Tag Archives: short stories

George Saunders on Writing

By Mark Stevens

George SaundersOne of the most highly-decorated writers of the last few years stopped by The Tattered Cover a couple weeks ago.

The man was George Saunders, who wrote the short-story collection Tenth of December.

Saunders has been showered in praise and critical acclaim. Shower? More like Niagara Falls. The list of awards and prizes is long. Seek elsewhere if you don’t know. It’s impressive.

I wasn’t there, but I listened to the podcast posted on “Authors on Tour.”

I listened three times.

Stwvens_Saunders_Tenth of DecemberThe stories in Tenth of December are stunning pieces. I reviewed it when it first came out. Put it this way: the guy is highly original. The stories have bite.

So what about his presentation? Pompous? Snooty? Professor know-it-all?

Hardly. He referenced Honey Boo-Boo as easily as William Faulkner.

I highly recommend listening to his rapid-fire, enthusiastic style of talking about his writing—and his way-cool reading from a portion of one of his short stories, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (a hilarious bit of whacky sci-fi).

Here’s a recap of a few of Saunders’ key points about writing.

(A brief comment first: holy smokes, this guy works hard, thinks hard. Tenacious.)

1. Listen to Yourself. “Follow your natural instincts—it’s all you’ve got,” he said. After some early efforts at writing fiction (“Joyce meets Hemingway meets Quaaludes”) and poetry (“scatological Dr. Seuss kinds of things”), one day his “so-called voice sort of appeared” and it was “kind of disappointing.” Nonetheless, it was his natural self. Saunders confessed to a former “medical affliction” called the “Hemingway boner.” “It was like this mountain, Hemingway mountain, I love you, I’m going up you.” After also failing on “Kerouac mountain,” Saunders finally realized there was a “little dung hill” and it had his name on it. The dung hill was his natural voice and he stuck with it.

2. Meaning Doesn’t Matter. “Maybe never,” says Saunders. “What you’re trying to do is get the thing to be energetic and the way you do that is baffling yourself someway.” Saunders added: “My end goal is to put you (the reader) through an invigorating and maybe confusing experience.”

3. Don’t Think in Categories. “You should do whatever you can do.” “Don’t lower the ceiling on yourself.”

4. Reader Intimacy Is Key. “By any means necessary, I’m trying to get the reader to lean in and have an intimate moment with me.” “Engage them first and move on.”

5. Rewrite and Rethink With No Attachment. “I take the story I printed out the day before and inch up to it and say, ‘Let me just read it with no attachment.’ If you are not too hung up on what you thought yesterday, you can see” (what needs work).

6. Dialogue As Plot is DOA. “Bad dialogue is when A asks a question and B answers it, because people don’t do that.” “Dialogue that fulfills plot function is dead on the page.” Dialogue should be two people “firing missiles past each other.” Well-written dialogue is “like poetry—it’s not functional but it looks good on the page and has a zinginess.”

7. Throw Trouble at Your Characters. Quoting Chekhov: “Every happy man should have someone with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws.”

8. Make it Undeniable. When is a story done? “Everyone will tell you something different…it’s whatever works for you.” For his own needs, Saunders said it’s when every moment in the story “feels undeniable; it feels like what happened.” He worked on one story two months of every year for four or five years. “I have to be solid with it myself. I go to pretty obsessive lengths to make sure I like it.”

9. Writers Don’t Get to Stabilize. In most jobs, he said, we want to have mastery, not only in our jobs but in our life. And we want to coast. In art, you want to find the method but the method is always changing. For writers, “you’re on a cruise ship, your job is to juggle, the ship is sinking, it’s coated with ice and we’re in roller skates and we’re drunk. We don’t get to stabilize.”

10. Good Stories Don’t Choose Right or Wrong. Fresh-cut grass is good; falling off a bridge is bad. A writer doesn’t have to deny one or the other. “Part of the fun of a story is you can think one direction, life is miserable, and then put in the other valance and suddenly those two things are resonating and the reader looks to you and says, ‘well, which do you believe?’ And you say, ‘Excuse me, I have to go on to the next paragraph.’ To credit both is really fun.”

11. Milk Your Insecurity. “I feel like if I even let up for one sentence, you’ll go away….My stories are kind of manic because I don’t want to lose you.”

12. First Draft Doesn’t Matter. At one point in his life, Saunders thought “if your first draft is no good, it’s ‘Shit, I’ve got to go to law school.” Now it’s “you have an infinite right to go in there and tweak it forever…just keep coming back to it again and again; that’s the key to a healthy and long writing life.”

High standards? You bet.

But isn’t it magic when you’re reading and you are so deep down in the story that you forget your reading? That you question nothing? That you lose yourself?

