on getting a story published

unstuck2My short story “Family Mart” was published in Unstuck Vol. 2 back in December. And though I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, I just realized I never wrote about it here. Ack, social media. Anyway, this was exciting, exciting news for me. Encouraging progress just when it felt like my writing had stalled. Unstuck took a big chance on me – they liked “Family Mart” but wanted changes. I had been receiving a lot of “almost” responses to the story for over a year. That is, personal responses from lit mag editors who said they liked it, but… sorry, no. Some of the almost-but-nos may have had to do with the content – “Family Mart” is fantastical (a woman wakes up with a hoof instead of a hand) and a lot of magazines focused on literary fiction just aren’t quite willing to go there. The story ended up being named a finalist in a couple of contests, but never published. I knew it needed something but I didn’t know what. The editors at Unstuck had a lot of excellent suggestions and were patient as I worked through several revamps of the piece and I am so grateful for that. I hope “Family Mart” is the better for it.

I should back up and say that I began writing “Family Mart” in 2007. Yep, that’s right, from start to publication took five years. I suppose that is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to see it in print. Finally! It’s a now-6,000 word finished, published story that over the past 5 years went through so many rewrites I lost count (50?) and had to create a separate folder on my computer to house them all so I could manage to find the most current one. I felt strongly about this story in a way that I don’t often feel about other pieces – that is, I wasn’t willing to let it go or to gather dust on my hard drive, forgotten, and thus the five years of rewriting, re-plotting, re-thinking, and submitting. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope my next published story doesn’t take nearly so long.

Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal, which is, of course, exactly what I was looking for. Its second issue includes work by Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart and Paul Lisicky. I’m honored to be in such company and so impressed with the issue itself — more than 500 (print!) pages of some wonderful, inventive stories. Order yourself a copy! Or download the Kindle version.

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The power of editorial suggestion

I have a publication coming up. I’m thrilled about this – thrilled that my short story finally found a home after some 3 years of sending out various versions of it, of getting some finalist mentions, very nice, personal rejections and a lot of flat-out no-ways. And I’m thrilled that the editors of the magazine it will appear in took a chance on me. Because they did: They accepted the piece under the condition that we work together to revise it.

I suspect this is unusual. I wrestled with whether to accept these conditions. On the one hand, my writerly ego wanted desperately to believe that my story was great the way I had decided it should be and other than minor copy-editing, it should be published as is. As a former editor I of course know better than that and told my writerly ego to shut up. I was worried about my own ability to revise a story that I had already revised some 50 times — in the end, a valid worry. (No, sadly, the 50 times are not an exaggeration.) But I decided to go with it. I agreed: You suggest edits, I revise. I revise to your standards, you publish.

A year later the story has been revised several times, drastically, and it will appear in print very soon. The process was an interesting one for me. I have been edited before, mostly as a journalist, but quite possibly I have not been edited before on a piece of writing I felt so strongly about. This story was a pet project of mine for reasons I cannot explain. Changing it so much raised big questions; questions that I have not often seen discussed: How much revision is enough? How much is too much? Who decides? Does editor always know best? Is there a point at which one should stop and listen to that writerly ego? And from a fairly unpublished writer’s standpoint, there’s the power issue: At what point does the need to get published trump ownership of your writing? That is, is editorial compromise for the sake of the work, or for the goal of publication? I’m not sure the two can be separated.

I don’t know that I have answers to a lot of these questions. I was lucky to have some very attentive editors who made a lot of fantastic suggestions. I was lucky to be given the chance to rewrite my story. The story went in a new direction that I might not have chosen without the editorial prodding. It’s going to be published. For now, that’s enough.

Linktastic Tuesday: writing advice, ms length, and books for the beach

I wrote this post this morning … and then WordPress ate it. I responded by eating 2 pieces of cake slathered in rich chocolate frosting. Take that, lost hour of my life! Not so lost anymore! Ahem. Anyway, the cake was delicious and made me feel better. I did want to share a few links on this lovely, pollen-coated Tuesday*, so now, here they are, version two:

1.
Richard Gilbert has a great review/interview post with author Althea Black on his blog, Narrative. Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and her advice on the writing process was frank and to-the-point, which is the kind of writing advice I most love to hear. Black describes how she put herself through a DIY MFA, reading and learning from writing books, and working hard at what she does (writing I Knew You’d Be Lovely was a 15-year process!) My favorite advice (because it’s true, and because it’s the hardest to do):

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

I love Black’s focus on economy of language — “never say with twenty words what you can say with two.” I will admit I was not familiar with Black or her stories but I am now going to rush out and find a copy of this collection.

