Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Some Great Advice

Annoyingly pretentious, or maybe just ornery? I enjoyed the Annie Proulx interview in the latest Paris Review  (unfortunately, to read the entire interview, you need a subscription) and decided to crib from it whole quotes because she says some great things about writing short stories. I've added my thoughts in parenthesis.

On sentences: "A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say--which is where a lot of writers stop--and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story."

On reading: "You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different worlds on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."

(I've been preaching about reading for years.)

On how you know when a story is finished: "It is impossible to answer. You just know. I suppose it's the thing Hemingway referred to as the built-in shit detector. I think one develops a built-in shit detector through a wide reading of other people's work. And if you  can't see the ghastly bits in you own writing you shouldn't be a writer. It's a pity that his shit detector failed him in later years."

(I agree on all counts--anyone remember "The Garden of Eden" (which I enjoyed anyway)?)

On revisions: "I once heard Ha Jin say that it was not uncommon for him to do more than thirty drafts. I do not usually do so many..."

(I think thirty could be overdoing it, but when Ha Jin and I share space in the same table of contents, I promise I'll eat my words.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Must I Write?

There is something almost self-defeating and pointless to the idea of producing art for a market place. One must either already be established or they have to get established, taking some slow road to publication through journals or the proliferation of web outlets. Blind optimism and dogged determination are the factors that must reign because if you don't want complete obscurity, you need to try to fit yourself in.
I can be accused of hyping (maybe too often) the books that the major news media hypes, while generally overlooking the obscure, humbler publications that are put out by little known publishers. But on occasion, browsing a bookstore or a review site, I come across a work by accident and the writing to me is as original, interesting and compelling as the hyped one I set out looking for. I take heart in that. If the New York Times Book Review christens a book by making it the front page review, and everyone falls in line, that doesn't necessarily guarantee book sales or even that the book in question merits the attention--I always wonder about the back room machinations of those choices. Was it one top editor's favorite read that week or did the publisher promote it with enough advertising money to make it appealing? So many of these books then never catch on, so what does that author do?  
Authors are inclined to have to do their own hype and marketing strategizing, whether they are in a featured NYT book review, or published by the Unknown press (I suppose self-publishing comes into this, too, although the lack of an extrinsic vetting process leaves me dubious about self-published writing). I can surmise that in the realm of promotion, at that point the writer probably simply wants people to pick up their book and read it. If there are only a handful of fiction writers making a living at their writing, what is the point of trying to do it? Well, I go back to my original motivation, and I feel like if it's art that you are creating, that can sustain you in and of itself. Maybe not. Still, I've decided to play the game but I keep my eye on why I'm doing it--it's that call that Rilke suggested in "Letters to a Young Poet":
"Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?"
Writing in the web sphere, it's second nature for me to develop a constant stream of ideas about how to promote my work. For me, this is a combination of curiosity and fascination with this technological medium at my fingertips, but I recognize this can also be a huge resource drain. Yet I always remember when I didn't have this outlet, not so long ago. As distracting as it is, I keep it in check and have to pull back on occasion to remember my artistic calling and goals. I suppose if I had the publishing world clamoring to my work, I wouldn't get so caught up in the notion that I'm writing this and someone out there can read it if they like. Sometimes that's enough.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Comforting Statistical Analysis

Though I was mediocre in mathematics, I have a secret love for numbers. Since I embarked on writing short stories and publishing, I've compiled some statistics.

In two years of submitting short stories to dozens of journals, I've had ten stories published (This is not counting non-fiction, commercial articles and book reviews). That's an average of one publication every ten weeks, or roughly every seventy-three days. In terms of overall numbers, for every piece picked up for publication, I had to send it out to an average of 35 markets--markets meaning, distinct journals. It also took approximately 6.9 months for a single one of these stories to be selected. 

Numbers like this can make the reality comforting; I actually went for an entire year (2008) without a single acceptance (although several pieces appeared in 2008, having been accepted the year before), and had a string of three acceptances within a six week period this year. In fact, it actually may take more than a year for a story to be picked up. Some remain orphans.  