It’s that “undeniable” bar I love. A mighty goal. It’s magic, yeah, but if the master doesn’t mind sharing a few secrets, I’m all ears.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

A Few Reasons to Write Short Stories

By Lori DeBoer

It’s official: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers now welcomes writers of short fiction into its fold.  Since I am noodling away on a collection of short stories, a few of which have been finalists for awards or been published, I felt relieved to be able to come out of the 10,000-words-and-fewer closet, so to speak.

This change of policy makes a lot of sense, especially since the RMFW is putting out its fourth short story member anthology. (The most recent one, Broken Links, Mended Lives, was a finalist for the 2009 Colorado Book Award.) This year’s anthology is themed “Crossing Colfax” in honor of the avenue in Denver that Playboy Magazine dubbed “the longest, wickedest street in America.” The deadline for submission is March 14, 2014; for more info, click here.

While securing a spot in the RMFW anthology is a great goal — I hope you’ll submit something — I believe writers of all stripes can benefit from writing short stories. Think of it as a cross-training exercise. Here are a few reasons why:

You Gotta Start Somewhere
You wouldn’t run a marathon without taking a few short runs and working your way up. You wouldn’t get married without going on some dates.  (Well, some folks would, but that’s a topic for another type of blog.)  The point is that writing short stories has been a time-honored way for fiction writers to learn their craft. Garth Risk Hallberg has been building buzz for scoring a $2 million book deal for his 900-page novel, but he published a novella and a fistful of short fiction first. Many successful authors of all genres cut their teeth on short stories, including Mary Oliver, Ron Carlson, Joyce Carol Oates, Kelly Link and Ray Bradbury.

You Should Expect to Experiment
Most beginning writers are still finding their voice, let alone their genre, and writing short fiction gives them ample room to experiment. Even experienced writers sometimes long to break out of their niche and play the field. Short stories offer plenty of room to experiment with voice, style, genres, characters and other narrative nuances without breaking the bank or frittering away too much time. If something does feel right, you can always scale things up.

Practice Perfects Process
Completing and polishing a short story so it’s publication-ready gives you an understanding of your writing process, from drafts through revisions. If you take the step of submitting to the types of magazines that accept short stories in your genre, querying becomes more mundane and less intimidating. While it’s always painful, getting rejected on a short story you spent months on, then dusting yourself off and submitting again, helps inoculate you against falling completely apart when your novel gets rejected.  Plus, any feedback you receive on your short stories might just be applicable to your novel-in-progress.

To Shorten the Time to Publication
Writing and submitting a short story provides a short-term goal to punctuate the months (or years) it takes to write a book.  Professional writers can generally draft, revise and polish a short story in two to three months, though some work more quickly and some are more patient, taking  much as a year or more to perfect a piece. With the trend toward micro-fiction—stories of a thousand words or fewer—the investment of time in writing becomes even more dialed down. The writing pace is up to you, but short stories in general have a quicker turnaround time for getting published than do novels. With a few thousand literary magazines of every genre in the United States alone, new writers may find a foothold in publishing more easily by writing short.

You Can Fashion a Reputation
Getting published in literary or genre magazines helps you pitch your novels, because those credits indicate that you are a working writer, not just a one-hit wonder. Many agents and publishers troll these magazines, looking for the next writing wunderkind. Marketers know you need to get a brand in front of consumers seven times before they remember it. The same holds true for building a base of fans. Short story writers have plenty of opportunities to reach the kind of readers that can eventually build a book’s buzz, be it a novel or a collection of short stories.

For the Love of the Form
Writing short stories need not be a station on the way to learning to write novels; the form can be savored for its own sake. The art of the short story differs from long-form fiction in a myriad of ways; it focuses on the present, what is, rather than running pell-mell toward what-may-come. Its compact form means that every phrase, nuance, gesture and narrative element needs to be worth the space it occupies. Because it requires a deft and practiced touch, many consider writing short stories more of a challenge than writing novels. The relationship between the form and the writer can be more complex than it first appears. Canadian Alice Munro, master of short stories, started out writing short when she had children to raise and a household to run. After her fourth book of short stories was published, she told The Guardian that she realized her attempts at writing a novel “never worked.” This week, her daughter accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in Sweden on her behalf in recognition of her short stories, which includes 14 collections. In her interview, she noted that short stories are “often brushed off as something people do before they write a novel .  .  . I would like them to come to the fore without any strings attached.”

Do you love to write short stories?  Please tell us why.
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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer, a Boulder-based author, journalist and writing coach, is finishing up a collection of short stories that started as her MFA thesis at Arizona State University. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  She has volunteered to help edit the RMFW anthology and will be sharing information about writing short stories at the educational workshop in January 2014. For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.