Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adam O'Riordan and the Impulse to Write Prose

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Adam O'Riordan, author of The Burning Ground (W.W. Norton & Company), discusses what led him from poetry to fiction and how he approaches his work.

What influenced you to a write short fiction?
Spending time in America—in New York and then Los Angeles—is what moved me from writing poetry, which is where I began, into writing prose. The plurality of the place, the patent sense of possibility, the promise of it and the way in which promises are broken there all conspired to make me into a writer of prose. And glad I am they did.

Describe your writing habits.
I try to write on the majority of working days, so three days writing in any given week will be a good week for me. If something is going well, I’ll write on weekends, too, both Saturday and Sunday. I usually write for around three hours and always in the morning, from about 9 a.m. after coffee until 12 p.m. when I start to want to eat lunch. If something is going really well, I’ll write again in the evening from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. or from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. For me, it’s about getting runs of days together. That’s when things start to happen.

Where do you do your best work?
SoCal beach: Running into ideas
Without exception, my clearest ideas have come to me while running along the stretch of sand from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica pier; the mixture of sunlight, sea air, the vast space out to sea and big crowds nearby on the boardwalk. Though these days, it is only an annual or biannual pleasure at best. Here in Manchester, England, where I live, I write between a number of places: my apartment in an old cotton mill in the center of the city, the Portico Library, and Central Library. More and more these days, I write in the lobby or the bar of the Principal Hotel, another grand Edwardian building from when the city was in its pomp—lots of space and friendly waiters and waitresses. I like to arrive early as the guests are finishing breakfast and be on the edge of that sleepy, pleasantly displaced and transient energy that always seems so full of potential.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
"The Dead" by James Joyce, the final story in his collection Dubliners. A story so full of rich life and sadness, so grounded in the detail and lived experience of a place, yet rising above and beyond it right out into the eternal.

Where does a story begin for you? 
With an urge, sometimes in the form of an image or a phrase, sometimes in the form of a voice, a voice that might be trying to work something out or arrive at some form of clarity about something, after which comes, on my part, a desire at first to hear it or, if it’s an image, see it as clearly as I can and then to elaborate on it, to invent and to embroider. To take a good look around the life that I’ve found.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I think it’s perhaps a question of density—at the end of the story when it’s done, I’ll be feeling denser or lighter depending on the kind of story it is. I suppose by the end I’m often feeling sadder too.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
Listening to music is often a good preparative; physical, mental, and spiritual in one. Philip Glass or Max Richter, things like William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops hitting that same note of trance-like melancholy over and over, which you notice and then don’t notice.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Little by little, day by day. A few minutes at a time at first, until it takes again and some sort of rhythm is rediscovered and you ride it for as long as you can until life usually intervenes and then it's back to getting going again.

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
Autumn, 1934, a shy man, careworn and a little run to fat, somewhere in late middle age, named Wallace, is driving a Chevrolet Open Tourer he has rebuilt from scrap, from Caddo, Oklahoma, to the Great Lakes. He is looking for his father.

Describe your reading habits.
I try, whenever I can, to give an hour from any given day over to reading, usually in the late afternoon —and sometimes at night for twenty minutes or so I’ll read aloud or I will be read to—I think this is probably the most intimate form of luxury known to man.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Katherine Vaz on Taking Notes and Making Box Art

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Vaz, author of The Love Life of an Assistant Animator (Tailwinds Press), discusses the importance of jotting things down and also finding nonverbal means of expression.

When my father was dying, I moved from New York to my native California, the Bay Area, to be with him alongside my mother and five siblings. I ended up writing a story about him published recently in Guernica, and it reminded of the strange route I took to get it from my heart—and bones and nerves—onto pages.

As writers, we often cling to process and result. I use the Pomodoro Technique happily. But spelling things out in the throes of loss felt distasteful, even if I could have borne it; I needed to spend as much pure time with him as I could, though I also wanted to jot down what happened, knowing my foggy mind might obscure it later. I kept the sort of record Joan Didion talked about in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which to her could mean a box with flotsam tossed in. A magpie’s nest, I think she called it. My result was all shorthand:

choc Guin pur/38 m
ao lado!