2.
Did you know The Great Gatsby is a novella? Me neither. It comes in just short of 50,000 words, which is the possibly arbitrary (and definitely debatable) number separating novel from novella.** Did you know you can find out the word counts of your favorite books on Amazon? Me neither. (Here’s how. You can only do it on “search inside this book” titles.)

I learned all this in “The Secret Lives of Novellas,” a short essay by Daniel Torday on the Glimmer Train site. Torday discusses his earlier obsession with word counts and what they represent, and how he realized that his WIP was long enough when it felt right to him, not because of a number. The WIP was published this spring, as a novella.

3.
Looking for something to read on your summer vacation? Or, like me, just always looking for something to read? Two good lists of new titles for summer:
-Flavorwire: 10 New Must-reads for May
-Bookpage: 20 summer standouts

*I’m having a hell of an allergy attack today and am a sniveling, sneezing mess. Seriously, driving is not a safe activity for me. Too much sneezing.
** In his essay, Torday mentions that E.M. Forster defined the novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” In my MFA program, I was taught that the publishing industry considers 75,000 words a novel, though clearly that’s just a guideline. Nathan Bransford suggests 70,000-80,000 for a debut novel, and no more than 150,000. So, novellas: 35K-70K?

It begins again.

I haven’t written anything new in a long time. I spent much of the 2nd half of 2011 revising and reconsidering writing that I’d begun, in some cases, years before. This was a good thing, as I am a horrible procrastinator when it comes to revisions. I would put off revising forever if I could. But alas, good stories, essays, novels, etc. don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains. Or at least, from most people’s brains. I had to seize the revision momentum and go with it. I suspect that revision, while still somewhat gut-wrenching to me, has gotten easier. That more practice with revision has resulted in less time wasted, improved editing skills, and a sharper eye. It took me years – literally, years! – to understand what was involved in revision. It’s not just about cutting words or adding paragraphs or polishing sentences, though it could involve all of those. It’s about pinpointing what is working and what is not, about finding flaws of logic and blips of out of place action, writing, or characterization. It’s about seeing the parts at work in the whole.

All of this revision has paid off: I made progress with stories I had long ago declared dead. I got an acceptance for a story I have been shopping around for more than three years and writing and revising for five. The story was a finalist in a contest at a major magazine two years ago. After that milestone, I submitted it with a confidence and fervor that I had not applied to any other piece of writing. And still it took two years to find a home for it.

If this sounds discouraging, I do not mean it to. What I suppose I’m getting at is that this is a tough business, writing. For example, the magazine that accepted it wants another revision before publication. Good stories don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains and they don’t even end up that way after 47 revisions. There is always room for more revision to be done.

The concerns about the story from the editors are valid; I have known there was something that needed to be clarified in the story, but despite the many, many revisions the piece went through (I lost count), I could never quite get at what that was. So I’m thrilled and grateful –they’ve agreed to take on a story that needs work, and they’ve agreed to help me make the needed tweaks that I couldn’t quite see. The surprise, beyond the acceptance, is how relieved I am that someone finally “gets” this story and what it needs after all this time.

And so, it begins again. And again, and again. That’s writing.

In which I make a brief appearance to talk about books and writing and the hectic pace of modern life.

Ahem. Hello? Hello. Is this thing on?

Apparently it has been two months since I last posted here. Yikes. Hello, dear patient reader.

The summary version is this:

– In early October, I wrapped up a six-month editing gig at the newspaper where I have been employed on and off for years. I vastly underestimated the impact working there part-time would have on my writing and parenting, as well as, let’s face it, on how clean the house is and the likelihood we would all be eating frozen pizza for dinner. So the past months have been more hectic and unpredictable than months already are with an energetic toddler in the house. I’m in catch-up mode now.

– Somehow, during the past six months, I have revised, finished or polished 3 short stories and two sections of two different novels. I am enrolled in a short story workshop right now, which has been instrumental in pushing me to get a move on with two of those short stories. The workshop has been reminding me how much I like to be involved in workshops, and how I would like to teach one someday soon. And how much I really need to get a writing group going.

