Friday, July 29, 2016

Susan Perabo Urges Writers to Stop Thinking About Themselves

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Susan Perabo, author of Why They Run the Way They Do (Simon & Schuster), offers her best advice.


Look out, not in. If you’re a writer, you’re already prone to looking in. You’ve spent your whole life looking inside yourself. Deeply. Am I right? So stop it. Enough already. Look out.

As a fiction writer, you must constantly exercise your imagination, and you do this by looking out. You must look at the woman next to you at the deli counter, ordering six pounds of potato salad, and ask yourself, “What’s that woman thinking? Where’s she going? Who’s going to eat all that potato salad?” Because that woman is not the same as you. Her six pounds of potato salad is not your six pounds of potato salad. This is crucial: Do not ask yourself, "If I were that woman, why would I be buying six pounds of potato salad?" That is not the right question, because you are not that woman. It is a disservice to humanity to allow your characters to become versions of you. Do not dress yourself up as other people. This is not Halloween; this is fiction.
Potato salad: What's she thinking?

How many times have you asked yourself, looking around these past several months, “My God, what are those people thinking?” Do not allow this to become a rhetorical question. As a writer (not to mention a person), that is precisely the question that must be answered. What are those people thinking? In some cases you will have to work really, really hard to come to even a tiny fragment of an answer, a sliver of understanding. You might have to put aside everything you know to be true, everything you believe in your heart. You have to consider this question – "What are those people thinking? "—with your slate as blank as it can possibly be. And maybe then you will get a glimmer of insight. Maybe then you can look at someone whose history and values and opinions are drastically different from your own, and you can know where their potato salad is going.

And then you go to the page. You set yourself aside. You try to be as invisible as Chekhov. You fail. Again and again, you fail. But over time you find ways to avoid your own traps, to trick yourself into non-existence. If I’m part way through a story and I stop mid-scene and think, “Yes, Susan, but what are you really trying to say with this story?” I close the document immediately and I don’t return to it until I’ve excised that question from my brain. I perform this excision not by thinking about the story as a whole but by thinking only about the characters, by tricking myself (again) into believing those characters are not my own creations, by reminding myself of the Great Lie that I am not constructing their story but simply relaying it. Instead of high-falutin’ questions about my own authorial intent, instead of attempting to decide whether I’m writing this particular tale in a tradition more closely aligned with O’Connor than with Cheever, instead of imagining what a reader might consider the “takeaway” from my story, I ask myself these kinds of questions:

  • “So what did she do after she found the note in the medicine chest?”
  • “So what did he say after she told him his shoes were out of style?” 
  • “So what happened when she remembered that her mother hated potato salad?”

And back to the story—not my story, but their story—I go.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Chris McCormick's Sixteen Steps to Writing a Story

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys (Picador), lays out his method.



Sixteen Steps to Writing a Story:

  1. Figure out what you know. Maybe it’s a place, or a place within a place, or a job, or a task within a job, or a certain kind of dynamic in a certain kind of relationship. Be so daringly specific that you fear no one will relate. That’s how you get people to relate.
  2. Figure out what you don’t know about what you know. This way—Grace Paley used to tell her students—you’ll be writing with a question in mind instead of an explanation. Readers, like actual human people, hate being explained to. They’d much rather join an investigation.
  3. Now that you have a question in mind, imagine a character who’s relevant to that question in an interesting way.
  4. Imagine a second character who’s relevant to the same question in a different but also interesting way.
  5. Write a scene in which the first character relies on or disappoints the other.
  6. Write exposition that uncovers how the two characters have come to this point.
  7. With all this new information in mind, start over.
  8. Write from inside the story, not above it.
  9. Write until you arrive at some deeper understanding of your original question. Avoid pat answers.
  10. Now that you know what your story is about, start over.
  11. After many drafts and revisions, and only when you’ve done all you can on your own, send the story to one or two (but, like, never three) trusted readers.
  12. Thank them for their time and friendship, even if their opinions are untimely and unfriendly.
  13. Revise endlessly-ish. You could go on tinkering forever, but there’s quitting and there’s finishing. Trust yourself to know the difference.
  14. People, like readers, hate being explained to. That’s why lists like these invariably fail. Call bullshit on this one and the millions of others like it. 
  15. What isn’t bullshit is that you should read greedily and diversely and slowly. If any of these feels like a chore to you, your own stories will be chores to read, too.
  16. All that matters is energy and compassion. Stories that move forward while moving us can get away with absolutely anything.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Robert Lopez on Waste and Welter