And so on. Dropping these desiccated word-tablets in water later would yield: On St. Patrick’s Day, I fed him puréed chocolate Guinness cake, and it took thirty-eight minutes. When my mother and I left him in the special dining room for those requiring extra assistance, he yelled, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” His diagnosis of “aging brain” made me envision his comments as confetti. On a day he improved, the lemon tree in the yard dazzled me, because false hope made it—made everything—seem backlit in neon. When nurses asked what direction he wanted to go, he said, “Ao lado,” and I explained he meant “to the side” in his native Portuguese.
Shadow box: Writing the Lord's Prayer
on a Grain of Rice—A Kit

When he died, on a warm, September afternoon, we were all there as he slipped away, and my fragment was “crying not leave.” To trigger the remembrance of that morning, when he’d sobbed about not wanting to be done with the world.

In a manila envelope that held my scrawls on pieces of paper, on receipts or corners of pastry bags, I also placed a plastic ring off an orange-juice bottle, because while running on the Castro Valley High School track, I asked the universe to send me a hair bow or fastener, a sign that a prayer could be answered, and my lack of glasses produced a joke. I’d thought it was a ponytail tie.

But instead of hammering out sentences—writers can jump too swiftly into Getting This Done—I switched gears because I believe writers should explore directing their senses toward actions that plumb toward painful subjects, toward emotions that roar in protest if funneled too soon into the practical, obedient service of words. I’ve always done box-art, thanks to my adoration of Joseph Cornell and my father’s constant painting. He always delighted in a language of color.

Box-art deals in the blessed relief of abstractions, tints, and juxtaposed forms. In hours-long sessions, never pausing to “think,” I constructed nine boxes about my father. One is called “Writing the Lord’s Prayer on a Grain of Rice—A Kit,” and I have trouble even glancing at it because there’s a picture of him in his last week that nearly destroys me. But that’s one of the few concrete images in this series; the constructions are mostly instinctive and non-photographic. I moved with ease and fervor, producing collages and shadow boxes that magically held together.

And then I took a breath and wrote the story of my father’s death, called “Grief: A Coloring Book.”

Shadow box: Saudade
The artwork was not a sidetrack but a conduit to forcing my sorrow—how I miss him still!—to pool in a groundwater I could siphon upward, into words that connected to—expanded—those cryptic original notes. Writers do well to find off-center, nonverbal, active ways of letting reservoirs collect. His own practice of painting suggested my pathway; find whatever suits your own depth-work. I searched for items to fit the shadow boxes; I went out walking to find what might, for instance, symbolize his love of gardening. It is a lesson we forget at our desks: How vital it is to keep the blood flowing in our veins while we are yet alive; to stretch; to enjoy how non-narrative falls into place, whether with thread and glue or something else. After all, the world uses color and shape to infiltrate our sensibilities that proceed to color and shape our words.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Drawings on Juan Martinez's Office Door

In the third in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Juan Martinez, author of Best Worst American (Small Beer Press), talks about how he rewards himself for getting writing done by allowing himself to draw.

The goal is to cover the entirety of the office door with drawings, but there are rules, the most important of which is that I only get to draw on days I’ve revised or written. The other important rule is that I can only draw on Post-Its.

Also, I’m not allowed to draw anything that’s in any shape way or form related to what I’m writing. I did not know that was a rule until I drew something that was related to what I was writing and—the moment I was done doodling—the part of me in charge of these things knew I had crossed a line, and I crumpled that Post-It and tossed it into the blue “We Recycle” bin that the university supplied me with, and I drew this haunted pantsuit

which was not writing-related but 100% election-anxiety-related. I suppose a lot of the drawings are negotiating some anxiety or other. I drew this dude shortly before having to do a reading:

And I’ve noticed that a lot of my drawings attempt to mess with Chicago’s scale. I had never lived in anything as massive as Chicago before I moved here. So I put the Willis tower in a bag. I drew a blackbird that dwarfed the tower.

Those I can explain. I can also explain this cow:

I drew it on the day a cow broke free from a slaughterhouse and down a St. Louis street. Easy!

But I don’t know why I drew a giraffe driving a tank:

I’m pretty sure I meant to draw a goose driving the tank, and I messed up the neck and thought, Oh well, It’s a giraffe now. But even so. Why a goose? Why a tank?

And why did I want to re-do the Tischbein portrait of Goethe with Goethe as a handsome pig?