This doesn't account for those stories that were accepted multiple times; I admit this has happened more times than it should have, which either indicates I'm submitting too many or I'm not waiting long enough to find out if the story is going to be placed where I want it.

My point is that if you are writing and submitting your work, patience and persistence are key. I'll always stand on these factors: make it perfect, send it out, and don't wait or worry if it isn't picked up immediately. If you are diligent and your writing is strong, the story should (I'd rather say, will) find a home. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wood Says So

After reading James Wood's "How Fiction Works" months ago I started accumulating ideas and was attempting to articulate them when I came across this article in The Nation which convinces me I am on to something and should eventually post my thoughts on Wood and realism. Until then I quote directly from this well written deconstruction of James Wood's problem (well, one of them, anyway) by William Deresiewicz:

"Wood's critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it. His argumentative method rests far too heavily on hand-waving, and while he is superb at turning a phrase, the fact that something sounds good doesn't guarantee that it makes any sense. Wood never stops to ask himself what his favorite formulas actually mean: characters who feel "real to themselves," who "forget" they're in a novel and so forth. These are obviously only metaphors, but metaphors for what? What, for that matter, does "lifeness" mean? And to what extent is Wood willing to take responsibility for his assertion, near the end of How Fiction Works, his new treatise on novelistic technique, that we should "replace the always problematic word 'realism' with the much more problematic word 'truth'"? Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They Don't Sell

The chair analogy, sort of disparaged (see my previous post, Crafting a Chair) in this review of Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned". In contrast to what Deborah Eisenberg is saying, I was considering that the craft of a work of fiction wasn't at the expense of creating "something that has been transcribed from a revelatory vision." Tower, who very well may be related to me (Tower was my father's mother's surname), probably couldn't ask for more superlative reviews, and maybe that's why the New York Times and New York Review have been all over this collection of stories. Cue here what every critic says of short story collections? "They don't sell." That may be true, but I'd happily take the kudos Mr. Tower is getting (it helps to have McSweeneys and The New Yorker behind you). I may just plunk down my $24 plus 9.5 percent tax (CA) just to disprove them (but then again, I'm part of that five percent or whatever it is consumer group). And I think, the best story writers do with characters what Eisenberg lauds about this one: "[They] aren't copies of anything, they conform to no formulae, the world they live in is the one we live in, and we encounter them, thanks to the author's skill and conviction, as only one particular writer could offer them up." 

But from the evidence of another reviewer, and the examples from the above review, I wonder if Wells Tower may be committing the cardinal sin of playing god, indifferently paring his nails in the face of the terrible beauty he's created. As I recall, a lot of people were turned off by Raymond Carver for this kind of deft and illustrious craft.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Short Story Openings