– My brother- and sister-in-law and their twin girls recently moved to Australia, and as a result I picked up Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Bryson’s writing, his humor, and his masterful way of meshing information with experience. So I picked up A Walk in the Woods, which I also liked (though I didn’t think it was as strong a book as Sunburned Country, which is interesting, since Walk appears on numerous lists of top 100 nonfiction books, but I suppose that has more to do with some kind of American self-centered-ness. Ahem.) Anyway, the point is, Bryson has inspired me to think about writing more nonfiction, which as you may recall, was the focus of my MFA degree, and for a long time, the only genre I wrote in. So, I’ve been reading, for research, and making some notes on a potential book idea which I am quite excited about. If I could grab enough uninterrupted time to get going on it in earnest, that would be, well, great, but something that is unlikely to happen until after the New Year.*

-I have been trying to put my writing before social media and blogging, which I suppose is the biggest reason why I haven’t been posting here. I am easily distracted, especially, I find, by Twitter. So I’ve been trying to lay low(er) and devote what little time I have for writing-related tasks to actual writing. (What a crazy idea!) This doesn’t mean I’m off social media, or that I will stop blogging, but if I disappear for a while, that is one reason** why.

-I’m currently wading through David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which is good, overwhelming, hard, six books in one, and brilliant, if a tiny bit gimmicky.

-Two days ago, I returned from a weekend in Denver, where it was beautiful and 80 degrees and the trees were in full fall colors. Today Denver is expected to get a foot of snow.

So there you have it. Hello again.

____

*See also, upcoming travel, visitors, holidays, spouse business trips, toddler tantrums, toddler birthdays, etc. Whew.
**For other reasons, see above.

On Linked Stories, Part II: Proceed with caution.

Remember back in the day — and by that I mean January 26, 2011 — when I promised to write a second blog post about linked stories?

Right. Well, I didn’t either, until the other day, when I was thinking writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks, and I was reminded that I had written an “On Linked Stories Part I” blog post in which — you guessed it! — I promised to consider why writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks.

Well, here I am, six months later, and the nature of the beast (yes, beast!) is still mysterious to me. I have written 2 linked stories, along with 5 or 6 halves of other stories, all connected to the first two. By connected I mean, the characters are the same, though the point of view differs in each piece of writing. For example in the two complete stories, one is from the perspective of the mother, and one is from the point of view of the daughter. In two of the incomplete pieces, the POV is that of the grandmother. In most cases, the setting is the same, though sometimes the time period is different, depending on who’s narrating.

My intentions in writing this way, rather than, say, writing a straight-up novel:

– Short stories take less time, and have an end. I am a busy mom with a part-time job and lots of other things going on. I have trouble focusing on a longer work because I forget what the heck I am writing towards.

-Because short stories end, they can be sent out even while the longer collection of linked pieces is still underway. If some of these stories were to get published, that would be a good selling point for the book in its entirety, when that time comes. See? Practical.

You might remember (or not, since it was 6 months ago) that my previous post quoted a writer on The Millions who saw these points as benefits to the linked-story genre. It’s a practical way of producing a book, is what she seemed to be saying, and how I saw it, too. She also added that each story allowed her to hone her craft in a way that writing a novel did not.

Here’s the problem. In order to write an entire collection of stories that are interconnected, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE OVERARCHING STORY IS. If you don’t, you’re writing 10 separate short stories that happen to involve the same characters, setting, and so on, but don’t actually link in any meaningful way. You’re writing a collection of short stories.

In the end, though it sounds reasonable, practical and, let’s face it, pretty neat, to write a linked-story collection piece by piece and story by story … proceed with caution. In my opinion, you’re still writing a novel.

And by you, I mean me. I’m writing a novel. It is possible, in fact, that writing the novel as separate-but-linked stories has actually hurt my ability to construct the plot that connects the stories to make an entire book. Because I can skip from story to story I can, for example, allow myself to stop the action when it gets too hard. I can end the story I’m working on and pick up with a different one instead. And, because I am focusing on so many shorter narratives, I have neglected the umbrella narrative — that is, what is the storyline that holds all of these pieces together?

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from writing a linked story collection. I love, love, love to read them. They are often beautiful in tone and writing style in ways that novels cannot always afford to be. The breaks in the narrative can be just as, if not more, poignant than a continuous narrative. All I’m saying is, do not allow yourself to be fooled.

