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

Essay for a new day

I’ve been a journalist and a fiction writer. But essays? Not since school, and that was more, well, academic in nature.

I don’t know exactly what possessed me when I learned the Collegeville Institute was looking to build up its stable of freelance essay writers. I love the Collegeville Institute and its mission, and I think my heart just leapt at the prospect of being a part of it.

I’m thrilled to have published my latest this month. Take a look. I think the photo they chose way overshadows my essay, but in a good way.

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Essay writing has been such a gift. It’s an unexpected platform, one whose benefits and challenges I am just beginning to understand. I feel lucky, blessed, to have stumbled upon this opportunity to write—in a different way—about the things that move, and resonate with, me.

The “me” part is a big leap. Writing as yourself—for fiction writers—can be a bit unnerving. But it can also be liberating and empowering. One of the reasons we write in the first place, I think, is to have the sheer pleasure, to experience the power, of matching our thoughts with just the right words. The pleasure of saying what you mean.

Essays are challenging in different ways than fiction. But some of the benefits are similar. They help me think through issues and sharpen and organize my understanding. In a nutshell, they help me make sense of it all. Isn’t that what writing is for?

Anyone else out there dabbling in a new different genre? Let us know.

Write well, friends.
–Karen

Shameless Self-Promotion

Hi All,

Cathy and I have had a busy fall, writing and…drumroll…publishing. Every author knows that digital self-promotion is just part of the process today, like it or not. We don’t especially like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

In that spirit, we share our latest triumphs. We love the triumphs, don’t get me wrong. We just feel a tad squirrelly, tooting our own horns. So this time, I’m tooting Cathy’s, and she’s tooting mine.

Please join us in celebrating. It’s always a gift to find your way into print!


 

Cathy’s had a few publishing ups and downs lately. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, went out of print when her publisher folded. But she’s had two stories published in the last couple of months, and has another coming out in the spring. Check out “The Hunt” in Appalachian Heritage magazine, and “Dreaming about the Bouviers” in Pithead Chapel’s online journal. Look for “Gently Used” to appear in Wordrunner eChapbook’s April 2020 anthology.

Cathy’s strategy these days: “I use mostly  use Submittable to send in stories (don’t we all?) and currently my list includes: six stories that are “Active,” exactly two that are “Accepted,” and a whopping 50 “Declined.” I also keep a submission folder in my inbox full of emails from publications that don’t use Submittable. Nearly all are rejections, of course. Some people would find this discouraging. I don’t. I always see it like playing the lottery. There’s that initial moment of disappointment when I first find out, and then the shrug, and the self-reminder that it’s all a big crap shoot anyway, and then the self-nudge of ‘Hey, you need to get that piece out again.’ And on it goes. Bottom line: ABS: Always Be Submitting!” 

ABS

–Karen


 

 

 

 

Karen has been up to her eyeballs in her novel rewrite, but she is psyched to have just placed an essay with the Collegeville Institute’s awesome online magazine, Bearings Online.

Karen explains: “I’ve been a follower of the Collegeville Institute for a few years. I love the way they examine spiritual and literary issues, encouraging exploration that unites the two.

Last year, I was brainstorming ideas that I could pitch as essays for their Bearings Online magazine. The work is so eclectic and thoughtful. I love scrolling through. I had an idea about the spiritual implications of feeding wild bird that just seemed to fit.

Everyone who knows me knows I love wild birds. They seem to wing their way into all my work. But when I pushed the concept of feeding them a little deeper, asking why we do it today on such scale, I realized that scattering seed is not a small act, but a large and symbolic one that resonates deeply for the feeder, as well as for the fed.

I queried the Institute with a few essay ideas, and their lovely digital team member author Stina Kielsmeier-Cook liked this one. (It was also my favorite!) But it had to wait, while I finished a novel draft rewrite. After I delivered the rewrite to Cathy a few weeks back, I turned to the birds. The essay flowed naturally from there, with one section leading to the next, and the Bible quotes serving as lovely introductions.

I am thrilled to be published on the Collegeville Institute’s platforms. They do a terrific job sharing their authors’ works, and encouraging participation. And I am in very good (and talented) company. Every time I go to the site, I learn something new and come away just a little bit better for it. You can’t ask more than that.”