I never intended to become a short story writer. In grad school, I didn't even bother with short stories, knowing they were the slow road to publication in the shadows of the more prestigious novel publication. Every serious writer usually wants to be known as a novelist, ultimately. There's just a stigma to short story writing. Of the successful short story writers I can think of, I'm sure there is still some ambivalence for them in that they have staked their reputations, however unwittingly, on short fiction.
Nevertheless, here I am. I did set out to publish as much short fiction as I could two years ago when I saw that the traditional approach to attempting to get a novel published (get an agent, get a book deal, etc.) was taking forever. So I decided to work on a level that I could see the results, and I'll admit, I am further along in two years than I could have dreamed. Awards, publication, a life changing trip to Thailand, and meeting some amazing writers along the way have been some of the payoffs. I think I can say I now know a little something about writing short fiction.
When I began, I had no idea what to do with a short story. I did what I always do, I make the attempt, and I try and try until something happens. This involved reading a lot and experimenting. If nothing was going to happen within a few months with those first stories, I thought for sure I'd know I had failed. My first serious attempt was "What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget as Soon" (available to read in pdf here, page 44) which was, in my mind, not so much a story as an exorcism of energies around so many things I was struggling with at the time. That story just carried me in the writing of it, and I thought it might resonate with others. It did. Along with that story I tried to revive some earlier stories (mostly unsuccessfully) and took a chapter from my thesis novel and transformed it into a story which then received a place and was picked up (for a time, by two magazines--see here) and got me invited to Thailand. As for "What You Catch a Glimpse of", it received enough favorable response that I saw that it had something in it that worked. When it works, you try it again, maybe altering it a bit as you go. But this is about how to begin.
Story openings
The first problem is always the beginning (not necessarily the first problem you have writing a story, but the one you have when you want to get it published). This is a successful example in journalism, of a beginning, also known as a lead:
Back in the heady days of the dot-com boom, casual Fridays seemed to lead to casual weekdays and, in short order, a re-definition of the entire concept of "dressing for success." Call it the anything-goes dress code, where flip-flops and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts were often the sartorial norm for highly educated, well-paid professionals in the Bay Area.
("Dressing for Success: Follow the Dress Code to the Top." The San Francisco Chronicle, Jobs Section, 8 April 2007.)
That's a zinger of a lead, that first sentence, and it's what propels a reader into the piece. The same approach can be applied to short fiction. That opening has to start a fire of some kind. Here are some examples of first sentences (in bold) with their follow up sentence or sentences, more or less at random:
Underwater, there are many ways to die. This was the first thing I learned. Today we are doing our safety checks. The scuba instructor points to the board, he goes down the list, nitrogen narcosis, he says, carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, air embolisms, the bends, blackouts. My son suffocated in the womb. The cord was stretched too tight and he died. I have a pain in my ears every time I dive. I can't go past ten feet without feeling the pressure in my head. The doctors say that in the womb babies learn to breathe liquid before they learn to breathe air. I think it's beautiful to think of my son this way.
(Urban Waite,"Open Water", Agni)
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." I could say these words in English, Hindi, and Arabic—but not Urdu.
(Matthew Quick, "Do Not Hate Them Very Much", Agni)
To go back to my own stories, this is what I devised for openings:
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. When Y. stopped you from talking to apply lip balm to your dry lips. Or she sidled up to you to read what you had written for her. When you lay on the grass together she put her head on your chest and curled her body around you. In the night you watched her sleeping, you heard her teeth tapping as if taking little bites of number twelve spaghetti, so quietly. Her hand gripped your shoulder. Gestures cannot be undone, incomparable.
("What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget As Soon." 21 Stars Review, March, 2008.)
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me!
In the water she did not hear me.
("It Was a Tree That Saved Me"Evergreen Review, Issue #115, January, 2008.)

These openings throw you into the world of the story, and clue you into what the story is about. I would even go so far as to say they encapsulate their stories. How?
Underwater, there are many ways to die. : A man who attempts to master his fear of dying after his own son dies. To take it a bit further, the parallel to the unborn child's experience is metaphorically related to that opening sentence.
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." : A truck driver rationalizing an accident in the urban strife of the Iraq war complicated by ethnic divisions.
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. : A man coming to terms with a relationship in light of reflection and self-knowledge.
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me! : A man loses his partner in a tsunami and wanders the beach looking for her.
This is a good approach if you have a powerful story to tell and you want it to be read--isn't that what all short stories should aspire to? I'm not saying short story openings can always be interpreted this way, and I doubt every writer would agree with this approach, but if I can find examples of it in a handful of successful stories, then I believe it must have some truth.

Interested in reading more? Check out a recent post, on Philip Roth's First Person Point of View in Operation Shylock 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Metamorphoses It Was

A very short fiction, "Seven Dreams Under the Knife", is now available to read online, here

Never knowing whether to call this a short story or a poem, or unclassifiable, I submitted this piece under many forms--so thanks to editor John Burgess at Snow Monkey for taking it on. Also, to read some of my submission drama, look at my March 22nd post here.