mary ellen lives

the process of getting published or why is my head hurting so much?

Mary Ellen Lives
Mary Ellen Lives

It’s an old joke: a man tries to cure his headache by banging his head against the wall. This is the life of a fiction writer trying to get published. I can’t speak for non-fiction as I don’t write it, except for now, but there are hordes of fiction writers out there. Some are like the gentleman who said he creates stories in his mind every day but doesn’t write them down. Some day he will. At that moment he will join the rest of us in the ocean called “sending it out.” We are like a school of fish, friendly little fish, but fish that are all swimming in the same direction. For this gentleman I feel I should give a fair idea of what it’s like to get a piece of fiction published.

Let’s take a hypothetical writer who for this piece I will call, me. I write a short story one day and immediately see it as a hit. It’s raw and needs help, but I know it has the makings of brilliance. I rewrite it a couple times. It’s getting better; I think it’s almost there. I bring it to my writing group. They love it, but have a few suggestions. I take home their copious revisions for review. Some I like, some I don’t agree with, and so begins another round of rewriting. I look for repeated, unnecessary words. I change things around. I let it sit for a week or two and look at it again. Rewrite it again. It’s damn near perfect.

Now I start to look for appropriate venues to send it to, both online and in print. I read, and read, and read, and there it is—the perfect literary magazine. In fact that’s its name, The Perfect Literary Magazine. I follow all the guidelines and send it off. It will take four to six months to hear back from the PLM but they don’t ask for exclusivity so I keep reading and looking for places to send it. Some reject me in no time at all. It takes longer for others. Some kind editors tell me why they are rejecting it, maybe even make suggestions. Most do not.

In the meantime, I begin to rewrite it some more. I rewrite the beginning, change the ending. Now I’m unhappy because I sent it to PLM way too early and it is a much better story now. Sure enough, six months down the road The Perfect Literary Magazine sends me an email: “Dear Me, We read your story with great interest . . . blah, blah, blah.”

I am crestfallen. The last rewrite was so much better. Why did I send it off so soon? I think about moving it from my short story folder to the works in progress folder, otherwise known as the never-to-be-seen-again folder. I think about drinking in the afternoon.

But wait—I have been sending it out all this while. I have forgotten how many places I have sent it due to the fact that I can’t stand to look at my submissions log for fear of day-long depression. One was a magazine that asked for my best work. In fact that’s its name: Send Us Your Best Work.

One day I open my email and see that there is a message from Send Us Your Best Work. I moan. Oh no, another rejection. But this time the first word in the email is “Congratulations!” They love it! They want to publish it in the next issue! They have only a few, minor, suggestions.

I am ecstatic, of course, but I wonder—why does my head hurt so much?


the sign says

by mary ellen lives

Musing in the Park by Ron DeKett
Musing in the Park by Ron DeKett
Playing in or around
The river
Is strongly
It is not forbidden
It is not illegal
You will not be punished
The sign is not my mother
Spreading guilt
Like overflowing water
Brown with silt
It is not my father
A boulder
Beneath the white water
The sign is calm
The sign is quiet
And only


the day he lied

By Mary Ellen Lives


Bulldog went to the VFW canteen to drink because they had draft beer for seventy-five cents and he could usually find someone to buy, someone who knew about the uniform in the basement. They let him keep it in a locker down there for free. “I can’t have it in the park with me,” he told his brother. “All I got is that tarp.” Bulldog spit when he said the word, saliva flinging between his two remaining lower molars.
 His brother took the napkin from under his beer glass and wiped the Formica topped bar between them. “What happened to your plate?”


