Anthony Abboreno is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Southern California. In 2008, he earned a Master’s in the same subjects at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has work forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review.
“I have a rough sense of characters when I first introduce them to a story, I think, but my ideas sharpen as I introduce details, or write the characters in a scene. For me, I seem to have the most success creating lively characters when I allow the writing to shape them a little spontaneously: for me, what makes a piece of fiction or a fictional character seem alive is that small element of surprise.”
Steve Adams lives in Austin, Texas, where he is a writing coach. His memoir, “Touch,” appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII. He also has been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Pinch and Notre Dame Magazine. His plays and musicals have been produced in New York City.
By the circling, as you noted, I think I was instinctively trying to circumvent being locked into strict chronology. I wanted the reader to pull up at that moment, to look back and instead of seeing those moments as separate and linear, to see them as a whole. I also wanted the reader to stop and consider what it might mean that as a child I carried a lethal firearm beside my father and knew full well it was lethal, as well as that if I did something really stupid I could accidentally take his life.
Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience.
Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.
“In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories.”
American Short Fiction was founded in Austin, TX, in 1991 by Laura Furman and has published stories that have found their way into most of the big, yearly story collections. It’s currently co-edited by Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits. The latest issue features work from Kevin Wilson, Joyce Carol Oates, Kellie Wells, and others, including Barrett Swanson. The journal also publishes web-inclusive stories and essays at americanshortfiction.org.
“The fact that our online fiction changes every month somehow gives us a little more freedom to experiment in that space than we perhaps feel we have in the tri-annual print edition. And of course the online space has dynamic potential that print lacks: our current online fiction exclusive, for example, was written as a companion piece to a track on an album, and we were able to embed the SoundCloud of the music file right there next to the story, which was great. We love how the online space gives us the opportunity to have fun like that.”
Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney, bioethicist, and the author of more than two hundred published short stories. His nonfiction has appeared in many newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
“I like to end my day’s writing at the conclusion of a scene; in fact, most of my stories are written roughly on a scene-a-day basis….so if you count the number of scenes in a story, you can often surmise how long I took to write a first draft of that particular piece. (I prefer to ‘live’ the story in my mind as I write—sort of like method acting, only without leaving my chair.) I also prefer to stop writing at a point of particular tension, so I have a crisis to resolve when I return to the story at the next session.”
Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist and striving yogi. Born and raised in India, he has trained as a Hatha Yoga teacher in the Sivananda ashram in South India and learned meditation in the Himalayas. He is the author of the novels Johnny Gone Down and Keep off the Grass, both of which were No. 1 bestsellers in India. His most recent book is The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. He’s been named one of India Today’s Top 35 Under 35. He lives in New York City.
People are always becoming in the U.S.—from lawyer to yoga teacher; from marketing director to life-purpose coach etc. It’s perhaps simpler and more effective to go from point A to nothing at all rather than point A to point B.
Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students, and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. His essays—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.
“Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.”
Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which one reviewer described as “a Tolkien epic set inside Plato’s cave written by Karl Jung.” He’s also written Cataclysm Baby and How They Were Found. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also edits the literary magazine The Collagist.
“The amount of revision required was fairly staggering. There’s rarely a sentence that appears whole and then remains untouched over the years it takes to finish the book. I’d say that an approximation of the rhythm appears early on—I can’t begin without the voice, or at least a version of it—but the fuller, final version of the voice takes a long time to emerge.”
Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author ofDevil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press.
“I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.”
Sarah Bird is the author of eight novels that have been honored by the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list, Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, People Magazine’s Page Turners, and Library Journal’s Best Novels. Her latest novel, Above the East China Sea, tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love.
I love the entire process of converting research into fiction and think of it as composting. I try to toss rich, nutritious items onto the pile, horse manure, food scraps, along with grass clippings and dead leaves. I let it steep for months in a spot that receives ample sunshine. And I trust that a dark, buried world of microbial beings will convert the whole mass into a medium capable of sustaining a character, a story.
Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.
At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.
Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had two plays produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. His novels include The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction; Mystery Ride, named by the Chicago Tribune and Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year; The Geography of Desire, picked by The London Independent as one of the best books of the year; and Virtual Death, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and named by the Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year.
If a narrator alludes to a dramatic event without giving the reader enough information to feel settled, it will likely come off as coy. Imagine that you notice someone at a party and you ask the host about him. The host says, “He’s my new colleague, and he has a dark secret in his past. Catch you later.” You’ll no doubt find yourself annoyed with the host. But imagine that the host says, “He’s my new colleague. When he was a kid, he lost his parents in a hurricane.” While you may wonder if there’s more to the story, this information is not a tease. You now possess one solid tidbit about the person.
Justin Carroll was born in California, raised in Montana, and now lives in Texas. His work has been previously published in Juked, Saltgrass, and Brink. His story, “Darryl Strawberry,” appeared in Gulf Coast.
“In the first few drafts, Henry’s issues were revealed too clumsily: “This, of course, was before the meth fiasco,” or something equally cringe-worthy. That was too transparent, obviously. Then I erased any obvious hints of the Henry’s problems until Nora goes to the support group meeting. I think I settled with the line after I discovered that “the trouble” was in Fenner’s own language—this is the only way he’d be able to describe Henry’s status (in the beginning of the story, at least).”
Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Storiesand Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.
As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPRand Out, among others. He has received a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, Amherst College, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas – Austin. He lives in New York City, where he curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York.
When I began thinking about the things that resulted in the writing of the novel, I was fascinated by opera plots and how seemingly ridiculous they were but also how pleasing. And so I began looking into why opera even existed as an art form and found the poems Orlando Furioso and Orlando Innamorato, poems which are commonly believed to have been the inspiration for most of the classic Italian opera plots. The idea that there was some common source for seemingly disparate works of art fascinated me and then made me wonder, what would it be like to try to make something that could mirror that on the far side? A life composed of opera plots?
Judy Chicurel’s writing has appeared The New York Times, Newsday and Granta, and her plays have been performed in NYC theaters and at festivals, including the NYC International Fringe Festival, New Perspectives Theatre, and Metropolitan Playhouse. She recently published her first novel, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.
I think I’ve almost always felt like something of an outsider no matter how much I appear to belong to a particular group. I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve experienced this kind of psychic detachment, where externally you’re part of the scene, but internally you might as well be on an island, alone, and on some level, you’re always observing. It’s an interesting paradox because most of the time, unless you tell them, nobody else knows how you’re really feeling.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of the novel Echolocation, the story collection I Am Holding Your Hand, and stories that been nominated for the Pushcart Prize or Best of the Web awards. Her Young Adult novel, The Book of Laney, is forthcoming in 2014.
“I would say that the first drafts suffered the most from me trying to fit into some model I thought Young Adult books would be (even though I knew it wasn’t true). I was trying to reign myself in and not allow my character to be sexual or too adult or this or that. I thought I had to follow some rule about toning things down. Then after some time away, I realized that I was not being true to my writing self and the story was suffering as a result.”
Mathilde Walter Clark is the Danish-American author of three novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Patron Wanted, started with Clark writing letters to rich men whom she thought might fund her writing. She turned their responses into a kind of literary performance art. Clark has also written the screenplay for and starred in the Danish-language television show, In Seven Minds. Clark lives in Copenhagen.
“Most of what gets sold to publication in foreign territory – especially America – are books with impressive sales. Besides bestsellers, Hans Christian Andersen, Kafka and other deceased writers from the literary canon account for most of the meager 2% of foreign literature that finds its way into the US market. That, unfortunately, leaves out a lot of the interesting contemporary literature. As a writer in a language with only six million speakers, it is hard not to feel a little locked up.”
Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and a MFA student at the University of Michigan.
I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth.
T. J. Danko’s novel The Dead We Know has been called “a smart twist on the usual zombie lore” and “gripping, tense, creepy, edge of your seat.” A pair of oil-field workers set out with two teenage girls in an apocalyptic zombie world where they must work together to survive.
