Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Long List: Other Outstanding 2014 Short Story Collections

We received 129 short story collections in 2014, the most ever entered for The Story Prize in a single year. Beyond the three finalists and the winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award, here's a long list of some other collections that particularly stood out for us:

We publish our long list after our short list of finalists because in some ways it's even more difficult to make these choices. We read many other worthwhile collections, but to keep the list at a somewhat reasonable length, we had to draw a line somewhere. Every author who published a short story collection in 2014 deserves a great deal of credit, and at least a dozen other books we read could easily have made this list. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An Index of Guest Posts from Authors of 2014 Short Story Collections

Hit parade: Antonya Nelson (top),
Ben Marcus, and Hilary Mantel
In 2014, we once again invited each author of a collection we received as an entry for The Story Prize to contribute a guest post to this blog. Out of 125 authors, 71 chose to participate.* Since 2010, the TSP blog has featured 337 guest posts from 328 writers.

According to Blogger's statistics, most 2014 guest posts received 300 or more page views. The most popular post, "Antonya Nelson's Ten Writing Rules," went viral (by our standards, at least) and has so far drawn more than 12,000 page views—by far the most of any TSP blog post and nearly five times as many hits as the next most popular we've ever had. The author posts with the second and third most hits this year were "Hilary Mantel's Ten Observations About Writing" and "Ben Marcus' 'Dear Writer' Letter"—both with more than 2,300 page views.

When we ask the authors if they'd like to contribute, we give them several options. One is to answer any or all of a series of questions, which we change somewhat each year. The 2014 questions were:

  • If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
  • Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
  • Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
  • What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
  • What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
  • What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
  • Where do you do most of your work?
  • What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
  • What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
  • What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?

We also suggest some possible topics:

  • A literary touchstone (e.g., a book or books you have reread many times and return to often).
  • An aspect of craft you struggled to learn, and how you learned it.
  • Your publishing experience.
  • A letter to a young writer, a la Rilke.
  • A list of ten pieces of writing advice.

The last topic was a popular one this year, with about a dozen authors offering their advice. Contributors also, of course, had the option of coming up with their own ideas.

This index is in alphabetical order by last name, with author names linking to their book on IndieBound (unless a book wasn't available on that site) and the rest of the guest post titles linking to the posts themselves.

Molly Antopol Embraces Solitude
Jacob M. Appel and the Door to Eternal Life
Vanessa Blakeslee Hits a Nerve
Michael Blumenthal's Unusual Habit
Catherine Browder and the Unmet Mentors
Kelly Cherry Makes a List
Judy Chicurel and the Atmospheric Aura
Mark Chiusano on Finding the Right Cover
Diane Cook Writes from a Place of Fear
Tracy Daugherty on Walker Percy's Thought Experiments
Halina Duraj's Ruthless Story-Brain

Sean Ennis Puts in the Time
Elizabeth Eslami Embraces the Mess
Why Ali Eteraz Stopped Trying to Be an American Writer
Murray Farish's Writing Advice from Other Writers
John Henry Fleming's Writing Tips for the Tip Averse Writer
Amina Gautier Says: "Remember Who You Were"
Joseph Gentile: Eight Things All Writers Should Do at Least Once
David Gordon Talks to Himself
Nicholas Grider's Ten Pieces of Advice
If David Guterson Weren't a Writer...