“My plate?” Bulldog said it like it was an ugly foreign word.
“Your lower plate.” His brother tapped his own mouth. “For your teeth.”
“Oh, that thing.” Bulldog brushed his hand through the air. “They stole it from me when I was in the hospital. Damn doctors.”
“Another one, Bulldog?” the bartender asked.
Everyone at the canteen called Bulldog by the nickname bestowed on him while in Vietnam. Or, more correctly, the nickname he said had been bestowed. Rumors that Bulldog never served overseas sometimes floated through the VFW. But, if doubted, he had the uniform in the basement to show them, red stripe of a non-commissioned officer down the leg. He could produce his corporal stripes too, along with his Vietnam Service Medal, Cross of Gallantry, and Bronze Star. But no one at the VFW questioned him to his face. Though they were tough types, all military men and women, and any of them could have beat him in a fight, dissipated as he was, they knew to respect other vets’ realities.
“One more round for my brother and me,” Bulldog told the bartender, a Gulf War veteran. “Did you meet my brother?” He casually poked the air with his thumb. “This here is Johnnie, with an ie, like a girl.”
Sitting on the stool beside Bulldog, Johnnie winced.
“Our mother always wanted a girl, didn’t she Johnnie? But all she got was us. Guess she must have had an inkling that would be the case when she named you.”
“Nice to meet you,” the bartender said. “Same thing?” He held up the fluted beer glass.
Johnnie nodded and pulled out a ten dollar bill. He was paying tonight. It was the least he could do after not seeing Bulldog for over a year. If their mother had still been alive, she would have given him hell for feeding his brother’s addiction. But what did it matter? Bulldog would get his beer one way or another.
“So, Scott, what are you going to do when winter sets in? You can’t stay in the park under a tarp when it snows.”
No one but Johnnie called Bulldog by his birth name anymore. He paused before answering with a shrug. “I’ll think of something,” he said. “Maybe I’ll hitch down to Florida to see my big brother.”
Bulldog grinned a goofy, closed-mouth smile and craned his head toward Johnnie. There was little resemblance left between them. They both had the same Roman nose and deep set brown eyes under slender brows, but that was it. Johnnie lived a good life, with a wife and two kids. Retired as assistant chief from the Fire Department down in Coral Grove, he owned a Harley and a fishing boat. His physical appearance reflected his contentment. He was healthy, tall, with laugh lines at his temples and a little paunch of a belly. Bulldog was emaciated and hunched, limping and indifferent.
“You won’t be hitchhiking anywhere with that leg.” Johnnie nodded toward the walker that rested to the side of Bulldog’s stool. “How long you been using that thing now, two years?”
“Hip wasn’t set right.” Bulldog gulped down the beer placed before him. “Damn doctors at the VA don’t know crap.”
“You were supposed to rehab,” his brother said. “You left the hospital instead.”
“What do you know about it?” Bulldog glared at his brother. He pointed a tobacco stained finger. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”
Johnnie didn’t tell Bulldog how he had been keeping tabs on him, didn’t remind him of the nightly phone calls while Bulldog was in the veterans’ hospital having tripped over the curb in front of the liquor store, breaking his hip but saving his bottle of beer. He didn’t say that he could always find out where his brother was, how Bulldog was doing, just by calling the VFW canteen. Instead Johnnie asked, “Why’d you leave that apartment you were in?”
“That flop house, you mean?” Bulldog scowled. “It stunk.”
“That wasn’t the house. That was you. You stink like hell right now.”
“What do you expect?” Eyes wide, an incredulous look came over Bulldog’s scraggle-whiskered face. “I live in the park. Ain’t no fancy bathroom there. I got a friend who lets me shower at his place sometimes but I got to wait till his wife goes out. He comes down and gets me when the coast is clear. Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Hey, Bulldog.” A fat fellow at the end of the bar called out. “You been over to the college yet?”
“God, no. Why would I go there?” Bulldog spoke with a sneer turning up his lip.
“They’re doing an exhibit on the war, The Vietnam War, that is. They got it in the library center. You should go see it.”
“What the hell for?” Bulldog said. “I don’t need no exhibit to remember that damn war.”
The man waved his hand up and down. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But they have some neat stuff in there.”
Johnnie looked down the bar at the man. “What do they have?” He was interested in anything to do with Vietnam.
“Grenade launchers, Claymore mine clickers, all kinds of jungle gear.” The man rattled off the list. “They even got a body bag on display.”
“I sure don’t need to see any body bags,” Bulldog said. “I seen enough boys put in them things to fill a museum myself.”
“Bullshit.” They all looked toward the other end of the semi-circular bar where a bald headed man sat nursing a clear, iced drink. “You never saw no one put in a body bag, not if you was in the field.”
Bulldog sat up straight and pushed back the greasy ball cap atop his slick black hair. “What you mean ‘if?’ Marines, 124th Infantry. We were knee deep in it.”
