Saturday, January 26, 2019

An Index to 2018 Author Posts on The Story Prize blog (The Final Year of These)

Hit Leaders: Broughman and Blakeslee
Last year, for the ninth straight year, we invited every author of a book entered for The Story Prize to contribute a guest post to this blog, and 39 chose to participate. Since 2010, the TSP blog has featured 538 guest posts from 515 different writers (some have contributed in more than one year). Here we are providing an index of the 2018 posts. Links to indexes for 2012-2017 are at the bottom of this post, as are links to the first two years of guest posts, 2010 and 2011.

It's been fun while it lasted, but because of steady declines in both author participation and the audience for these blog posts, 2018 will be the final year of this series. In its place, we hope to offer an opportunity for authors whose books we read in 2019 to contribute an image that relates to their collection, along with a short paragraph or two about the image, that we'll post on The Story Prize Instagram account.

According to Blogger's statistics, most 2018 author guest posts received 250 or more page views, down from an average of 400 last year. The most popular post, Chad V. Broughman on Being a Writer and a Parent, has so far drawn nearly 2,000 page views. Last year's leader, Karen Shepard: How to Make Intermittent and Erratic Progress as a Writer, in Twenty-Eight Easy Steps, had more than 4,500 page views—the sixth most of any TSP blog post, at the time (It is now the fourth most popular post, with almost 7,000 page views). Antonya Nelson's Ten Writing Rules, the post with the most all-time views, currently has well over 14,000 page views.

The 2018 author contribution with the second most hits was Vanessa Blakeslee's Eight Most Anticipated 2018 Story Collections, with close to 1,000 page views to date. The two posts with the largest Facebook reach were Chad V. Broughman's and John Mort on Writing Short Stories and Raising Vegetables.

Here's the index for 2018.






Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Lucy Jane Bledsoe on How Not to Outline a Short Story

In the 39th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of Lava Falls (University of Wisconsin Press), discusses her disorderly writing process.

People love to ask writers if they plan their stories, write outlines, know the endings before they begin. Though some find this question tedious, I enjoy it because I have not yet resolved the answer for myself and always welcome the opportunity to reconsider my process. The truest answer I can give is: um sort of maybe sometimes, but not really.

I’m a fairly tidy person in most parts of my life. I like a neat living space, the piles in my office are squared up to the corners of my desk, and I make lots of lists for all kinds of activities and tasks. I love schedules.

But when it comes to writing stories, I’m completely unable to plan. My process is exceedingly messy. And I think that is exactly why I love doing this work. Writing fiction takes me out of my comfort zone and into an emotional wilderness, where if I pay careful attention, some of the truest, most beautiful, most elegant connections are made.
Leaving the comfort zone

When I try to write an outline—and god knows, I’ve tried so many times because it just seems like this would be a better way to write a story, and certainly a faster way—the relationships among ideas and characters and scenes feel contrived and artificial. I’m forcing links and motivations, rather than discovering them.

I love spending time in geographical wildernesses for the same reason. There’s a purity to the interconnectivity of all living things, and the nonliving environment in which they thrive, when the natural order hasn’t been disturbed. Walking without trails is much harder, but has its rewards, including discovering the complex and true relationships among all the players.

So my writing process is the messiest part of my life. I glimpse a character, a moment, or sometimes just an idea that I want to explore and I set out in pursuit. The irony is that I almost always try to write an outline, or something like an outline. But as I struggle to figure out which scenes need to be included, and in what order, or god forbid plot points, I quite quickly unravel. The good news is that my unraveling often takes the form of me just launching into writing one of the scenes. Once I’m actually writing a scene, I’m not about to stop to go back to the outline. When I get stuck, which of course inevitably happens, I consider the outline again, which usually leads me to writing another scene. After a period of time—and for a short story this can be a few days (when I’m very, very lucky) to more typically a few months, if not a couple of years—I’ll have a bunch of scenes with which I’m happy. I will realize that while I don’t have an outline, I do have a draft.

