Coffee Fields, Oahu, Hawaii



12/7/13: I've just relaunched this blog! With a whole new look, I'm returning to this blog and will be publishing my fictions - old and new - along with notes and thoughts about writing and being a writer. I'll also be including posts about my work with World Vision as their blog manager as well as my travels. You can now subscribe to this blog by email or through Google+, and you can leave me comments here or in Google+ itself. Come read!

6/28/11: I'm on Twitter! Follow me @MatthewBrennan7

6/18/11: My website is live! I have pages for my fiction and translation projects, news updates, a list of my publications, and information about my editing services. Check it out!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Too Close to the Sun

With all of the recent conversation about gun control, I thought I would feature this flash fiction on my blog. I wrote it after Sandy Hook, mostly for myself as a way of exploring and understanding a little bit about that tragedy, and it took me almost two years to show it to anyone. When I finally did, the editors at Dirty Chai wanted it for their "Love Child" themed issue last November. 

This is purely a work of fiction and not meant in any way to be a commentary on Sandy Hook, or Charleston, or any other shooting. Just an exploration of psychology and family. 

A modern retelling of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus: this is "Too Close to the Sun" …

Too Close to the Sun

I taught my boy to shoot. Started him on a bird-shot peashooter when he was eight. Took him hunting on cold winter weekends all while he was in school, brought us home antlers and venison and rabbit furs. He was steady and patient from the very beginning, loved the anticipation of the hunt, “thrill of the kill,” we would say. Bored, restless while I field-dressed the animals, already thinking ahead to the next. I projected him into his future, imagined him a soldier, an army sniper, to retire a huntsman to a ranch in these same woods. These were the skills I taught him.

There are many ways to create a monster. But I blame his mother.

He was fourteen when she left me, convinced the courts to confiscate him along with my house and furniture and savings, everything except what she didn’t want. My guns, my trophies. He wasn’t ready to leave me yet, I hadn’t taught him everything he needed to know. Had always thought there would be more time for those lessons, but to the jury I was a bitter war vet still clinging to the only thing I knew. I disagreed. The judge did not.

Parenting feels like sprinting downhill. One misstep and you’re flat on your face. And you never see it coming till you’re on your back looking up at your mistake.

The morning my boy shot his way into his mother’s school, I was deep in the forest a hundred miles away, didn’t hear about it until I turned the news on that evening, the two rabbits I’d brought home already on the grill. I stood watching, breathless, for a long time, the rabbits smoking, charring. At first, I was only worried about my ex-wife, some old instinct kicking in, gradually piecing together that my son was the shooter. And that both of them were dead.

One day when I was a boy, I got into trouble at school and was punished with a switch across the palm. My father picked me up and saw the marks and stormed up to my classroom, conveying in no uncertain terms that no one was ever to lay a hand on his boy again. He then drove me home and gave me the worst beating of my childhood. He had no qualms with corporal punishment. But if there was a lesson to be taught, he wanted it to come from him.

I wish my boy had lived. I wish they’d all lived. His mother. The teachers. The students. But more than anything, I want him to know what he’s done, to pay for his mistakes, and to come through the pain of redemption. I want him to see the aftermath of his actions, the pain engineered by his hands. I believe that there is more tragedy in loss than in death, that heroes and little ones find their way home. Pain is of the world. But my son, too, will no longer feel it. Therein lies the paradox of believing in a merciful God. I cannot trust in justice for my son that I did not give. And that is my greater loss.

© 2013 Matthew Brennan

Monday, March 24, 2014

The best acceptance letter I ever got

The moment you submit your work to a literary journal, you are establishing a relationship with the editors at that journal. You wouldn’t go up to someone you were interested in getting to know at a bar and say, “Hey you look good,” and you especially wouldn’t say, “I’m a man, you’re a woman.” The same is true for editors and writers. 

We’ve all heard hundreds of different pickup lines or strategies for beginning human relationships, all of which aim to create immediate links between the two parties and to show a genuine interest in the other. While your fiction or poetry will always, first and foremost, speak for itself to the editor, that editor will be seeing your work as one of many from the slush-pile. You’ll want to entice them to give you a more focused read than everyone else. 