He leaned toward the bartender who was there to collect their glasses, refill their beers. “Who is that guy?” Bulldog asked under his breath.
The bartender whispered back. “Don’t know. Never saw him before.”
“What’s the name on the roster?” Johnnie referred to the clipboard they all had to sign when they came in. You had to belong, or know someone who belonged, to a VFW Post to drink at the canteens.
The bartender slid the clipboard across the bar to Johnnie.
“Infantry or not,” the bald man said, “you never saw bodies put in bags while in the field. I was there, and I never saw no bodies in bags. We covered them with our ponchos and took them out on litters. They were put in bags later.”
Johnnie placed the clipboard back on the bar. The man’s name on the roster was indecipherable, a scribble.
“You trying to start a fight, mister?” Bulldog said. “’Cause bad hip or not I swear I’ll show you what for if you’re calling me a liar.”
“That’s not what he means,” the fat man said. “You don’t mean that, do you, mister?”
“I’m just saying it can’t be the way he tells it.” The bald stranger pushed his drink away. “A lot of guys are running around these days pretending they was there when in truth they weren’t. If they start talking body bags, that’s a tell. You only see that in the movies. It wasn’t like that in country.”
Bulldog was up now, having grabbed hold of his walker. He was rounding Johnnie’s stool, a mean look on his face. “Come on now, Scott,” Johnnie said.
“I’ll show you the truth,” Bulldog told the bald man, “if you want to see it. You got the guts to be wrong? If so, come downstairs with me.”
The bald stranger got up from his stool. “You have me curious now.”
Johnnie watched him follow Bulldog down the hall, past the restroom, to the basement stairs. His brother left the walker at the top and, descending one step, one foot, at a time, held onto the railing. Without a word the bald man took hold of Bulldog’s other arm, helping him down.
The bartender placed a fresh beer in front of Johnnie. “’Spose he’ll show that guy the uniform.”
“’Spose he will,” Johnnie said.
The fat man said, “Well that should settle it. Bulldog wears his uniform every Memorial Day for the parade, even after he took that header in front of Bud’s Liquor. He walks down Main Street pushing his walker with a full sized flag attached to the front. It’s quite the sight. Good for free drinks all afternoon.”
“Can’t argue with a uniform,” the bartender said.
Johnnie stared into his draft, remembering the last time he had seen the Marine dress blues his brother now claimed. Johnnie left them in the attic of his mother’s house, folded in his foot locker along with a plastic box of his ribbons and medals. When Bulldog, or Scott, as his brother knew him, started wearing the uniform in the Memorial Day parade, started telling his stories, Johnnie said nothing. He didn’t contradict a word, though in fact Bulldog never went overseas. He joined the Marines, but there was a rule back then preventing brothers from serving in the war at the same time. Johnnie was already in country so Bulldog stayed in the states. He made corporal, but it was the lower rank of lance corporal and didn’t merit a red stripe down the leg. The theft of his service record rankled Johnnie but he never spoke about it, one way or the other.
Truth was Johnnie loved his brother, but he never liked him. Scott had always been a pest, following Johnnie around and interrupting him. Scott snickered, mocking him, when Johnnie sprouted pubic hair. Johnnie even tried to kill Scott when they were kids. He pushed him out of their tree house. His little brother suffered a bad concussion, but didn’t die. Their mother later insisted it was this fall that had affected Scott, made him into a drunk. And although Johnnie knew better, he felt guilty. He had always been the lucky one.
“See, I told you, didn’t I?” Bulldog’s voice could be heard as he ascended the stairs. “Maybe now you’ll be more careful when you call a man out.”
He came back down the hall with amazing dexterity, hardly using the walker at all. He took his seat and drained the beer in his full glass. “You owe me a drink,” he told the bald man.
The stranger lingered behind the two brothers. Johnnie didn’t turn around but knew the bald man was staring at his back. Johnnie could feel his eyes. “Sure,” the stranger said, “but first I got a question for this fellow you’re with.”
Bulldog banged his glass on the bar to get the bartender’s attention, which was unnecessary since everyone was concentrating on the three men. “Ask away,” he said. “That fellow is my big brother.”
The bald man came to Johnnie’s side and got in close to his face, insisting that Johnnie look at him. “Were you in the service too?” He said it slow and level, almost kind.
Johnnie didn’t hesitate. “Marines, ‘68” he said. “Just like Scott.” He took a long gulp of beer before he added, “But I never went overseas. I was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms the whole time.”
It seemed to Johnnie that the whole bar let out a collective breath. The insulated world of the VFW canteen, where everyone’s role was dictated by their war stories, regained its order. The ground would not shift under them, not that day at least.
“Bartender,” the bald man said, “get that man a beer.” He pointed to Bulldog. Then he placed his hand on Johnnie’s shoulder. “And get this man a shot. Whatever he wants. Top shelf only,” he said.

