Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ronna Wineberg's Ten Rules for Writing a Short Story Collection

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life (Serving House Books), shares what she's learned.



A collection of short stories is a celebration of a writer’s body of work. I’ve been fortunate to have had two published. Every writer has his or her own methods for creating a collection. Here are mine:

1. Write lots of stories. Enjoy the process.When I started to write, my goal was to write a story that worked. This can take years. It did for me. Each story idea felt like a gift, a journey into the unknown.

2. Perfect each story. Write draft after draft. Work on a story for as long as needed. You may have to start over. This can be difficult, challenging work. Finally, when a story seems ready, submit it to a literary journal. Brace yourself for rejection. Submit the story again.

Writer friends told me you have to be tenacious; rejection is part of the writing process. “Don’t be discouraged,” they said. But I was shocked by all the rejection. “A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” a story in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, was rejected by several literary journals. Then I submitted it to Moment Magazine short fiction contest. The story was chosen as a finalist. Finally, The Laurel Review published it.

3. When you’ve written stories that please you and have published some, begin to compile the collection. Read the stories. Shuffle them. Choose those that fit together. Decide which give you variety and reflect the book’s themes. The themes may emerge as you read the work. The selection of stories may change over time.

On both collections, I decided which stories I loved, which needed revision, and which were too similar to others I’d included. I ended up leaving out some favorites.

4. Write more stories. Your collection may go through many drafts. Mine did. When I wrote a new story I considered strong, I inserted it into the manuscript and removed a weaker story.

5. Choose a title and epigraph.
You may have already done this. The book’s title may change as the selection of stories changes and depending on what the publisher or editor suggests. The epigraph may change, too.

6. Arrange the stories. The arrangement of stories isn’t prescriptive. A reader participates in a collection and can choose which story to read when. Even so, the arrangement creates a flow for the book.

While working on my first collection, Second Language, I came across David Leavitt’s introduction to his Collected Stories. He quoted Gordon Lish’s advice: “…start with a pisser and end with a pisser.”

7. Create momentum. Consider Leavitt’s words. He wrote that record albums helped him decide on the order: “…particularly Joni Mitchell’s—that I turned to find a model for how to arrange nine or ten seemingly unrelated pieces of prose into a coherent and meaningful whole.” Albums, CDs, create a momentum. A book is an organic whole, greater than the individual pieces.

8. Make sure the details in each story are unique. The unconscious has a will of its own. Read the stories again in the order you’ve placed them.

As I read the manuscript for Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life I was surprised to find I’d repeated some words, images, names, and descriptions from story to story. I’d described many buildings as “red brick.” I had used the word “terrible” eighteen times. I found replacements.

9. When you’re satisfied with the manuscript, look for a publisher. Finding a publisher can take a long time. Most agents and large publishing companies aren’t interested in collections. Small presses and contests can be the best route.

Second Language, was rejected by publishers. Then I submitted it to a contest and, to my surprise, it won. Part of the prize was publication. A small press published my second collection. Both publishers took great care with the books.

After the manuscript is accepted, you may have to revise it again, depending on what the publisher or editor requests and how you feel about the work. You may even revise stories previously published in literary journals. I had considered published stories finished, but I found revision at this stage improved them. I added scenes and dialogue, changed endings.  

Finally, you’ll participate in the many steps involved in preparing a book: working with the editor, writing acknowledgements, a dedication, gathering blurbs, incorporating copy edits, doing proofing and promotion. Each step took longer than I’d imagined.

10. Celebrate. After the book is published, a reader may tell you the stories seem as if they were effortlessly connected, and you’ll be thrilled. You’ll say, “thank you,” as I did. You won’t describe the details of the focused, sometimes hard, sometimes exhilarating work. You will have forgotten most of it. Forgotten the joys, the doubt, time and labor, the rejections, revisions, the struggles, changing of names or descriptions or words, the deadlines, decisions, commas inserted, last-minute typos corrected, the glitches, all the glue you felt you used as you shuffled the stories, trying to fasten them together into a logical whole. These things are in the past. You are the author of a beautiful, published book. A collection of stories. You will be grateful, as I am.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Arlene Heyman on Dealing with Self-Doubt and Rejection

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Arlene Heyman, author of Scary Old Sex (Bloomsbury), offers advice for when the going gets tough.