Great novels about work

This week I returned to the business newspaper where I’ve worked on and off for the past ten years. For the next six months I’ll be filling in there a couple of days a week for an editor who is on maternity leave. Aside from the fact that I’ve now thrown myself another ball into the air to juggle, this change, along with a lot of pondering of my novel-in-progress, got me thinking about novels about — you guessed it — work. (The novel-in-progress contains quite a bit of its characters’ working lives. Work is itself a character.)

And so I thought I’d put together a listing of novels about work. I tend to look for “model books” when I’m writing, to see how other authors have tackled certain topics/themes, and thus I love to see and collect lists of books that have themes in common. There’s more fiction about the workplace than you might think. After all, everyone who’s had to make it through a slow Friday afternoon on the job knows that work can be tedious, and how does one go about making a novel out of that?

-It happens that a couple of books have been released recently that focus on the workplace: David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (arguably also about tedium) and an anthology edited by author Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work.

-Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is perhaps my favorite novel centered on work, and especially on office life. He captured the strange time of the dot-com boom and bust of the early 2000s in writing about employees of an ad agency.

-Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. What a fabulous example of the great American novel! It’s Mad Men, before there was “Mad Men.” And it’s all here: the house in the suburbs, the commute to the city, the disconnect between working life and home life. Working life in the ’50s.

-You might not think of it this way, but The Great Gatsby has a work theme. (Plus I just love the novel, and will bring it up whenever possible.) TGG takes place at a particular time in economic history, much in the way Ferris’ novel does, in which young people are arriving to New York in droves to work for banks. I can’t help but include this lovely graph, in which Nick is working late in his office in Manhattan:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other places to find work in fiction: Richard Ford’s Sportswriter trilogy; John Cheever’s stories (at the very least, the commute is prominent, as is the disconnect between work and home life, much as in Yates’ novel. Cutting for Stone is one of the finer novels I’ve read involving the medical profession; Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists examines the life of expat journalists; Allegra Goodman’s Cookbook Collector tackles both life at a pre-9/11 dot-com and work at a Berkeley antiquarian bookstore. Melissa Bank’s Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing includes quite a bit on starting out in publishing. Of course there are the more popular novels: The Devil Wears Prada, The Firm, Vertical Run, etc., etc.

And so, back to the grind. Happy reading!

Links:

The Independent’s “In search of novels about the working life” takes a look at why there aren’t more novels about work (“Work’s relative absence from the novel is all the odder when you consider its absolute ubiquity. Not only is it a universal leveller, it is also one of the great venues for social interaction.”) and considers some of the great books involving the workplace, including Ferris’ book, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and other classics, like The Jungle.

Six great work/business novels (The Daily Beast) Includes Yates’ novel and Joseph Heller’s follow-up to Catch-22.

Ian McEwan’s Five Favorite Novels About Work (Salon) Obviously, we can’t leave out Updike.

An impressive compendium from Library Booklists (a great resource, BTW) Financial, Work, Business, and Math Fiction

Richard Ford on his new anthology, on public radio’s Marketplace

NY Times’ review of DFW’s The Pale King

On unfinished projects

I’m stuck, again. By which I mean, I am not writing. It’s not a block, exactly, but a sort of paralysis. It’s about looking at something as a Big Project, rather than just “a short piece I’m working on.” This is something that’s happened before. Every time I even think the word “novel” I seem to freeze up.

But this time is different, because I know I’m farther along into a Big Project than I’ve ever been. I’ve completed or mostly completed 5 linked stories. I see these as, down the road, a full-length novel-in-stories, or perhaps after some serious revision, a full-length novel written from multiple points of view. I have pages and pages of notes on these characters. I have done research on the time periods involved in this project. I have some books I keep in mind — and on my nightstand — as model texts, books which have something in common with the one I think I am writing, or want to write, which serve to inspire me and from which I can learn.

In my personal history of writing novels, this is a lot of progress, and I am far enough along that I have become attached to the project and the characters in a certain way. I’ve become attached to the idea of finishing this manuscript. (Perhaps that’s the problem?) And yet, despite all of this progress and work and effort, or perhaps because of it, I’m stuck, not writing.

In my attempts to continue, by which I mean, my trips to the coffee shop with my laptop that result in becoming overcaffeinated and reading through what I’ve written so far and then moving on to skimming other long-forgotten pieces on my hard drive, I stumbled upon another novel. Yep, that’s right, I opened a Word document on my hard drive and realized I had written 125 pages of another novel a couple of years ago. And then abandoned it. I remembered writing the beginning of that novel, but I’d completely forgotten I’d gotten so well into it. It’s not horrible, this half of a novel, and despite several years having gone by since I wrote it, I know what will happen next. I could write to the end, I feel. That half-novel doesn’t deserve to be just a half, is what I think.