“Zombies represent the breakdown of order, the worry about how we would survive when social structures collapse. I don’t think it’s an accident that many modern zombie stories explore the idea that other survivors end up being more dangerous than the zombies.”
Kelly Davio is the poetry editor for Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collection, Burn This House, and the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.She is also the associate poetry editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal and a former managing editor at Los Angeles Review. She lives in Seattle and works as an instructor of English as a Second Language.
“We like it when the arc of someone else’s story bends toward us. We like people to look like us, act like us. We have a low tolerance for those people and those bodies that don’t reflect us and underwrite our opinions about the world.”
Mo Daviau has performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award. Daviau lives in Portland, Oregon. Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.
I’d just read the book Sex at Dawn when I started writing what would become Every Anxious Wave, and the idea that among early hunter/gatherers, there was no concept of personal property and that everything was shared communally was one that I found fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed communal living, something that our society frowns upon once college is over. When I was trying to figure out under what circumstances Wayne would return to modern times, my personal inner impulse was “I wouldn’t. I would want to stay in hunter/gatherer society.”
Nicelle Davis is a California poet, collaborator, and performance artist whose most recent book is the novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly, PANK, and SLAB Magazine. She is editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Review and currently teaches at Paraclete and with the Red Hen Press WITS program.
The concept of a novel in verse is old; every epic poem has novel like characteristics. The Iliad and the Odyssey are novel(s) in a way, yes? Every novel has poetic elements, yes? It just so happens that the world (I would say, has always) chosen to privilege linear narratives over the stories manifested in poetry. I sometimes wonder if this privileging the linear over the nonlinear is similar to the world favoring war over peace; ecofeminism would say this correlation holds some merit.
Aliette de Bodard has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards. She is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood; the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting; and many short stories and essays. She lives in Paris.
“I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).”
Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles attorney, writer, and law professor. She is the creator of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit and was named one of L.A.’s “Most Fascinating People” in L.A. Weekly’s 2013 People Issue. A 2010 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, her writing has appeared side-by-side with Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Yousef Komunyakaa in The Rattling Wall, in B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire, and Asian American Lit Review. Deón has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Prague’s Creative Writing Program, Dickinson House in Belgium, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Deón’s debut novel is due out in the summer of 2016 from Counterpoint Press.
Readings build confidence in the work. It’s the difference. Not just on the stage but before, as we prepare to take the stage and sometimes while we’re in the throes of reading it. We edit ourselves and armed with the honesty that voice gives our pieces, we become our best editor-selves. We skip things—sentences, words—we make new word choices as we read, playing the sentences aloud. We hear the pacing problems, the unneeded repetition, we become better judges of ourselves, our work. We discover how we can deliver our stories better. Make them more clear. Sometimes we see new things that we hadn’t seen on the page. The solitary side of the writer needs to get dressed and go outside some days. Reading publicly is one of those days. We make ourselves better for the crowd.
Christopher DeWan is a writer and teacher living on Los Angeles. He’s the author of the flash fiction collection Hoopty Time Machines and has published over fifty stories in in journals including Hobart, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. He has had TV projects with the Chernin Group and Indomitable Entertainment and has collaborated on transmedia properties for Bad Robot, Paramount, Universal, and the Walt Disney Company. His screenwriting has been recognized by CineStory, Final Draft, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance, and he is recipient of a fellowship from the International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA). He is currently chair of creative writing at the California State Summer School for the Arts.
There’s an effect that happens when I read a second-person story that reminds me a little of playing a first-person videogame, a sort of amnesiac effect where, in the game, I’m supposed to *be* this person but I also know almost nothing about this person: I stumble cluelessly through “my” home trying to collect information to understand who I am.
“To me Cartwheel is more of a whoisit than a whodunit, I guess you could say: I wanted readers to experience a sense of suspense regarding the question of who Lily Hayes really was, and what they thought she was capable of; I wanted the plot’s twists and turns to stem not only from events, but from readers’ shifting interpretations of those events. And so the sentence structure wasn’t really a conscious effort to slow down the pace; I think I probably do tend to write long sentences anyway—and I definitely get a lot of mileage out of the em dash (case in point).”
Owen Egerton’s novel Everyone Says That at the End of the World has been called “a Cat’s Cradle for our time.” Other books include The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God and the story collection How Best to Avoid Dying.
“Literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.”
Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, a collection of connected stories set on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Ennis is a Philadelphia native now living in Water Valley, Mississippi. His work has appeared in Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Good Men Project, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, Hot Metal Bridge, LitNImage, Filter, and The Best New American Voicesanthology.
For a while the whole manuscript was called “Deep Play,” an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, a British political philosopher. He was talking about instances where players get involved in a game where it is impossible to win, but they play anyway. A lot of young adulthood feels like this, I think.
Brian Evenson’s most recent novel is The Lords of Salem, co-written (as B.K. Evenson) with Rob Zombie. He’s the chair of the Literary Arts program at Brown University.
“I think my writing mind is both programmed to move toward moments where reality collapses and to be surprised when that happens, so that makes it possible for my subconscious to work through a series of thematic concerns that interest me but often to do so in a new way while my conscious mind is occupied with the language on the page–the sound and rhythm of the words, the patterns, etc.”
Murray Farish’s debut story collection,Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken. Farish’s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review,Epoch, Roanoke Review, FiveChapters, andBlack Warrior Review, among other publications. He lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University.
“Once I figured out that the story I wanted to write was about the Great Recession and how it was the natural result of four decades of political, legislative, and cultural malpractice and neglect of the commonwealth—of the failure to live up to ideals that we the people are obligated, by ink and by blood, to try to live up to . . . well, you can see the problem, for a fiction writer. But if that’s the story you’ve got to write, that’s the story you’ve got to write, so you’ve got to figure out how to write it. I decided to create this little family and inflict upon them a steady accretion of American pain, and hope to build narrative momentum out of that accretion.”
Katherine Fawcett is a Canadian writer living in Pemberton, British Columbia. Her short fiction has been published in Wordworks, Event, Freefall, subTerrain, and Other Voices, and her plays have been performed by several community theatre groups. She teaches music at the Whistler Waldorf School, plays violin with the Sea to Sky Orchestra, and fiddle whenever possible. Her debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, includes stories about banshees, mermaids, and half-feral boys coming of age.
I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth.
Melissa Falcon Field is the author of the novel, What Burns Away. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter and a Bread Loaf fellow, worked as an inner-city teacher with Teach for America and AmeriCorps, and helped develop and pioneer the YEAR UP writing curriculum used nationally. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her young son, her husband, and four chickens.
Although I prefer to keep the use of adjectives relatively limited in my fiction, I do find them necessary in some places to invoke decisive descriptions in sections where the pacing needs to be slowed down, with intention, as it is in the sections you have pointed to here.
Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. She recently put the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories that takes place in Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country and along the banks of the Red River.
“I worry about sentimentality in my work, perhaps because so much comes back to the characters I write. For many of my characters, and especially Anna Maria and Lula, I feel so much for them. I really do. I feel the weight of their choices, the weight of the way the world acts upon them. Sometimes, you come across a character that can make you cry at your keyboard. So maybe the key, a key, is to be honest about them.”
Matthew Gavin Frank left home at age seventeen to travel and work in the restaurant industry. He ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.
“When I’m sifting through a roomful of research, I’m seeking out that “exceedingly rare” thing, and I’m interested in seeing what happens when we hold it up against a more known thing. I’m interested in seeing where such a collision will lead. Oftentimes, the most interesting thing we can do as essayists is draw a chalk outline around our main subject in order to suggest its shape; in order to evoke its essence.”
Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Waterand Feeding Strays. Her story “While Surrounded by Water” won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award and “Us Hungarians received second place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest. Stefanie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Witness, Western Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, Night Train, American Literary Review and Edge. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
I think I am watcher, like all writers I suppose, and a collector of the phrases people say. There can be a ton of dialogue between people, but there are those certain words that will stand out and directly indicate something about the character. I try not to waste any words that don’t have to do with the revealing the character, the story or some sort of underlying message.
Ru Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of the novels Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Extraordinary Rendition, a collection of the voices of American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, Guernica, World Literature Today and elsewhere. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.
The prologue in this form was added after I had written the first draft. The original prologue, several pages longer, focused mainly on the characters, and all of it eventually got whittled down to that last paragraph. When I finished writing the book, I felt that there was a sense of longer-term history that couldn’t be contained within the main text of the book without burdening it with those kinds of explanatory treatises on history that can kill momentum.
Sarah Frisch is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Paris Review and The New England Review, and she has won a Pushcart Prize and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award.
This was back when there was barely any media coverage of drones, and I had just given birth to my youngest daughter. I couldn’t get over how the American government was killing families and kids and nobody was even talking about it. I was so angry about it, I felt as if it were my moral duty to write about it. This turns out to be a pretty difficult place to write fiction from. Throughout the drafting of this story, I felt as if I was fighting my own tendency toward one-dimensional political speech. I tried doling out my personal opinions to various characters, including the more problematic ones, and taking my beliefs to the extreme or mixing them up with opinions that I didn’t agree with. I also tried to have characters challenge each other’s opinions in scene.
Roxane Gay is the author of the story collection Ayiti and has appeared in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus.
“We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.”
Amy Gentry lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two cats. After graduating in 2011 with a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, she began a freelance writing career, writing book reviews, cultural criticism, and, for one strange and wonderful year, a fashion column. She frequently reviews fiction for the Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal, and her writing has appeared in Salon.com, xoJane, The Rumpus, the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Observer, LA Review of Books, Gastronomica, and the Best Food Writing of 2014. Good as Gone, her first novel, is set in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
When I started writing this novel I felt pretty hopeless about plot. I’d never tried to write something that required this much tension and required so many reveals. Plus I had this character Julie, or better yet “Julie”, whose identity was in question. I knew her POV had to be in the book, but I couldn’t give away her identity. How do you write from her POV without saying who she is?
Victor Giannini is the author of the novella Scott Too and the forthcoming novel Counselor. His essay, “His Living Room’s a Jungle,” about his father’s struggles with PTSD after Vietnam appeared in Narratively.
“I knew that I was on the right path when I became afraid to publish it. When I became truly afraid, not for portraying myself as imperfect, but for my father, who I treasure deeply, I knew I’d nailed it. Becoming afraid to accidentally misrepresent us was when I knew this story NEEDED to be told, rather than just me wanting to impress people. I was terrified right up until publication. But it was the right kind of fear. It meant I was honest with my reader, myself…and my father.”
Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on the Tin Houseblog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays and in Gingerbread Literary Magazine.
A personal essay has to start at a private point because that is what the writer understands or can hope to understand. The duality of the personal and non-personal emerges as the narrative shifts from showing to telling—you can only “show” what you have experienced first-hand.
Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. She is the recipient of the 2012 and 2013 Cordell Larner Award in fiction, as well as the 2013 Cordell Larner award in poetry and the 2013 Lois C. Bruner award in Nonfiction. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared inBlackberry.
I usually like to start all of my stories right in the middle of the action to draw readers in and I feel it is even more important to get the ball rolling when it’s flash fiction. Every single word counts and should add to the piece as a whole.
Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection of stories, The Miniature Wife & Other Stories, has been called “hilarious and chilling.”
“I’d misread a NY Times headline (Farewell, Africa) as us saying goodbye to the African continent, as if it had gone away, and that made me think of the idea that we would have written a speech to work against the tragedy of the African continent sinking into the sea—because we turn to speeches in almost all times of crisis—and that struck me as sad and absurd and really funny because of the absurdity and futility of it.”
David Gordon’s first novel, The Serialist, was made into a major motion picture in Japan. It also won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. He is also the author of the novel, Mystery Girl,and, most recently, the story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Purple, and Fence.
The first step of writing any scene at all is to ask do I even need it? Is it essential to the story? Most lame sex scenes, whether cringe-inducing or just boring and generic (cut to slo-mo heaving) share the characteristic of being unnecessary. So, just like a scene of dinner or walking home or anything else, why is it essential? Why can’t we just say, “They had sex” or “They had dinner,” or “After dinner, they had sex then walked home.” If it is necessary, it is adding something vital that moves us forward, not always plot maybe, but telling us something, about these people, their relationship, their world: something is revealed. Then, all my stylistic or tonal choices, the amount of “cologne,” is based on that.
Anabel Graff received her B.A. from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Texas State University. She has lived in London, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and New York City. She is the winner of the 2014 Prada Feltrinelli Prize. Her work has appeared in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One, as well as Prada Journal.
“In many ways, this was a test of narrative authority. I wanted to write a story that felt so emotionally true that people wouldn’t feel the need to ask logistical questions. It will resonate for some readers and not for others. But that’s okay—those are the limitations we must accept when we venture into writing stories that aren’t strictly realism.”
“Keeping a fight scene as short as possible is important for a couple of reasons: for one thing, “action” sequences such as this tend to start dragging very quickly, to my mind, and for another, most fights that actually take place are nothing like the ones we see in the movies. They don’t involve a lengthy exchange of haymakers; instead, they’re usually quick and clumsy.”
Amelia Gray’s debut novel Threats has been called a “bizarre little wonder” and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
“I remember I was doing the dishes when I had this image pop into my head, of a woman at the bottom of a long set of stairs, holding the rail, wearing a heavy jacket and a long skirt, and under the skirt, blood pooling. And in the course of considering the image, I felt myself as a person at the top of the stairs, holding the top rail, and how the two of us were connected by the rail. So that was very interesting and I decided to write it down.”
Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about. I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator.
Nicholas Grider’s collection of story, Misadventure, was called a “dark and luscious hell ride” by Brian Evenson and an “unforgettable and unflinching collection of dark rituals, violent accidents, and uncontrollable obsessions” by Susan Steinberg.
“I made up a simple rule to begin the story, then: Sentence one must be related to sentence two, and sentence two should be related to sentence three, but sentences one and three should be unrelated. That got me off to a start but I realized that I kept inadvertently breaking the rule, so I introduced the stock phrase “Millions of Americans do X or Y” as a bridge, but then decided that wasn’t working well either so I slowly increased their volume until every sentence was a “Millions” sentence and I approached the end of the story more like a prose poem than a narrative.”
Christine Grimes teaches at SUNY Jefferson and has led writing workshops and craft seminars for Black River Writers and Fort Drum’s women’s conference. Grimes’ work has been included in From Where You Dream, a collection of craft lectures by Robert Olen Butler. Her stories have been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, Cutthroat, Passages North, and 2 Bridges Review.
A lot of my stories are rooted in working-class monotony that stretches into the weird and absurd. I wanted to portray a woman who truly believes she’s destined for greatness and is stuck in a dead-end job that moves from unpleasant and slides into a surreal nightmare without her quite realizing that it’s occurring until it does.
Dina Guidubaldi’s first book, the story collection How Gone We Got, has drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, the Santa Monica Review, Cup of Fiction, SPIN, the Austin American-Statesman, and Other Voices; she has been an editor for Callalooand American Short Fiction. A graduate of Texas State’s MFA program, she currently lives in Austin.
My dad bought me a book when I was little, called The Reward Worth Having, about these brothers (?) who travel a long distance to vie for the hand of this ailing princess. The one who woos her in the end is of course the underdog, who just brings her a bird and a song and no money or promises. The idea was supposed to be “Aw, be yourself and people will see your value,” but I guess what I took out of it was “He doesn’t even know that princess! She could be awful! Why bother? He just wants to be the One who gets her, the One who gets written about.”
Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing. His essay about bacon and Islam, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.
Telling the story to a live audience sort of activates all these devices we have as natural storytellers. You very quickly get a feel for the room and what sort of things are and aren’t working. When a joke bombs, you feel it. The silence of the room is so awful. You’re standing up there thinking, “I thought that was going to be hilarious.” So you get this instant feedback that you don’t get when you’re writing. When you’re telling somebody a story, you’re forced to cut out all the uninteresting parts that don’t really pertain or aren’t important to what you’re trying to say.
Nicole Haroutunian’s short fiction has appeared in the Literarian, Tin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Two Serious Ladies, and other publications. Her short story “Youse” was the winner of the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Short Story Contest. She is coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York, works as a museum educator, and lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. Her first story collection, Speed Dreaming, was recently published by Little A.
As is often the case, I had to trick myself into starting this story with a self-devised writing exercise. I work as a museum educator at, among other places, the American Folk Art Museum. One of my favorite branches of the collection is schoolgirl art—amazing samplers, embroideries and watercolors done by 18th-19th century schoolgirls. Some of this work takes the shape of mourning drawings—ritualized drawings made to commemorate a death. I chose a selection of schoolgirl art, wrote descriptions of each work, and then tried to weave a contemporary story around those descriptions, with each new scene sparked by another artwork.
Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owenseries of graphic novels and books, and his strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.
Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.
Jane Hawley grew up in California, received her BA from the University of Wyoming, and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in the Pinch and Memoir Journal.
“This is by far the most technically challenging story I’ve written because of the first person plural point of view, which I’ve always admired. It often seems to carry a tone of nostalgia, a fable-like quality and allows a writer to tell the story of a community. This is where the craft gets difficult. No one character feels the same as another. The characters are individuals, yet they’re also part of a group.”
Smith Henderson novel, Fourth of July Creek, made news before it was even released, in part due to the bidding war it inspired among publishers. So far, the novel has been called “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by the book editor of The Washington Post and “a hell of a great book” by Esquire. The novel is set in Montana and follows a social worker whose life becomes entwined with the delusional and grandiose actions of a would-be prophet and revolutionary, Jeremiah Pearl.
“I did research into separatist movements and militias and the different flash points of the past 30 years. The Unabomber’s capture, the Ruby Ridge standoff, the hunt for Eric Rudolph. But Pearl’s voice was drawn from more older sources. I read a lot of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Nietzsche to get his pronouncements to sound properly grand. He’s as much a product of the Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the temple as he is Timothy McVeigh.”
Kerry Howley’s essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Gulf Coast, Vice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Her short story “Pretty Citadel” was published in The Paris Review. Thrown, her book-length essay, is an account of three years spent in the company of mixed martial artists.
The reader is only going to tolerate so much description of bodies in motion, so you end up molding a fight into the simplest version of itself—a few key moments and a mood. There are going to be a lot of small movements lost between point A and point B, and in that way perhaps writing about fighting (or dancing, which presents the same challenges) is emblematic of essay writing as a whole. So much of the struggle is subtraction.
“I think some readers, workshoppers, and authors expect characters and the stories they live in to be too neat–despite this overwhelming stamp of approval that postsecondary institutions give to postmodern and experimental literature. Yet, stories may be raw both in form and content. We can’t expect the main character to have an inner conflict and insist that the form or approach of every story be neat or rigid.”
John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections Get In If You Want To Live, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, and, most recently, Knockout. His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis.
In all my stories I am largely concerned with hooking the reader and love to give those little punches at the end of each passage in a story. I want these chunks to be able to stand on their own but to also move plot and character forward within the larger scope of the story. This is probably a function of how I write—I seem to end up really polishing each passage before I move on to the next one.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the novel Remember Me Like This as well as Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.
It was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.
Rahul Kanakia’s young adult novel, Enter Title Here (its actual title, not a typo) will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2015. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature.
I actually only thought of the movie Ghostbustersafter the story was completed, but it’s obvious that it had some subconscious influence on the imagery of the story. For instance, the vacuum device that I’ve imagined in this story is definitely reminiscent of the apparatus they used in the movie.
I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence…This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds.”
Joe Lansdale is one of the most versatile and peculiar writers in American literature. He’s written a popular mystery series (Hap and Leonard) whose detectives are a white East Texas rose picker who spent time in prison as a conscientious objector and his best friend, a gay, black veteran. Lansdale has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association eight times. He’s alsowritten for comic books, television, and movies, and his work has been turned into the films Bubba Ho-Tep (which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch tonight) and, coming soon, Cold in July. His latest novel is The Thicket, a suspense novel set in The Big Thicket in East Texas.
“East Texas is mythic, but more in an Old South way, mixed with some Western, and cajun, black, and more recently, Hispanic culture. I write out of the mythic and tall tale tradition, actually. Love it. Greek myths are a big part of my background.”
Donna M. Johnson was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist for the tent revivalist David Terrell. The family became part of the preacher’s inner circle, and Johnson remained part of it until she was left at 17 years old. The experience inspired the memoir Holy Ghost Girl, which was called “enthralling” and “a sure bet” by The New York Times.
I always knew Holy Ghost Girl would include some of the history of Pentecostalism and the sawdust trail. It seemed necessary. Those three white men you mention above were with the KKK and they eventually beat Terrell over his insistence that blacks and whites sit together under his tents. If I had left the story there, Terrell might have seemed too heroic. Pentecostalism was born in Los Angeles on Azusa Street and the worshippers were black and white. The mixed race aspect of the revival ignited indignation among the press and the elites. The tents were one of the few places where blacks and whites gathered as equals in the pre civil rights south.
Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There and Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time, as well as Bae Suah’s Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found. Her translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari will be available on April 27, 2015 through Periscope (UK).
It was important to me to capture the narrator’s tone and attitude right from the get-go. Korean-to-English translation has an innate tendency to veer abstract and indirect, so I really tried to push against that and keep the language clear and direct. That way, when the story later takes its flights of fancy, those parts would have room to shine.
Megan Kruse grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Seattle. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and her debut novel, Call Me Home, was released from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She teaches fiction at Eastern Oregon University’s Low-Residency MFA program, Hugo House, and Gotham Writers Workshop. She was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for 2015.
We’re at a moment in time when our narratives of queerness are being heard more than ever, and we need narratives now of queers everywhere, of those who’ve gone to the city and those who have made communities where previously there were none, of queers thriving and creating the worlds they want to live in.
Laila Lalami is the author of the novels Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Secret Son, and, most recently, The Moor’s Account, a New York Times Notable Book and a Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, TheGuardian, The New York Times, and in many anthologies. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
I wanted to create a sixteenth-century travelogue, without the formality of sixteenth-century language. To make the illusion work, I was very deliberate in my lexical choices. For example, I picked nouns, verbs, and adjectives that date back to the era, but are still in use today. The effect is that the sentences feel authentic and readable at the same time. Of course, I avoided contractions, since they tend to make the dialogue sound too modern. I also removed quotation marks because the conceit of the novel is that it is a manuscript written by an Arab traveler, and Arabic manuscripts of that era did not use quotation marks.
Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires and the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an AWP Intro Award. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, The Evansville Review, Booth, PANK, and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, NUVO, and The Humanist. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana Writers Center.
I’ve always been a little bit of a mimic, and as demonstrated, a big eavesdropper. I love trying to recreate different voices and train my ear. I used to be a reporter and I strove to quote people accurately. What’s fun about fiction is stretching accuracy into a shape that fits a story. Or making it weirder, more complicated, and multi-layered than the thing that was actually said, such as an offhand remark about Genghis Khan.
Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are, is a collection of essays that are equal parts nature writing in the tradition of Mary Austin and language play like that of Lewis Carroll. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize.