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Robert Lopez, author of Good People (Bellevue Literary Press), discusses his approach to writing.


I am like everyone else in that I’m different, too.

I’m writing this because I was invited to write this and I am grateful for the invitation. I don’t particularly like writing this sort of thing, whatever this sort of thing is, but I do have fun with it. Or I try to have fun with it.

Everything else I do I do because it’s what I do. Writing is how I enter the world and move through it. I imagine it’s how I will exit it, as well.

I’ve written this sort of thing before and I’m stealing from myself and others as I write this now.

Once, I wrote, The good thing about today is I slept through most of it.

This appeared in an anthology of avant-garde writers.

I was asked to come up with an essay about process, my process, how I go about doing what it is I do, even though I don’t think of myself as avant-garde and try not to think about process.

What I’ve said more than once is that language comes to me and I go where that language wants to go.

This is entirely true. I’ve never had an idea for a story. I’ve never heard someone tell me a story and stolen it. I steal language and lines, but never stories. This has nothing to do with ethics, of course. I wouldn’t know how to steal a story, just as I don’t know how to write one myself.

Meaning I can’t explain to you how I write stories. I was born into a family in a city that is part of a country, which is part of a planet. I’ve lived for almost forty-five years now. I’ve been around people, have spoken with them, have seen them being people, have interacted with them, personally and professionally. I’ve done most of the human things or at least a good many of them.

After all this somehow or another I can write sentences that amount to a story or what some might consider a story.

As a teacher and editor I can look at a story and diagnose what’s missing or what’s too much. But as a writer I rarely think about those things.

I do sometimes think about them, but I try not to. It’s all feel or that’s how I want it to be.

It’s all Jazz. If it sounds right it is right.

Most of the time.

I didn’t sleep through most of today, though it wouldn’t have been a tragedy if I’d had.

Here is a list of the questions that this piece of writing is trying and failing to answer.

  • Why do you write?
  • Name something you read that made you want to be a writer.
  • Is there a story by another author you wish you’d written?
  • Where does a story begin for you? (An opening line? a last line? a plot? a character? a situation? an incident? a concept?)
  • Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
  • What do you do when you get stuck?
  • How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
  • Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
  • Discuss a local bookstore or library that is important to you.

These are all good questions and I like hearing others answer them.

There are a lot of stories I’ve read that made me want to be a writer, lots of stories that I’d wished I’d written. Grace Paley has done a couple. So has Barry Hannah.

I play a lot of tennis. This helps with the writing. I’m not sure how it helps, but it helps.

I almost never get stuck. Sometimes, a lot of times, I don’t write. This is no great tragedy. I’ve written plenty thus far. I don’t feel the need to do it every day, certainly. When I feel the need to do it I do it. There are other things for me to do when I don’t feel the need. Including nothing, I can do nothing with the best of them.

This, too, this nothing, probably helps with the writing.

Wallace Stevens is an answer to a few of the questions, too.

I like a good many bookstores, but none are important to me.

The idea of a bookstore is important to me, though.

Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Louis Armstrong said, “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

They’re both right and wrong.

I suppose I write stories in order to live. I suppose I write stories because I will one day die.

Other makings of the sun are waste and welter, after all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Tony Lindsay on Writing to Be Read

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Tony Lindsay, author of Acorns in a Skillet (Prosperity Publications), discusses what motivated him to write and writers who inspired him.


