Last fall in my fiction class we looked over the rules of several famous and successful writers in this Guardian article and came up with our own list of rules. Mine is below:

  1. Write for one hour a day. Minimum.
  2. Try not to make the story predictable. Surprise yourself.
  3. Create an ending where people say WTF!
  4. Write about something you know nothing.
  5. Read the books friends suggest. Don’t just say you will.
  6. Embody the dialogue. Make it authentic. Make it zip.
  7. Write things that are beyond your reach.
  8. Fail as a writer.
  9. Accept this and rewrite the goddamn thing.
  10. Value your classmates and your teacher.

 

Overall, I stuck to these rules quite rigorously and was able to write some strange and powerful fiction–different from my usual fare. During the semester we were not able to tell anybody our rules or mention that we had a covenant with the rest of the class. This, in hindsight, added a layers of secrecy and mystery to the proceedings, and, in some way, drew the class closer together.

So, now, I’m asking: what are your ten rules?

Following on from a previous post, I thought I’d list some remarkable short story writers alive today. I’m using the following criteria: 1) North American (that is, American or Canadian) 2) Alive 3) A woman 4) Known in some capacity as a short story writer. I’ve noticed in my reading habits I tend toward women writers anyway and would count the ten plus below as masters of the genre.

Top Ten

1. Alice Munro.

2. Antonya Nelson.

3. Andrea Barrett.

4. Ann Beattie.

5. Joyce Carol Oates.

6. Edith Pearlman.

7. Annie Proulx.

8. Lorrie Moore.

9. Mary Gaitskill.

10. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Others of note: Edwidge Danticat, Lauren Groff, Karen Russell, Roxane Gay, Jill McCorkle, Mona Simpson, Louise Erdich…

Any others you’d add to the list?

Since I read this New Yorker essay I’ve wanted to write a post on the subject of posterity. In the literary world fame, of course, is fleeting, and quality is no guarantee of longevity. So many unknown factors manipulate someone’s place in the canon, or even just being in print. For me, a lover of short stories, here are my best guesses. They are all contemporary–and living–short story writers:

1. Alice Munro.

2. Stephen King.

3. Junot Diaz.

4. Joyce Carol Oates.

5. Steve Almond.

6. George Saunders.

7. Tobias Wolff.

8. Jhumpa Lahiri.

9. Nathan Englander.

10. Edith Pearlman.

Who do you think should be added? Add your comment below.

A while ago I started fooling around with the blurb form and constructing them in terms of bad blurbs, that is the accosted established writer frolicking in his penned superiority (!). Praise be to the publishing gods that a couple have recently been released on the web:

“Rejected Blurb #23” in Atticus Review and “Rejected Blurb #6” in Metazen.

Another one of my thesis stories has just been published. This time in the latest issue of The MacGuffin. Here’s an excerpt:

Flyer

In the months leading up to my ninth birthday I bugged Father for a red wagon. He bought me one, of course—a Radio Flyer with a green bow tied around the handle. That morning I didn’t wait to open my other presents. I just took the wagon on to the street and used it to move rocks from the neighbor’s pond to a narrow culvert that separated the neighborhood from the beach. We lived in a large Catholic section of Coney Island, a ten-minute walk from Steeplechase Park. From my bedroom window, I could see the metal tower of the Parachute Jump ride and the people screaming as long steel ropes hoisted them up and down.

A few days after my birthday, I asked Father at breakfast if I could go to work with him. “Sure, Samuel,” he said. “Just don’t cause trouble, like last time.” He ruffled my hair and smiled so widely I saw the toast still inside his mouth. He carried on reading the newspaper and I toyed with the scrambled eggs on my plate and thought about the candy bar in my room. Father drank the rest of his coffee and said, “If you’re finished, do the dishes.” He left the table and soon after I heard him talking to my cousin, Pam, in their bedroom. I left my plate where it was and went to the front door. I peered through the glass panel at the neat piles of orange and brown leaves in the neighbor’s garden and I felt an urge to kick the leaves, then bury them next to the pin oak that overlooked our house.