I like the idea of rescuing words from extinction, of books being arks for drowning words; but I don’t know if my impulse is responsible enough for me to call what I’m doing a duty. I just enjoy words so long out of use they are almost nonsense again, as they were before they were used. English can be as fun as Jabberwocky.
Diana López is the author of the adult novella,Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.
I can’t overstate the importance of strong imagery. The best way to make an okay story into a memorable one is specific imagery. My students often struggle with this. They miss so many opportunities. But consider all the power an image holds. First, it gives the reader a chance to experience via the senses—the bikini colors and patterns, the texture of the fabric, even the hot sun that we associate with them. Second, images hold connotative powers. I don’t have to say that Chia’s mom is fun loving, daring, and sexy. What kind of conclusion would the reader draw if the mother bought oversized T-shirts instead or if she threw away her bras the minute she came home from the doctor?
Kelly Luce’s debut story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail, is the first book out from the exciting new independent publisher, A Strange Object. One reviewer said he read the book cover-to-cover in a single day.
“Maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.”
Megan Kruse grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Seattle. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and her debut novel, Call Me Home, was released from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She teaches fiction at Eastern Oregon University’s Low-Residency MFA program, Hugo House, and Gotham Writers Workshop. She was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for 2015.
One of the things that I love about multiple perspectives is that the result seems greater than the sum of the parts; the reader gets to connect with the individual characters, and in addition, the reader comes to understand the bigger picture. I’ve always written family stories, and I think often about how in any family or group, there is no one on the inside who can fully see the whole story. So many family sorrows—our slights and misunderstandings and our greater rifts and losses—come back to our inability to see outside ourselves, to take into account all of the different narratives and histories that coexist in a family universe.
Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2013 Pushcart Prize and was a Gold Medal Winner for The Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s currently in development as a new series for HBO by Salma Hayek and Jerry Weintraub. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, The New Republic, This American Life, Huisache Literary Journal, All Things Considered, and Saveur Magazine.
“There’s a certain “sweet spot” you navigate when you’re writing about a culture that is at once so familiar and intimate to you, as the author, and unknown to your reader. First of all, you have to trust your reader, and trust that they’re capable of following insinuation or inflection, enough so that when you pause and explain something, they unconsciously register that this was important enough data to stop the story telling and define. If you stop and define every level of foreign information, it dulls the story, and comes off as condescension in a way.”
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.
The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo? Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist.
“I invariably encounter people who are surprised to learn that I grew up in CT, that people of color actually live there. I felt it was important to trace the roots a bit to lend credible explanation as to how this family tree grew into (and out of) CT in the first place, how these two boys wound up in close proximity to Norwich yet still managed to fall culturally outside the reach of the kids whom they most resembled.”
Meghan McCarron is one of the fiction editors at Interfictions and an assistant editor at Unstuck. Her story, “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” was nominated for a Nebula Award for best science fiction or fantasy novelette in 2012.
“There’s an ancient system of memorizing that involves “putting” pieces of information in various rooms of a remembered house. The memory palace is a perfect metaphor for how our imagination mirrors the physical world. Our memories are always haunted, aren’t they? Ghosts seem like a useful way of externalizing that haunted feeling, of expressing the obsession of grief.”
Nina McConigley’s story “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010, edited by Dave Eggers. It is included in her debut collection, Cowboys and East Indians.
“I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it.”
Monica McFawn is a writer and playwright living in Michigan. Her short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of a hybrid chapbook, “A Catalogue of Rare Moments,” and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She teaches writing at Northern Michigan University and trains her Welsh Cob cross pony in dressage and jumping.
“The structure was very carefully mapped out before I wrote the bulk of the story. I did it out of desperation. I had been trying to ‘write my way into’ the stories I was writing for years, mostly because that’s what I thought most writers did. You hear so many writers talk that way, i.e. ‘I just start writing and see where it goes!’ ‘My characters just take over!’ I thought that was how it was done, and I believed that there was something stiff or false about plotting a story beforehand.”
Michael McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. He is also the author of Dismantling the Hills, a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire. He is the co-author, with J. M. Tyree, of Our Secret Life in the Movies.
What we’ve both found is that a lot of writing is just luck. You stumble around in the dark, rely on your instincts, and try to stick to your impulses, no matter how strange those impulses might be (in one of our stories the speaker’s child is an invisible boy, in another the speaker’s father marries an egg). All the leitmotifs and connections and echoes in Our Secret Life in the Movies are there because we both wrote stories rooted in our own experiences, which happened to parallel each other in unexpected ways.
Kseniya Melnik’s debut book is the linked story collection Snow in May, which was short-listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.. Born in Magadan, Russia, she moved to Alaska in 1998, at the age of 15. She received her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Esquire (Russia), Virginia Quarterly Review, Prospect (UK), and was selected for Granta‘s New Voices series.
“Baba Yaga is an Eastern European incarnation of the archetype of a malevolent older woman that is culturally universal. We see the variations of this archetype in many cultures as compiled and expanded in the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Anderson, Charles Perrault to Disney. I grew up reading fairy tales and watching movies and cartoons based on them, and I think certain associations are ingrained in my head: forest—hut—witch, for example; or dark forest—girl—wolf. I didn’t feel obliged to write “a Russian Baba Yaga story,” but rather, once that automatic association came up in my mind, I wanted to see whether I could put a new spin on it.”
Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, and The Paris Review Daily. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn.
I don’t believe that genre distinctions are meaningless, but I also don’t believe that there is anything inherently inferior to genre work. To me, genres are literary traditions and conversations between writers, readers, and critics. Part of the enjoyment of “genre-bending” or genre mashing is seeing the different tropes and styles subverted, complicated, or tweaked in different ways.
Mary Miller debut novel, The Last Days of California, comes out in January, and it’s already getting rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly says that the book “gets every little detail about the South—from the way the sky greens before a storm to gas stations where Hank Williams Jr.’s ‘Family Tradition’ blares—just right.”
“I really don’t feel like I could have written a novel, at least not at the time, without this rigid structure. I had to keep moving the characters from Point A to Point B, which created a certain amount of tension. They’re behind schedule! They must keep going! They need to eat and use the bathroom and look at all of these odd things and people they’re coming into contact with… Each night, there’s a new motel, a new environment for them to explore. The structure certainly provided me a frame within which to work. It made it easier and more fun to write.”
Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification and an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.
Since it takes time and detail to create the tension, there’s nothing lost by stating the plot upfront. It’s a way to keep the reader interested enough to stay with me while I unwind the rest of the skein.
Andrew Malan Milward, a Lawrence, Kansas native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the story collection The Agriculture Hall of Fame, which was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction by the University of Massachusetts. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. His most recent book is the story collection I Was a Revolutionary.
As a writer I always try to respect the reader as much as possible and that involves a lot of trust, because as readers we’ve all had the unpleasant experience of a writer not trusting us and we resent it. Oftentimes this is an unintended consequence of writers with good intentions—they’re trying to invite us into the story and don’t want us to feel confused. But we don’t like to have our hand held because it feels condescending.
Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award, and she’s published stories in over 50 magazines. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and The American Scholar, and have been cited for Best American Essays. Her most recent book is the memoir My Unsentimental Education. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.
Writing good dialogue is a bit like having a knack for doing imitations, for channeling voices, for doing impressions. I think of the real person I’m depicting, or who’s informing the character I’m depicting, and I put in dialogue only the most distinctive, most unparaphraseable things they’d have said or in fact did say.
Keith Lee Morris is the author of three previous novels, The Greyhound Godand The Dart League King, a Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and, most recently, Travelers Rest. His short stories have been published in New Stories from the South, Tin House, A Public Space, New England Review, and Southern Review, which awarded him its Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction. Morris lives in South Carolina, where he is a professor of creative writing at Clemson University.