–Cathy

A little advice from Nobel laureates

So, there’s a lot of writing advice available today. Just ask Google. We’ve mentioned various books and blogs on Write Despite, from time to time. But you know what they say about advice…

There is good stuff out there, plenty of it. Not all of it will speak to you, of course, and you’ve got to be careful who you listen to. But I came across this in my online travels and figured that candid tips from winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature can only shed light on the intricacies of the difficult process we all undertake when we write fiction. Whether you’re a newbie or the winner of many a hallowed award. Thanks to fine folks at nownovel.com

Enjoy. Take your inspiration where you find it.

Peace,

Karen

Staying in the Scene

Hey Friends,

Something I’m keeping in mind as I work on a rewrite that’s taking my novel to a new place. Very exciting!

 

“Let your scenes play out. Don’t cheat your readers by trying to wrap up every scene too quickly. Events in real life don’t often end neatly; chances are neither will events in your story. Instead, let the falling action of each scene sow the seeds of the following scene’s rising action. Propel your audience through to the next plot point—make them want to keep reading.”

 

–Karen

Getting Close to Your Characters

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop at the Writers in Progress studio in beautiful Florence, Massachusetts. Led by author Jacqueline Sheehan, the workshop was called “Getting Close to Your Characters.”

Anyone who’s struggled with bringing characters and their motivations (real and hidden) to life knows what we’re talking about. It ain’t easy.

Character-Motivations-Header-605x300

The studio described the challenge this way:

One of the main reasons why readers read is to slip inside the skin of another person. The most memorable characters are those we feel closest to: the ones whose feelings we feel and whose lives we experience…. But how do writers accomplish this intimacy while thinking about so many other things, like plot and pacing and character development?

Jacqueline keeps her workshops grounded in exercises and techniques that writers can immediately put to use. In fact, I went home and did exactly that in my novel draft.

We delved into point-of-view, motivation, physical setting, and verb tense as conduits to create intimacy between character and reader. I can’t put down all the good stuff I soaked up, but here are a few gems that REALLY struck me.

  • Characters need STRONG and CLEAR motivations in order to engage readers. Ratchet up the intensity of their desire. One common complaint among literary agents, Jacqueline says, is characters that are too PASSIVE.

So, the question becomes how we skillfully develop characters to SHOW the intensity of their motivation, and by extension, who they really are. Some techniques to get you there:

  • Engage the senses, make reading experiential. Sight, sound, and touch are of course important, but don’t forget the other sense. Smelling what a character smells, or tasting, gets the reader up personal and inside what the character is experiencing. Scent especially is a very primal sense, evoking memories and states of mind in an instant.
  • Let characters be vulnerable to pain. “Being stoic is not going to work,” as Jacqueline puts it. Show the reader how they react to fear, betrayal, abandonment, loss. “It’s very revealing how we respond to those hard things,” says Jacqueline, who, by the way, is also a psychologist. “Your core is revealed.” Help readers feel what your characters feel and they’ll go along for the ride.
  • Use powerful verbs! Brain imaging has shown that when you watch someone doing active things, the same part of your brain lights up as the person doing the action. So, if they leap, you take a mental leap. The same holds true for readers. So, don’t breathe heavily, pant or gasp or instead.
  • Use actions, not thoughts, to bring readers into a character’s mind. Watching someone throw a punch or flip the finger in traffic is a more telling display of their emotional state than saying their angry, even if they’re “quaking with angry.”

Character-motivation-quote-Kazuo-Ishiguro

  • A good tip—use verbs that are associated with sex; they’re already sensual and evocative!

–Karen

 

What are you reading this fall?

Hi All,

As we head into glorious autumn–my favorite season–there’s no shortage of great fiction to read. Cathy and I have been focusing on a couple of contemporary authors lately.

Cathy just finished these two by Elizabeth Strout, both of which she loved…

possible

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…while I just finished Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” (blew me away) and I’m now enjoying the stories in “Fight No More.” She’s just amazing.

lamb

fight

 

Share the titles that you’re enjoying this fall? We always love to hear what our friends are reading.

And if you’re in the Fairfax, Virginia, area Oct. 10 to 13, check out the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. There’s a great lineup of speakers, including Elizabeth Strout, and lots workshops and discussion panels. Keep an eye out for Cathy!