Editors want to be courted. They want to know that you are interested in their journal and actively want your work to be published with them; they don’t want to feel like you sent your story off to the five journals you happened to find online that day with cut-and-paste cover letters in a matter of minutes. Show them that you know and respect their journal, show them that you understand their journal, and through that understanding that your work belongs there. 

This is a proven strategy. I had a flash fiction accepted for publication after writing a cover letter that did just that. I read some of the journal’s other issues, noted a theme of what kind of work they liked, then sent them a piece that I felt fit them, while mentioning that theme in my cover letter. 

Here’s what the editor wrote back to me when he accepted my piece: 

Dear Matthew, 

Your cover letter impressed me. Not only did you take the time to familiarize yourself with what we publish, you pinpointed one of the things we like to highlight in our work. Because of your keen eye, you found a good submission that matched what we do, and what we like. As an editor, I can't thank you enough for that. It immediately set you apart and set us up to like your work. 

And then we read the submission. True to your word, it demonstrated the proper subtlety and nuanced tension that we love. We understand this is a simultaneous submission, so we wanted to move quick with our acceptance of this story. If it is still available for publication, we'd like to run it in the September issue.

I’d submitted to this journal twice before and received generic form rejections. That doesn’t mean this new story is necessarily better than the others, it means that this editor gave it a proper read. Ironically, nuanced writing is sophisticated and often most worth publishing and reading, and yet it usually takes a closer read to understand everything that’s going on … and editors don’t necessarily read their slush pile that way. You need to invest in them and show them that it’s worth their while to invest in you. 

This editor went on to nominate this story for that year’s Pushcart Prize!

You can read the story here:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Inundation as a submission strategy

When I was working on my MFA in fiction, I had a colleague who would send the same short story out to 30-40 journals simultaneously. Now that's playing the odds! Duotrope currently lists over 4,900 literary journals, and with every editor having different tastes and needs, it can certainly feel like a needle in a haystack trying to submit one story to that one perfect editor or journal.

Most journals allow simultaneous submissions, but think about this: if you receive your "yes" sooner than later after 40 submissions, that's a lot of withdrawals notices to send! Once I get a story out with 3 or 4 journals, I start to feel reluctant to continue, wanting to hear back before sending submissions that – optimistically – might have to be withdrawn.

My best advice about this problem is simple and often said but can't be said enough: always keep writing! No matter the rejections, the busyness of submitting, etc. Keep writing. That's how I was able to find publishing success through a different kind of inundation.

Rather than sending out dozens of copies of the same story, for the past several years I've been maintaining submissions out with anywhere from 20-60 journals at any given time … but no story to more than 4 or 5 journals at once, because I'm writing enough stories to keep new ones always going out.

This is one way in which writing flash and micro fiction has helped me because they write and polish up faster than longer pieces; I'll be posting more about how best to write these styles soon.

Even with 60 submissions pending, none of them were sent blindly. Check calls for submissions at Newpages, Duotrope, Poets & Writers, etc. Do a Google search for journals. Search Twitter (more on that to come, too!).

Even though editors may feel like a needle in a haystack, many of them do tell you what they want in the submission guidelines. Though you should support the journals you like, you don't actually have to read several issues of every one you want to submit to. But do your research and try to pair your submissions up with journals that you feel are a good fit. If you think it fits, your chances are better of finding an editor who agrees.

Also remember: the more you submit, the more rejections you'll get – sometimes I get a rejection every day! – but you'll place more, too. For a while, I was able to publish 1 or 2 publications each month with this strategy, which is significant considering that before I started doing this, I'd published only one. Ever. You do the math.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Don't let me say no

"No" is a response writers have to get used to hearing, though it rarely comes in that exact simple form – "unfortunately" … "I'm sorry to say" … "not for us" … "not quite right" … "did not find a place for" … "we must pass" … "not right for my list" (i.e. it's not you it's me).

