Defining success…for yourself

As writers, we all have our own version of the “finish line,” that place or achievement you reach that makes you feel validated in your craft. Getting a byline on an article? Publishing a story or poem? Publishing a book? Finishing a first draft?

One thing you learn pretty quickly is how fluid and subjective these milestone moments are, and how critical it is to undergird your success with principles and good practices if you’re in this business for the long haul.

Cathy and I are grateful for the new opportunities we’ve had this fall to showcase our new work. Cathy had her superb new short story, Henry Whitmore, published by Parhelion Literary Magazine in October. And my new story, Night Drifting, was just accepted by Variant Literature for publication in January 2023.

Readerviews, which offers a menu of services for authors, recently posted a short piece on defining success as an author.

I hope it’s helpful.

–Karen

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Welcome debut author Kim Ligon

Author Kim Ligon published her debut novel, Polly’s List, this year, courtesy of The Wild Rose Press. We thought a fun Q&A about process and inspiration was in order. 

Please welcome Kim to the publishing trenches and to Write Despite.

What inspired you to write this novel?

I had a list of things that were really “pent up demand” items that I wanted to tackle when I retired. Writing and publishing a novel was one of them. I had written several other stories before I began “Polly’s List”. The inspiration for Polly’s story sprang from another of those demand items. I bought a spinning wheel and taught myself to spin. It is a complex process but once you get it going, it’s very rhythmic and peaceful. I sit and spin looking out my window. We live on a cul-de-sac at the end of the street. Mostly what I see is critters creeping out of the nearby woods, the mailman, and the occasional lost soul turning around because they turned one street too late. 

I began thinking about looking down on the neighborhood activity from a third story window. No one would know you were there. What if you saw something evil? What would you do? What if the perpetrator of the crime knew you were up there? Would anyone believe an old woman who lives alone? How could you prove there was a crime? Then, Polly and what she saw while spinning was born. 

How did you choose the voice? 

It wasn’t a conscious choice. I float between the main characters and what they are seeing and thinking including Polly from her coma. The story unfolded that way and it stayed that way. 

Most difficult aspect of the process?

Remembering that the reader couldn’t see inside my head unless I put the words on paper. Early readers helped point the problem out by asking lots of whys about characters and about actions. Dianne Rich, my editor, did a yeoman’s job of pulling the story into deep point of view and immeasurably improving my writing. After it was published, I’d say marketing is the hardest. It can suck down so much of your time. 

How many drafts do you go through? 

You can’t hear me, but I’m laughing. There were at least four before I let anyone else see it. By the fourth draft, I had added all the characters that were going to be in the final cast. I went through three more rather substantially altered drafts before TWRP got it. Then another major improvement before I got the contract. After I started working with Dianne, we went through three drafts that were in part me learning more about my craft; comma splices, en and em dashes, Oxford commas. Probably things I should have already known but my manuscript did not show it. I wrote a verse about it and posted it on my blog www.spinningromance.com

Who were your manuscript readers/feedback posse along the way? 

My husband is a voracious reader and willing to be my first reader and to give me feedback. He had just finished reading a Sue Grafton novel when he read my debut novel. He said my mystery was on a par with hers and I really didn’t need to ruin it with R******. He wanted me to be a novelist/author, not just a romance writer. 

My other early-and-often reader was my dear friend, Millie. It takes someone who really knows you and loves you to tell you where the story sucks. She had spot-on recommendations and a gift for asking just the right questions to send me in the correct direction.

Writing Despite Cerebral Palsy

Writing is a challenge on so many levels. We all know the terrain.  Imagine, then, adding the very ability to type, to capture your words quickly and effortlessly, to the list. Novelist Karina Bartow could write a book about this. In fact, she has, and here she shares her story of courage in overcoming the limits that life throws at us.

Please welcome Karina to Write Despite.

When one starts a writing journey, there are often many obstacles. You wonder if you really have the creativity and skill to get anywhere, and you might struggle with whether or not you have the time and dedication to devote. When I began my first novel in 2008, I contended with all those doubts…plus a disability. 

Born with Cerebral Palsy, I’m limited in various ways, the most inconvenient being my lack of control with motor skills. I say I have one good hand, but it still isn’t a showpiece. Nonetheless, it helps me to have a high-functioning life, especially in my writing. 

When the writing bug bit, my family and I discussed the logistics of me typing out a book. I experimented with speech recognition programs, but my speech doesn’t register well with them. My sister and mom typed little children’s stories I composed when I was a kid, and we threw around the idea of me dictating my thoughts into a recorder.