true believer

by: Mary Ellen Lives

Stacy Carlson sped down Highway 221 holding tight to the wheel of his VW Beetle. Wind buffeted the little car, threatening to push Stacy over the yellow line and into oncoming traffic. The emergency scanner in the passenger seat beside him cackled; the Coronaca volunteer fire department was being dispatched.

They were the fourth station to be called out. That made this a big story. It was sure to run on the front page of the Maddens Examiner. Maybe it would even get picked up by one of the larger newspapers –The State out of Columbia, or the Charleston Post and Courier. Flyme Willis thundered by, passing on the left. The hulking Ford 150 pick-up created a zephyr that nearly pushed Stacy’s Bug off the road.

“Damn.” Stacy floored the gas pedal, winding out the engine. He gained no ground on Willis’s more powerful vehicle, careening up the next hill, blinkers flashing. Willis would again beat him to the scene.

Stacy wished Flyme would stay home and stop scooping him. It wasn’t fair. Flyme had connections from thirty years of reporting, not to mention being a generational South Carolinian. His family boasted two prominent branches, one in Charleston that went back to the seventeenth century, and one almost as old that settled here in Laurens County. Officially retired from the Examiner, Flyme had parleyed his family connections into a part-time stringer job for the Courier. He showed up everywhere, with his big truck and his big head of wavy white hair. He always greeted Stacy the same way, blue eyes alight with humor. “Hey, Ichabod,” Flyme would say. “Where you been?”

He bestowed the nickname on Stacy at their first meeting. It reflected Stacy’s lean frame, tall stature, gold-rimmed spectacles, and blond hair that stood up in spiky tufts without the aid of styling products. Never having read the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Stacy wasn’t sure if he should be pleased by the nickname or insulted. He toyed with dispensing a comparable moniker on the veteran reporter. Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Methuselah – all were considered and rejected. “What can you do when the man’s first name is Flyme?” Stacy muttered. Ahead, the pick-up rounded a curve, disappearing out of sight.

Stacy let up on the gas. He might as well enjoy the ride. It was beautiful country, the Piedmont. Low hills covered with Carolina pine, furrowed acres of corn and hay. This summer however, with temperatures near one hundred and no rain for weeks, the pines were brown with an infestation of beetles. The insects attacked the drought stricken trees too weak to fend them off. Likewise, it had been a bad year for crops. The Farmers Market on the square closed weeks early for lack of produce to sell. Only desiccated stubble remained of the corn stalks, clicking like cicadas in the hot breeze. Hay fields were hit hard. Cattlemen were already feeding winter fodder to their stock.

Stacy wrote a whole feature story on the drought and its effect on the community, a human interest piece full of quotes from farmers facing foreclosure and homeowners whose wells ran dry. It was poignant as well as topical. He had visions of it getting picked up by the AP and spread to papers across the country. It could even have hit the Internet, gone viral.

His editor pared it down to nothing to free up advertising space. The story came off maudlin and hackneyed with unattributed quotes taken out of context. Stacy saw the chop job as lack of respect. He didn’t have the pedigree of Flyme Willis. Stacy wasn’t from here. He was a Yankee transplant. A refugee from Michigan winters. If a story needed to be cut, it would be his.

The property on fire was a mobile home on the lake. The fact that crews from multiple fire stations were being dispatched held promise of a good story. Maybe more than one. Stacy caught his breath at the possibility of a series, a four-parter to run a month of Sundays. His usual beat reporting on the court didn’t lend itself to follow-ups. Most were cases of meth dealers or petty robbers, motorcycle thieves. They usually pled guilty. In his three years reporting for the Maddens Examiner there had only been two murders: the shooting of a bartender at the VFW, and a vehicular homicide involving an abused wife who ran over her belligerent husband. The jury deliberated for all of an hour before finding the first defendant guilty of murder in the second. The abused woman ended up copping to involuntary manslaughter. She received a suspended sentence. Stacy tried to do a sequel on that one, but was stymied when the woman refused his calls.

Stacy didn’t have to look at his GPS to know he was getting close to the blaze. He could smell it before he saw the smoke. The air stank of odoriferous plastics, like Tupperware melted in a microwave. Mixed with that was a tarry stench and metallic tang. He turned off the highway onto a narrow shoreline road. Across from the small cottages and trailers that occupied a sheltered cove was a forest of dried pine and scrub oak. The wind blew in off the lake toward the woodland. Stacy noted a woman standing by her mailbox, cigarette dangling from her lips. Garden hose in hand, she scanned the treetops opposite with a worried expression. The rest of the cove seemed devoid of residents. When Stacy pulled in behind Flyme’s pick-up he saw the reason why. The drought had sucked the water from the lake, exposing mud flats and sandbars that were normally submerged. The vacation homes were useless.

“Hey, Ichabod, where you been?” Flyme approached from around the Coronaca pumper truck. Mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, Flyme’s Lions Club golf shirt hung limp and stained with perspiration. “The fun’s nearly over.”