All jokes aside, it is often true that editors will receive more submissions they like than they can fit into their current issue, and thus are forced to pass on stories even when they don't want to. For this reason, and because all editors have their own styles and preferences that you can't know for certain even by reading past issues, you can't take rejections personally. It's going to happen, even when you're optimistic, even when you've been published before. It really is nothing personal. Just keep trying. The majority of pieces I have published were rejected by one or more editors before they found homes elsewhere.

If the above paragraph was encouragement, now comes the hard truth: as inevitable as "No" is for all writers, some rejections are actually your fault. And it's not because your story or writing isn't good enough. There are some very specific and very common mistakes that cause these rejections, which ultimately come down to impatience.

But the good news is, you can fix them.

First: typos. When I'm considering a submission, if I see more than two grammatical errors within the first few pages, you're going to have to have the best story ever for me to keep reading – if you don't care enough about your work to proofread it, I'm much less likely to care about it myself.

The second reason also comes down to editing. The opening paragraph of your story is the most important few sentences of the entire piece, and if I'm bored or confused within the first page, I won't want to finish reading it. Take the time to get it right.

What all this comes down to is one very important rule: don't give editors a reason to say no. And they are looking. Editors have so many submissions to get through, the faster they can say no, the faster they can move on with the search to find the story they do want to publish. Don't give them a reason. Take your time editing, make sure every sentence works, typo-free. Don't let them say no. Will you still get rejections? Of course. But self-editing with this in mind will keep those rejections more about the editor's preferences than your writing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Train Fare

This flash fiction, "Train Fare," was one of my earlier publications (my 5th flash), and I believe my first with an international journal – Pure Slush is published out of Australia. I have since gone on to write for several of editor Matt Potter's anthologies, and have just had a second flash fiction accepted for the journal's 2014 theme of "travel"! You can read "Group Mentality" here.

What I like most about "Train Fare" – in addition to the fact that it's set on a commuter rain between New Haven and Grand Central that I know well – is that this was the story that broke a long dry spell for me. After leaving Arizona in 2011, I was on the job market and spent the first few months doing not much else than writing cover letters. I tried a few flash here and there but ended up with a long chain of unfinished pieces with little potential. This story changed that. I went on to publish 5 of the next 10 in that collection, and beyond to many other projects. 

When we're in the thick of it, especially a dry spell but even success, it's hard to imagine getting past it. I remember the first short story I wrote after college and liking it and being unable to imagine ever writing another story as good. Obviously not true, and "Train Fare" is testament to the continued potential of any writer who feels down on his or her luck. Keep writing. 

Train Fare
from Pure Slush

Laney found an empty seat on the train as it began to move, facing backwards toward a woman dressed in a business suit and skirt. She was reading a newspaper and didn’t look up, just crossed her legs out of the way. Balancing her coffee cup on the seat beside her, Laney opened her wallet, checking that she still had enough cash after breakfast. She had a $20 bill; off-peak fare was $14. 

The train picked up speed as it cleared the station, the momentum pulling Laney away from her seat, and she grabbed her coffee cup before it fell. She looked up to see the conductor enter from the car behind, watching as he worked his way toward her, checking and selling tickets.
The passenger across the aisle from her pulled his wallet out when the conductor reached him. “One adult, one-way,” he said. 

“Twenty-two,” the conductor said. 

Laney’s brother had told her something about different ticket prices, but she only remembered peak and off-peak. He might have mentioned the on-board price, too. Heat flushed her cheeks, knowing that embarrassment would come, and she felt sweat prickling up across her skin. She set her coffee down on the floor, hiding it between her feet, then snapped open the change compartment of her wallet. There was only a handful of dirty pennies. 

The conductor turned to her. “Tickets, please,” he said, then punched her neighbor’s ticket and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

“Can you come back to me?” Laney asked, holding her twenty while making a show of re-examining her wallet’s contents. The conductor scowled but gave a quick nod, then moved past her.

Laney had been in Italy once and found herself on the wrong train after missing a transfer in Empoli. Getting off at a tiny outdoor station that had no ticket counter, she took the next train back the way she’d come, sitting by the door and watching through the small dirty window for the conductor to appear. He never came, and she arrived at her destination without paying for her detour. She hoped that maybe she’d have similar luck today. 

