Thursday, October 20, 2016

Serena Crawford's Nine Tips For Authors in Search of Characters

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Serena Crawford, author of Here Among Strangers (Lost Horse Press), discusses character.

Never be better than your characters. If your character falls into a vat of slime, you should have experienced that firsthand, either figuratively or literally. If your character is jobless or homeless, you should be jobless or homeless, or understand that you could be with a small turn of events.

Pick two or three distinctive details about your character, no more. How do these details evolve from scene to scene? Does a cut get infected? A tremor become more pronounced? The development of detail in itself is a story.

Find your character’s voice. When developing a character, try to imagine what she sounds like. Is her laugh a snort or a wheeze? The vividness of a character often lies in his or her noise.

Don’t let your characters munch, or even worse, nosh. Careful word choice strengthens characterization, whereas incongruous word choice pulls the reader out of your story.

Try to have a trait in common with your character. Do you both have a fear of heights? Are you both deaf in one ear? If you can relate to your character on some level, it’s likely your reader can too.

Make sure your character isn’t you in disguise. Autobiography limits the possibilities of a story.

Give your character a desire. Is he desperate to do right by his son? Does she want to tell her husband about a dark time in her past? A character’s desire hooks your reader by raising the stakes of a story. Your reader will want to know how it turns out.

Expect your character to fail. Complex characters need time to come into their own. Don’t be discouraged if this takes several drafts or more.

Let your character surprise you. As the story progresses, and you have a good grasp of your character, allow him to dictate what he will do next. At this point, you relinquish control and the story takes off.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Maryse Meijer on the Frivolity and Necessity of Clothing and Books

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), compares writing stories to designing clothes.

Once upon a time the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen filmed himself making a wedding dress out of a men’s suit. I can’t think of a better metaphor for what writers do—for what I try to do—than this. Taking something commonplace and finding within it the shape of something unexpected, discovering all the things hidden within something familiar. It’s as if the dress is a secret the suit had been hiding all along, waiting for just the right pair of scissors to reveal it.

Editing can be like this: looking at the perfectly serviceable and handsome suit you’ve just created and then slashing through to the story that is less serviceable, less handsome, until you have something wearable, but only just. The best clothes are the ones that make you hesitate—can I wear this? Should I?—and writing is like that for me, too. I like to be a little uncomfortable when I dress up, and I like to be scared when I write. I like to feel the boundaries of what I am and of what writing could be. And yet, while good clothes and stories cast you beyond yourself, they also remind you of very simple things closer to home, much the way a corset, drawn very tight, reminds you that you have lungs, a ribcage, a diaphragm. Suddenly you’re just trying to breathe, to not break anything, taking care even as you are taking no care at all, looking batshit fucking crazy while eating tacos in a wedding gown made of trouser legs slapped with white paint. You’re finding the spectacular moment in the ordinary one. You’re finding out they’re kind of the same thing.

I think, too, of the frivolity and necessity of clothing and books, the meaningless of fashion, the possible redundancy of writing—so you take some words and make more words, so what? So you take some silk and make yet another sheath dress someone will wear maybe once or twice and then abandon at the back door of a charity shop. You don’t need more than one warm outfit to survive. You don’t need to read any books at all, strictly speaking. Does anyone really need to write? To make clothes? I don’t know. Writing feels necessary to me, but I also can see beyond it, the way I can see beyond my desire to wear beautiful things. I could live without books and I could live without dresses. But I also live a lot through books, and I’ve lived my whole life through clothes. I feel that I live more when I’m writing, as I do when I am wearing my favorite things. Words bring the world to me, and clothes help me find my way in the world, and vice versa. These words put together in this way become art to some of us. This satin cut into this shape becomes a fantasy, a nightmare, a story. We do need, maybe, some art, somewhere, at some time.

When I am looking for inspiration or beauty I often go to McQueen, lately. Watching him work makes me want to work, helps me think about what I do. And wearing his clothes, or looking at pictures of his couture, helps me think about what I would like to be—helps me imagine the many bodies I have inside me, the many women waiting to be worn, the way that wedding dress waits inside its suit. From just one thing—the sky, a tree, love—comes a thousand stories. The writer has her materials, too, and she cuts her work from them, wears them, gives them to others to wear, to judge, to discard, to live in. Aren’t there some stories you never want to take off? Some you hate because they make you feel fat or cheap or stupid? Some that make you feel incredibly lucky to be a body in the world?

To make something that moves, that envelops and exposes, that reflects the body as it transforms it—that is what I would like to do as a writer. It is what McQueen did as a designer. We should be able to enter a story the way we do a demanding piece of clothing, sometimes struggling with it, sometimes made breathless or uncomfortable by it, sometimes blinded by it, the way a sweater blinds us when we pull it over our heads. But there is always a way in, always a way out. We reach for the holes, we pull ourselves through, we enter and we exit, but if the dress is beautiful enough, the story strong enough, we leave it changed creatures, wiser and more wonderful for having inhabited the skin of a ruthless imagination. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lynn Stegner's Answer to the Question: "Why Stories?"

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Lynn Stegner, author of For All the Obvious Reasons (Arcade Publishing), discusses why she's written a book of stories rather than a novel.

Why stories? Why not a novel this time, like all the last times? What is it that compresses a tale into this narrow frame, rather than brushing it across the sprawling canvas of a novel?

At some point in every novelist’s writing life, he or she begins to notice a silent accumulation of narrative passages, conceits, a measure here, a few chords over there, a lyrical line that keeps singing somewhere in the background. Each of these might have grown into the longer composition and commitment of a novel, as well as the complexity that a closer, more leisurely look exposes. After all, a novel must negotiate with Time, portraying its passage, conjuring the moods that characterize change, as well as generating the sense of movement that reflects the way lives are actually lived. But a short story begins after most of the developing action has taken place. We meet the players almost as they are walking off the stage…one last scene, one duet or ensemble and the curtain will drop. So everything that has come before this final scene must be already distilled within character, emblematized in a handful of causatively related events, or even left just out of reach and merely glimpsed in the imagination, or metaphorically presumed, the way you can almost feel the muscles of large birds as they fly overhead.