This is the moment when I get super strict with myself. I have to cut scenes that don’t work or contribute. I have to figure out the order of the scenes. I have to write additional scenes that have become necessary. (This is one of the most difficult steps, adding scenes that I’ve deemed from a more analytical mind need to be added). Next comes the winnowing: examining every paragraph, sentence, and word for ones that should be cut.

But wait, I wrote: Next comes…. As if there’s an order to how I do this. As if I always do it the same way. I wish I knew my process. I wish there were a formula for how it works every time. Instead, my process changes constantly. I’m always discovering new ways of discovering story. But then that’s exactly why I love writing stories because the work is never the same and always surprises me.

Monday, January 21, 2019

John Mort on Writing Short Stories and Raising Vegetables

In the 38th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, John Mort, author of Down Along the Piney (University of Notre Dame Press), contemplates the similarities between writing stories and gardening.

I have a long publishing record but have never written anything that could be called commercial. It’s not that I don’t want to. I think everything I’ve written deserves a wide readership, but this has never happened.

Obviously, I don’t write short stories (or novels) to make money. So why, at my age when I’ve nothing to prove, do I bother?

I believe it’s similar to raising vegetables. Writing and gardening are the two things in my life that have held my interest since grade school. Either endeavor is subtle, minute, and impossible to do perfectly. The best you can hope for is to improve.

I own some acres near a Corps of Engineers lake in western Missouri. The topsoil is thin and rocky but still I can raise potatoes, okra, squash, and tomatoes without much augmentation. Sweet corn will hardly grow and anyhow ’possums will raid it. They know to the day when the corn is ripe and eat off the kernels rather neatly without even breaking away the ear.

In the Garden: Battling 'possums
I cut cedar poles and constructed a 25’ x 25’ cage, covered it over with wire, and then built up the soil with manure and mulch. I raised one fine crop of sweet corn, watermelons, and cantaloupes before the ’possums figured out how to breach the wire. I tried to raise corn two more years but couldn’t keep the ’posssums out no matter how many staples I drove.

Pretty silly, this old man in an obscure part of the world, battling ’possums.

I lowered the pH in the soil by bringing in peat and spreading sulfur, and planted blueberries. My cage was already barrier enough to the deer and birds, and ’possums don’t appear to care much for blueberries. I’ve had one good crop and am tripling the number of plants this year, but we’ll see. Some other problem will arise. You never quite get there.

I’m saying: You keep writing despite the ’possums. My ignorance is a ’possum, which I try to overcome through reading. Another ’possum is my despair over the state of publishing. Also, I’ll never be William Faulkner.

Nowadays, I wonder whether I’m too old, too rural, too male to fathom the #MeToo movement. Maybe I’m just irrelevant, so why even try? What in the world is a hashtag?

Norman Mailer held little regard for short story writers—and probably wasn’t much of a gardener, either. Nonetheless, using another, familiar metaphor, he nailed why you do it:
The real short story writer is a jeweler. Like most such craftsmen, he does not—unless knighted by genius, as Hemingway or Faulkner—do much else. No, he stays in his shop, he polishes those jewels, he collects craft, lore, confirms gossip, assays jeweler’s rouge, looks to steal the tricks of the arcane, and generally disports like a medieval alchemist who’s got a little furnace, a small retort, a cave, a handful of fool’s gold, and a mad monk’s will.
Mailer opined that the novelist tries to embrace the entire world, while the short story writer bores inward, perfecting a small universe. And yes, that’s it. You’re seeking perfection, however small its compass. Every time your story is rejected, every time you harvest an apt criticism, you hurry to sharpen an image, embolden a sentence, ferret out a redundancy.

I keep at it, prospecting for gold. I want that sturdy blueberry bush loaded down with fruit, and I want to sell blueberries at my roadside stand. I hope, this time, the world will notice.