But I was determined to do this all on my own merit. Plus, I knew my wonderful and well-intentioned mother wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to chime in.

Thus, I set off and began to type with my one good hand. Because of past disappointments, I didn’t set a deadline accepted however long it would take. To my surprise, I finished my first draft within about a year-and-a-half. Nowadays, I can typically complete one in a year or less. 

As with many writers, my writing is a very personal art form, and through it, I release a lot of my own inner battles. So, you might expect I’d rush to write about the challenges inflicted by my handicap, but that wasn’t the case. In my first novel, Forgetting My Way Back to You, the protagonist suffered an accident, so I incorporated a few of my struggles there. 

Still, I resisted leaning in too much, because I didn’t want my disability to define me or my work. 

Then, a mystery novel started to form in my mind. I believed in the plot and all, but I wanted some way to make it my own, mainly because I don’t like mysteries that feature investigation without anything personal. Mulling it over, I saw an opportunity to channel my experiences as a handicapped person striving to defy the odds. 

Hence, my character Minka Avery was born. She’s a deaf detective, who often gets underestimated. Though she has a different kind of disability, I’ve worked in many of the highs and lows I’ve encountered in my efforts to live a normal life despite my differences.  You can meet Minka in Husband in Hiding and Brother of Interest.

Whether your challenges are external or internal, don’t give up on your dreams. As they say, turn your mess into your message. 

Connect with Karina on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

A Trio of Women’s Fiction Tales

Kansas City novelist Darlene DeLuca loves writing about women’s friendships, especially the “I’ve got-your-back-girlfriend” type featured in her Women of Whitfield trilogy.

Here, she discusses her motivation, process, and how a single novel blooms into a trilogy.

Please welcome Darlene to Write Despite.

Three friends. Three books.

When I sat down to write my first women’s fiction novel, The Storm Within, I wanted to write about a woman who faced tragedy in her life and was helped through it by a group of amazing women friends. I wanted the power of friendship and the impact of other women in our lives to take center stage and be a central theme throughout the book.

So I created Claire Stapleton, then I set about ruining her life with a couple of big events and a series of small incidents that would leave her reeling, confused and in need of a serious course correction.

Enter amazing we’ve-got-your-back girlfriends. These women who had known Claire for years, raised children together, gone on vacations together and shared so much history jumped in and kept their friend from going over the edge. They supported her with handholding, late-night calls, and intervention. They were there when she needed them most.

Though they were secondary characters, they became important in their own right. Each woman’s life intersected with Claire’s, and it became obvious as I wrote that each of them had their own story—and that I should tell it.

The writing might have been easier had I set out to create a trilogy in the first place. I could’ve mapped out more connections, probably would’ve kept tighter notes. As I wrote books two and three, I had to go back to the original novel many times to make sure my facts and tone for each character were accurate.

Sometimes, I’ve finished reading a book and wished it had a sequel or a series. I’ve found myself imagining what would’ve happened in a character’s future—or what I would’ve wanted to happen. It turned out that continuing the stories of these friends seemed natural.

Creating the Women of Whitfield series enabled me to dig deeper, to stay in the town of Whitfield, immerse myself in that world and explore those relationships further, to really build their lives and weave them together. By the time I was done, I felt as though I’d created real people—women I’d love to be friends with in real life!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from book one. It refers to a gift the friends sent to Claire: “This tree is like us, dear friend. Lots of individual branches going every which way, but with deep roots and a trunk that’s a little bit twisted but fused together forever.”

Darlene Deluca writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction that explores relationships—what brings people together or keeps them apart. Her intent is to bring to life interesting characters that readers can relate to in real-life situations that combine a little fun, plenty of drama (with perhaps a tear or two), and big helpings of friendship, love, and self-discovery, and will leave readers either cheering or sighing with a satisfied smile as they turn the final page. Darlene enjoys getting lost in a good story with a glass of tea, a bit of dark chocolate, and a warm, sunny beach. Follow Darlene on FBInstagram, and Pinterest.

Patience = Payoff

—From Cathy

Writers,

What’s the longest you’ve waited to see a piece of your work in print?

TWO YEARS ago Karen and I were notified that we would have stories in same issue of Gargoyle, an international literary magazine published by Paycock Press. Of course, this was during the height of the pandemic and, understandably, all did not go as planned.

Anyway, the wait is over and we’re so excited to both have a story in this terrific anthology! Gargoyle Magazine #75 is a massive (nearly 500-pages!) collection of some incredible fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by a diverse group of authors. Publisher Richard Peabody started this publication way back in 1976 and it’s still going strong. Check it out, and grab a copy if you’re so inclined.