I'm working on a novel now and a few nights ago I had the sickening, dead feeling that it was no good, so I thought I'd write something about that feeling because it is as common and upsetting as a recurring nightmare. I also thought I'd take up how one deals with the endless rejections slips.

How to deal with the sickening feeling that occurs when what one has written seems no good
One feels one's self is no good. Jumping out a window comes to mind. A very experienced writer friend of mine, Judith Viorst (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), told me that she just takes for granted that if there are twenty lousy ways to write a poem, she will write her poem every one of those twenty lousy ways. No surprise there. She just hopes to get one good line. Then she has something to work with.

How to deal with all the rejection slips
Another writer friend (and former teacher of mine), Bernard Malamud (The Assistant, The Magic Barrel) told me when you send out a story, address the envelope and write up the letter to the next magazine so that when the story comes back, all you have to do is paperclip on the new letter and slip the story into the new envelope. Make sure you remove the rejection slip you just got. 

To bring his advice up to date (Malamud died before Internet submissions were standard) and also to bring to bear my own less upright take (Malamud was a very honorable man), I would recommend you blitz all the magazines at once. If a magazine insists on exclusive submission, give it an exclusive for a month at most. That magazine may hold onto your story for a year before rejecting it. (While my collection of short stories Scary Old Sex was garnering favorable reviews, I was receiving electronic robotic rejections from small magazines for some of those very same stories, stories I'd sent them at least eight months earlier.) After a month, send the story everywhere, and if you are fortunate enough to have two magazines accept it, choose the more prestigious magazine and apologize like crazy to the less prestigious one; those editors are not stupid—they will understand. No one lives long enough to give any magazine exclusive access to a story for more than a month unless the magazine has commissioned the piece and will pay you a kill fee. If you have an agent who can command a few-week turnaround, that's fine. But if you are not yet successful enough to have an agent send out your work, carpet bomb.

What these two pieces of advice have in common is that they go some distance toward making the horrible something to take for granted. If you operate under the "Yeah, yeah, what else is new?" view, you are being much more realistic. Every writer could spend a good part of her/his life feeling like a self-condemned murderer: "My first draft (my tenth draft) is awful; I don't deserve to live." Almost every not-yet-established writer receives so many rejection slips that s/he, if so inclined, need never buy wallpaper. The idea is to normalize the heartbreaking—not simply because it's good for your morale to realize that what feels wretched is just run-of-the-mill but also because as a writer, you have to see straight. You need to know the world as it is.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Matthew Neill Null on "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" by Lars Gustafsson

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Neill Null, author of Allegheny Front (Sarabande Books), discusses an underrated author.



The American readership of Lars Gustafsson is minuscule but adoring. Stories of Happy People, his best book, was first published in his native Sweden in 1981 and released here by New Directions in 1984, year of my birth. Stories of Happy People: of course the cover is a monochrome of a marvelously bleak tundra landscape, a white river snaking through blackness, devoid of any human life but the tiniest suggestion of a hut on the skyline.

According to the jacket copy, several stories explore “the protected, private universes of the mentally retarded, the insane, and the senile.” While not quite politically correct from the vantage of 2016, this line strikes at what makes it such an incredible work. Gustafsson treats the cast-off of society with wonder, seriousness, and awe. He was a philosopher as well as a novelist. It shows. When asked about his practice, he answered with a studied indirection: “A rabbi once told me that when God spoke to Moses in that bush, it wasn't in a thundering voice; it was in a very weak voice. You have to listen carefully for that voice. You have to be very sharp.”
Gustafsson at work, conveying "pulsations of thought"

Frankly, a “very weak voice” is an overstatement for what inspires his best; these characters are often speechless and convey, if anything, a pulsation of thought. Gustafsson seems able to hear thought from the voiceless. He is tuned to the frequency. Their silence is speech:

What [the boy] could remember of [school] afterward was that it was where he first smelled a smell that would later become very familiar to him: the smell of scouring powder and disinfectant, the smell of hospitals, the smell in the waiting room at the country doctor’s, strong in some places and weaker in others, but always the same, varying in one way or the other: the smell of those who wanted something from him. 

This story, “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases,” is a stirring example. An unnamed boy lives on a farm in Sweden—he is, what we once called in West Virginia, "feeble-minded." I could speak of isolation, of derealization, and I’m tempted to explicate at length and roll out the block quotes—on his mushrooms and leering saws, his fear of the birds that are “a corner of the cloth of the world which had worked loose and started to flutter,” his blood knowledge that those who master language have mastered other beings—but let me hold back. Just read it.