Arna Bontemps Hemenway's Walk into the Otherworld
Jennifer Horne Wrestles with Her Conscience
Alden Jones's Writing Advice: "Don't Listen to My Advice"
A.L. Kennedy Gets Out of the Way
Laurence Klavan and the Sense of Unease
Phil Klay's Middle School Stint
Doretta Lau Does the Work
Peter LaSalle Considers John Cheever Across the River
J. Robert Lennon and the Sweet Spot
Deborah Levy and the Essential Obstinacy
Karin Lin-Greenberg: Notes of a Failed Cartoonist
Sara Lippmann Gets Over It
Jack Livings on Dealing with Rejection
Shelly Lowenkopf's Good News and Bad News

James Magruder and the Boyhood Tribulations
Hilary Mantel's Ten Observations About Writing
Francesca Marciano's Ten Writing Mantras
Ben Marcus' "Dear Writer" Letter
Elizabeth McCracken's First 21st Century Short Story Collection
Monica McFawn and the Pursuit of Clarity
Kseniya Melnik's Competing Passion
Jen Michalski Starts with a Dream
K.D. Miller Works with What She Has
Kyle Minor's Unwritten Time Travel Story
Dolan Morgan's Treatment for Writer's Block

Antonya Nelson's Ten Writing Rules
Kent Nelson and the Quest for the Right Cover
James Nolan and the Singular Element
Tom Noyes Keeps the Faith
Kathy Page Encounters Other Places
Vikram Paralkar and the Agent's Letter
David James Poissant's Letter to His 25-Year-Old Self
Nick Ripatrazone's Sacramental Vision
Eliza Robertson Rocks
David Ryan and the Crowded Room

Diane Schoemperlen Works with Words and Pictures
Aurelie Sheehan Sneaks up on Plot
Susan Sherman on the Significance of Place
Heather A. Slomski Prepares Herself
Justin Taylor and the Unwriteable Idea
Johnny Townsend Wrestles with the Truth
Lee Upton Breaks the Ice
Anne Valente on Fiction and the Language of Film
Marek Waldorf Paints a Picture
John Warner's Unlikely Inspiration
Christian Winn and the Search for Meaning
Kathleen Winter and the Scary Fat Boy Story
Jonathan Woods and The Hard-Boiled Tradition

* Whether or not someone contributes a post has nothing to do with the books we choose as finalists or for our long-list. We received 129 books, but some authors published more than one this year. One 2014 contributor to TSP, Jacob M. Appel, published two short story collections in 2014, but we only invite each author to contribute to the blog one time in any year. Appel's other book is Einstein's Beach House (Pressgang).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dolan Morgan's Treatment for Writer's Block

In the 71st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Dolan Morgan, author of That's When the Knives Come Out (Aforementioned Productions) describes his solution to an all too common malady.

For years, “writer’s block” eluded me as a concept. I did not understand what it meant or even how it could be deemed a real affliction. Were people really having this problem? How did they know? I considered the term at best a melodramatic cover for laziness, and at worst a sign of innate inability.
I was wrong, of course, and a fool. I cringe now thinking of the way, in my youth, I would parade around and demand that people who think they have writer’s block should just sit down, get over themselves, and write already, that ideas come from action and not from perfect planning. Anyone who has experienced writer’s block knows that this is not only terrible advice but dangerous too—because writer’s block is real. It’s physical, invasive, and persistent. I learned this the hard way, and spent weeks recovering.

Now when I have writer’s block, I follow a strict regimen that I think many others could benefit from. First, I remain ever vigilant for symptoms and signs. With every new word, paragraph, or edit, I take stock of my surroundings and consider my mind and body. This must be done holistically, as things aren’t always cut and dry in life. To be safe, I go immediately into action if two or more of the following circumstances present themselves while writing:

  • Persistent checking of social media.
  • Discoloration around mouth and lips.
  • Hands that smell like chemicals, such as white out or mercury.
  • Burns, stains, and odors on my body (or even clothing, desks, laptops, and other objects in the area, especially paper).
  • Vomiting, labored breathing, drowsiness, confusion, or other deviations from my usual routine.

If confronted with these, I step slowly away from my computer and retire to the bathroom—where I keep a special kit containing all relevant tools.
Tweezers: Aggressive treatment

First, I give my body a quick search for the affected area. This is usually indicated by redness, swelling or tenderness to the touch. I carefully soak the affected area with a hot saline solution. This helps to draw the writer’s block to the surface. If necessary, I prick the center with a needle (but generally the sensitive skin opens all on its own as tension grows). From there, I use an index finger and thumb to squeeze the so-called hotspot, puckering the opening to reveal my wriggling writer’s block, and then I pull out “the head” with a set of tweezers. A long string or tail will emerge behind it and must be gathered from the body. It will come out smoothly if there are no sudden movements. When I feel a tug or tightness deep within the chest (usually near my heart), I sever the tail with scissors or sharp blades. After placing the writer’s block in a sealable container and cleaning up the blood, I apply rubbing alcohol and a household band-aid, then let out a sigh of relief.

It can be a little tedious, but dealing with this unsightly and embarrassing ailment is well worth the effort and preparation. After just a few minutes of simple first-aid, I can get back to work. It usually takes at least four more hours for any significant writer’s block to build up in the blood, during which I can often harvest a healthy series of workable paragraphs and plot points by dissolving the extracted writer’s block chunk in a pool of water – because writer’s block survives in the body by consuming my best ideas during a rapid gestation period. 100% of one of the stories in my collection emerged whole and complete from a juiced chunk of writer’s block after medical extraction. I never would have “written” this piece if it weren’t for my dedication to home remedies and self-care.

Conversely, the accumulated effects of untreated writer’s block can be debilitating and demoralizing, even deadly, since the human body is comprised not of flesh, as is commonly repeated, but instead almost entirely of ideas and abstractions.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Finalists for The Story Prize: The Other Language by Francesca Marciano, Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken, and Bark by Lorrie Moore

The Finalists: (L to R): Marciano, McCracken, and Moore

We're pleased to honor as finalists for The Story Prize three outstanding books chosen from 129 entries representing 85 different publishers or imprints. They are:

  • The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (Pantheon)
  • Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken (The Dial Press)
  • Bark by Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano collects nine stories about women and men in or just beyond the cusp of major life changes, in locales as diverse as Greece, Rome, Venice, Kenya, India, and New York. The nine stories in Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck, her first collection in 20 years, delve into dark subjects with seriousness and wit, and deliver on their inventive premises. Lorrie Moore's collection, Bark, consists of eight stories set mostly in Middle America, about people in or approaching midlife who find themselves midway between speaking their minds and protecting their emotions by forming a hard shell around themselves.

This year's judges, Boulder (Colo.) bookseller Arsen Kashkashian, Center for Fiction Director Noreen Tomassi, and author Laura van den Berg will decide the outcome.

The annual award event will take place at the New School’s Auditorium at 66 West 12 Street in New York City at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., March 4. Tickets cost $14. That night, Marciano, McCracken, and Moore will read from and discuss their work on-stage. At the end of the event, Julie Lindsey will announce the winner and present that author with $20,000 (which remains the biggest top prize of any annual U.S. book award for fiction) along with an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.

In the weeks ahead, we'll publish an index of guest posts form 2014 authors, and a long list of other exceptional collections we read last year.

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor—This Year's Winner Of The Story Prize Spotlight Award

It's difficult to read as many excellent short story collections each year as we do and only choose three to honor. There are always other books that don't make that very short list but stay with us long after we've read them. For that reason, three years ago, we created The Story Prize Spotlight award, a $1,000 prize to honor an additional short story collection that we believe deserves further attention.

The author: A major accomplishment
This year's winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award is Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor (Sarabande Books)—a visceral, intense, and formally innovative book of stories set in the American south and Haiti. Throughout the book, the author and his characters pose a series of questions—some profane and some profound—that thwart any hope of easy answers. 

Congratulations to Kyle Minor and Sarabande Books.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

John Warner's Unlikely Inspiration

In the 70th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, John Warner, author of Tough Day for the Army (LSU Press) talks about the movie Airplane.

There is no movie I’ve seen more times than Airplane. There was a period when I could recite the dialogue almost word for word. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more charming than a ten-year-old quoting lines like, “Joey, have you ever been in a…a Turkish prison.”