I love to draw. I’m not alone. Goethe himself was an inveterate sketcher, as I learned from the Italian Journey. We draw, all of us. You too, I suspect. We mostly draw or scrawl on the margins -- during meetings, maybe. Or maybe when taking notes or waiting for an appointment or as a final desperate measure to stave off boredom once our phone battery dies off and we’re still in the waiting room. We reward ourselves with these little creative acts. We all do it, I’m sure. And we all grow frustrated with our efforts, Goethe included: “I can see clearly what is good and what is even better, but as soon as I try to get it down, it somehow slips through my fingers and I capture, not the truth, but what I am in the habit of capturing.” Don’t we all? Goethe reminds himself of his steady improvement, however, of the power of practice.

The drawings on the office door do serve as a reminder and a tally. All art, all creative work, is built out of accretion and repetition. You do a little bit at a time. You write a scene. You tear a page and try something else. You see what sticks. You do your work for the day. It all adds up, you hope.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Henry Alley Finds Inspiration in His Archives

In the second in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Henry Alley, author of The Dahlia Field (Chelsea Station Editions), explores how going through his files feeds his creative process.

It is as though when beginning a piece, I need to take time off immediately and thrust myself onto the back roads of notebooks, old letters, post cards, family photographs, photostats of old newspapers and even phono albums, tapes, and CDs. I have often thought that a story is what happens when you are thinking about something else. After I start a piece, the main point is, I keep adding to the archive, because the distraction brings on those important, apparently irrelevant details and associated words, moods, and characters. 

When I was a child, my parents gave me a box Kodak camera. I still have the album I kept during that time, from about 1952 to about 1956.  In it, there is a snapshot of the Liberty Theatre in Yakima, Washington.  I took it while I was on one of my father's trips he made as a shoe salesman. In looking at the photo, I remembered seeing It Came from Outer Space at the time, even though the marquee featured another film. Eventually I found the newspaper ads for the film, which I clearly recalled from 1953—Xenomorphs from Another World. There was the thrill of having a boulder come out of the screen and into the row just in front of me. The movie was in 3-D, and was well acted and well made, and the plot, in my mind, began to parallel the one I had in mind for the story. I started to see that the distance-remembering narrator carried with him the sense of being alien to the world of standard male expectations and that the brother of his stepfather had been consumed by them. The narrator finds a reconciliation by switching from his actual father, who has gone mad with the militarism of the times, as well as the scars of World War II, to his new stepfather, who was once harsh and has learned how to be tender.

All this came up while I was doing research during the course of the story, "Girl on Ice," which is in my collection, The Dahlia Field. Once again I found the most important sleuthing happened in the midst of composition. It was like being on a treasure hunt. Eventually, the poster of the film of 1953 led me to look at certain newspapers in that era, ultimately pointing to the work of combat photographer Al Chang, who took the visionary photo of one soldier comforting another during the Korean War, which appears in the collection The Family of Man. The inexpressible tenderness and compassion caught in that photograph also became a kind of road map for how the narrator could work himself out of his conflict with his father and with the American macho that was part of his upbringing.
Korean War photo by Al Chang
One seed from an archive has led to other stories and in one particular case, a novel. I have all my saved letters—those I received and wrote myself—all organized in trays in my study, each tray spanning one to three years. When I was sorting through them one day, I found a letter from my mother written in 1964, when my father had had his first heart attack and was recovering in the hospital. He had been there some time. The letter was in response to my question about what she was doing—in other words how her days went. With decades separating me from that time, I found myself reading with great fascination the description of the life of a woman who had been engulfed for years in the concerns of others but now had something of a private world of her own—sleeping late, writing letters, helping out at the family shoe store, having dinner with friends, doing book-keeping, all while, of course, visiting my father. The recovery, after thirty years, of this disclosure of a realm of a woman newly out on her own prompted me to write my last novel, People Who Work, whose heroine finds, under similar circumstances, a sense of psychic and vocational direction in the late 1960s, as paralleled by her son, who is doing the same by struggling in school and coming out as a gay man. This letter thus inspired me to write about my favorite subject, which permeates The Dahlia Field as well—people who are just getting on their feet, no matter what their age.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sofia Samatar’s Ten Favorite "Quotes" About Writing

In the first in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Sofia Samatar, author of Tender (Small Beer Press), shares some pearls of wisdom.

