fiction. I was amazed to find I had a fiction-writing block that lasted for ten years causing me to go back to the university full time, were I wrote lots of formal academic papers. A number of them are still used by San Jose State University as exhibits for students on how to develop term papers.

In Las Vegas, I was hired as a Japanese company’s first-ever tech writer. I wrote task-oriented installation, test, and maintenance manuals on the company’s bill acceptors for the world’s slot machine technicians. Bill acceptors are those gadgets on slot machines where you insert paper money to obtain machine credits. So, the next time you slip a twenty into a slot machine in any casino, anywhere in the world---as that company had 97% of the world’s market for bill acceptors---remember that my books taught the slot machine techs how to install, test, and maintain those devices.

While in Las Vegas, I signed up for a college fiction-writing course. The first day, I met the professor and told her of my pitiful fiction-writing block. I asked if she could break it, because if she couldn’t, I wouldn’t stay another minute. She said she would, and she did. In fact, the break was so thorough and final, I wrote a confession/romance tale that she urged me to send to the New York romance market. I dedicated my first paperback book of 50 flash fiction tales to her, “Crazy Stories for Crazy People.”

When I moved to the Phoenix area, I didn’t do much writing. But, somehow I discovered there was a literary form called flash fiction. I investigated and found a Yahoo writing group that specialized in it. I joined, but failed miserably. I couldn’t write flash fiction if my life depended on it.

Months later, I managed to write my first piece of flash that members thought was worthy of the name. Back then, members included college profs, high school English teachers, highly published writers of novels and flash fiction. When they said I’d finally succeeded, I believed them so much I sent the story to Alien Skin Magazine. The magazine accepted the story within 24 hours; they have since published my stories quite regularly.

Over the course of four years, I have published 417 stories.

My greatest writing over the years was overcoming the ten year fiction-writing block. I had another when I was learning how to write flash fiction that was marketable. I had to learn how to edit ruthlessly without making my flash fiction tales choppy reads.

Katie: What sorts of tips would you give to aspiring writers of short fiction?

Mike: I developed twelve tips for aspiring writers of short fiction (1,000 words or less).
1. Write openers that grab attention.
2. Omit excessive detail. It burns up precious word count.
3. Omit long sentences, especially those with semi-colons.
4. Consider including 1-word, or 2-word sentences for impact.
5. Include dialog. Big chunks of narrative create yawns.
6. Use contractions. Especially in dialog. One word is saved each time.
7. Use words gained from items 2 and 6 to enhance the plot.
8. Omit anything that may throw readers out of the story.
9. Keep moving the story forward.
10. Keep characters down to a minimum.
11. Read your draft manuscript out loud. Better yet, record it and listen to the story several times.
12. Edit, edit, edit.

By the way, the term flash fiction is loosely defined. Because there’s no firm definition of this literary type, I’ve devised my own that has worked well for me and my students: a story told in as few words as possible without sacrificing a smooth read.

Katie: Thanks, Mike, for being a guest on my blog today! It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your writing.


Morgan Mandel said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who writes in multiple genres. Now if only I could be as successful as Michael. Something for me to work on.

Morgan Mandel

Helen Ginger said...

Very interesting. Thank you Mike.

Mike, have your read Rick Riordan's YA Percy Jackson series? I thought of him when I read about you telling stories to your daughter. His hugely popular series grew out of the stories he used to tell his kids at bedtime (and he used them when teaching mythology in school). Now his series is very popular; he's quite teaching; sold movie rights, etc.

Helen Ginger

Gwyn Ramsey said...

Great article with Mike. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I thought about mailing my children to their grandparents at one time many years ago, but can you imagine the repercussions of today.

Gwyn Ramsey

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Super interview, Katie and Mike. Your children's book sounds great.

Also, Katie, your book cover is awesome.


Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

I met Mike a few years back and loved his flash from then. His continued acceptances says it all. He's good!

Donna McDine said...

Wonderful interview. Great tips and enjoyed learning more about Mike. Great job! Keep up the fantastic work!

Warm regards,
Donna McDine

Cheryl said...

Excellent interview. I'm taking this list of tips and posting it over my desk. It is amazing the number of stories you have churned out in such a short period of time.

Wishing you continued success.


Shari Lyle-Soffe said...

Wonderful interview. Quite a variety of writing skills.


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Interesting interview. And I liked the advice for flash fiction as I'd like to do more in this area.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

Joy said...

Great interview Mike and Katie. I really like the 12 tips at the end, very helpful memory joggers of things I should be doing each time I write.

Joy Delgado
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Bob Sanchez said...

What an excellent interview, Katie. Michael is both prolific and focused, and he offers solid tips.

Bob Sanchez

Valerie K said...

Everytime someone interviews Mike I learn something new (9 1/2 hours of bedtime stories?) I studied flash with Mike and consider us fortunate to have Mike as "positive role model." (He'll enjoy that, no doubt.) Thank you both.