Not that I could give away "the plot." Nothing much happens. Unable to learn language, the boy is sent to The Home, a place for those like him, for the rest of his life, except for the mild interruption of World War II. He putters about the dormitory, the garden, the woodshop. He learns to masturbate, perhaps the great pivot of his life. He rakes leaves. He grows heavy. He slowly explores his physical surroundings and his interior topography, which grows stunning and as intense as a mountain range and will make you wonder about any mute human life you’ve overlooked. In later years, he spends increasing time in a chair, admiring the shifting qualities of light, understanding.

Here, I must pause to say I admire Gustafsson’s stories because they run counter to the machined, soulless products of so many MFA workshops. The so-called "rules" are broken. “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” has no dialogue and little in the way of causality; it overturns the old saw of "show, don’t tell," and we are "shown" almost nothing; instead of relying on scenes, the sense of time is conditional, subjunctive, reveling in prolepsis; the narrator is unapologetically omniscient; we plunge from the concrete to the abstract and vice versa:

In the wombs of the mothers, unborn embryos were growing, membranes and tissues folded and pleated themselves cleverly around each other, exploring without sorrow, without hesitation, the possibilities of topological space.

Can you imagine trotting this out to a writing workshop? It is incredible, and it would be pilloried. As American writers, we have become fearful, fretful. We fear speaking with authority. We flinch. We are afraid of knowing, of presuming what others think, feel, experience. But this is not a vocation for the fearful.

“Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” surprises, unsettles, and breaks new ground. I’ve read it a dozen times, I’m still grappling with what it means, and I may never know, which is its crowning glory.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Jodi Paloni on Stranger Stories

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jodi Paloni, author of They Could Live with Themselves (Press 53), looks at stories that turn on the appearance of a stranger.


Some of my favorite stories are the ones in which the main character is minding his or her own sweet and sorrowful business when a newcomer arrives on the scene, some outsider, a stranger. The interloper isn’t always altogether unexpected, but in most cases, the impact of the “unfamiliar” is pivotal to the narrative arc. Three stories that readily come to mind are, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, “Pharmacy” by Elizabeth Strout, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

Strout's "Pharmacy": Prescription for high impact?
In each of these stories, the protagonist is completely drawn in by the secondary character. The secondary character becomes, in a matter of speaking, larger than life, while the main character becomes distracted from his or her interior conflict. The outsider provides what the story needs, but in the end, of course, the main character is the one altered.

In my own writing, first drafts tend to start out as twenty or more meandering pages in which my protagonist thinks back on some tragic event. While she is beautifully conflicted, she isn’t doing anything to alter her plight. That’s when I start to think about the higher-stakes situation, both actual and emotional.

Here’s my go-to list of the good advice I’ve been given…
  1. Put a character in an opening scene where there’s no easy exit. See what happens. Whatever you do, don’t let her out. 
  2. Don’t leave her alone for too long. 
  3. Ask the question, “What if…?” Only add, “What if…in walks a stranger? 
  4. Give the stranger a quality that juxtaposes the protagonist’s current state of being.
In “Cathedral,” a blind man, friend from the narrator’s wife’s past, becomes the narrator’s houseguest. It takes a non-seeing person’s literal limitations to expose the protagonist’s shadow side, his figurative inability to see. In “Pharmacy,” a pharmacist hires a twenty-something woman, new to town, to work by his side. Her freshness–––youth and optimism–––forms the mirror that exposes the protagonist’s struggle, a waning life alongside an embittered wife. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” the character traits in the antagonist are twisted and heightened to the extreme so that the protagonist, a teenage girl who is in acute want, can bump up hard against her alter ego.

Contradictions interest readers. Employment of a stranger–––as shadow, as mirror, as anima/animus, the Jungian flip side of a previously unrevealed subconscious–––may bring on a full range of impact. But what intrigues me the most about the device is how the stranger, in the end, is not so very strange, but instead becomes something quite recognizable in the protagonist.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Erin Stalcup’s Writing Advice (Not Rules) Mostly Written by Other People

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Erin Stalcup, author of And Yet It Moves (Break Away Books), offers advice from Toni, Flannery, Sherman, Zadie, and Erin, among others.