The New York Times recently ran a piece about why writers abandon novels, which included comments by authors such as Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz about their failed projects. Chabon said whenever he sat down to work on what would have been his follow-up book to Mysteries of Pittsburgh, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

I have had questions about this as long as I’ve been writing. How do you know if you’re feeling the “hand of dread” because your work needs to be abandoned or because writing is hard and you’ve hit a rough spot and you want to abandon it? How do you press on when you’re not sure which project might be the winner?

That, there, is why I’m stuck. My aforementioned novel-in-stories is the book I want to write, but can’t seem to at the moment. The recently rediscovered 125-page novel beginning is a book I know I can write, but might not be the intricate literary novel I dream of writing. And discovering that 125 pages has me flustered. If I could write 125 pages and actually forget they exist, might that not also happen to the novel-in-stories-in-progress?

And then, there’s this question: Which project should I proceed with right now? I don’t want to think of those 125 pages, but I find myself working on that novel in my head. And then I’ll think about the other. All the while doing nothing on either one.

I offer this glimpse into my paralysis, because, like that NYT article, I think it’s useful. The NYT piece is ostensibly about abandoned novels, but if you read it optimistically you’ll see that it isn’t. “Sometimes a novel thought long dead can come back to life, brush the dirt off its pages, and shuffle back into an author’s career.”

Perhaps this is true of all “abandoned” writing? All writing is practice for other writing: Egan wrote a novel which she abandoned but which she later rewrote as her first published book, “Invisible Circus.” Chabon, obviously, has had success since his failed novel (an excerpt of which is now seeing some notoriety in McSweeneys, complete with his snarky commentary about it, so in a way, it’s not a complete failure, right?). Sometimes it’s helpful to write something in order to know what you don’t want to write. Or to find your voice, or play with plot and structure.

As mentioned in that NYT piece, Stephen King’s recent Under the Dome is a complete rewrite of a failed novel from 30 years ago:

“The character list kept growing, and they didn’t connect, and I just got to a point where I dropped it,” King remembered. But three decades later, a fresh shot at the concept worked: “It was like my mind was working on it underneath.”

I think about these examples and I wonder about my own work. Was the 125-page half-novel practice for the next one? Or is the novel-in-stories practice for re-writing that previously abandoned project? To me the question should not be whether or not to abandon a project, but rather what is this piece of writing practice for? And when, if not now, is the time to return to it?

 

On writing fiction and nonfiction

I spent the month of January working on a short story that I saw as part of a longer work of fiction. I had some time to think about writing on the plane ride home from AWP, at which time I wrote out, in a notebook, several pages of description/plot outline of the novel I was writing. I’m writing a novel! is what I thought. I’d been thinking and writing about my characters for a while, but suddenly the storyline seemed clear. All I need to do is sit down and write this thing, is what I thought.

Instead, something kind of interesting has happened: I started writing nonfiction again. You may remember that for many years I was an avowed nonfiction-and-nonfiction-only sort of writer. I came from a journalism background and couldn’t separate myself from the facts, or so I thought. While enrolled in my MFA program I took 99.9% nonfiction workshops and got mad about James Frey and that woman in my workshop who thought it was “cool” to fictionalize her “memoir.” I felt (and still do) that nonfiction is given short shrift in literary circles. On the other hand, I learned that some seventy-something percent of books published are nonfiction. That nonfiction sells; that as an unpublished writer you have a better chance of getting a nonfiction book out there than a novel, let alone a collection of short stories.

I’m a practical sort, and all of those rules and career possibilities appealed. I wrote a travel memoir for my MFA thesis. I was happy/proud/relieved to have finished it. Then I put it away. Because wow, I was sick of it. I hated it. I did not think it was my best work. A while later I got pregnant and couldn’t (hormones?) write a word. And after the baby was born … it was strange, but I found that I couldn’t write a word that wasn’t fiction. A friend suggested that perhaps reality was suddenly too intense and thus fiction felt more comfortable. Maybe so. I’m still not sure.

Oh no, this post is growing much longer than I intended it to. Yes, the point, I’m getting there. Really.