And if you’re waiting to hear from a publisher, or to read galleys, or to actually hold a piece of your own writing in your hands, we wish you all the patience and persistence necessary to see it through. With writing, we all know, sometimes it’s all about the work. Sometimes it’s all about the wait.

We hope your writing is going well—that it’s as fun as a summer party, as fruitful as a peach pie, as easy-flowing as a dog on a surfboard…okay, that’s enough.

Have a great summer,

Cathy

Only a simple shoebox, but full of secrets…

U.K. author LB Griffin is celebrating the release of her brand-new novel, The Twenty-One-Year Contract. A sequel to her debut, Secrets, Shame and a Shoeboxit’s getting great reviews and is filled, like all of LB’s work, with “women don’t see themselves as courageous, strong, or survivors, but they certainly are.”

Only a simple shoebox, but full of secrets…

Kathleen Gray—talented, a little wild, at times rebellious, but always popular—has a fun, easy life in rural Somerset, with a doting family. 

Suddenly, they are gone, everything is changed, and she has only Uncle Jack. Try as he might, he cannot be father and mother to her—he has a business to run and his own life to manage.

Kathleen takes a chance and becomes Kate Westfield, fending for herself in London, with a new life built on her hopes and dreams and new friends. She could hardly have imagined that one of those friends has a shoebox full of answers.


LB stopped by to answer a few questions about the business of writing and of being a writer. Please welcome her to Write Despite.

Why do you write? I love writing. It’s as simple as that. I get an idea and I have to put it down. But when I hear back from my readers, when they tell me something positive about themselves or the book, it really makes my day. One reader wrote after reading Secrets, Shame, and a Shoebox: “I’m so glad Harriet was fired from her job. At least she didn’t have to put up with that dreadful employer!” Another person: “I hated that CJ. What a monster!” My heart sang. It’s such a compliment, and so heartwarming to know that they’ve enjoyed my book. It means that I have done my job. What more can I ask? I’m truly humbled to think my stories provoke thought and emotion with characters that readers can identify with.

How do you come up with your stories?

Coincidences. How many times have you been on holiday and bumped into someone you know in a far-flung country? Or met someone that you knew as a child and found has lived for years just a stone’s throw away? What are the chances? But they’ve happened to me. I bet they have happened to you. Or maybe you know someone who has shared their experiences anecdotally at a party or over coffee.

Plus, my characters are really bossy! They often wake me up in the middle of the night shouting, “Hey listen, I’ve got something to say, come on write it down. Now!” How can I possibly ignore that? They are real, honest, lovely hardworking people, but of course, there’s always that pesky villain that shines and everyone loves to hate.  

What’s the fun part of writing and why? 

I love the way the characters grab me by the hand and lead me along paths I could never have dreamed of. They tell me what they want to say, and what’s going to happen next. Who would have thought it? I love that, and I love them. They are survivors, though they don’t see themselves that way, they sure are! 

Why did you write The Twenty-One-Year Contract?

I’m an observer of life. Like most writers I imagine, and I’ve been fortunate to travel and to have worked alongside and taught some amazing people. And those I taught, taught me so much more! I’ve admired their strength of character, their courage, and will to live. I learned so much from them, it has been astounding. I needed to share their experiences in a way that doesn’t affect them, but hopefully shows others they can be brave, too. Just read my books.

What’s the most difficult part of writing and why?

Okay, well let’s get down to brass tacks. Finding time and that difficult word: Marketing! It stops me doing what I love most. Writing! 

For me marketing is a real issue. Unless you are a natural born salesperson, which I am not. Some people can sell snow to the Inuits or send sand to the Sahara! But I’ve never been good at bragging about myself, and that’s what it feels like. Selling my brand, telling everyone I’m great, my books are great. Go out and buy my books. Really, that’s not me. I’m shy enough as it is! But it would be wonderful if you did buy my book! My sincere thanks go to every reader who has or is considering buying my book. Without you lovely readers, writers wouldn’t be needed. So, thank you from the very bottom of my heart. 

How do you get to know your readers? What do you learn from your readers? 

Reviews are brilliant. They tell a story. I learn from that and thank them for their valuable time and effort who have shared their kind thoughts.

I also blog. I offer simple writing suggestions for budding authors and share what I’ve learned and am still learning! 

I offer to host authors, new and experienced, to give my readers a chance to see who else is out there and listen to how they work. 