Very early on in a narrative we begin to make predictions, project outcomes—we do it unconsciously. If we like the characters, we begin to form an idea of what we hope will happen and also what we most deeply fear. Each character has to seem at least somewhat equal in that regard—if we don’t know what we want for a certain character, what we’re afraid might befall them, our interest is bound to lag behind in the chapters devoted to that character’s POV.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming Japanese folktale and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, Bat City Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazineand a visiting assistant professor at The College of Idaho.
I believe first lines (and first paragraphs) are crucial to pretty much any story (but especially so for flash pieces where you need to draw the reader in, provide some kind of map of what the story will be about (even if only via tone), and establish character and world building in short order. As an editor, I want a story to provide the central characters, introduce a central tension, and do something unexpected and interesting within the first few lines. Don’t reveal all your cards certainly, but I don’t believe in messing with readers too much. Give them a map of an unfamiliar town. Give the reader something they can navigate as more information is revealed.
Kalpana Narayanan was born in New Delhi and raised in Atlanta, and she now lives in Brooklyn. She has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, The Hambidge Center, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, and, in 2011, received Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.
Someone pointed out to me that the narrator only speaks once, which was so surprising to me, because in my head, she has this interior world that is constantly in dialogue with what she’s seeing, with the people around her. But it’s true, we only hear her speak once at the end. I think that was something I was interested in—a narrator who has a rich interior life, but the outside world can’t necessarily see that. I was interested in these characters who are in this house that feels at times as if it’s about to collapse in on them. Their one way out is to communicate—but they can’t.
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and journalist living in Austin. She served as the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence in Smithville, TX, and the nonfiction editor for the literary journal Front Porch. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Parcel, and Twelve Stories; her journalism has appeared all over, including (most recently) Variety, USA Today Special Publications, Cowboys and Indians, and Austin Monthly.
I’m a chicken, and I don’t usually set stories places I haven’t had some serious experience with. The story is obviously a bit speculative, a bit not-here, not-now, but I wanted it very, very close to now and here. So I wanted to set it somewhere, and Kansas City felt right. Lawrence, the narrator’s name, is actually the name of my hometown.
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others, and she was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing. She won the 2014 O. Henry Award and the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
While writing the novel, I kept in mind various possible audiences, but my main audience was not American/Western. My main audience was my fellow Nigerians. In some ways it was just incidental that it got published in the West first. The truth is that current physical location is oftentimes irrelevant to the story that a writer tells.
Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast.
“How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.”
Daniel Oppenheimer’s articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com. He lives in Austin with his wife, the historian and psychotherapist Jessica Grogan, and his kids Jolie and Asa. He is Director of Strategic Communications for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century is his first book.
This kind of distillation has to be among the most under-recognized and under-theorized tools of the nonfiction writer’s trade. There should be entire craft classes on how to do this, because you need that background in a lot of historical and journalistic writing, and yet it’s so tempting to do it in a half-assed way, to knock it out in workman-like prose so you can get back to the sexy stuff.
A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.
As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole.
Marcus Pactor‘s debut story collection, vs. Death Noises, won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. One review claimed that the book “cuts to the bone like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.”
“Consider that twenty years ago few houses had the internet, satellite TV, or cell phones. Our social relations have changed immensely since then, yet people write stories that hardly reflect the depth and scope of that change. Instead, Obama is named president rather than the first Bush. Characters text one another rather than call. This is just the Mad Libs approach to writing literature. It is, of course, popular, because most people really are conservative. In the midst of change, they hold on to what is comfortable.”
Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. She lives in the UK with her husband and son. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her debut novel.
One of my favourite exercises is to write down the ten worst things that could happen to your character, then to explore how they’d react if these happened. And that’s what I did with Arthur.
Alex Perez is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in Subtropics, Guernica, and Esquire. He lives in Miami, where he recently completed a novel.
“I’ve learned the hard way that too much thinking—especially while writing—can destroy a story. Don’t question the choices a character makes. They know better.”
Rene S. Perez II’s debut story collection, is set in Corpus Christi, Kingsville, and South Texas—a part of the country rarely seen in literature. That is why the writer Dagoberto Gilb wrote that the book is “marking trail for an ignored culture to find its way to the nation’s center.”
“I think big truths about characters can be best examined in small stories. Instead of exploring what a character would do when encountering life’s plot turns, I think a small story–woman walks into a Starbucks, gets a coffee, leaves–allows for exploring who a character is when no one else is watching.”
Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels, including Listen to Me and the forthcoming Atlanta, 1962. Her debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was an Oprah Magazine selection, an Indie Next pick, a Powell’s Indiespendible Book Club Pick, and a “best of” selection by The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Details Magazine, The Kansas City Star, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Hudson Booksellers. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.
Every chapter needed to be as tight and deliberate and relevant as possible. Nothing was included that wasn’t essential, which is how I write my short stories (or try to…) I knew in crafting a novel that took place over the course 24 hours, I’d be relying more than usual on summary, backstory, and flashbacks.
David James Poissant’s debut story collection The Heaven of Animalsreceived a rave review in The New York Times. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voicesanthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.
In workshop, we often hear about concrete details, about specificity, about “no ideas but in things.” Then, when it comes to pop culture, we often hear the dictum about avoiding concrete or specific brand names and pop culture references. I think the theory here is that you can better give your fiction a “timeless” quality if you don’t pinpoint an era too specifically with the name of a TV show or song or actor, or whatever. Or else, some people feel that, acknowledging the American entertainment industry, you pollute your literary story with low culture stuff. I think that both of these are bogus reasons to avoid cultural references and time-specific touchstones.
Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.
Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.
The stories in Erin Pringle-Tuongate’s first collection, The Floating Order, are full of inventive language and powerfully weird images. They’re also gripping reads, similar to the work of cross-genre horror writers like Brian Evenson and John Burnside. Pringle-Toungate currently lives and teaches in Washington, where she was awarded an Artist Trust fellowship. One of her stories was a finalist in the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award (2012). Her work has been twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship. She recently completed her second story collection, How the Sun Burns.
“I don’t want readers to feel like they understand something about my characters just because they’re at Starbucks. Plenty of books demonstrate the depravity of living in a world of brand names. I don’t have anything to say about it, I’m not interested in it, so I’m not going to bring up details that make the conversation change its focus. A man walks into a bar. Good. A man walks into Hooters. What a stupid difference it makes. Now the man is no longer the focus.”
Jamie Quatro earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, published fiction in numerous journals, published the story collection I Want to Show You More to wide acclaim—including a glowing, extensive review in The New Yorker—and most recently had a story chosen for the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.
“I think each story comes to an artist with its own structure, its own cadence and music, and that the artist’s first responsibility is to listen. For me, drafting is very much like listening to a piece of music or watching a film. You simply let the work rush on and do what it wants to do, take the shape it wants to take.”
Karen Ranney wanted to be a writer from the time she was five years old and filled her Big Chief tablet with stories. People in stories did amazing things and she was too shy to do anything amazing. Years spent in Japan, Paris, and Italy, however, not only fueled her imagination but proved she wasn’t that shy after all. Now a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, she lives in San Antonio, Texas.
I have always maintained that it’s easier to write a sex scene than it is a love scene. I always try to have the characters fall in love with each other before they actually consummate that love. It seems to me that emotions are more important than physical activity.
Benjamin Reed’s fiction and essays have appeared in [PANK], West Branch,Arcadia Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, and The Southern Quarterly. He won the 2013 Austin Chronicle Short Story contest, and Junot Díaz selected Reed’s “The Quiet Hunt” as winner of the Avery Anthology Small Spaces Prize.
Right now I’m working on a story about a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers in about 30,000 BCE, and figuring out how they speak is like creating a new language, but one whose only existence is in my own fluid translation. Lately I’ve been grappling with this clan’s dexterity with metaphor. It’s also been made clear to me how heavily English relies upon a modern and contemporary idiom. I thought my “caveman story” would be fun and relatively quick, but it’s become this huge project. I have to create these people’s entire culture and worldview, one word choice at a time.