I’ve been thinking a lot this month about the interplay between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. I went to a panel session at AWP on how to decide whether to write something as fiction or nonfiction. All of the panelists seemed to see little difference between the two, which I found both shocking and oddly appealing. One part of me wanted to yell, no, you’re wrong! You can’t just label something that happened fiction! You can’t just embellish nonfiction for dramatic effect! But even as I sat there I was thinking about re-writing my stodgy stick-to-the-rules travel memoir —without regard to, well, the rules. How would it turn out?

I’m not saying I wanted to go back and make things up. But somehow that panel gave me permission to think about writing my experiences in Korea as if they were fiction.

I’ve been writing only fiction for a few years now, and liking it. Struggling with it, but liking it. I got a story in a small lit mag called Clare. I was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers contest. I started writing a novel! And then. This post was named a finalist in a food blog contest held by Creative Nonfiction. As a finalist it won’t be published though, so I thought, I should really do something with this. And suddenly I saw that this snapshot of experience I had in Korea was not a standalone piece. In a way it wasn’t originally; it was a between-chapters interlude/vignette in that 275-page travel memoir I wrote five years ago. But all of the sudden I saw it as the end of an essay, and that essay flowed out very easily. And I remembered how much I like writing nonfiction.

Here’s the thing: Fiction writing is good for nonfiction writing, and probably the reverse is true as well. There’s a freedom in fiction that allows for considering all of the possibilities: the order in which events occur, who’s involved, where, etc. In nonfiction you’re limited by the facts. You can change the order in which you reveal a string of events to the reader, but you can’t change the order in which events occurred. And something about the freedom of fiction allowed me to rethink how to present material that five years ago ended up sitting limply in chronological order, hammered into boring, lifeless submission.

The limitless possibilities of fiction have lately felt an obstacle in the short stories I’ve been writing. What if my main character does this? Ooh, maybe I could have her do this! Or this! My indecision knows no bounds and has the power to bring any writing session to a halt. Should my character have brown hair and a blue coat? Or blonde hair and a red one? What if she doesn’t wear a coat at all?

And yet, giving myself more choices in writing a new essay about my experiences in Korea helped. I chose to leave some details out. I chose to tell the story out of order. I chose to relate three separate events that seemed unrelated before but actually provide lovely dramatic effect when layered together. I think it worked.

Oh, there it is finally, my point: Loosen up. Blur the lines. Get your genres confused. See what happens.

*Yes, I have been meaning to write my promised 2nd post on story cycles but some things have come up. Mainly, the entire family has been sick AGAIN for most of the month of February. I promise, I’m getting back to it. Really. Coming soon to a blog near you.

On Linked Stories, Part I

Sonya Chung had a nice essay up last week at The Millions, on linked stories/novels-in-stories. In “The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide,” Chung describes her recent excitement about writing linked stories as a way to develop her skill as a writer.

As she sees it, short stories are taught in writing workshops because they really are good vehicles for boosting fiction writing skills:

You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter.

You could practice all of the above in a novel, she writes, but “how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.”

And this is where, Chung writes, the linked collection comes in. Quite simply, when the short story is not long enough, but the novel is too much, linked stories offer writers, in Chung’s view, the perfect solution: the freedom of a novel-length storyline written “within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity.”

I’d add, too, that linked stories offer writers who are just starting out the opportunity to get publication credits (of short stories) while simultaneously working on a book-length work. Novel excerpts are publishable, of course, but the challenge of keeping the excerpt self-contained is a big one. What to cut? What to include? How to provide the gist of a whole within one small part? Linked story collections offer an alternative path. You can write one story, and work on getting that one published while you are at work on the next. In the end, you might have a whole, published in parts, which is an appealing place to be in when seeking a book contract.

One might argue that linked collections are hard to get published, but from the number of them I’ve seen recently, I don’t know … My guess would be that publishers would prefer a novel-in-stories to a collection of unconnected short stories (which is what many young writers leave MFA programs with). Linked story collections can be marketed as novels, which is, supposedly, what the “reading public” wants. (Well, what they really want are nonfiction books, but that’s another blog post.)

Chung goes on to list some of her favorite linked story collections, including Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx; Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; and, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. My own list might also include:

The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Day For Night, by Frederick Reiken (described in my previous post)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak
-Visit From the Goon Squad
, by Jennifer Egan
-Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun

Coming soon, part II: In which I consider why writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks.