Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Announcing The Story Prize Judges: Jo Ann Beard, Ron Charles, and Veronica Santiago Liu

The Story Prize is pleased to announce its 2018 judges: author Jo Ann BeardWashington Post book critic Ron Charles, and bookseller Veronica Santiago Liu. The judges will choose the winner of The Story Prize from among the three books we'll select as finalists and announce in January.

About the judges

Jo Ann Beard is the author of In Zanesville, a novel, and The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Ron Charles is a book critic and feature writer at The Washington Post, where he hosts the Totally Hip Video Book Review. Before coming to The Post in 2005, Charles edited the book section of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. In 2009, he won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Reviewing. In 2011, he won first place for Arts & Entertainment commentary from the Society for Features Journalism. In 2014, Charles served as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He also hosts a quarterly interview series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Veronica Santiago Liu has been involved in community arts organizing for 24 years, most recently as founder and general coordinator of the 60-person collective that operates Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria. She has received individual grants for writing, the development of an arts and music fair, oral history, and various publishing projects, and she sits on the Diversity Task Force of the American Booksellers Association, the advisory board for Healthy Families Washington Heights, and the community advisory board for freeform radio station WFMU. Prior to becoming Word Up’s first paid staff member, she was a contributing editor at Seven Stories Press, where she worked as managing then senior editor for more than a decade.

The Story Prize event at The New School will be on March 6, 2019, so save the date!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Maria Romasco Moore Pairs Stories with Images

In the 25th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Maria Romasco Moore, author of Ghostographs (Rose Metal Press), shares a story written about (and on) a vintage photo.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Curtis Sittenfeld's Breakthrough Experience

In the 24th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Curtis Sittenfeld, author of You Think It, I'll Say It (Random House), reveals her writing and reading habits.

Describe your writing practice. 
I usually write for a few hours in the morning. I'm very lucky that writing is my full-time job, meaning that since 2005, I have signed contracts for books I haven't yet written and am working toward a deadline. I work from home after my kids go to school, in an office, and I write outlines so that I have a sense of the overarching structure of a story or novel. I try to stay offline when I'm writing, and sometimes I succeed.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced. 
From 2005, when my first novel was published, until 2016, when my fifth novel was published, I wrote very few short stories. Occasionally, I wrote one based on an assigned idea from a magazine editor, which was fun but less organic than working on an idea that I alone had come up with. In spring 2016, I wrote the story "Gender Studies," which was purely my idea and in fact an idea I'd been thinking about for a few years, concerning a woman who loses her driver's license while on a business trip. It felt a bit like this was my first story written as a full-fledged adult rather than a still-confused post-MFA student (to be clear, I'm a still-confused adult, but my grad school experience, which concluded in 2001, now seems like a long time ago). I believe that writing five novels, and also just getting older, had helped me sharpen certain skills that I could apply to short stories. That story was accepted by The New Yorker (after I'd been intermittently throwing myself at the magazine for 20 years, without ever having a story accepted), and it was as if a dam had broken (in my work, not at The New Yorker)—I then wrote several more stories in a period of a few months.

What are the most difficult conditions you’ve successfully written under? 
The Trump Presidency.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well? 
It varies based on the reason my writing isn't going well. Sometimes I need to revise my outline. Sometimes I need to do more research by reading or by interviewing someone. Sometimes I just need to try harder to tune out distractions or fight my own bad habits (hi, Twitter). If I'm being undisciplined, the first step tends to be admitting to myself that I'm being undisciplined and trying to put a plan in place, whether it's deciding what scene I'll tackle when I next start writing or what my goal is and schedule will be for the next few weeks or months.

What are your reading habits like?
I read mostly at night, though sometimes if I'm reading for research for my fiction or to prepare for an event, I read during the day. Though I read more fiction, I'll read whatever intrigues me—some of the books I've read recently are the short Norwegian novel The Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen; the YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; the essay collection My Own Devices by the rapper and writer Dessa; and the forthcoming memoir about weight (and lots of other things) The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson.

What new story collections are you looking forward to reading?
Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker and Better Times by Sara Batkie.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Adrianne Harun's Nine-Part Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Adrianne Harun, author of Catch, Release (Johns Hopkins University Press), focuses on the practice of writing.