–Karen

From Paris with love, kinda

Friends —

Novelist Michelle Richmond is living the expat dream in Paris, where she has temporarily relocated with her husband and son. It’s a long way from Northern California to Paris, France, and Michelle is candidly–and humorously–sharing her daily trials and triumphs. You can follow her exploits in a “beautiful but challenging city” on her new blog, The Reluctant Parisian.

michelle in Paris

Michelle’s indie press, Fiction Attic Press, published my debut novel in 2014, and she remains a source of support and inspiration. I’m loving her post-a-day on Instagram.

And yes, Michelle’s books have been translated in French!

Michelle's books.png

Check back often and share Michelle’s journey!

–Karen

 

Happy Pub Day, Vanessa Hua!

Drum roll, please….. Our friend and contributor Vanessa Hua is celebrating a big one today: the publication of her debut novel, A River of Stars. Cathy and I offer our congratulations along with a super big high-five.

river of stars

Vanessa took a break in her busy promotion schedule to share a little about the creative inspiration for her novel–turns out that pregnancy is a great time for literary ideas to incubate!

From Vanessa:

While living in Southern California and pregnant with my twin sons, I began hearing about maternity hotels getting busted. What’s a maternity hotel? There’s an underground industry to house Chinese women coming to the U.S. to give birth, so that their children will receive U.S. citizenship. Neighbors were asking why there were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going into suburban homes. It sounded like a brothel in reverse! What was it like, I wondered, to be so far from home and family at one of the most vulnerable times in your life?

When I was pregnant, I found that people treated me very generously, very kindly—offering me a place at the front of the line, or giving up their seat. They asked me when I was due, if I was having a boy or girl, and shared stories about their families. But when you have a dozen pregnant women under one roof, who gets the most sympathy and good wishes, who is the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe for drama—and ripe for comedy.

As I enter the final days before Pub Day, my brain feels so tired it feels cross-eyed inside my head! But I’m grateful for all the support and encouragement from family and friends, my publisher, agents, and editor, and am looking forward to sharing my book with the world.

 

Anthology Seeks Tales of Triumph

A new season brings a new lineup of writing contests. We’d like to bring one to the attention of aspiring, and established, writers, because it’s being judged by none other than my Write Despite co-host Cathy Cruise.

Possibilities Publishing Company’s 2018 Anthology Contest is looking for stories–both fiction and nonfiction–that deal with the theme of triumph.In the publisher’s words, they’re seeking “those moments of triumph, of victory, of doing the things that seemed un-doable. It can be the types of triumphs that everyone relates to, or something that only mattered to one person. Victories that are earth shattering or just day brightening. We want them all.”

2018-Anthology-graphic-3-600x414

Possibilities is the press that published Cathy’s book, and we all saw what a super nice job they did. They really crank the publicity machine for their authors. Just last week, Cathy found out her book has been named a finalist in the 2018 Indie Book Awards.

Cathy, and her co-judge Jennifer Crawford, will do a bang-up job, and they’re actively seeking submissions! So, get yours in pronto. Submission deadline is July 15.

Now, if you’re not fortunate enough at the moment to be telling stories of victory, there are plenty of other, diverse contests out there. Here’s just a small sample. Good luck!

–Karen

Midway Journal’s 1,000-Below Flash Prose and Poetry Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: May 31, 2018
$500 + publication first prize, and other lesser prizes
Submit up to 1,000 words of flash, 40 words or poetry.
http://midwayjournal.com/contest/

American Fiction AwardsPost-Publication awards for full-length fiction book
Deadline: May 31, 2018
Entry fee: $69.00 per title/per category
Open to all books published between 2016 and 2018.
http://americanbookfest.com/americanfictionawards.html

Golden Walkman Magazine Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: July 31, 2018
Winning manuscript published solely as an audiobook, and awarded a sum of money (to be determined by the success of the contest).
Submit no more than 30 pages of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or hybrid.
https://www.goldwalkmag.com/audiochapbook-contest.html

Sequestrum New Writer Awards
Entry fee: $15
Deadline: October 15, 2018
$200 first prize, and other lesser prizes
Open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from new and emerging writers.
http://www.sequestrum.org/contests