LB Griffin has been happily married for over 40 years and is surrounded by her family in Wiltshire. She has always written around the full-time paid job. She’s held a range of jobs from cleaning, barmaid, childminder, social worker and is proud to have lectured for 21 years. She absolutely loves writing fiction. Her stories touch upon social issues and are filled with gentle hints of romance.

Find LB on social media:

www.facebook.com/lynngriffinauthor

www.instagram.com/lynngriffinauthoruk/

www://twitter.com/LBGriffinAuthor/

Wrangling the Beast

Wrangling the Beast: Playing with Structure in the First Novel

Moderator: Joy Baglio; Panelists: Emma Komlos Hrobsky, Raluca Albu, Swati Khurana

Writers are often trying to subdue this beast of structuring something so large as a novel. The five panelists at this virtual panel at this year’s AWP conference gave their best advice on structure, and provided suggested reading and other tools to help you through.

It’s hard to think of structure as separate from story—like living in a house without the actual frame of the house.

Joy: The way I think of structure has a lot to do with story and plot, but also how it unfolds. It’s hard to think of structure as separate from story—like living in a house without the actual frame of the house. We can experience everything about the inside of the house—the furniture, decorations, what’s on the floors—but we’re also always experiencing the actual shape of the rooms, the walls, the full structure of the house.

Please describe what you’re working on and how you arrived at your novel’s structure.

Emma: I’ve been working on a novel for the last three-and-a-half years set in the world of experimental physicists. I had a clear picture about what I wanted the book to convey about motherhood, family, and particle physics, but less of a clear sense of structure. I have hard time making myself sit down and write because I work as an editor and I’m reading and working with writing all day. So I gave myself permission to write any part of the book I wanted—whichever part was most important to me at the time—and I ended up with fragments. It got the work done, but it was horrible for structure. I ended up playing with different structures until I arrived at a more straightforward, linear structure than I had thought it would be.

Raluca: I agree that giving yourself room to play helps you break away from expectations and tricks the mind into doing something different. My novel is about a secret police file of an illegal abortion doctor in communist Romania. It began as an immigrant story about my family. I based the policeman on my father, but the mother character was vague. So I wrote her through first-person. And this sneaky, smart voice came out that sounded like she was talking to someone. One thing led to another and I realized she was talking to an interrogator. After that I was able to nail that structure down and disengage so that suddenly everything was a surprise and became a little more fun to write.

Swati: My novel started in earnest seven years ago. It was set in Lahore, India from 1945-47. That’s where all of my grandparents are from and where they all migrated from. It’s a religiously plural region. I grappled with the question of how do I give a female character more agency, knowing the constrictions that existed for my grandmother. I imagined her as an artist and how, in a patriarchal world, women able to seize power did so through a male accomplice, which was her father. I started a prologue from a granddaughter but didn’t know what it was, so I removed it. When I had like 60,000 words and it still wasn’t making sense, I realized that narrator I got rid of is the person telling the story of her grandparents. So over the past three years it’s taken a different form. I decided to write it as a fictional podcast that sounds like a true crime podcast. So it has that level of discovery. Following conventions of dramatic writing, like TV pilots, gave me so much more to play with than just a novel.

Joy: I love the idea of following sparks of what is fun and what interests us most. I started with a  short story that I wanted to adapt to a novel about two sisters dealing with the fallout after their mermaid mother returns to ocean, and navigating their half-mermaid identity. As I pushed it forward into their lives, it wasn’t flowing and I was stuck. So I tabled it for over a year. When I came back to it, I had a breakthrough thought that it wants to live most in these fragment moments, these vignettes. So I reconceived of the structure, and it took off so much pressure of what I felt wasn’t working. My other novel is a ghost story about a protagonist who inherits a house full of ghosts that are searching for something that relates to her in her failed marriage. I used a traditional three-act structure for this one, which helped me. Something about this one works in that more traditional way.

What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve come up against in your work and what shifted you out of it?

Raluca: Mine was how do I make it realistic, to sound like a real police file and fill in information for the reader that wouldn’t necessarily show up in that file. So I read about what these files are like. A woman who did this actual work said they read like novels and the files sometimes include postcards and letters. I didn’t want to make readers do so much work at connecting the dots, so I decided to lean into it and not make it so much of a realistic file. It should be a more engaging story instead of letting the form stop it from happening.

Swati: I felt so much pressure because of these perfect novels that existed about the Indian partition. Finding this form and discovering this idea that I could maybe write this as fake nonfiction, in auditory form, made the hurdle of the grand failure to write a novel about partition turn into an experiment of how can I write a literary novel rooted in realism for an audio-fictional landscape?