“For me, it all begins with a notebook: it is the well I dip into for that first clear, cool drink.”
~ Rita Dove

“A writer looking for subject inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”
~ Annie Dillard

“As in everything, so in writing I am almost afraid of going too far. What can this be? Why? I restrain myself, as if I were tugging at the reins of a horse which might suddenly bolt and drag me who knows where. I protect myself. Why? For what? For what purpose am I saving myself?”
~ Clarice Lispector

“And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”
~ Hélène Cixous

“I shall not finish my poem.
What I have written is so sweet
The flies are beginning to torment me.”
~ Hafez

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
~ Herman Melville

“I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting... This book represents my cowardice.”
~ Fernando Pessoa

“I write only for my shadow projected by the lamp onto the wall. I need to introduce myself to it.”
~ Sadeq Hedayat

“Writing is my health.”
~ Sylvia Plath

“Of course there is no more beautiful fate for a story than for it to disappear...”
~ Franz Kafka

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Video: The Story Prize Event on March 8 at The New School with Finalists Anna Noyes and Helen Maryles Shankman and Winner Rick Bass

Here's the video of The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School. That night, the three finalists—Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman—read from and discussed their work on-stage. And at the culmination of the event, we announced the winner for books published in 2016: Rick Bass's For a Little While.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

(Real) News About The Story Prize Event

Finalists Rick Bass, Helen Maryles Shankman, and Anna Noyes
(photo @ Beowulf Sheehan)
Here are links to some of the news coverage that The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School has garnered—none of it fake.

The San Francisco Chronicle
Library Journal
Poets & Writers
Publishers Weekly
Associated Press

That night, we announced Rick Bass's For a Little While as the winner for books published in 2016. He received $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. The other two finalists, Anna Noyes for Goodnight, Beautiful Women and Helen Maryles Shankman for They Were Like Family to Me, each received $5,000.

What the Judges Had to Say About Helen Maryles Shankman's They Were Like Family to Me

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

“The stories in They Were Like Family to Me are connected around the Polish town of Włodawa, which the Nazis occupied during World War II. The stories dance around Reich Regional Commissioner Reinhart, the bureaucrat who has a taste for the finer things and is willing to protect his most talented Jews. The author weaves in Jewish folktales, making them seem like family legends. Several of the incidents, like the merchants forced to do jumping jacks for the amusement of Nazi guards, appear in several of the stories. And minor characters in one story take center stage in the other. There’s no question that Helen Maryles Shankman had my attention in the first story, when the brutal Nazi officer Max Haas hires a Jewish man to paint his apartment, only to realize the man is the illustrator of his child’s favorite children’s book. At one point, I gasped and had to talk about the story to just about anyone I came in contact with for the rest of the day. I couldn’t help it. And I loved the classic way that the Reinhart character plays at the periphery of so many stories before we finally get his perspective.”

Friday, March 10, 2017

What the Judges Had to Say About Anna Noyes's Goodnight Beautiful Women

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

"All the women in this book are beautiful, even when they aren’t. In their femaleness, they so overwhelm the men that you can almost smell and touch and hear their yearning, their disappointment, their recognition that “it will be all right” (in most cases) even when it probably won’t. As with the great mistresses of the short story—Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro—each story is structured to invisibilize the structure itself, so that as a reader you end up drinking in a series of raw feelings hung terribly on the balloon structure of the Goodnight, Beautiful Women’s home."

What the Judges Had to Say About Rick Bass's For a Little While, Winner of The Story Prize

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

“Rick Bass’s gift at conveying the vastness of the American wilderness through a form as compact as the short story is a cause for wonder. Again and again in this collection his stories demonstrate the form’s elasticity and expansiveness, its ability to evoke greatness of scale and time using little more than the seemingly modest tools of close observation, clear language, and rich sensory detail. His characters are forged in the fire of extremes: loggers, boxers, dog trainers, competitive runners, and horse breakers, they experience extreme weather and terrain, extreme solitude and loss, as well as moments of intense, transformative connection. Sentence by sentence, story by story, he does the patient, passionate work of awakening his readers to the innate wildness, mystery, and beauty of the world, and of the people who inhabit it.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Rick Bass's For a Little While Is the 13th Winner of The Story Prize

We're pleased to announce that Rick Bass's For a Little While (Little, Brown) is the winner of The Story Prize for books published in 2016. Bass's The Lives of Rocks was previously a finalist for books published in 2006. He is only the second author to be a finalist twice, along with George Saunders, who was also a finalist that year, when the winner was The Stories of Mary Gordon.