1. The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.
     —Toni Morrison

2. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.
     —Flannery O’Connor

3. Write for your one ideal reader.
     —Kevin McIlvoy

4. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.
     —Flannery O’Connor

5. Read 1,000 pages for every one you try to write.
     —Sherman Alexie

6. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.  
     —James Baldwin

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
     —Margaret Atwood

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
     —Neil Gaiman

9. You write the book you want to read. That’s my rule.
     —Martin Amis

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand, but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
     —Zadie Smith

11. Don’t do this unless you think it is the closest thing to holy you have.  
     —Erin Stalcup

Monday, August 29, 2016

Matthew Cheney: Why I Am Not a Poet

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Cheney, author of Blood (Black Lawrence Press), explains why fiction needs poetry.


In her 1932 "Letter to a Young Poet," Virginia Woolf wrote: "For how, we despised prose writers ask when we get together, could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry?"

Though "Letter to a Young Poet" is not among Virginia Woolf's best essays (nor did she think it was), it has its marvels, among them the last line: "And now for the intimate, the indiscreet, and indeed, the only really interesting parts of this letter. . . ." Not only is there the marvelous alliteration (how poetic!), but there is also the entire other letter, the one outside this text, the one that promises to be so much more wild, and which becomes visible as the shadow of the "Letter to a Young Poet". Having given us her public letter, Woolf encourages us to imagine that other one. It is a gift to us, the readers, because that letter, which we have now imagined, is the real letter, the one we most need, the one we can learn the most from.

(How could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry?)

Of course, Woolf was wrong about poetry. There are no rules of poetry. I think she knew this, but didn't want to admit it, because she had pushed the "rules" of prose so far that it was, perhaps, terrifying to think poetry might not have any rules. (A New York Times review of the novel she'd published just before the "Letter to a Young Poet" declared, "the real reason why The Waves comes close, as a novel, to going out of bounds is that its true interests are those of poetry.") To allow herself freedom in prose, Woolf needed to think of poetry as less free.
Woolf: Who's Afraid?

One of my favorite poets, Frank O'Hara, began his poem "Why I Am Not a Painter" thus:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.
As for me, I am not a poet, I am a prose writer. Why?

I am not like Woolf, I don't think poetry is a set of rules to be observed, so it is not a freedom-granting opposite for me. There is something else.

I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

When I teach writing, I try to teach the students to think like poets, even if they don't write like poets, even if they write the prosiest prose. These days, I mostly teach First-Year Composition, and so my primary task is to unteach much of what my students think they learned before. (The structures and institutions within most high schools, especially public high schools, encourage students to fear risk more than anything else, and so regardless of what the teacher teaches, the typical student will learn not to take risks as a writer. Writers who don't take risks succeed only at being boring.) Poetry is great for my iconoclastic intentions, because even students who have had wonderful, innovative teachers of poetry in the past may still hold on to an idea that poems are things that sound like Hallmark cards and work like cryptography. This idea is deep and it takes more than one teacher to shatter all its perniciousness, so I do what I can for the cause. I give them poems by Frank O'Hara, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, etc. Even though this is my approach with First-Year Composition, I would do the same thing in an MFA fiction course, because perhaps more than anybody else, fiction writers need poetry, especially fiction writers who have begun to develop some skill and some sense of themselves as fiction writers. Yes, definitely, more than anybody else, these writers need poetry.

Lesson: Grab a random poetry anthology off a shelf and read it while telling yourself, as firmly as you can, that you are reading short stories. Then grab a random short story anthology off a shelf and read it while telling yourself, as firmly as you can, that you are reading poems. (What does this do to your brain? What does it do to the texts?) Keep at it.

Lesson: Read John Keene's Counternarratives. Read Carole Maso's Ava. Read Jean Toomer's Cane. Read David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Read Djuna Barnes's Nightwood. Read Mac Wellman's Terminal Hip. Read Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. Read Guy Davenport's A Table of Green Fields. Read Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger. Read C.D. Wright's Cooling Time. (Read poetry that isn't poetry and prose that is.)