So many of the hurdles get jumped with playfulness and experimentation.

Emma: Again, so many of the hurdles get jumped with playfulness and experimentation. I decided to have a mother and daughter each take half the narrative. But I found that the stakes were so much higher for the mom character that it made sense for the daughter’s narrative to sort of fall away, and it released me from a structure that was boxing me in. The book got a lot wilder when I did that and brought me closer to the most emotional material. I’ve made more space for her life and her ideas by releasing some of my control over the structure.

Does your sense of story reveal the structure—structural form vs. actual content of the story?

Swati: It seems like all of us kind of decided to commit more to a character or narrator. I spent about two to three years researching and mapping my favorite contemporary novels with omniscient narrators. But when I tried to do this, that’s when I realized the person I erased was actually the narrator. In terms of the form, the title of my book changed to My Grandmother Spoke to Tigers. With podcasts, there’s incredible writing happening for the ear. You hear someone’s voice for six to ten hours, like the length of a novel, and I’m absorbing this and thinking what would my character say? What would her voice sound like?

What’s influenced how you think of structure in your writing—authors, other works, symbols, visuals, structural models? What shape is your novel?

Emma: The biggest revelation I’ve had as a writer was the realization that form was another way to iterate content and to express what the heart of the book is. That’s not incidental, it’s a way to say what you want to say. I’ve used particle physics as a sort of metaphor for family and how elements stay together and break apart. There’s lots of fun language that physics lends itself to for structure.

Joy: Form is another way to iterate content. That’s pretty much the whole topic of this panel. It’s like solving a puzzle and when it comes together it’s a fabulous experience.

Swati: I looked at a book about writing by Mary Caroll Moore—Your Book Starts Here. She actually has a five-act structure: the triggering event, the first turning point, the conflict dilemma, the second turning point, and the resolution. She noted how, in films, things get really bad about 20 minutes before the end of the film: the house has burnt down, the child has run away, the marriage is cancelled, the car has blown up. That helped me think of how I can use that for either the arc of the entire project or the arc for certain characters. Shonda Rhimes has an amazing master class called “Writing for Television” that talks about coming up with characters. That helped me really think about things where I got away from the whole MFA idea of “this is all mysterious.” Actually, this is just okay. So you want to sell a TV show, here’s what you do.

What strategies have you tried and what tools do you recommend for structure?

Raluca: The book Meander, Spiral, Explode was really helpful because I was coming at this from a screenplay approach and it was making the writing very flat. Being able to write into surprise, noticing repetitions and recursions and letting them stay there, gives a deepening as you go. If you’re planning too much it’s harder to see what’s in the margins.

Emma: (Points to a wall of papers tacked up beside her desk.) My wall is my draft of my book. It’s probably the biggest single thing I’ve done to help myself craft this. Because I had all these fragments, I realized I needed a way to see them all together. I printed them all out and went to my friend’s house with big floors and I laid them out. It was the best moment. When I could see all these pieces together, I could see concretely that I’d written a lot that did add up to narrative. I could see scenes and forward motion and see the holes. I stacked the papers very carefully, then came home and taped them together up on my wall. I call it my “mind of the killer” wall. It’s a nice, tangible reminder of my progress and it feels so good to add to it as I go.

It was the best moment. When I could see all these pieces together, I could see concretely that I’d written a lot that did add up to narrative. I could see scenes and forward motion and see the holes.

Raluca: A professor had us read a short scene we’d written and then we had someone else act it out as improv. It was awesome. The book The Situation and the Story is about how to craft strong first-person narrators in nonfiction. That gave me a lot of ideas about what’s the difference between someone’s story and the actual situation they’re in? Take Gone Girl. The first part you’re with that person and getting the information you think you need and then in part two you realize that’s not the actual whole story. So watch lots of Netflix! It’s all research.

Joy: The way the three-act structure helped me is that I tried to abandon all the terminology behind it—plot point, pitch points, etc.—and came up with an exercise called story sketching. You free-write a page or so about everything you know about your book. Don’t worry too much about how it comes out. Then look in that free-write for three natural sections and write out separate paragraphs for each of those parts. Those are your three acts. Take paragraphs and condense them down to sentences that tell you the hearts of the three different acts. This allowed me to conceive of the whole book in one thought more or less. It allowed me to identify the heart of each act and the movement between them. I then did bullet lists of what happens in each part. I change it as I go to keep it current as things change. When the writing stalls, there’s something nice about having this other way to work on it. Let me go into this planner’s studio and mess around with plot and scene ideas to get me unstuck.