Airplane may also be the single greatest influence on my writing, period.

The main reason I’ve seen Airplane multiple-hundred times is an accident of history, in that the movie was released near the dawn of the home VCR era when my family acquired a Buick-sized VHS, a gift to my father on his 40th birthday. This was 1980 when the video store was the camera store, the entire selection a shelf of maybe 50 titles above the tripods.

The first two movies we rented were Kramer v. Kramer (both dull and weirdly upsetting to my ten-year-old self), and Airplane ,which I watched over and over and over again.

In a movie of legendary gags, my favorite one is in the credits. As the characters make their way into the airport, we hear a series of parking announcements from what seem to be pre-recorded voices over the public address system, alternating between male and female voices.

The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

Soon, though, a dispute breaks out between the two voices:

Male announcer: The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.

Female announcer: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a RED zone.

Male announcer: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There's never stopping in a white zone.

Female announcer: Don't you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping!

Male announcer: Listen Betty, don't start up with your white zone shit again.

After a break, we hear the true nature of the argument.

Male announcer: There's just no stopping in a white zone.

Female announcer: Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion.

Male announcer: It's really the only sensible thing to do, if its done safely. Therapeutically, there's no danger involved.

Even as I barely understood the dark subtext underneath, I was tickled by this notion, that one thing could suddenly become another and that under everything there were characters and stories.

This impulse is carried out in a number of the stories in Tough Day for the Army.

One of them, “Return-to-Sensibility Problems after Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report” is inspired by a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association (JAVMA) that was one of the most horrifying reading experiences of my life, as a detached, clinical tone outlined the “mooing,” “bellowing,” and “twitching” of “improperly stunned” cattle that had been hung on the “bleed rail.” The events underlying the published report must have been horrifying to witness.

I wondered what would happen if the author could not contain that horror, and it began to leak into the report itself, and soon I had a story.

Another story, “Corrections and Clarifications,” is written entirely in the form of newspaper corrections for a small town newspaper. It is explicitly inspired by the “Red Zone” scene from Airplane, where a formal, official voice slowly breaks down and reveals what’s going on underneath all of these mistakes.

While other stories in the collection are less formally inventive, I realize that all of them share a similar sensibility in that they are grounded in the same manner as all good jokes. They ask a “What if?”

What if a fraternity decided to waterboard its pledges?

What if Jesus had a first career as a minor league hockey player?

What if a con-monkey blackmailed an innocent man?

All of these stories owe a debt to Airplane, a movie that asks, “What if?” of everything – What if the co-pilot was Kareem Abdul Jabbar? What if we make Beaver Cleaver’s mother speak jive? What if we make a running gag about the homonyms “surely” and “Shirley"?

The movie is unrestrained, downright risky in its willingness to be goofy.

I can’t think of a better source of inspiration for writing fiction.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Murray Farish's Writing Advice from Other Writers

In the 69th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Murray Farish, author of Inappropriate Behavior (Milkweed Editions), cobbles together some appropriate words of wisdom.

1. “The writer is the person who stays in the room.” – Ron Carlson

2. “‘There is only one thing in life,’ she went on, laughing, ‘that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.’” – Henry Adams

3. “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." – Cormac McCarthy

4. “Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style.”
– G. B. Shaw

5. “I put my face against the soft hair at the back of her neck and breathe her in, baby powder and child’s washed flesh and shampoo, with an undertone, the faint scent of urine.”  – Margaret Atwood

6. “Simplicity is not a given. It is an achievement, a human invention, a discovery, a beloved belief.” – William Gass

7. “Agonies are one of my changes of garments, / I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” – Walt Whitman

8. “The point for us if we write is that nearly everything we can learn about writing can be set down only in fiction’s terms. What we know about writing the novel is the novel.” – Eudora Welty

9. “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”
– Henry David Thoreau

10. “There is a world inside the world.” – Don DeLillo

Monday, January 5, 2015

Diane Cook Writes from a Place of Fear

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Diane Cook, author of Man V. Nature (Harper), explores the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.

