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! GargoyleMagazine #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.
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.
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.
“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
ThereThere by Tommy Orange
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
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).
ARBORVIEW releases in just seven days! Look what arrived in the mail, my author’s copies. How I love my cover artist.
To commemorate the release, my local library is hosting a Zoom launch event on September 29 at 6 p.m. I’m hoping some of you can attend. Just registeron the library’s site, and they’ll send you the Zoom link.
We’ll have a short reading and then a Q&A session. It promises to be a lot of fun. Come, armed with questions for me.
More events are planned, and ARBORVIEW will be popping up on multiple blogs and book sites. Here’s an early guest spotwith some good excerpts. Feel free to Google the book’s title and my name to catch more. My website will share larger events, as well as the ARBORVIEW buy links.
Can’t believe we’re almost there. It isn’t often you get to see a dream materialize before your very eyes. I’m walking on clouds, feeling blessed. See you on launch day!
As Arborview’s September 29 publication date draws near, I’m sharing another snippet from the novel. Here, Ellen ponders the state of her life and what—if any—advice she should give to her student Rosa.
Because both Ellen and Rosa are pastry chefs, dessert plays a big role in Arborview. Visit me on Instagram,where I’m sharing snapshots of some of the dishes featured. Please follow, like, and share!
The Kindle version of Arborview is already available as a pre-order on Amazonand elsewhere.
Here’s today’s excerpt:
This was how she had come to think of herself: a divorced person. She disliked “divorcée,” which Alice liked to throw about suggestively. The word had the faint stink of misogyny, of finger-pointing, the whisper of failure—more so a woman’s than a man’s. Why was that? American men were simply “divorced,” a neutral proclamation. No cutesy French name had been borrowed to designate their failed-marriage status.
And in truth, if Ellen had failed anyone, she had failed herself. This stinging little insight had come to her in Arborview, lying in dappled sunlight, where she was free to look at things and creep near the truth. The truth was she had fallen like a stone to the earth after all these years, and the voice she had learned to ignore had only grown louder. She had abandoned, or at least shelved, herself long before Zach worked up the courage to do it.
She really should tell Rosa: “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks, or your brother, or anyone else. Choose, or the world will do it for you.” This was what the girl needed to hear.
Please welcome author Sydney Winward to Write Despite. Sydney was among a spirited and caring cadre of writers fromThe Wild Rose Press who took part in an amazing fundraiser to benefit the victims of the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia.
It’s always inspiring to see writers–and publishers—using their talents to help others. Please check out the anthologies and lend a hand.
Hi, Karen. Thanks for having me on your blog! Today’s topic is one filled with heavy loss and grief, and has broken the hearts of many. The Australian wildfires affected many people, even those not living in Australia. To see both people and animals lose their homes is heartbreaking. Thousands of homes burned down. Koalas, kangaroos, and other animals alike couldn’t find shelter or water, not to mention the millions of animals that lost their lives to the fires. It was awful and saddening, with a devastating, continuous impact on the country. It pulled on the heartstrings of not only the Australian people, but the entire world.
Although most of us couldn’t be out there with the brave firefighters in their efforts to put out the raging wildfires, we found our own way to give back with our own unique skill sets. Stephen B. King, an Australian author at The Wild Rose Press, came up with the idea of putting together an anthology, whose profits would go toward the fires. The idea received such an overwhelming response that there wasn’t enough room to put everyone’s stories into one anthology, and had to be broken into three anthologies.
My own story, Born of Fangs, is in volume three, a short paranormal story about two of my favorite characters, Willow and Adam, and the romance they share when love between a vampire and a human is frowned upon. It’s a bonus chapter after Bloodborn that I hoped my readers might enjoy.
I am humbled to be a part of the Australia Burns Anthology project with so many talented and compassionate writers. It warms my heart to have seen many people step up and come together to provide relief for those affected by the Australian fires. It’s amazing to see how much love the human race has for each other and animals!
Thanks to novelist Darlene Fredette for giving my forthcoming novel, Arborview, its first bit of early publicity. Darlene has dubbed this month February Fur-ever, and she’s featuring writers and their dogs on her cool blog, Finding the Write Words.
We’re happy to share this Cover Reveal for author Shirley Goldberg’s new novel, Eat Your Heart Out, the second book in her “Starting Over” series.
Two foodies, Dana and Alex, banter, sauté and tiptoe around each other. Except for the occasional smooch. What’s with that?
I’m sharing more of Eat Your Heart Out’s details on my blog. Read the blurb and click this link https://midagedating.com/to read an excerpt. Too soon for links, but I’m looking for ARC readers, so please keep in touch. Publication date coming soon!
Thanks to Debbie Taylor for her cover and the team at The Wild Rose Press for all their hard work!
Blur for Eat Your Heart Out:
“When a tyrant in stilettos replaces her beloved boss, and her ex snags her coveted job, teacher Dana Narvana discovers there are worse things than getting dumped on Facebook. Time for the BFF advice squad, starting with Dana’s staunchest ally, Alex—hunky colleague, quipster, and cooking pal extraordinaire. But when the after-hours smooching goes nowhere, she wonders why this grown man won’t make up his mind.
Alex Bethany’s new lifestyle gives him the confidence to try online dating. What he craves is a family of his own until a life-altering surprise rocks his world. He knows he’s sending Dana mixed messages. Alex panics when he thinks he’s blown his chance with his special person. From appetizers to the main course will these two cooking buddies make it to dessert?
Funny and bittersweet, Dana and Alex’s story will have you rooting for them.”
A belated sharing of my recent Collegeville essay. I hope everyone is staying smart and staying safe. As we move towards a holiday season that promises to be like no other, remember: different doesn’t have to be less than. Unexpected blessings may unfold….and soon…