The other finalists this year were authors Anna Noyes for Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press) and Helen Maryles Shankman for They Were Like Family to Us (Scribner). At the event at The New School, all three finalists read from and discussed their work on-stage. As runners-up, Noyes and Shankman each received $5,000.

In the days and weeks to come, we'll post the judges' citations for the three books, photos from the event and after party, and a link to the video.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Into the Woods: The Story Prize Event on March 8

The Story Prize event is only a few weeks away, on March 8, at The New School's auditorium at 66 W. 12 St., home of our co-sponsor, The New School Creative Writing Program. That night, finalists Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman will read from their work and discuss it onstage. Tickets are $14. Here's a peek at the front cover of the eight-page, color program we'll be passing out that night:

The design, which evokes the forests that play a part in all three books, is by Steven J. Charny.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Story Prize Long List for Collections Published in 2016

In 2016, The Story Prize received as entries 106 books published by 72 publishers or imprints. We aim for a broad definition of what a "short story collection" is. Some books labeled as novels, for instance, sometimes also work as story collections, particularly when each chapter or section has a distinct title and introduces new characters or situations.

As difficult as it is to choose three finalists, it is in many ways just as difficult to come up with a long list of other notable story collections. I don't think we can repeat this often enough: Anyone who publishes a short story collection has accomplished something significant and nothing should diminish that achievement. More than a dozen other books we read this past year could have been on this list. But ultimately, even a long list can only be so long.

Here then is a list (alphabetical by author) of other books we read in 2016—beyond the three finalists and The Story Prize Spotlight Award winner—that particularly stood out for us:

We'll announce the winner of The Story Prize at an event co-sponsored with The New School's Creative Writing program at the Auditorium at 66 W. 12 Street on March 8. At the event, finalists Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman will read from and discuss their work. You can buy tickets in advance online, or that night at the box office.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Index of Guest Posts from Authors of 2016 Short Story Collections

Hit parade leaders: Hale (left), Perabo (top right), and Chase (bottom right)
In 2016, for the fifth straight year, we invited each author of a collection we received as an entry for The Story Prize to contribute a guest post to this blog. Out of 106 authors, 68 chose to participate. Since 2010, the TSP blog has featured 452 guest posts from 437 writers (some have contributed in more than one year).

According to Blogger's statistics, most 2016 guest posts received 400 or more page views. The most popular post, "Benjamin Hale's Four Essential Fiction Writing Rules," has so far drawn more than 6,100 page views—the third most of any TSP blog post. "Antonya Nelson's Ten Writing Rules," the post with the most all-time views, currently has more than 14,000 of them.

The author posts with the second and third most hits this year were "Susan Perabo Urges Writers to Stop Thinking About Themselves," with nearly 2,000 page views, and "Katie Chase's Ten Simple Steps to a Short Story Collection," with more than 1,400 page views to date.

When we ask the authors if they'd like to contribute, we give them several options. One is to answer any or all of a series of questions, that we change somewhat each year. The 2016 questions were:
•  Why do you write?
•  Name something you read that made you want to be a writer.
•  Is there a story by another author you wish you’d written?
•  Where does a story begin for you?
•  Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
•  What do you do when you get stuck?
•  How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
•  Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
•  Discuss a local bookstore or library that is important to you.
We also suggested some possible essay topics:
    •  A literary touchstone.
    •  A letter to a young writer, a la Rilke.
    •  A list of ten pieces of writing advice. 
    In addition, contributors had the option of coming up with their own ideas.

    Here then is this year's index of guest posts, in alphabetical order by last name.