Not long ago, I noticed that any advice I had to offer about a writing practice had as much to do with mental and spiritual health as with putting words down on the page. I worried about that for a bit, not wanting to slip into proselytizing or, perhaps worse, unwanted mothering. But, apparently, the latter is my unabashed bailiwick, even when it comes to the writing process. So here goes:
  1. Be kind to yourself. Don't judge. Don’t shame. Don’t bully. Most of us wouldn’t be a fraction as unkind to others as we can be to our writer selves. Remember, writing is a choice, not a single route to self-definition.
  2. Truth matters. We sometimes circle difficult material, not quite wanting to expose ourselves. Or we want to be clever in ways that inadvertently obscure. Or we veer off into tangential investigations. Research quiets me, and not in a good way. When I feel the need to wander away from a story that is proving inadequate or troublesome with the excuse of “research,” all trembles to a stop. I have “work to do,” diving down one cyber rabbit hole after another, gathering notes and scraps along the way. “Useful?” I’ll scribble. “Correct? Really?” Fiction isn’t reality. It’s a form of truth-telling. Try not to drift down too many byroads, worrying about how smart your story will be or who you might offend. Just tell the truth.
  3. A scene or action won’t be fully inhabited unless it is emotionally resonant. Be equally honest emotionally. Your readers will appreciate and engage more readily.
  4. Honestly, anything taken in excess will make you sick. Limit/get the hell off social media. Go cold turkey for a couple of weeks, and you’ll feel as if you’ve taken up marathon running—light, strong, and a little sanctimonious (a little’s okay).
  5. Don’t let personal history rule your narrative, unless personal history is your narrative. In that case, give that personal history its own agency and clarity. (My agent is laughing right now.) But truly, backstory, like a too-long date with an acquaintance obsessed with his glorious or “interesting” past, can deaden and delay a promising story relationship.
  6. Add structure to your life. Working through revisions with story shape in mind is akin to suddenly having an architect beside you while you scrutinize your sagging DIY project. Considering structure and form and contemplating where and how light and air get into your story can illuminate for you where the holes lie, where the story flails and/or is supported.
  7. Move around purposefully. Give your characters more to do. One of my dear writer friends used to proclaim, “If you want action, go to the track.” But it’s not action a story demands as much as a sense of purpose, that seductive inner propulsion that comes from having something utterly necessary to do.
  8. Sing. The glories and rhythms of language define us and our characters and elevate even the most mundane exchanges. Really, can you imagine living without music? Pay attention to the resonance and accuracy of your prose, sentence by sentence, word by word.
  9. Finally, find humor wherever you can. Humor enlivens and quickens fiction. Wonderfully, a funny passage also makes a reader pay closer attention even when the subject itself (see #2 above) is uncomfortable.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Niles Reddick on the Business Side of Writing

In the 22nd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Niles Reddick, author of Reading the Coffee Grounds (Aakenbaaken & Kent), discusses the nonwriting part of the job.

Many years ago, Inman Majors (author of several novels including his newest, Penelope Lemon), a good friend and former co-editor with me of “The Distillery” (now defunct), jokingly said to colleagues and students, “Don’t give up your day job,” referring to writing and working. As the years have passed, nothing could be truer. While I often joke that I couldn’t make one month’s mortgage payment with what I’ve earned in royalties from my fiction, I have been fortunate to work in higher education and write “on the side.”

Writers love ideas and are inspired by all sorts of things. For me, it’s family like my aunt who collected road kill and made what she called art with it, or her pouring peroxide in tea because she believed it gave her more oxygen; friends like Poet Laureate of Tennessee Maggie Vaughn and her eccentric behavior, like writing a poem about a moon pie; or just the random person in a drive-thru with a tattoo of a heart on an arm that has grown flabby and stretched over time and now looks like Mick Jagger’s lips. The creative writing is the best part of the process.

The toughest part of the process is finding the time to take care of the business of writing: submitting, tracking submissions, getting rejections and resubmitting, promoting and marketing, networking, and keeping up with the business of it all when one has a full-time job, family, community obligations, and much more.

I don’t require a lot of sleep, so I am an early riser at 4:00 a.m., even on weekends and without an alarm clock, and I was like this as a child. Imagine what a nuisance I was to my parents and siblings. I enjoy some strong coffee, read, and edit, and then go to my university office two hours before the workday actually begins to write and do many of the ancillary tasks required of the postmodern writer. It has become a complicated process, a process that takes a substantial amount of time, and the older I get, the more I realize how valuable that time is.

Twenty or so years ago, writers sent submissions in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope and waited some time before finally receiving a rejection and beginning the process over again. In fact, one didn’t need a spreadsheet to track all of the submissions. Now, while there are a few publications out there that still take snail mail submissions, most don’t and a writer can send several submissions per email, even simultaneous submissions to several editors and publications, and responses from editors don’t seem to take as long as they once did. It some ways, the business of writing is much easier and increases a writer’s chances of becoming published.

Currently, I’m juggling seventeen unpublished stories that are each submitted to approximately five literary magazines and journals all over the world. There are several stories in progress, several stories that were never published that I go back to from time to time to revise, and several pieces that were never finished and probably shouldn’t be. I recently discovered a box of writing from my undergraduate days, and it’s a miracle I was ever published given how bad that writing was. In addition, I am pushing information out to an unknown audience on Twitter, pushing information out to multiple Facebook groups, and updating a website I pay for from my main job’s salary. Even though there are tax deduction advantages from website costs, free review copies, speaking engagements for which I do not charge, and advice I offer to others who contact me, the business side of the creative process can be taxing.

When I leave this world, I hope to leave something behind. Sure, I’ll appear among the weekly birthday lists on Facebook, and I imagine there will be “friends” who will wish me a happy birthday, not knowing I’m gone, until my Facebook account is turned off. At some point, my Twitter account may be gobbled up by a hacker who sends out porn or political messages even though it’s tough to tell the difference sometimes. Once my family forgets to pay the hosting service for my website, it will be quickly removed within twenty-four hours. The business side of the creative writing process won’t survive without me working it, but I hope some of my writing will.