Raluca: I took a sense writing workshop. Where you go inside the body of a character, explain what it feels like to have their hands, what they were like as a child. This helps you go into unexpected places.

Swati: There’s a value in figuring out a structure for your writing life too. You can find online zoom writing communities. The Writer’s Hour is a global writing session. Find a writing buddy. Take online classes. An MFA is not necessary to write a novel. Sometimes the time and investment may make it come faster, but maybe not. Meeting other writers can help you find your first readers. Otter.ai is a transcription service that records your voice. Sometimes I narrate things because I can’t get to a computer and type it fast enough. If you have a full life, finding ways to re-engage with a long-term project really can help.

Joy: I’ll lay a notebook on my laptop or a note to myself so the next time I sit down I have to pay attention to that first. I run the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop. It’s free to all on the first Friday of the month. Come join us and write with us.

Any final words?

Emma: Keep the momentum going by staying connected to the joy and the surprises of the process. Access that energy rather than feeling like you have to focus on control. Also keep pitching your book to yourself—coming back to what is it and why you want to write about it.

Joy: Amy Bender said, “Go where the energy is in whatever you’re working on.” Find what makes you excited to do it. Also find what takes off the pressure. If it feels too large, too formidable, how can you lessen it? Like Emma’s fragments, finding the way in through whatever crack you can gets easier the more you look for those opportunities.

AWP Panels on Short Story Collections

—From Cathy

Hello all!

Here’s another post from the sessions Karen and I attended at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) last month in Philadelphia. Sorry for the delay, but as you can see, this post is massive and took a while to assemble. It combines two sessions we attended on short story collections—writing them, organizing them, submitting them.

Enjoy!

The stories I connected to the most emotionally were the ones I put in my collection. They had to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Session: Publishing Your First Story Collection

Panelists: Jen Fawkes, Caroline Kim, Matthew Lansburgh, Rachel Swearingen; Moderator: Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

Panelists started by talking about their own collections (titles listed at the end of this post). Swearingen said she wrote her collection over a 10-year period. Kim wrote hers over 20 years, sent it directly to about 30 book contests, and got 17 straight rejections. An agent took Gorcheva-Newberry’s novel but wouldn’t take her collection, so she sent it out herself to contests.

Below are random quotes from throughout the session.

On creating and organizing collections:

  • Linked collections and “novel-in-stories” are all the rage right now.
  • Collections need to be a cohesive whole, there should be an arc, a through-line, in the collection.
  • There are different types of linked stories: reappearing characters, stories that are thematically linked, stories that share the same setting. Or you can get to know a single character better over the course of the stories.
  • You can start with the youngest protagonist and have them get older. Or have a theme. The stories I connected to the most emotionally were the ones I put in my collection. They had to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
  • Have a belief in your stories rather than an idea of publication. Mine is a mix of a novella, average stories, and “quick bites.” I put the most emotional stories up front, the more cerebral ones later. Half is flash fiction, half is full length. I placed them in order of one long, then one short, then one long.

On publishing a collection:

  • To sell a short story collection, it is critical that you also have a novel in progress or a really strong idea for one (the panel of agents emphasized this as well).
  • Do not fabricate some kind of forced link between stories in your query letter, The links have to be organic and real.
  • Stop thinking of stories as being so precious—don’t hold on and keep working on a story forever. Send it out and put that energy into the next one.
  • If you get advice on how to do a revision, take it. Don’t give up!
  • Remember what excited you about writing in the first place. Keep that excitement up while you’re in the midst of trying to publish.
  • To get over a rejection, get yourself excited about a new work in progress.

On the writing process:

  • I’ve just been playing lately. The world is so heavy right now that I had to get back to reinvention. When I’m stuck, I print out old stories, cut them up, put the pieces in a sack, and throw them on the floor. When I put the pieces back together randomly it usually helps me make something new emerge.
  • I don’t sit and make myself write. Something in life happens and then I write about it. I work on multiple pieces simultaneously, so if I get stuck I can move on with something else.
  • I always have three to four stories I want to write, so I keep going back to those. But I love writing new stories. I’ll take a month and write 500-1,000 words of a new story each day. Then I put that story aside for 3-6 months. When I look at it again, I can see where it was leading, where it was supposed to go.
  • I start a project and doggedly cling to it like a pit bull! I often begin a story with a headline from the news. No plan. I just write and let it take me where it goes.
  • Writing a novel is like a marriage—long and slow. A short story is like a kiss, a peck—hot and passionate.