    Jacob M. Appel's Tips on How to Market Your Short Story Collection(s)
    David Atkinson on Not Quite So Stories and Just So Stories
    Jensen Beach on the Likability or Unlikability of Characters
    Clare Beams' Ten Pieces of Writing Advice
    Matt Bell's Aimee Bender Fan Fiction
    Patricia D. Benke Says There's No Such Thing As Writer's Block
    Brian Booker on Taking Characters for a Ride
    Karen Brennan on Fighting to Find Solitude

    Tobias Carroll on Broken Structures and Unfinished Stories
    MB Caschetta's Encounters with Grace Paley
    Katie Chase's Ten Simple Steps to a Short Story Collection
    Matthew Cheney: Why I Am Not a Poet
    Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Perfect Writing Day
    Serena Crawford's Nine Tips For Authors in Search of Characters
    Patrick Dacey's Brief Warning to a Young Writer
    Peter Ho Davies on Writing Goals (Literal and Metaphorical)
    Helen Ellis: A Writer's Ten Commandments
    Louise Ermelino on the Mystery of Becoming a Writer
    Dana Fitz Gale on Writing Into the Unknown
    Amina Gautier on Loving the Short Story
    Gary Gildner Finds Grace
    Debbie Graber and the Freedom to Be Foolish
    Amy Gustine on the Virtues of Both Virtual and Real Bookstores

    Becky Hagenston Wonders: What If?
    Benjamin Hale's Four Essential Fiction Writing Rules
    Why Rachel Hall Writes Fiction
    Stephanie Han's Ten Points of Fiction Writing Advice
    Kevin Hardcastle Says: Nobody Will Really Believe You Can Pull This off
    Charley Henley on How Boredom Can Spur Creativity
    Arlene Heyman on Dealing with Self-Doubt and Rejection
    Dustin M. Hoffman's Letter to A Young Writer (Probably Himself)
    Charlotte Holmes on the Importance of Bridging Even the Smallest of Gaps
    Vanessa Hua's Ten Writing Pointers
    Allegra Hyde: "Act Like an Author, Think Like a Painter"
    Greg Jackson Asks: Does Literature Have a Political Responsibility?
    Randa Jarrar and the Lonely Voice

    April Ayers Lawson on Why She Writes
    Tony Lindsay on Writing to Be Read
    Odie Lindsey on Recovering Love in Fiction (Care of a Self-Prompt)
    Robert Lopez on Waste and Welter
    Robert Oldshue on the Probable Improbable in Fiction
    Robert Overbey on the Art of Not Being a Dick (or Thinking You're Not)

    Jodi Paloni on Stranger Stories
    Susan Perabo Urges Writers to Stop Thinking About Themselves
    Mari Reiza Pulls the Strings
    Patrick Ryan on How to Begin
    Sara Schaff on Art for Our Sake
    Why Louise Farmer Smith Writes Short Stories
    Maureen Millea Smith on the Lasting Influence of Libraries
    Christine Sneed on Personal and Narrative Spaces
    Erin Stalcup’s Writing Advice (Not Rules) Mostly Written by Other People
    Lynn Stegner's Answer to the Question: "Why Stories?"

    James Terry Goes Home Again
    Johnny Townsend Writes What He Knows
    Valerie Trueblood on Eudora Welty's Matchless Book, The Eye of The Story
    Zachary Tyler Vickers on Keeping the Reader Engaged
    Alexander Weinstein's Letter To Himself as a Young Writer
    Theodore Wheeler on Writing Stories from Inside Trump's America (Before It Was)
    Paula Whyman's Six Steps to Conquering Your Fear of Sex Scenes
    Ronna Wineberg's Ten Rules for Writing a Short Story Collection
    Callan Wink on Work and Legitimacy
    Melissa Yancy: In Praise of "Bobcat" and the Unruly Story

    Past indexes of guest posts:

    Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar—This Year's Winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award

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

    This year's winner is Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar (Sarabande Books), a collection of thirteen bold and varied stories that utilize an array of narrative strategies and present characters who often are or feel like outsiders. No matter the setting Jarrar chooses or the form she employs, her storytelling skills and empathy for her characters—who are often Arab Americans—shine through.

    Past winners of The Story Prize Spotlight Award have been Krys Lee's Drifitng House, Ben Stroud's Byzantium, Kyle Minor's Praying Drunk, and Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying

    Author Rand Jarrar, winner of
    The Story Prize Spotlight Award
    This is not the first book published by Sarabande Books to win The Story Prize Spotlight Award. It also published the winner two years ago, Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. In recent years, Sarabande has moved from being a regionally focused small press to one that now publishes an array of interesting and innovative books, a substantial number of which are short story collections.