Why do you write?
I fell in love with stories as a child: hearing them, reading them, watching movies and television. During the era I grew up, reading got a child teased—bookworm-four eyes etc.—so I started writing stories in school instead of always reading. The one exception was comic books—kids didn’t tease you for reading comic books. Anyway, the stories I wrote kids liked and that gave me great pleasure. I grew to love being read; in short, I write because I love the connection between reader and writer.

Name something you read that made you want to be a writer.
The Nancy Drew stories, Donald Goines books, and the works of Toni Morrison and John A. Williams.

Is there a story by another author you wish you’d written?
No, I respect another person’s story as their creation.

Where does a story begin for you? 
An observation, usually I see something that causes me to think "what if?" and the story starts there.

Describe a practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
Having an opinion or something to say about an observation.

What do you do when you get stuck?
Move to a different part of the story or review what I have already written.

How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
If I get bored with it; if it is boring me to write, it will bore the reader to read.

Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
I began writing a historical fiction piece about Nat Turner, and I got bogged down in the dialect of the era—wanting it to be as authentic as possible. But slave dialects have been hard to recreate because they were not monolithic in tone, due their education levels and geographic locations—and not wanting to add to stereotypes, it has been a challenge.

Name a local bookstore or library that is important to you.
The Woodson Regional branch in Chicago with its Vivian G. Harsh Collection.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

James Terry Goes Home Again

In the third in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, James Terry, author of Kingdom of the Sun (Univ. of New Mexico Press), discusses writing stories set in his hometown while living far from there.


I think the place where one grows up leaves the most lasting impressions in one’s heart and mind. Ironically, all of the stories in Kingdom of the Sun were written in Dublin, Ireland, during a prolonged bout of homesickness. On gloomy, Irish winter days, I pined for sunlight and American spaces, the desert. Isolation, space, heat, silence, dryness, prickliness. Living in Dublin while writing these stories intensified my memories of that space, and so these stories were born of a desire to live again, if only imaginatively, in my own past, my childhood, Deming, New Mexico. I wanted to feel it all again intensely, and it wasn’t difficult for me to evoke it, because I was writing from a sense of loss, even though by that point I hadn’t lived in Deming for over sixteen years. There’s a certain nostalgic melancholy that hangs over the collection for that reason. The truck driver glimpsing the drive-in at dusk in the distance, the lawyer practicing alone on an empty tennis court in the heat of noon, a solitary trailer in the vast scrub desert—the geography enveloping the stories is the literary expression of my own states of mind while writing them. I was the ghost returning to his old haunts.

Dublin had another influence, which was James Joyce, specifically Dubliners. I wanted to do an integrated collection in a similar vein, and I knew that I could profitably mine my memories of Deming to do justice to a wide variety of people and their stories. In trying to give voice to a cross-section of Deming people (young, old, men, women, white, Hispanic, educated, uneducated), I employed a variety of styles and narrators to vary the tone of each story and give access to the characters in different ways. In doing so I sometimes consciously imitated the writers I admire. “Midnight Pools” carries echoes of Salinger and Beckett. “Road to Nowhere” is my attempt to do Flannery O’Connor. “Fumble” was influenced by Julio Cortázar. “Due Diligence” has shades of Paul Auster. “The Wildcat Massacre,” was a blend of Nabokov and Borges. And “Luminarias” is basically a homage to James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

I must also mention the influence of my grandmother, whose house I lived in growing up. Not only was she a fantastic story teller, of Mark Twain caliber, but having lived in Deming nearly her entire life, she was a font of local history and character, she knew everybody, and so I inherited a sense of entitlement to Deming as fodder for stories. I started writing these stories the year after she died, which may not be a coincidence.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

David Atkinson on Not Quite So Stories and Just So Stories

In the second in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, David S. Atkinson, author of Not Quite So Stories (Literary Wanderlust), explains how Rudyard Kipling's book did and didn't influence his own.