Benjamin Rosenbaum is the author of The Ant King and Other Stories. His stories have been published in Nature, Harper’s, F&SF, Asimov’s, McSweeney’s, and Strange Horizons, translated into 23 languages, and nominated for Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards. He lives near Basel, Switzerland.
“I was going for a humorous deflation of the zombie story. If I’m juxtaposing the mundane detail of the everyday with the horrific detail of the apocalypse, and they are described with equal focus, the horrific details are going to take over emotionally. Blood and gore are sensational: they force the reader to pay attention, demand an emotional reaction. On the other hand, if you demand an emotional reaction when you haven’t really earned one — when the reader isn’t sufficiently invested in the characters and the action — you get sentimentalism or melodrama rather than a real emotional response. The reader pulls back, because you’re rubbing their face into extreme stimuli without having won them over.”
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection is Barefoot Dogs.
“I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.”
The stories collected in Ethan Rutherford’s debut book The Peripatetic Coffin aren’t afraid to tackle big, novelistic premises. In “Dirwhals!” a whaling ship in the future sails about the sands of an emptied-out Gulf of Mexico, hunting a new kind of whale. The fact that Rutherford pulls off such ambitious stories is a testament to his talent. It’s no surprise that The Peripatetic Coffin was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.
“John Gardner has written that in order for an ending to be successful it ought to be both “surprising and inevitable.” That seems like a straightforward assertion, but I’ve spent many a sleepless night, tossing and turning, thinking: what exactly does that mean? The truth is, I always know where a story is headed—I have to know that, or I cannot write it…I’ve come to understand “surprise” in a story as having less to do with What Happens than with a character’s emotional response to the role he/she has played in bringing these events about.
Eli Saslow is a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered the 2008 presidential campaign and has chronicled the president’s life inside the White House. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. Previously a sportswriter for the Post, he has won multiple awards for news and feature writing. Two of his stories have also appeared in Best American Sports Writing. He is the co-founder of Press Pass Mentors, a program that pairs professional journalists with low-income high school juniors and seniors to help them become great writers.
When I write, I always want to know exactly how a story ends. I find that I write toward that ending, like a destination on a map, and if I don’t know the ending of a story, I get lost along the way.
The New York Times Magazine called George Saunders’ latest story collection, Tenth of December, “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” He’s also the author CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia.
“My method is to write more than I need and then radically prune back, vis the criteria that there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up – it all has to be shaped and fast and serve a purpose.”
Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Last Repatriate, two chapbooks, plus numerous essays that have appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, and American Short Fiction.
“I wrote the first draft in a rush. Revision took years. Most of my fiction is written in this way–the rush of the first draft and the long work of shaping that draft into something that reads with that rush. For this story, that meant cutting it up several times and moving the pieces around on my floor, adding and deleting pieces, trying to get the length down and also have enough of an emotional arc.”
Chaitali Sen was born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania. Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky.
I read a craft book about different narrative structures which suggested the linear, chronological structure was the most plodding way to telling a story, basically the least energetic. I don’t think I agree with that anymore but at the time, I was feeling that the build-up to the central conflict in my story was too slow. My first draft was doggedly chronological, starting with the characters meeting in college and concluding with an ending that has since changed. I did need to fix some pacing issues, but at the same time I felt the slowly rising action was important and I didn’t want to rush it.
Ali Simpson’s work has been published in The Southampton Review, The First Line, and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.
“I like to think of a story’s reason for being as “the heart in the machine.” The machine is all of the cold, moveable, sometimes interchangeable parts. The POV, the structure, the characters. The heart is whatever compelled you to sit down and stare at the blank page, to craft imaginary people who live in made up worlds, to construct emotion, desire, and conflict out of a few scraps of black and white.”
Herpreet Singh writes fiction and personal essays, exploring the intersection between culture and geography, especially the Indo-American experience in the deep South. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southernerand The Intentional. She coaches clients who are trying to write their own true stories in the book form. She’s a mother and partner and is at work on a novel.
Have you ever watched someone braid hair? My dad is a natural storyteller, but his stories, delivered orally, unfold in a long, interlacing ramble. I have always admired the way he draws listeners in, and we feel like we are, at first, just taking in the scenery as we follow. Then we realize we are actually observing clustered strands being braided together. In school, we are usually discouraged from taking this approach, and it’s too bad. A meandering writing style is most natural to me; I attribute it both to my dad’s storytelling and to the geography in which I grew up.
Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Guernica, and The New Yorker. Her forthcoming book, In the Red, combines memoir, literary reportage, and social analysis to examine the life of poor and working-class Americans as seen through the lens of Smarsh’s own turbulent upbringing in rural Kansas.
As poets and photographers know, a poignant, true image cuts as deep into the psyche as story. When I was a nonfiction professor I’d do close-reads of essays with students and then have them close their eyes. I’d ask them to picture the contents of the essay, write down the first image that came to mind, and then go around the room reading their answers. Almost every time, most answers were the same; some visual had been most searing for everyone.
Adam Soto is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Versal Journal, and in 2012 he was named a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s30-below contest. A Chicago native, Adam currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as a schoolteacher and is completing work on a novel.
A number of years ago I listened to Stuart Dybek discuss his story “We Didn’t,” which is this beautifully repetitive, lyrical piece about two teenage lovers interrupted by a corpse just as they are about to consummate their love on a Chicago beach one night. He had this theory about narrative structure and memory that really resonated with me. Dybek stated that story, since the dawn of abstract thinking, has been a tool for passing on information, and that plot—especially traditional plot structure—is just an easy and familiar way to keep that information in order, similar to the outlines and concept maps we use when studying in school or planning for projects at work.
Mary Helen Specht might have been born and raised in Abilene, Texas, but after graduating from high school, she’s barely stopped moving. She’s studied at Rice University and Emerson College; worked in Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, and lived in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. Most recently, she was a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, and she’s now an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is currently at work on a novel.
” I certainly think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, I think it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “western gaze” when writing about other cultures.”
Melissa Stephenson lives, runs, parents, and writes in Missoula, Montana. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have previously appeared in Cutbank, Other Voices, Thin Air, The Chattahoochee Review, New South, Memoir (and), The Mid American Review, and Passages North. She’s currently hard at work completing a collection of poems and revising her memoir.
On a nuts-and-bolts note, I’m a poet as well, and I love writing endings. Once the content is there, endings become a mix of cadence, imagery, and releasing just enough insight without (as you wisely note) overdoing it. I’ll write them, tweak them, and read them out loud until each word resonates. Then I’ll go back and tweak the whole essay to make sure the information is released in a way that makes the ending feel as surprising and inevitable as possible.
Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir Crushing Soft Rubies, which has been used as a course textbook at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Santa Rosa Junior College and Gavilan College. Stickmon is a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College and a former high school teacher in Richmond, CA. She founded and facilitates Broken Shackle Developmental Training, a program that promotes the use of healing techniques to help reduce the effects of internalized racism.
Throughout the writing process, I noticed most certainly my use of scholarly language, but there also seemed to be a flow and a pulse to that flow, that seemed to lack the rigidity that often characterizes scholarly writing. It was as if the writing process itself became a bit of a dance that was magical and majestic at the same time.
Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Her work has been published in The Morning News, The Rumpus, Burnt Orange Report, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Colorado and previously lived in Austin, where she worked for the United States Postal Service. Stoner wrote about the illegal and abusive labor practices that she experienced as a postal carrier in the essay “Blues on Wheels.”
Since the article was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from carriers, clerks, maintenance workers, and even people who work in upper management, who wrote to thank me for sharing my story, because theirs are all too similar. Many have signed their emails, “Too afraid to give my name,” and while I understand why they would do so, it both breaks my heart and encourages me to continue my work.