    Congratulations to Randa Jarrar and Sarabande Books for winning The Story Prize Spotlight Award for short story collections published in 2016.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2017

    The Story Prize Finalists: Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman

    We're pleased to honor as finalists for The Story Prize three outstanding books published in 2016, chosen from 106 entries representing 72 different publishers or imprints. The finalists are:

    For a Little While by Rick Bass collects seven new stories and eighteen selected from previous collections, that together represent the work of one of the most skillful contemporary practitioners of the short story form. The eleven stories in Anna Noyes's Goodnight, Beautiful Women, set in coastal Maine, span the lives of people struggling to get by and those from more privileged circumstances, who nonetheless face obstacles of their own. Helen Maryles Shankman's collection, They Were Like Family to Meadds layers of magical realism to eight stories that focus on Włodowa, an occupied town in Poland during World War II, offering the points of view of German officers, Jews, Poles, and modern day descendants of some of these characters.

    This year's judges—former National Book Awards Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Milwaukee bookseller Daniel Goldin—will decide the outcome.

    The annual award event will take place at the New School’s Auditorium at 66 West 12 Street in New York City at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., March 8. Tickets cost $14. That night, Bass, Noyes, and Shankman will read from and discuss their work on-stage. At the end of the event, Julie Lindsey will announce the winner and present that author with $20,000 along with an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.

    In the weeks ahead, we'll announce this year's winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award. We'll also publish an index of guest posts from 2016 authors and a long list of other exceptional collections we read last year.


    * They Were Like Family to Me is the title of the paperback edition. The book was published in hardcover as In the Land of Armadillos.

    Friday, January 6, 2017

    Patrick Ryan on How to Begin

    In the 68th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Ryan, author of The Dream Life of Astronauts (Dial Press), discusses his approach to writing the opening of a story.

    How I wish I’d written “Chef’s House” by Raymond Carver. Actually, that’s too greedy and grandiose. All I really want is to live one day of my life as the person who, that morning, wrote the opening to “Chef’s House.” That first paragraph!* We get it all in just a few lines: the present of those two characters, their history, their heartbreak, their hope. We get the urgency, the hesitation, the tone, the sound of their voices. We even get in microcosm the entire arc of the story that’s to come—though we aren’t sure that’s the case until we’ve finished reading.

    I don’t find beginnings any harder to write than endings. Or middles, for that matter. But I have settled into a few guidelines for myself when it comes to beginnings. I try to start with a sentence you can’t really argue with. Meaning, a sentence that states a fact within the world of the story. And I endeavor to make that sentence involve an action—though that’s not always possible. It’s very helpful for the writer and the reader to get to a verb that has to do with the present action of the story as soon as possible.

    Revising the first page is an ongoing process. If I write four sentences, chances are I’ve already revised each one of them a few times before I get up from my chair. I read out loud to myself all the time, listening to the way the words line up. I do that for a couple of reasons: I want the rhythm to work from one sentence to the next, and I want to clear away any confusion. Nothing that can be read two different ways is allowed to stand. (The only exception to that, of course, is dialogue. Miscommunication between characters often serves as the gasoline in a scene’s engine.) Anytime a writer sets out to be obscure—even for a line or two—I think it’s a misstep. Anything that causes the reader to pause, back up, and reread for clarity is a misstep. Writers should only count on getting one read out a reader.

    A strong sense of character has to be in place for me before I can get going. I know there are plenty of great writers who start with a few words, add a few more, and before they know it, characters and situations emerge on the page. For me, nothing emerges without a grasp on the characters I’m writing about before I begin. I don’t take a lot of notes on them or sketch out their bios as a rule, but I think about them. I picture them. I don’t need an exact face; I need an exact sense.

    All of that is there in the opening of “Chef’s House.” I’m in awe every time I read it. I’ll never knock an opening out of the park like that, but a person can dream, right?


    * The opening to "Chef's House" by Raymond Carver: 
    That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.

    Wednesday, January 4, 2017

    Matt Bell's Aimee Bender Fan Fiction

    In the 67th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Matt Bell, author of A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho Press), explains why he left a story out of his collection.

    There are thirteen stories in How They Were Found, my first story collection, but only nine of them made it to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, my latest, which includes most of that out-of-print book as well as a previously published novella and a number of new stories. Of the four stories left out, three were easy and obvious exclusions. Two very short stories would have been swallowed up in the nearly four hundred pages of A Tree or a Person or a Wall. Another was among the earliest stories I wrote for How They Were Found, and it no longer seemed strong enough to stand beside the stories that followed.