He jerked his thumb at the ladder truck a few yards up. Its crew was retracting the hose. The Coronaca pumper truck was spraying water onto the shoulder closest to the woods, while an ambulance angled around the other two fire trucks idling in the roadway. All warning lights were turned off. Stacy waved at the paramedics to stop. They waved back but continued up the street.

“Nothing there anyway,” Flyme said. “No one was hurt, though the trailer is a complete loss, as you might expect. It went up like lint.”

Stacy grabbed a fanny pack off the floor of the VW. Slinging the pack over his shoulder, the digital camera and voice recorder inside bounced against his rib cage.

He followed Flyme around the fire trucks, motors rumbling, toward a smoldering pile of twisted metal and charred wood. The walls were gone. The blackened rectangle of a refrigerator teetered against mangled metal bed springs. Though the back porch steps were untouched by flame or smoke, they led only to ashes. Portions of the roof shingles covered the lawn, and bits of paper winged in the wind, settling on thorny vines and bastard pines. One of the fire crews drenched the empty carport next door.

“What happened?” Stacy asked Flyme.

“Idiot was burning and, of course, it got away from him. A red flag warning against having fires has been out for two weeks, but does he care? Not a bit. Now he’s burned down his neighbor’s trailer.”

Flyme turned to face the four fire trucks parked along the roadway. “Oh well, the boys had a good time putting it out. Took enough of them to do it. Thank God it wasn’t a double-wide.” Flyme chuckled without opening his mouth, the rumble coming from deep in his chest.

Stacy couldn’t tell where the fire pit had been, so much of the terrain was scorched. “What was he burning? Driftwood? No leaves down yet.”

Flyme swiped the rag over his face. “Books,” he said.

“Books?” Stacy removed his glasses. “What kind of books?”

He figured on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Harry Potter–books that he had deemed immoral or sacrilegious or both, and so set aflame.

Flyme bent down, his belly leading the way to the ground. He picked up a sheet of the papers flying about. He handed it to Stacy. Stacy put his glasses on and scanned the page: capital letters, small case letters, numbers, lines. “A schematic? He’s burning electrical manuals?”

Flyme Willis shrugged. “Maybe he flunked a test.”

“Where is he?”

Flyme jerked his thumb again, this time in the direction of the smudged carport that still dripped water from the ridged overhang. A man stood underneath, watching the last of the fire trucks getting ready to depart. He had a sculpted profile, though strings of sweaty graying hair plastered his high forehead. Stacy figured his height, weight, and age as if giving a police report. Six foot, one seventy-five, Stacy stumbled on the last. This guy could have been forty, sixty, or anything in between. His eyes were deep set, like an older man, but the flesh was tight on the bones of his face. He stood casual, hands in trouser pockets, apparently unconcerned by either the puddle he stood in or the destruction he had caused.

“Have you talked with him?” Stacy asked.

“Tried to. He’s a crackpot.” Flyme took a small spiral notebook from his pant pocket and flipped it open. “Wouldn’t even give me his name. I’ll get it from the chief, though. We go way back.”

Flyme Willis stowed the notebook and the handkerchief in his pockets and turned to leave. “Won’t take me more than an hour to e-mail this off to the Courier. Stop by the house later. I’ll give you what I got.”

Stacy had fallen for that invitation before. He knew Flyme would give him bad advice and poor whiskey. He might show Stacy pictures of his late wife, but the old reporter would offer nothing that could flesh out an article.

Flyme walked back to his pick-up. The remaining firemen boarding their truck waved to him. Flyme Willis saluted. They’re probably fellow Masons, Stacy thought. They probably belong to the same Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. Hell, they’re probably related.

He sighed. There was no big story here, just a redneck burning technical manuals on a windy day. Still it created a stir, causing four units to respond. That alone could make it front page material especially if Stacy could find an angle. He unzipped the fanny pack and withdrew the digital voice recorder. He sauntered over to the carport.

“Heck of a barbeque you had here.” Stacy showed him the recorder. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions? I’m from the Maddens Examiner.”

The man’s dark eyes swept over Stacy’s face, then went to the sky. “Ain’t got nothing to say.”

Stacy pressed the button to record. “You started the fire, didn’t you?”

“’Spose I did.” He worked his mouth, chewing the inside of his cheek.

“Why were you burning those books in the first place?”

“Devil’s diagrams.” Staring upward, the man raised his voice. “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” The arsonist fixed his gaze on Stacy. “Book of Acts, chapter nineteen.”

The man nodded at the smoking heap that had been his neighbor’s vacation home. “I may have started the fire, but God burned the trailer down.”

Stacy smiled. He could see the headline now.


“True Believer” was first published as a selected entry in the 2011 short story competition.