On writing in general:

  • Lean into who you are. As Toni Morrison said, “Write the book that you want to read.”
  • Remember that a novel is like math, where you’re told to show your work—you have to fill in all the steps. But “a short story is a fury of small punches,” as Raymond Carver said.

Think of a collection as a constellation. Each story is a point of light and each is its own thing, but together they create something larger.

Session: Building a Bridge: The Linked Story Collection & The Novel

Panelists: Jonathan Escoffery, Asako Serizawa, Sidik Fofana; Moderator: Cara Blue Adams

  • Serizawa: The ways to build continuity in a collection are untapped. My book spans 100 years and uncovers intergenerational elements that wouldn’t work in a novel. It is more of a mosaic of independent pieces that, put together, make a big picture.
  • Escoffery: I wrote a story for my MFA thesis that introduced me to characters that would be in my collection. I set out to write a novel with standalone chapters that were stories, but that became more of a headache. So I eventually wrote some linked stories and then it became one family with different stories. There is a house that’s sinking in this book, and all the characters wonder in each story, will that house sink? I actually first wrote a query that explained what the book was about, and then wrote my book to fit that query!
  • Adams: I unknowingly collected stories about art—painters, visual artists—and stories about violence and landscapes. When I put these together and shared them with readers, two said some of the female characters were similar and maybe they should be the same character. Some stories were short, some long, some realistic, some fabulous.. It was too incohesive. I cut and rearranged and, ultimately, the book came to be about loss—one woman who lost different things throughout her life.
  • Lorrie Moore said a short story is an end-based form. The ending should startle, surprise, something should click into pace. A novel is the opposite—something to keep us reading, and the ending need not be spectacular. A linked novel needs to do both.
  • A novel has plot parts, narrative arc, character development, etc. A collection can rebel against these parts and still create a larger shape.
  • Think of a collection as a constellation. Each story is a point of light and each is its own thing, but together they create something larger. It has a shape. What is your container? What belongs within it?
  • A story collection is like a record album with each story a song. Or a TV series with central themes and characters but all different stories.
  • Authors get hung up on point of view and other factors when determining the order of stories. But the main things readers want to know are Who is the main character? and Where is the story set?

On reading for inspiration:

Read lots of collections! Especially ones that are both loosely and tightly connected to see how you want to approach yours.

Below is a list (dang, it’s big!) of specific collections these writers noted (and I’ve included their own collections as well):

  • Outside is the Ocean by Matthew Lansburgh—Iowa Short Fiction Award (linked story collection)
  • The Prince of Mournful Thoughts by Caroline Kim—2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner (exploring humanity through the Korean diaspora)
  • Mannequin and Wife (magical realism) and Tales the Devil Told Me (reimagined villains) by Jen Fawkes—2020 Press 53 Fiction Award
  • How to Walk on Water by Rachel Swearingen—2018 New American Press Prize
  • What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry—2020 Prairie Schooner Book Prize
  • You Never Get it Back by Cara Blue Adams—John Simmons Short Fiction Award (same character who moves around the world)
  • Inheritors by Asako Serizawa—2021 PEN/Open Book Award and Story Prize Spotlight Award (stories span over 100 years of a Japanese family’s history, beginning in 1868 and emerging into a future set in the 2030s)
  • Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana (tight-knit group of characters who all live in the same Harlem high-rise)
  • If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery (linked stories about a Jamaican family that moves to Miami)
  • Citizen by Claudia Rankine—LA Times Book Prize (mixed genre book—poetry, essay, fiction)
  • The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (novel-in-stories)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (novel-in-stories)
  • We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel-in-stories)
  • “Only Collect” by Peter Ho Davies (essay on writing a story collection)
  • Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones (lives of African Americans in Washington, DC)
  • Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy (linked stories of two brothers named after demigods)
  • The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
  • Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  • 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Ward
  • Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka

Agents and the art of the query

Cathy and I are back from the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s 2022 AWP Conference & Bookfair, held this year on March 23-26 in Philadelphia. We had a blast. Talked into the wee hours of the night, caught up on every aspect of our lives, imbibed an impressive amount of wine—as well as a few martinis.

We also attended some amazing panel discussions in a conference that convened more than 7,000 publishing professionals. We’ll be sharing some of what we learned in a series of posts. There’s no way we could cram it all into one. Panel topics ranged from explorations of voice and point of view in narrative to nailing your first book deal to the role of feedback. And so much more.

