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.

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.

snow in June, stories in July

You* may, possibly, wonder what I’ve been up to here. It sure hasn’t been blogging! Well, I’ve been writing and traveling, among the other usual domestic things, like doing ridiculous amounts of laundry, and listening to/singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for the 4 millionth, trillionth time.**

And so.

The writing:

In June I finished (finished!) the second of two short stories I had been working on for two-plus years. And I’ve been sending it out to a few places. It feels amazing to finally be finished with that one — and I’m fairly satisfied with the result. Shocking. (The first of the two 2-year-old stories is slated to be published this fall, in Clare.)

I also wrapped up a draft of a story in June to submit to the writing workshop I’ll be attending later this month. I just barely got it in shape by the deadline, and still feel like there’s a lot of major work to be done, but hey, that’s what workshops are helpful for — motivation and direction. At least that’s how I’m trying to look at it.

For July I’ve decided to complete a short story I began earlier this spring. I wasn’t sure where I was going with the pages I had back in April, and so I’ve been letting it gather dust on my hard drive ever since. The other day I opened it for some reason and a)felt more excited about it than I remembered being when I originally began it, and b) knew what was coming next. It’s quite a long story, which is making me a little uneasy — I’m not sure I want it to turn into something even longer, like a novel.***

The traveling:

In the last month I’ve made two quick trips to the middle of the country— to Chicago and to the Denver area. Chicago to visit family, and Denver, to meet a good friend of mine for the weekend. She and I were supposed to do some hiking and see U2 perform, but Bono got injured and canceled the concert/U.S. tour, and it poured all weekend. Actually, “poured” doesn’t really begin to describe it. The Denver area saw thunder, lightning, heavy rains, flash floods, a tornado, nickel-to-golf-ball-sized hail, hail fog, and cold temps, all in the one weekend I happened to visit. Really. Meanwhile the Coloradans we encountered exclaimed that they couldn’t believe the wet weather and offered up a mantra of sorts — that Denver has 300 sunny days a year. (A dubious claim.) We made the best of it. Beers were consumed. Soccer was watched. Altitude was gained. I saw snow fall in June.

It was actually the second weekend my friend and I have spent together that’s been cataclysmically rainy. My friend flies from the East and I fly from the West and we try to meet somewhere in the middle and attend some kind of musical event. Last fall we met in Texas and went to the Austin City Limits Music Fest. The festival was great, the weather, not so much. Torrential downpours and six inches of mud. Apparently Austin is also known for being sunny, so I’m beginning to suspect I have some kind of weather curse. Last summer my husband and I went on vacation to Vancouver, and the city was hit by a record heat wave. It was in the 90s all week, even up in the mountains at Whistler — for only the third time in a century.

I have two more trips ahead of me this summer. I’m keeping an eye on the Weather Channel.

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*Hello? Readers?
** No, really, I love that song. Especially when Dora the Explorer sings it.
***The idea of getting serious about writing a novel scares the heck out of me.

on (not) letting go

Two events have me feeling a bit unsettled. Over the weekend I sent out my short story to be reviewed by the members of the writers’ workshop I’ll be attending later in the summer. This morning I returned the proofs of another short story to the editors of the magazine that will publish it in the fall.

When is a piece of writing complete enough to be sent out into the world? I know that I’ve done all I can to both of these stories for now. Last week my head was swimming from looking at them so many times. I could no longer read them and see where change could occur. I could no longer read them, period.

And yet: I did not feel that the story I sent to the writers’ workshop was quite … well, it just wasn’t there yet. I wanted more time to think about it. If I did not have the workshop coming up, I would have put the story away for a few months then come back to it. I would have written another story that included one of the characters from this one, which would have helped me develop that character further in the original story. It’s likely I will still do that. But I know that the raw story is out there somewhere, and while that’s OK (I am, after all, looking forward to getting feedback on the piece, and there needs to be room for feedback) I feel uneasy about it, too.

As for the proofs, I had not looked at that story in several months, and it felt very different to me after all that time. I felt that I could tweak the writing quite a bit. Is there a point at which writers feel they can stop tweaking words here and there? I think that if you’re at the point where you’re just making those kinds of small adjustments it means you’re done, and yet. I made a few small changes to the proofs, not as many as I could have, or wanted to, because I know that the time for lots of changes — just made because I wanted to make them — had passed. I had to let it go. I feel a sense of excitement that the story will soon be published, but at the same time, I’m horrified. How can that story be published?! I want to keep tweaking and adjusting and changing things. But I have to let it go. It’s time to move on to something else.

Do authors ever return to their previous books and wince? Do authors ever return to their previous books at all? I remember when I went to hear Joan Didion read in Boston and she said she never thought about her earlier works or her body of writing as a whole. She dismissed them as if they didn’t exist. “It was just something I wrote,” she said.

When does one get to the point where what you’ve written feels like that, “just something I wrote,” instead of some long process involving lots of anxiety and overprotective feelings and an inability to let go?

News flash: Momentum is important.