Lesson: Our stories need poetry. Not "poetry" like puzzles with hidden meanings or songs of sugary sap, but real honest-to-goodness poetry: how the most vital of the young poets (whatever their age) write, the attention to sound and structure, the comfort with parataxis, the willingness to go off on a rant or a tangent, the desire to accumulate lots of vernacular language and assemble it into a newfangled thang, the yearning for lyricism while being suspicious of lyricism, the worship of exact detail, the obsession with form, the embrace of obscurity, the belief that nobody is reading their writing and therefore they are free to write as they wish, the acceptance of defeat in the face of language, the joy in throwing a pie in the face of language, the ambition to be other than everybody else, the fascination with failed performances of self-awareness, the energy that comes from seeing the page not as a place to arrange stately paragraphs but as a blank canvas for words, words, words.

(Could one say what one meant and observe the rules?)

Go out of bounds. If your true interests are those of poetry, it doesn't matter if you're not a poet.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Zachary Tyler Vickers on Keeping the Reader Engaged

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Zachary Tyler Vickers, author of Congratulations on Your Martyrdom! (Break Away Books), discusses the importance of emotional inflection.


The Literary Twinkie and The Light Switch 

There’s an exercise in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book, Another Way of Telling, in which participants interpret a photograph of a little girl hugging a doll. The interpretations range: she’s laughing, she’s maternal, she’s spoiled, she’s German. But most (is it her squint?, the wrench of her mouth?) determine she’s crying. Subtleties create the fine lines between our expressions and, therefore, emotions. If we had the audio, maybe we could better discern the little girl’s situation. Maybe not. Because sound, too, can be expressively ambiguous.

The little girl was hungry, by the way. She was trying to eat the doll.

The last story in my collection, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, deals with the nuances of audible emotion—the negligible vocal intonations that differentiate the many motivations of crying. Since the primordial ooze-bath, we’ve communicated through inflection. If I cry (say, if I stub my toe, or if the deli runs out of olive loaf even after I’ve called ahead and specifically asked them not to run out of olive loaf) all it would take was an alteration in my pitch or tempo, or even my breathing pattern, to make it sound like laughter.

Allan Gurganus told me that readers should laugh and cry on every page. This is important and daunting. Because stories must escalate. But amplifying emotion can lead to monotonous apathy (and a lack of resonance), or (as Gurganus puts it) “nougat-icky” sentiment.

Sentimentality is a paraphrasing of the heart. It’s the hydrogenated Twinkie of literature—sure it tastes goods, but it’s empty calories. It’s not uniquely human. If you intensify one emotion too much, then you’ve made a longwinded greeting card. E.g. if a sad sack becomes an even sadder sack who, through a series of sad-sacky conflicts, culminates in the saddest sack moment—well, it’s just not very sad. By the time I get to the –est sack moment, I’ve become desensitized and unempathetic. I’ve got one foot out the door.

I want idiosyncratic feeling from my fiction experience. So to create this, for me, I try to disrupt my emotional escalations with a contradictory one.

Think of a light switch—the age-old battle between light and dark. Stand in a pitch-black room too long and your eyes adjust, you get used to the darkness, you get comfortable, you begin to see the shape of the room. The same goes for brightness—you may squint, avert your eyes, but stay long enough and you acclimate, the room becomes less intense. Meaning, if I’m too tear-jerky—or, conversely, too playful—I risk disengaging you because you’ve become accustomed to the room I’ve put you in. But, if I keep flipping the light switch—your eyes never adjust. You remain in the lightest light and the darkest dark because I’m constantly competing emotions. The best joke can come amid a dark circumstance and break tension. A devastating line or admission will vibrate with affecting sobriety among the light.

Why? Because emotions are the frictions of dichotomy. We giggle at funerals, bawl at weddings, laugh when the Grape Stomp Lady Falls or Scarlett Takes a Tumble, and engage in dimorphous expressions—the kind of cute aggression that triggers mothers to bite their babies’ toes and coo, “I love you so much, I could just eat you up!” Contradictions make poignant moments stick to readers’ ribs, or ache from light relief. In this way, the writer works with the nuances of the heart—these subtle tonal intonations—to keep stories fresh, deeply felt, honest, and personal.

In this way, I try to keep the trauma, tragedy, and heartache of the final story in my collection from becoming sentimental, or feeling emotionally stale—and to keep it resonating—by adding competing moments like, “…he dropped trou and bared bony thighs and tight briefs, asking what her protocol was on placing a shampoo bottle up someone else’s butt?”