Someone I knew well used to say that short stories are a young writer’s game largely because they offer many more opportunities to try things out as a writer is maturing. To experiment without spending too much time. I’m not sure I agree with this. In a sense, there is a kind of extravagance to the form, and not because stories are dealing with truths and situations and characters nearly equal to what might be discovered in a novel but because each story has to be a whole world, just as in a novel. That’s quite an investment in a remarkably small piece of turf.

The word short then is mightily deceptive. A collection of nine stories, like mine, for instance, is nine worlds complete unto themselves, and each and all are creatively more work, entailing nine times the research and preparation, nine times the heart, and nine times the charge. They must exhibit economy and precision, penetrating to the central meaning with the flash and speed of a laser finding its mark. By means of a few brushstrokes, the writer provides enough to reveal what we need to know about a character—what he worries about, what she yearns for, and some of the life that they have seen before they show up on page one, even if that life can only be inferred. If in a novel details do double and even triple duty, in a story they are even more burdened with the job of communicating what is essential to making final meanings. Verbs cannot simply say what the action is, they must also qualify that action in such a way as to capture character, mood, habits, and even health. A woman who staggers into a meeting is clearly more interesting than one who walks. She’s got trouble; she has problems. And let us say that she slouches into that same meeting—that tells us something about her attitude, her position in the pecking order.
Meeting: Enter staggering, no, slouching

So for stories compared to novels (and with the exception of Time), the rules are the same, only more so.

Over the course of the years it took to write four, book-length narratives, I found that I had accumulated a number of story threads that, for one reason or another, did not want to be the fully rendered tapestries that are novels. Actually, that’s not quite true: One of them was supposed to grow into a novel, but the instant I sat down and began to write it, I realized that what was essential could be dramatized and brought to the light in less than twenty pages. It did not need a long distance to execute the necessary turns in the journey toward meaning and truth; it turned on a dime, or two. But another of the stories in the collection could have expanded into a novel easily, if I had wanted to spend that kind of time with those characters. I didn’t. I wanted to encounter them only at the borderline between the fictional life before and the suggested fictional life after—suggested because that fictional future is only gestured toward. It is there by implication and no more. Latent action—present, past and future—along with its import, is naturally occurring in novels and helps to inform the action that is front and center. But in short stories latency composes a whole ocean of content, while on the surface a few islands, a carefully arranged archipelago visible to the reader’s eye, comprises all that is actually available—the story on the page. Which turns out to be quite a lot.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Jensen Beach on the Likability or Unlikability of Characters

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jensen Beach, author of Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf Press), explores the issue of seemingly unlikable characters in fiction.

The other day I was talking to my students about “The Dead.” I’m often talking about this story in classes; it’s so good for demonstrating such a wide range of issues related to the construction and analysis of short fiction. Following the discussion, one my students said he disliked the story. Fair enough, I said, you don’t have to like a piece of writing to learn from it. Another student interrupted to ask the first student why he disliked the story. The characters are awful, the first student said. I don’t like Gabriel at all. I guess I agree with this sentiment. Gabriel is pretty awful—selfish, self-aggrandizing, interested primarily in his own social and physical pleasures at the expense of everyone else, his wife in particular. If he wasn’t like this, of course, the end of the story wouldn’t work at all, the story would be less a story than an interesting summary of an evening in Ireland at a particular time with a particular group of people. I explained this to my student and we moved on and I didn’t, to be honest, think much more about whether I liked Gabriel.

What's not to like?
Someone recently asked me, after having read “The Apartment,” a story in my new collection, Swallowed by the Cold, whether or not I liked my characters. The story is about a woman named Louise who drinks too much and who is convinced that her new neighbor is the daughter of a former lover. Louise gets drunk and visits this neighbor, a young woman named Sara. It goes without saying that the interaction is somewhat awkward. Louise is obviously in pain; but her actions are odd, off-putting, and render her selfish and deceitful. She’s not as awful as Gabriel, nor is the ending of story centered as forcefully on such a significant self-understanding as Gabriel achieves. Still, I suppose there is something likable about Louise, or if not likable, at least its suggestion, arrived at mainly through our sympathies.

Maybe good characters (if I can make the arrogant assumption here) resist such simple summary? Should they? Is likability, as in attraction, as in appreciation, as in electability or dateability or go-for-a-beer-ability, something the writer should at all concern herself with? What kind of a story would “The Dead” even be if Gabriel, madly in love with his wife, understood and sympathized with poor dead Michael Furey? If he fell asleep thinking how nice and fulfilling it must be for his dear wife to have been loved so much and so purely in her life? What if we liked Gabriel because he was such a good person? At the end of “The Dead” I’d argue we don’t like Gabriel, but we feel for him, we get him. We see his sadness and, if even for just a moment, forget that he has for so long been so blind to the life around him. Maybe there’s something in that that’s likable, because it’s familiar to us.

This impulse to want to like or dislike seems distinctly human, or perhaps distinctly contemporary. Fiction, to reduce somewhat clumsily, is the art of rendering lived experience, so maybe we need to face these impulses. Or maybe, better, we need as writers to understand them, to subvert, challenge, break them. We should be writing characters who may or may not act in ways that are cruel, or slanderous, or kind, but still allow if even a moment for readers to see something of themselves, their own consciousness, their own decision making. A recognition, in other words. And in that recognition there may after all be a complicated kind of likability.

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.