    The fourth was titled "The Leftover," and it was one of my favorites.

    A breakup story, "The Leftover" concerned a young woman whose boyfriend moved out—but who somehow left behind a smaller, childlike version of himself who the woman now had to care for. There was a sweetness to the story that I always liked, a tenderness often absent from other stories of mine, and I think it was funny in its absurdity in a way that made it a valuable addition to How They Were Found, an often grim collection. But by the time I was putting together A Tree or a Person or a Wall, I knew I couldn't include it again.

    The problem? Rereading the "The Leftover" meant admitting it didn't really feel like it was mine but Aimee Bender's.

    Or rather: what it felt like was a piece of Aimee Bender fan fiction. The events of the story could have come right out of one of her books—which isn't to say I'd rendered them as well as she would have. (Another hallmark of fan fiction: The writing and the invention are rarely as good as the original.) It had enough markers of what I think of as "my style" to stand alone if I never said anything, but obviously it owed an enormous debt to Bender, her worlds, her style. Reading my story again with fresh eyes, it was hard for me to feel that I'd added enough to what I'd taken to really call it mine.

    So I decided "The Leftover" was fan fiction—but was that necessarily a bad thing? "Fan fiction" can be a term of derision: The form isn't exactly beloved by most literary writers, and certainly most creative writing teachers see it as part of their job to encourage students away from it, even though many beginning students are in writing classes because of their love for fan fiction—writing inside the worlds of their heroes is not infrequently the only kind of fiction they've written so far. And why not? In her book On Beauty, Elaine Scarry says that "Beauty brings copies of itself into being… Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable."

    Around the time I wrote "The Leftover," there were few writers whose work I loved as much as I loved Aimee Bender's stories. They were smart and funny and weird, and though I didn't yet have the technical language to describe all of their effects, there were techniques she used that rang deeply true to my own felt experience of the world. For instance, there's often a "flatness" to her depictions of action that (thanks to Kate Bernheimer's writing) I've learned to recognize in other kinds of non-realist writing like fairy tales, and I loved how concrete the magic in Bender's stories was, how she never winked at the reader or flinched from the consequences of introducing some unlikely new reality into the world we know. But as much I liked these elements of Bender's writing, I hadn't yet taken what I learned and made it fully my own, at least not in "The Leftover," where what I'd taken from Bender is now so much more apparent to me than it is in other stories of mine, which surely also bear her influence in less obvious ways.

    (A side note: Could there be any more obvious title for a story of fan fiction than "The Leftover"? A story literally made as if from the scraps of a better story, "reheated" by the imagination of a writer who had fond memories of some fresher original?)

    Part of the problem of "The Leftover" and Bender's total influence on it is easy for me to diagnose now: I just hadn't read enough other books like hers yet, books working in the same traditions that would expand and complicate my fandom until I could see more of the possibilities of this kind of fabulist writing. I needed Karen Russell, I needed Kelly Link, I needed Karin Tidbeck, I needed Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Marquez and dozens of other fabulists, magical realists, writers of contemporary fairy tales and myths.

    To more fully become my own writer, I needed as many of these kinds of writers as I could find, and however many I read it will never be enough.

    One of the truest things I've learned about writing fiction is that the writers who seem the most original are often paradoxically the ones with the most influences. They read from the most eras, from the most traditions. They love writers not just from America but from around the world. They read diversely, in every sense of the word. And all their fandoms combine into something seemingly new, some composite "imagination" not yet seen, which makes them seem utterly unique. But perhaps that's not really it: Perhaps these most original writers are simply better fan fiction writers than the rest of us, because the beauty they're imitating comes from more sources, because they have learned to drawn upon the example of not just one way of seeing the world but many.

    I know now that every sentence I write is, in one way or another, a love letter to a sentence I've read, a fan fiction in miniature. Still, I removed "The Leftover" from my newest book because it was too obviously an overt love letter to only Aimee Bender—to what I understood about Bender's sentences, her techniques, her preferred story shapes. It was too simple an affection, too obviously a mimicry. Since then, a lot of other writers have come into my life through their books, each unique in his or her own way, each offering some slightly skewed way of looking at this world we share. I fall in love with a new writer, and each new love leaves its mark, hopefully joining all the others that have come before to share what's best of their art with whatever is most mine in me, their stories making new tales through me, as best as we all can.