This month I’ve managed to finish, revise, and send out a short story that’s been dangling unfinished and unworkable since 2007. I’m feeling pretty good about this. The story was one of two unfinished pieces I began in 2007 that have been gnawing at me ever since.

I don’t intend to take so long to write anything so short ever again. Revisions are one thing; sometimes you need time to be able to understand what a piece of writing needs before you can make changes to it. But these two stories were sitting as unfinished first drafts on my hard drive for an exceedingly long time, particularly for two pieces of writing that are so short. (The story I wrapped up and sent out this month ended up being 14 double-spaced pages, about 5,000 words.)

The story, before I proofed and revised it a couple of times, reflected the fragmented writing process that went into it. It’s hard, after all, to pick up where you left off if it’s been so long since you left off you don’t remember where it was you left off in the first place. And so, when I finally got through the first draft and began revising, I realized that I’d switched tenses as often as paragraph to paragraph. I’m not, it should be said, normally a tense-switcher, but so much time had elapsed between writing sessions on this particular story that I don’t think I knew what tense I was writing in whenever I returned to the piece. What a mess. It may seem simple to go back and fix something like that, and compared to major plot changes, I suppose it is. But I ended up having to spend a lot of time going back over the story and discerning what tense, exactly, what the right one, and then making sure I fixed all of the instances of the wrong one. Ugh. I hope not to have to do that again.

One thing I got from attempting NaNoWriMo this year was an understanding of what it means to bang out a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you do need to reach an endpoint before you can polish and revise. My M.O. from now on is going to be faster, less polished writing — with actual endings. Momentum is important. Revisions can come later.

Now that I’ve finished getting this story out the door, I’m wondering what to tackle next. I have numerous essays that need to be revised and sent out (and that second, unfinished short story!) but I’m itching to start something new. Something big.

A Sunday hodgepodge

1. I’m sitting in a café, waiting for my writing partner to show. It’s Sunday morning, a time which normally finds this café quiet, but it’s crowded and noisy. I’m trying not to pay attention to the two women next to me, who appear to be studying for a nursing exam. They’re loud. One woman keeps saying “shut your mouth!” in the way that people do when they mean “I don’t believe it!” There’s a group of older women kvetching about their husbands, and a couple of guys with cell phones talking about how much they liked Avatar, and how much it’s worth seeing again. Which I find interesting because absolutely no one I know who’s seen Avatar has said that they liked anything much beyond the special effects. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment.*

2. My thirteen-month-old son has learned to say “no.” This morning all of my conversations with him went like this:

Me: Do you want some breakfast?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want to take off your jacket?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want some milk?
Aaron: No.

Me: Hi!
Aaron: No.

And so on.

3. Last night I met a friend at a Czech restaurant and afterward I got a ride home from a very friendly Eritrean cab driver. He told me that he’d never seen snow until he came to the United States six years ago. He visited Lake Tahoe, and sent his family pictures of himself in the snow there. His family said “please, get out of that place” because they had never seen snow either, and they thought he would die in all that white. My cab driver also told me that he liked the Bay Area because it’s a place “where you can get anything that you desire,” which I suppose is true. If you have the money. He said this just after telling me that he hadn’t been back to Eritrea since he left six years ago, because he couldn’t afford buy the plane ticket. His family asks when he will come visit, and he says “maybe next year.”

4. Apropos of absolutely nothing… (that basically sums up this whole post, I think) I recently re-read a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s a wacky piece; there’s a loud Danish guy, giggling Japanese teen girls, a supermarket checker in the rural Midwest, and monkeys. Yep, monkeys. It’s not a characteristic piece of writing for me, but I’m thinking of finishing/rewriting it nonetheless. One thing that will have to go: the footnotes. I think I was reading a lot of David Foster Wallace essays when I wrote the story. I’d like to say I’m not a footnoter, but look! there’s one right here in this blog post. I’d also like to say that monkeys and other such creatures don’t usually appear in my writing. But there was the time I did NaNoWriMo and a cat started talking about a third of the way into my novel…

5. Apparently my last post, G is for Geology, was my 500th post! Wow. I would have never guessed that when I started my pathetic little blog back in 2003 that I would write 500 posts. And that people would actually read them. So, if you’re reading this (hello?), thank you.

6. Also related to G for Geology….We had quite a few earthquakes in Northern California this week. I mean, apparently we did. I didn’t feel any of them.

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*This brings up two pieces of potentially shocking information. One, I saw only two movies last year in actual movie theaters. It’s quite possible that I didn’t see more than about six movies all year long. I watched a couple on my iPhone on flights, and maybe got one or two DVDs from Netflix. I would like to say that not being able go to the movies/watch movies is one of the perils of having children, but alas, I suspect my pathetic movie track record in 2009 is part of a larger pattern of movie-related lethargy. Which brings us to number two: As revealed to my friend last night, I am probably one of very few people on earth who has never seen James Cameron’s movies. Terminator, Aliens, Titanic… I seemed to have missed those. Given my 2009 movie-attendance record, it’s likely that I’ll miss Avatar as well.

The voice that needs to be heeded. And ignored.