Digging through her empty wallet a third time, knowing she didn’t have two hundred pennies but considering counting them anyway, she felt a tap on her knee. Laney looked up to see the businesswoman’s hand holding a $5 bill toward her.

“Oh gosh,” Laney said, “thank you but I don’t …”

“Is the next station the one you need?”


She pushed the bill into Laney’s hand. “They’ll throw you off there. Probably fine you.” She returned to her paper, the matter decided. 

Her coffee cup still balanced between her ankles, cooling, Laney leaned forward to pick it up. But she stopped, and sat back. She didn’t want her patron to see it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"The Best Laid Plans": A Valentine's Day Fiction

A Valentine's Day flash fiction! This was actually published 2 years ago in the Eunoia Review on Valentine's Day itself ... quite by coincidence! Perfect timing. 

The Best Laid Plans
from Eunoia Review

The snow began as he drove her up to his family’s lakehouse the evening before Valentine’s Day. It would be cold, but he wanted to show her the historic town on the opposite shore, walk on the boardwalk along the inlet river, and stand with her at sunset on their stony beach. But by morning, the snow had laid a thick winter comforter over land and water, and was still drifting heavily in the air. 

“It will let up,” he said. “Noon, maybe a little after.”

“This makes me feel like a kid again,” she said. “We had mornings like this, no school, just stayed warm in our PJs, reading and watching movies, drinking hot chocolate. We’re not even part of the real world yet, as kids, but we still like to invent separation, like we know what’s coming and that we’ll want to escape it, you know? Days like this let me feel that again, with almost no imagination … it’s here again now. The world outside is changing so much, and we’re safe inside, we can just look out at it, without any consequence of the change.”

“Not until June when you had to make up that day of school.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m gonna go bring in more wood.”

While he carried logs in from the woodpile out back and restarted the fire, she made breakfast: pancakes with eggs and bacon, and a full pot of coffee, which she kept on the heater after filling their mugs. 

The snow was just as thick in the air at noon as it had been at dawn. Standing at the front window, he could make out the first pilings of the dock, a shadow that extended into nothing. For all they knew, there was no town across the lake, no river, no beach; there was only the blankness of the snow. 

She wrapped her arms around him from behind and started pulling him away from the window. “Come back to bed,” she said. 

“This isn’t the Valentine’s Day I had in mind. We could have done this at home.”

“But we wouldn’t have,” she said. “There’s too much of us there. This is perfect.”

Saturday, February 8, 2014


What I like about this piece is that it says more than it says. And that wasn't intentional! While I was writing it, I reached the current end of the story, then went right on to the next paragraph, where I got stuck. Only after reading it over a few more times did I realize that the story had already reached its end, and accomplished everything it needed to. Whatever of the story remains unsaid at the story's end can be inferred through the characters already on the page.

from Green Briar Review

We drank coffee at the racetrack to feel grown up, without sugar or cream for as long as we could stomach it, bought in styrofoam cups from the concession window beneath the stands. Our fathers were up top watching the races, their bets already placed. Mickey and I stayed below, poring over the statistics for the horses in each race, trying to predict the results and make educated guesses for our small bets, to use well the few dollars our fathers had given us. First-place bets were risky for novices like us, so we focused our bets on third place, sometimes second if we felt confident.

Statistics aren’t a guarantee, can’t predict the future, but they can give education to a guess, and the small bets Mickey and I placed hit their mark often enough for us to double our money over the course of the morning. We bought lunch with our winnings – hot dogs with onion rings and Cokes – and ice cream later on, discussing what else we might do with the spoils. For months, Mickey had been saving his allowance up for a bike, and his cut put him past the halfway mark. I wanted a guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, not like the old acoustic I’d been learning on, but we would need a much larger win to make that possible, so I’d decided on the new Beatles record, which was respectable enough for Mickey.