Mostly, I fail. But I can’t afford to be depressed because once in a while, I succeed, and then I rejoice. My joy is very nearly religious. I mulched and hoed and raked, and all of a sudden—and not by accident—I dug up the truth.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Nancy Stohlman on the Biggest Mistake Writers Make

In the 37th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Nancy Stohlman, author of Madame Velvet's Cabaret of Oddities (Big Table Publishing), lays out the stages of writing.

It’s not what you think.

The biggest mistake writers make? Not knowing which stage of the writing process they’re in.

We confuse writing with editing, we confuse editing with publication, we show work to others before it’s ready, we hoard work that is ready, afraid of rejection. Realizing which stage of the process you’re in—and more importantly what your work needs at that phase—is crucial.

Stage One: Creative Play

Regardless of genre, true creativity always begins as play. It’s that time of pure inspiration, when your ideas are new and fragile, where risks are taken, mistakes are made and become discoveries. This creative honeymoon is a time of sweetness and acceptance, a private time between you and your work and also when it needs the most protection—it’s raw, vulnerable, full of potential, beautiful to us but the wings aren’t dry yet.

So it’s the worst time to get feedback. The work isn’t ready for scrutiny and neither is the author. But we’ll do it anyway: We throw the baby into the pool thinking it can swim; we invite the paparazzi in before we’re even dressed. We show the world before we’re ready for their reaction, and like a negative exposed to light, all those budding ideas can fade away in front of our eyes.

And then the writer gives up or gets blocked and doesn’t know why.

Stage Two: Puberty

This the true transformation of your work, the metamorphosis, when it discovers itself. The child gets rashes of acne, stretch marks, growing pains, hair in weird places. Sometimes they don’t seem like your baby at all—and they’re not.

We must not love our work too much at this stage, but we must love it enough to be willing to cut it open and lay it all out like a disassembled engine. It’s also the right time to bring in a trusted audience for feedback. The audience should be midwives, peers, teachers, and mentors—those who can tell you your sunglasses are on your head and point out things in your work you’ve become blind to.

The biggest mistake most writers make in this phase? Skipping it.

Yes, because we fear this re-visioning process, we can keep our stories hidden in the dark. But this crucible is where the real magic happens, where your work truly matures.

I recommend working in a new file during this phase. Save that original draft in a separate file and do the surgery elsewhere, far away from the baby you love.

Stage Three: Grown Adult Living in the Basement

And then there’s the third phase, after the honeymoon, after puberty: the grown adult living in the basement phase. This is when we’ve worked on something until it’s done but we can’t let it go. It’s over-gestated, rotting—we can ruin it and stymie our creativity if we stay there too long.

We can get stuck in this phase for lots of good reasons. First, there is the very real possibility of rejection. This creation you’ve worked so hard on is now going to have to make it in the world without you. So, like overprotective parents, we lock it up in the basement “for its own protection.”

There’s another reason we keep our work hostage—we’d rather stay in the “editing” phase indefinitely than face the finality of finishing. Finishing would mean returning the blank page again, and that’s also scary.

But knowing when something is finished is just as important as any other part of the process. When the child is grown, buy them a suitcase. Maybe we let it go and it’s published and that’s fantastic. And maybe it goes nowhere and that’s okay too. But we must move forward.

Staying stuck in any phase robs us of our growth as writers. All creations have their own cycles, their own lifespans and their own destinies. Whatever its destiny, a writer needs to lead it to the ocean, put it in a bottle and set it adrift.

And then, with a fresh mind, turn to Creative Play once again.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Jane Delury Asks: Are We There Yet?

In the 36th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jane Delury, author of The Balcony (Little, Brown), learns to practice boredom.