My story collection Not Quite So Stories has at its heart a certain conversation with Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Although, the book didn't actually start out that way. At first, I found myself writing a few stories that were primarily realistic but had at their core something utterly absurd. I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but they were too fun not to write. When I found the work of authors like Etgar Keret and Amelia Gray, I realized that these kind of stories really could work. Not only did I see even more possibilities, it looked like someone might actually care enough about stories like that to read them. Things were taking off.
Rudyard Kipling: Paternalistic?

However, it was only when I thought back to Just So Stories that Not Quite So Stories really started to take shape. I thought about these slightly odd stories I was doing in the context of myth, how it's often seen as an attempt to explain the world. Just So Stories is kind of like that, but highly simplified, pretty much for children. Many of Kipling's stories in that book can be seen as colonialist, or at least paternalistic. The camel? Cursed for refusing to work for man, but what reason did the camel have to work for man? It felt like trying to reduce life to too little, sucking the magic out of the world. I mean, I don't want to explain life. I think it's impossible anyway, but would rather revel in the wonder of it all regardless.

And that's the approach I started taking with my stories. Life is absurd. We aren't going to make sense out of it. Who we are is how we deal with all that, and everything else. In a way, I was somewhat thumbing my nose at Kipling, though I still have a fondness from childhood for his stories. Whether I'm right or not, or whether it's even the sort of thing one can be right about, it was an interesting avenue to contemplate and write stories along.

The result was Not Quite So Stories, and beyond admitting to the existence of the Kipling conversation, my book will have to speak for itself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Kathy Anderson on Beginning with the First Line

In the first in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Kathy Anderson, author of Bull (Autumn Press), discusses how a good first line inspires her.



For me, a story begins when I find the elusive magical first line. I picture the first line of a story like a hanger. You drape a story on that first line like it's a loose shirt, now held in place by its underlying frame. Everything hangs on that first line. It contains the whole universe of the story in it—the distinct voice of a character, what the story is about, the point of view, the tone. My biggest thrill is when a reader says I was hooked from the first line.

A first line cannot be gimmicky. It must not try too hard. Most of all, it should feel utterly confident. You recognize an authentic first line by your feeling toward it, like falling in love at first sight or meeting a person you want to make friends with. You're excited, intrigued, attracted. You put everything else aside and stay with it.

When I'm lucky, which is very rare, the right first line pops into my head, bringing with it all the energy and information I need to write the story. Those first lines feel like a gift, arriving with a big bow and a flourish. The work comes in finding the rest of the story to fulfill the miraculous start. When a first line pops into your head, you don't have to understand it but you do have to start following the trail it lays out.

But the usual way that I find the first line is to coax it out of many notebook pages. Sometimes it hides from me for years behind the word thicket until I go back, open that forgotten notebook, see it, pounce on it, and grab it out of there. When the time is right to write the story, those words you scribbled or typed in a flood of other words will now stand out. The line that starts a story has a definite charge to it, a whipped-up energy. Pay attention to that energy.

I write down first lines from stories I love. They are a mysterious bunch, those sentences. They follow their own rules, make their own path. You can't learn to write a first line by replicating ones you love, that's for sure. They insist on their own universe, don't work in anyone else's.

When I lead short story workshops, we read first lines from great stories out loud. I hope that we can learn how to recognize what works because there's no real way to teach what works. First lines can't be analyzed or deconstructed in any real sense. They can't be summoned by logic or formula. You have to hear them, feel them land, witness the magic.

How can you learn to write a first line that sings, grabs, contains multitudes? You can't. You can only open yourself to them. You can accept that writing short stories is an art based as much on instinct and feeling as it is on technique and skill. You can cultivate your woo-woo side, the wild artist in you. You can listen for the magic.

I don't know a lot of things about first lines. I don't know why they work on us the way they do. I don't know why some land like a depth charge and others sneak up from behind and put their arms around us. I don't know why they wait in our notebooks and computers for years sometimes. Maybe they are waiting for the rest of the story to arrive, piece by piece. Then they raise their arms, take their place on the hanger, and the story begins.