When my father came to find us, I could smell the bad luck on his breath, knowing that whiskey was often the closest he could come to a winner’s high. But then his face lit up when I showed him our profits, and he knelt down and said, “How about double or nothing, eh kid? Go out with a bang?”
I forgot all about the record, the guitar nearly tangible in my hands, and I gave him my half of the money, while Mickey pocketed his, then we ran off to study the sheets on the horses entered in our last race. Hearing the explosive roar of the crowd above us signal the start of another race, we checked the numbers twice – this was a first-place bet, afterall – then ran to find my father, who was already at the counter.

“... on Moneytrain,” I head him saying.

“Dad! Wait!” I yelled. “Bet on Compass Rose, Dad, Compass Rose.”

He looked down at me and winked. “I’ve got a tip on this one, kid. Trust me.” He turned back to the window. “Moneytrain, please.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bed & Breakfast Morning: An exercise in dialogue

My favorite thing about this flash fiction is that most of it really happened. I was staying in a B&B in Aberdeen, WA, and in the morning, all of the guests had breakfast together out on a covered porch. It can be a nice way to meet people ... but it depends on the people. Awkward can happen. And it did. 
This is still fiction. I wrote it quickly, wanting to capture as much of our actual morning as I could, but I also wrote it as a dialogue exercise. There's no exposition, no dialogue tags; the characters are noted through text styles – bold, italics, etc. It's an experiment. See if it works for you. 

Bed & Breakfast Morning
from Speech Bubble Magazine

“Good morning folks! We’re Bob and Jo Parsons, and we’re from North Carolina. Where are you all from?”

“Hi. Mark; my wife Rachel. From Boston.”

“Lovely to meet you both. Our hostess said that both of the coffee pots are the same, regular.”


“Here’s some biscuits for you. Would you all like ham with your eggs? Okay. Anything else I can get for you? Mark, do you need more cream for your coffees?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

“Oh well we’ve got some more on our table you could take.”

“I can just bring some more.”


“These peaches are just perfect. I think you’d have to go all the way to Georgia to find ‘em this good.”

“They grow them here, too. Other side of the mountains.”

“Did you come over that way?”

“No, but we’ve been there before.”

“I see, I see. We drove out here right from SeaTac. We’ll be heading up into the national forest on Tuesday.” / “We once spent six days driving from St. Louis to Chicago. It’s a five hour drive!” / “We did, we did. Our watchword is, ‘don’t rush’.” / “Our other watchword is, ‘don’t be a tourist.’ We don’t like to go anywhere buses go.”


“Good morning! We’re Bob and Jo Parsons, and we’re from North Carolina. Where are you folks from?”

“And a good morning to you as well! We are Harold and Valerie. We are from Tennessee.”

“We used to live near Knoxville. Hello neighbors! Coffee pots are the same, both regular. We have more cream here if you need it.”

“These blueberries are enormous.”

“We once visited a little copper town in Tennessee, built up on a hillside like this one here. All of the workers were provided houses in town, and if they got promoted, they moved up the hill! Each job came with a specific house.”

“I suppose you could move down the hill, too!”


“This view reminds me of Bellingham.” / “Yeah, with the hill and harbor and ...”

“Oh is Bellingham nice? We talked about going, but we’re spending a few extra days here instead.”

“They’re both nice.” [...] “Some of the houses are similar, too.” / “I love these houses. The mid-century modern, the porches and balconies.” / “The paned-glass windows ...”

“Did you take the architecture tour of the neighborhood? It sounds interesting.”

“We walked around on our own.”


“So Bob and Jo, what brings you out to Washington?”

“We’re taking a little summer vacation.”

“We are too.” / “And Mark and Rachel, what ...”

“Oooh, let me guess! Newlyweds.”

“Are you on your honeymoon?”

“The wedding wasn’t yesterday, was it?”

“Last week.”

“So it is your honeymoon!”


“Yes, congratulations.”



“Mark and Rachel don’t say much.” / “I think they’re busy with their food.”

“All set with those plates? I can get those out of your way.”

“We’ll be checking out soon.”

“Just ring the bell when you’re ready.”

“Oh you’re only here one night? We won’t see you tomorrow?”

“That’s right.” [...] “Thank God.”

“Nice meeting you!”