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, I was often bored, most markedly in the back seat of my father’s Plymouth sedan. Too carsick to read, handheld electronic devices not yet invented, I stared out the window at strip malls and car dealerships, a scenery without distinction or surprise. Telephone poles cranked by. There went another McDonald’s. I twisted in my seat and put my forehead to the window. Eventually, like an immune response, my imagination took over. Buildings melted away into the sun-whipped grasses of the Gold Rush era, caravans of covered wagons lumbering through an intersection. An angel with metal wings circled a shopping mall. The rooftops of a miniature golf course became the skyline of Paris.

Last summer, I was standing in line at a coffee shop across the street from my university office when my phone died. I felt dismayed. The line of people stretched to the door. I might be stuck here for an entire ten minutes. I couldn’t answer emails or texts, read the newspaper, review the edits to a story I’d revised the night before, or figure out dinner. Nothing could be accomplished. To calm my myself, I made a to-do list on a page of my notebook. Later, heading back to my office with the cup of coffee, the ludicrousness hit me. When had boredom become my enemy? And what did this mean for my writing?

My smartphone, I knew, wasn’t the only culprit. My mind itself seemed set to the practical. My imagination was penned in, less apt to crash the fence and roam those invisible hills. My first book had recently been published, and I had spent months answering Q&As, tweeting, smiling, and trying to figure out Instagram. That tornado over, I was back to drafting a new book. For the past few weeks, whenever I sat down to write, I panicked. Now I wondered if my panic was not merely the usual worry that this new book wouldn’t turn out. Maybe I was panicking over boredom itself. I feared a return to the dead and lost hours that my fiction had always required.
Call to action

For the rest of the summer, before I started to write, I practiced boredom. I woke up early and went outside to my garden. I sat in a lawn chair, empty-handed. My mind buzzed. My body revolted. I needed to get off the chair. I needed to move, work on the book, solve the pacing problem in the first chapter, develop that character, figure out that turn, make something happen by noon, get the draft finished by fall. But no. I had to stay still. I had to be bored. Soon, I was. And once my imagination had hatched an escape plan, I went upstairs and got to work.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy Is the Winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award

Beyond naming three finalists each January, we also present The Story Prize Spotlight Award to a collection of exceptional merit. Selected books can be promising works by first-time authors, collections in alternative formats, or works that demonstrate an unusual perspective on the writer's craft. The award includes a prize of $1,000. 

We're pleased to announce that the winner for books published in 2018 is Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection of ten stories set in the U.S. and Sri Lanka that center around a family that has a foot in each world. Although the book references the epic Hindu text the Mahabharata, these beautifully written and shaped stories are firmly grounded in the details of Kumarasamy's characters' everyday lives

This is the seventh time we've given out The Story Prize Spotlight Award. The six previous winners are: Drifting House by Krys Lee, Byzantium by Ben Stroud, Praying Drunk by Kyle MinorKilling and Dying by Adrian TomineHim, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrarand Subcortical by Lee Conell. 

Congratulations to Akil Kumarasamy and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for winning The Story Prize Spotlight Award for short story collections published in 2018.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Story Prize Finalists: Jamel Brinkley, Deborah Eisenberg, and Lauren Groff!

We're pleased to honor as finalists for The Story Prize three outstanding books published in 2018, chosen from 108 entries representing 79 different publishers or imprints. The finalists are:

  • Florida by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books)
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley explores complex family bonds and the inescapable consequences of choices made and avoided. The incisive stories in Deborah Eisenberg's Your Duck Is My Duck capture both the gravity and the absurdity of our current predicament. Florida by Lauren Groff uses the Sunshine State as a point of departure, shining a light on the menaces her characters perceive to be lurking in the shadows.

This year's judges—author Jo Ann Beard, Washington Post book critic Walton Muyumba, and bookseller Veronica Santiago Liu—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 6. Tickets cost $14. That night, Brinkley, Eisenberg, and Groff 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 along with an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000. The Creative Writing Program at The New School co-sponsors the event.

In the weeks ahead, we'll announce this year's winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award. We'll also publish an index of guest posts from 2018 authors and a long list of other exceptional collections we read last year.