First up, we attended a panel titled “Call Your Agent: Finding Representation for Your Writing.” This extremely helpful panel gave some great tips for authors looking for representation for their books. Agents on the panel included:

  • Dana Murphy – The Book Group (handles Y/A, adult, nonfiction)
  • Annie Hwang – Ayesha Pande Literary (handles literary fiction “with teeth” and mission-driven nonfiction)
  • Stephanie Bellman – Trellis Literary Agency – (new agency, handles adult fiction)
  • Duvall Osteen – Aragi Inc. (handles literary fiction, humor, and narrative nonfiction)

Bullets below are not attributed to any particular agent but are a collection of quotes from all of the above. These are the questions anyone querying needs to ask, with answers straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. 

What should authors look for in an agent?

  • Someone you can trust editorially, who will commit to you in all stages of your career. Someone you can get both good and bad news from.
  • Someone who will be your biggest fan, but not a blind one. An agent translates the industry for you. What did that publisher mean?
  • An agent’s job is to know things you don’t.

What are agents looking for?

  • Duvall: I’m looking for a big, loud voice in a novel, a person I’ve not heard before. Less plot, more VOICE.
  • Comparative titles, query letter are important, but sample pages are the most important. It’s an extremely crowded marketplace. We see all the challenges a book might face upfront. Something very fresh and inventive is crucial—a new narrator, new setting, new storyline—all facilitate getting your book seen and read.

How to find an agent: 

  • Look at your favorite books and read the acknowledgements to see if an agent is thanked. 
  • Do your homework. Research agents to find out why they’d be right for you. What have they represented? Why would you fit on their list? 
  • Follow agents who seem like a good fit for your book on social media. You’ll learn when they’re open to queries and what they’re seeking at any given moment.

On the all-important query letter:

  • An effective query letter has three parts: Hook, Look, and Books. The hook gets the agent’s interest, the look encourages them to read on, and books refer to comparative published titles.
  • Look at the agency’s website for submission guidelines: formatting, page count, etc., and follow them! 
  • The VOICE of a writer is the most important thing in a query. Match the tone and voice of the query letter to the tone and voice of your book. 
  • Keep your query brief. Agents read queries quickly. They’re looking for what’s jumping out at them and feels different.
  • If you’ve heard nothing in six to eight weeks, send your query again.

A footnote on comparative titles:

  • Always include comparative titles. This shows respect for both your work and the agent’s time. Comparing your book to others shows you are thoughtful about your work in the context of the marketplace.
    • Comparative titles are books that are kin to yours, that would be in the same section on a bookshelf. 
    • Make sure the comps you give are contemporary novels, not classics.
    • Don’t base comps on plot. How is your WRITING similar? Sometimes that involves movie/TV shows as well, and you can include these, but make sure to give a book comparison, too.
    • Comps let agent know who is going to buy your book. Think of Amazon’s: “People who liked this book also bought…”
    • Don’t say there’s nothing like my book out there—it’s probably not true, and it says you work outside the box. Agents work inside. Even a whiff of this is bad.

What if an agent urges you to revise and resubmit?

  • Be happy! This happens when a book is promising, but an agent doesn’t have time to edit it with you. You need to edit it yourself and send it back.
  • The agent will sometimes take pains to give you specific feedback, so don’t rush back with your revision. Process and digest the feedback. Take your time. Don’t be afraid the agent will forget you.

A final note:  Above all, agents want to see that you’re trying—to position your book, to frame it correctly, and that you’re thinking about how your book fits them and their list. Do your homework, write a polished, professional letter. An agent is your partner in the publishing business, so be a good business partner in return. 

–Query on, friends. Karen

We’re Heading to AWP!

–From Cathy

It has been a looong time since Karen and I have seen each other, and we couldn’t be more excited to be meeting up tomorrow in Philadelphia to attend the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s (AWP) Conference! This conference promises a host of panels, readings, and events, and a HUGE bookfair exhibition where so many of our favorite writers, journals, and presses will be present. Best of all, it allows us four glorious days of immersing ourselves in writing and writers and agents and publishers and books and…okay, I’m a bit excited. You get the idea.

If you’ve never been to AWP, we urge you to consider attending. Take a look at this year’s lineup of sessions and see for yourself how much there is to learn and experience at this wonderful venue. You can even attend virtually! (Next year’s conference is in Seattle.)

If you’re going this year, please let us know! Drop a note in the comments and maybe we can meet up!

Afterward, we’ll share our notes from the events with you all. Until then, happy spring, and hope you’re all achieving success with your writing, even if that means you wrote a mere paragraph today or a great line of a poem (or even a really cool text).

Write well, everyone!