After several days of taking care of a very sick little boy, I managed to escape today. The boy safely (if not quite happily) deposited with our childcare provider, I headed to my favorite local coffee shop (FLCS) this morning in a very determined state. I have promised myself that this month I will revise and send out the short story I’ve been working on for two #$%@!! years. I carried a printout of the story in my bag.

Alas, FLCS was crowded with laptop-toting hipsters and an apparent convention of dog walkers this morning, and I had to continue on down the street to the creperie on the corner, which always has tables free. The fact that it’s a creperie whose best dish is French toast may explain the free tables. Or maybe it’s the fact that the coffee costs 30 cents more than FLCS, comes in a smaller cup, isn’t as hot, and doesn’t taste as good. Just a guess.

But I digress. I took my lukewarm coffee to one of the many empty tables and settled in to work on my draft. I recently finished writing the short story, which is a huge milestone. I have been struggling with one pivotal scene for a long, long time and finally managed to just get it down. Complete the story, revise later, is what I told myself.

I have always struggled to revise my work. Revising is the point in the process when I am mostly likely to abandon a piece of writing, to get frustrated and put a piece away for a long time (sometimes years), or to get really, really down on myself and my writing. I have written here before about revision and its pitfalls.

It’s been a while since I spent any time focused on revision, and the time away has not made revision any more fun. I spent much of the morning covering my pages in red ink, crossing out unnecessary sentences, tightening up paragraphs, and trying to improve poor writing. I then spent the entire walk home from the creperie thinking about how the story was awful, it needed so much more work, not ready to send out, maybe never ready to send out, what’s the point, etc. etc.

Wow.

In just a morning, revising decimated my writerly self-confidence. I realized that my many frustrations with revising in the past revolved around similar feelings of self-doubt.

Wow, again.

Turns out, revision is the act of finding fault with your writing (and, hopefully, trying to fix it). Sounds obvious, but when you look at it this way, it’s easy to see how a concentrated effort at finding problems, errors, awkward writing, skips in logic, etc. can result in thinking that you’re not a good writer. The question is, how the heck do you ignore this voice that says, “look, you included all these extraneous sentences! What poor word choice! And you call yourself a writer!”

This is a voice that, unfortunately needs to be heeded as much as it needs to be ignored. Obviously, you’ve got to clean up the piece. But you don’t want to end up revising forever, of falling into the trap of thinking that your work isn’t good enough, ever. How do you find the happy middle ground, where revision occurs but isn’t a debilitating process? How do you know when you’ve revised enough?

linked stories

stairway to...I’ve become enamored of (obsessed with?) linked stories/novels-in-stories/fractured narratives. This is what happens: Every time I read a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories (where is line, when do linked stories become a novel-in-stories? Is there a line?) I am so wowed by the form, and then I think about it constantly, wonder what other books are out there in the form, vow to read them all immediately, and then pick up a novel or a memoir and forget all about it. (What can I say? I am easily distracted.) Until the next linked story collection appears on my nightstand.

I was first made aware of the form in grad school, when I was assigned The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro, for a lit class focused on short stories. (Quite possibly the best class I took in my MFA program, writing classes included.)  It wasn’t that I’d never read linked short stories before, but that class was the first time I was made aware of the concept, and could put a name to it. This summer I read Elizabeth Strout’s beautifully written Olive Kitteridge.  A couple of weeks ago I got lost in Japan, in Christopher Barzak’s ethereal The Love We Share Without Knowing. The fractured narrative seemed particularly appropriate to convey the confusion of being an expatriate, as well as some of the mysterious (to an outsider, anyway) conventions of Japanese culture.

Reading these two books reminded me how much I love the concept of linked stories, and I started poking around on the web for any commentary from writers on the writing process. Every collection of linked stories I’ve read has seemed, despite the skips in time or the switches in point of view, to have a certain complexity that I saw as possibly being quite difficult to create. Or was it easier to write a novel-in-stories? I just wanted to see behind the scenes.  Alas, my dreamed-of “Authors Talk About Writing Linked Stories” book proved elusive. I’m still looking for something out there on the process of producing a collection of linked stories and how it differs from sitting down and writing a novel from start to finish. (If you’re aware of any, please let me know!)

Anyway, one of way of answering these questions might be… writing some linked stories myself. Hmm.

In the mean time, I’m putting together a linked stories/novel-in-stories reading list. Suggestions welcome.

Favorite short story collections

Last year, there was a flurry of lists of favorite short stories. The other day Kate of Kate’s Book Blog listed her favorite short story collections, and I have been thinking of what mine might be ever since. Here’s what I came up with:

The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx

How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer

The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami

The Train to Lo Wu, Jess Row

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer

The Hermit’s Story, Rick Bass

Lizard, Banana Yoshimoto

… I could go on. There are so many, and so many I have yet to read. What are your favorites?

It’s, like, a national literary discussion.

Stephen King’s short story rant sure has elicited a lot of responses on the NY Times blog. Of course, it’s an excellent opportunity to lay into MFA programs, which quite a few people have done. And that’s not the only thing they are fired up about. Check it out.