J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He edits the fiction section of The Nervous Breakdownwith Gina Frangello. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and McSweeney’s: The Goods. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles and has worked as a TV producer, notably for the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers and Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.
No, I’m not lucky enough to have those natural storytelling instincts. I try to ask a lot of questions during a chapter to keep it moving forward, and give the reader a reason to keep going if they’re invested.
Bae Suah was born in Seoul and has published seven books in Korean, three of which have been translated into English: the novellas Highway with Green Apples, Time in Gray, and, most recently, Nowhere to Be Found. She currently lives in Berlin and translates German literature into Korean, including Martin Walser’s Angstblute and two works by W. G. Sebald. She is currently translating the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.
Male readers bristled at this book, and specifically said that they felt put off by the narrator. The female protagonist is not very nice to the male protagonist; she throws his food in a latrine just to dramatically demonstrate how she is feeling (one younger male reader told me that chicken was highly prized in the army back in the ‘80s); and she has a brusque way of speaking (in fact, she tends to be curt, unfriendly, and rude with others). In other words, she’s the opposite of what’s expected of a woman in Korean society, and that made older readers and male readers uncomfortable.
Stacey Swann was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a contestant on Jeopardy!. She was the editor of American Short Fiction and the mixed-art project, The Owls.
“I tell my writing students that while they are drafting, they should lock their internal critic in the trunk of their car and just drive. I find revision easier and more enjoyable than drafting, and that’s mostly because that internal critic is such a jerk while I draft. If I don’t put him in the damn trunk, he’ll drive me away from the computer. Of course, that also means my first drafts are huge messes, and it can take me multiple revisions to even pin down the basic plot arc.”
Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin, Texas. Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, follows a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife’s kidnapping in 1990s Peru. Booklist called the novel’s ending “smart and unexpected.”
“Not surprisingly, the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. (Also, I was 21, newly engaged, and trying to write a story about a troubled marriage. I don’t really buy into the “write what you know” belief, but when I write I do need to find an access point into a story, and for me it can be almost anything, as long as it feels true.)”
Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.
I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are.
Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection, and, most recently, The World Is On Fire. She has worked as a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, and her nonfiction has been published in Oxford American, Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
I like to start research for an essay by going somewhere that intrigues me and just seeing what I can see. This essay began that way; I remembered Rock City from my childhood and went back for a visit as an adult, with the idea of writing about it. For me, this impulse isn’t primarily rational. I might not know why a place or idea or image appeals to me, but I try not to question that, at least initially. I’ll just go and see what’s there.
Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.
It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of.
Shannon A. Thompson is a 21-year-old with two novels under her belt. Her first, a YA sci-fi thriller November Snow, was published when she was 16. Her latest work, the YA paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset, was voted a Goodreads Book of the Month for July 2013.
I started writing, because my mother was a writer, and she encouraged me to in order to cope with nightmares and night terrors. She suddenly died when I was 11, and I faced mortality at a young age.
Ted Thompson is the author of The Land of Steady Habits, a novel that has been called “the first great novel about post-crash American disillusionment, the flip side of The Wolf of Wall Street” by Salon editor David Daley. The novel has been optioned by director Nicole Holofcener. Thompson’s stories have appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, and Best New American Voices, and he was a Truman Capote fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It was then that I realized that so long as there is a narrative question (meaning a question that is in the reader’s mind) that’s being addressed, most of the time the reader will make the POV leap with you without too much resistance. Changes in point of view are always jarring, but they’re less so if it feels as though we’re following the narrative thrust of the story, if we’re where the action is.
J. M. Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review and is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute. He is the co-author, with Michael McGriff, of Our Secret Life in the Movies.
There are at least four kinds of stories – the kind you never get around to writing, the kind you write and abandon, the kind that come out right the first time, and the kind that come at great cost after a struggle and too many drafts to mention. This story was one of the last kind.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming collection The Isle of Youth, a book that prompted a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly to gush, “If ever there was a writer going places, it’s Laura van den Berg.” Her previous book was the story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
“To me reality seems perpetually multifarious, bewildering; it often evolves, sometimes instantaneously, without our consent. I am most drawn to fiction, and hope to write fiction, where the force of that disorientation is felt.”
Even if you’re in the same time and place where there is a mass murderer, I think it would be pretty unlikely that you’ll be their victim. It’s more likely that you will run into them by chance and nothing happens. Afterwards, you might say that they were nice people who quiet and kept to themselves (of course), but it’s more likely that you would survive the encounter. Second, I wanted to create a feeling of unease and fear in living in the same city as a serial killer. I imagine the sense of danger would color every interaction, and that was the backdrop I wanted in the story.
Adrian Van Young’s story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, won the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Gigantic, Electric Literature, The American Reader, Black Warrior Review, The Believer and Slate, among other publications. He teaches writing at Tulane University and lives in New Orleans with his wife.
But I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write an alien story and that moreover I wanted the alien itself to be Lovecraftian—a creature that presides terribly over human destiny but from a point beyond human knowing. Of course, when you’re going the Lovecraftian route, you don’t always want to hew to what’s been done, you want to make it new, so I started thinking, as well, about the scariest element of successful horror-inflected science fiction, which in my mind is always the human element.
Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of six novels. Her most recent, The Same Sky, follows two Honduran children who migrate to Texas in order to escape the violence of her home. Ward was born in New York City and has traveled in Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Greece, and Central America and worked as a journalist, librarian, and teacher. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana and now lives in Austin, TX.
“In the end, though, I try to trust the voices in the novel (whether first or third); trust what they need to mention and know and understand. Too much research can drag a book down, as can too much detail. I’m a complete cynic in every part of my life except writing—a novel coming together is absolute magic and a gift. I just try to make my brain ready, give it details and slow-smoked brisket and hope for the best.”
D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral. Since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University.
“This story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, ‘Too Poor’ was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.”
“We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply.”
“I use AP style for my work writing, and have a strong allegiance to stylistic convention, so dialogue like this is about as close as I get to experimentation as a fiction writer, at least structurally. But then, paradoxically, I’m an intuitive grammarian, so I’m more interested in using commas to, say, control speed of reading than correctly manage the joining of dependent clauses or whatever. Gah, it was all I could do to even mention dependent clauses. I try to think of them as little as possible.”
If you liked Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone or the movie based on the book, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Marc Watkins. He was born and raised in Missouri and writes about the down and out of the Ozarks. He was a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
“The voice may have its roots in a church pew. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school for several years. They’d send us to two or three masses each week, and I guess that voice from the pulpit, that sort of weird Bible voice stuck in my brain, even when all other aspects of my faith faded.”
Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and Swimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.
As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote.
Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, and the Madison Review, as well as on NPR and CBS Radio. She currently teaches for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and has taught in the past for Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Workshop and at University College London.
“I revised it over the next few days and decided to submit it to the NYT Mag’s ”Riff” page. I hit send and forgot about it. A few weeks later Adam Sternbergh, the mag’s culture editor, wrote and said he liked the piece, but that it wasn’t right as a “Riff”. He asked if he could send it over to Jillian Dunham who ran the “Lives” page. Jillian liked it, but said I would need to 1) cut it down by two-thirds (Yikes!) 2) make the piece a personal essay instead of a cultural-criticism piece. She suggested starting over with the Stacey anecdote at the core, so that’s what I did. And I ended up getting to a deeper truth than I originally had in the long rant. It just took me a long time to get there.”
Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.
“Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite ‘braid’ in that novel so much as ‘saddle stitch’ or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.”
Mario Alberto Zambrano was a contemporary ballet dancer before writing fiction. He has lived in Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and has danced for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He graduated from The New School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel Lotería was named to many lists of the best books of 2014, and this month, Zambrano received a prestigious NEA fellowship to work on his new novel.
Even when you’re working on a novel that doesn’t deal with cards, but rather with scenes, chapters, acts, what have you, the sequence in which the story is being told can disrupt or heighten the dramatic tension that fiction relies on.