When Mark Strand died I went back to his books. I hadn’t read him in many years but long ago he was my first favorite poet. The one I found all on my own from just browsing my college bookstore, feeling cool that I was someone who spent her own money on books. No one had to tell me what to read or when, I just found what I wanted. I was 18 and learning to be a reader. I was hardly even learning to be a writer yet. That would come a little later. After I learned to really read. As it should.

One of my favorite Strand poems was always “The Tunnel” so I re-read it. It begins:

Tunnel vision: Poet Mark Strand
A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.

I was stunned to see this again. In my collection, Man V. Nature, one of the stories, “Somebody’s Baby,” begins with a man and woman who come home from the hospital with their newborn daughter to find a man standing in their yard. The man is there to try to take their baby, as he’s done to all the other new babies in the neighborhood. It is a story grown from fear of the unknown and the familiar. It is a fable of sorts, surreal. I had not realized until this moment of re-reading that it is also inspired by Mark Strand. When I wrote my story, my man seemed to organically emerge from my personal preoccupations, a vision of anxiety that made the most sense to me. But the image of Strand’s strange and unappeasable man had stuck in my mind for almost 20 years waiting to find a reason to reappear. Now I see that while my story sprung originally from my brain, in some wonderful way it is also an homage. Would I have ever written “Somebody’s Baby” if I hadn’t read Strand’s “The Tunnel”? Maybe Strand read some piece of writing that led to his own haunting figure of a man in a yard. This is what is great about the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.

Personally, I can’t do one without doing the other. I can’t join the conversation writers are having about being human, about fear, about creation, about writing, if I haven’t read what they have to say. That said, I’m not the most well read person you’ll find. Far from it. I’ve learned to be okay with that. I do my best. My own reading is rollercoaster-ish. Sometimes I’ll read a book in a day. This fall, I mainly read for work. It took me weeks to finish a book. Even though I may have loved what I was reading, the pressure of having a responsibility toward each book slowed me down to a crawl.

This month, I’m reading for pleasure. I have a box of books with me I can’t even hope to finish. But I know that reading and losing myself in other people’s words is one way I kick my own writing into gear. It’s inspiration for me. I read several books at once. They are piled on the other side of my bed. I pick one up, read some, pick up another, and so on. It’s not economical but it’s fun and it feels freeing and inspiring and a little intellectually naughty.

Right now I’m in a cabin two miles up a mountainside dirt road with views of the Pacific when the fog cooperates. I am not remote enough to be in any kind of danger, but I’m remote enough to feel scared. Scared of the dark, of what’s beyond the tree line, of my own thoughts. This is what I do. When I’m ready to write I go to places where I feel on the edge of security. The part of my imagination rooted in fear stands up. When this stands up, everything stands up. This wasn’t always my process but it’s my process now. Read books and be scared. Then, write. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it this way, though I’m sure others have. I came upon it once I stopped trying to mimic other people’s processes—write in the morning, write at night, write every day, don’t force your writing, ass in chair, go for walks, outline, don’t outline, always finish books, life’s too short to always finish books, read the classics, read your friends, writing is just your job, writing is your life. There is a lot of advice out there and it’s not meant to be contradictory but it can feel that way sometimes. What I’ve learned is to just do whatever I want. It might mean I’m reading 12 books at one time, or reading novels like they’re books of poetry. It might mean I’m shaking because every sound outside my door could be some stalking cougar, or maybe worse, a man in my yard. Ideally, it means that I get to a place where I write stories that feel like no other stories I’ve read but are somehow still a part of the conversation. When I do what I want, I write better. Is this essay a kind of advice to young writers? If so, then don’t take my advice, except, do take my advice, if you know what I mean.