Pam called my name. But I ignored her. “Samuel,” she said again, this time louder. I turned to see Pam, hands on hips, her body inflated by a bubblegum-pink cardigan. She shook her head. Her brown hair framed her angular face, making her look older than she was. She hustled me to the hallway closet and made sure I put on my pencil-gray pea coat and thick woolen gloves.

Father kissed Pam on the cheek and said goodbye. He had on mud-brown khakis and one of his old Navy shirts, the epaulets unbuttoned and loose. He slung a cigarette in his mouth and grabbed my hand. At the door, he looked toward the bright sky and said something about the salt air. He was always talking about its benefits, as though breathing it in would cure any ailment. We took a short cut past the bathhouses so we could see the vast expanse of the ocean and Father could point out the smallness of the gulls. In the park, he ran a concession stand that sold ice-cream in the summer and popcorn and hot dogs in the fall. As we stepped onto the boardwalk, he explained that once a week a man came to check the stock levels. “He’s important,” he said. “Mr. Kendrick.”

Copyright © 2012 Christopher Linforth.

Monkeybicycle 9 is released this week and includes the work of A. Anupama, Jeremy Aufrance, A.A. Balaskovits, Nathan Blake, Lisa J. Cihlar, J.P. Dancing Bear, Rory Douglas, James Freed, Jack Garrett, James Tate Hill, Derek Henderson, Dustin Hoffman, Jared Hohl, J.Z. Houlihan, Jane Keyler, Sandra Kolankiewicz, Marshall Lee, Jessica Levine, Christopher Linforth, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, Colleen Maynard, Todd McKinney, Colleen Morrissey, Analisa Raya-Flores, Laurie Sewell, Kelsi Sexton, Jon Steinhagen, Richard Wolkomir, and Michael Wood.

“Door-to-Door”–one of the first stories written for my MFA–is included with many fine stories and poems. Here’s an excerpt:

In the car, the man packed his valise. He put his rubber gloves inside, next to the talcum powder and a tube of medicinal salve. He checked the salve’s instructions and rubbed a little on his palm. While he waited, he looked at the house in the late afternoon light. The front lawn was dried out and colored a muddy brown. Broken trellis lay on the garden path. The curtains were closed.

He turned the radio on and listened to a man talking. On his hand, bright-red hives appeared. With a pocket-handkerchief he wiped away the remaining salve. He took out his cigarettes and lit one, blowing the smoke through the open car window. He saw a light go on in the front room and the curtains twitch.

Copyright © 2012 Christopher Linforth.

If you’re starting out and can’t tell your Chekhov from your Gogol, an excellent place to begin is to read a historical and taxonomical evaluation of the modern short story. Luckily for you, it’s dealt with in excellent detail in William Boyd’s article, “A Short History of the Short Story.”

Over the years, the books I’ve found to be helpful for fiction writing include Stephen King’s On Writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Charles Baxter’s Burning Down The House, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer, Alice LaPlante’s Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, and James Wood’s How Fiction Works. But more than reading about craft you must read, read, read: collections of short stories and literary journals. Some of my favorite collections are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, Ed Falco’s Burning Man, and Joyce Carol Oates’ High Lonesome. Top literary journals include One Story, Southern Review, The Paris Review, Tin House, and many others. See my articles here: sometime ago I made a list, and also attempted a hip journal list! And a compilation of midwest-focused journals.

Although of limited value, several literary journal rankings exist: Clifford Garstang’s list is based upon journals winning Pushcart Prizes. Bookfox also made a list. HTMLGIANT commenters also came up with a cool rundown. In terms of payment for short stories, see my recent entry “Pay and the Short Story.”

Now, after revising and line-editing your stories several times–whether in workshop, through peer assistance, or with the help of a mentor–don’t be perturbed by the weaknesses of your story or become deluded by its apparent greatness. Writing publishable fiction takes multiple drafts and months of work. A good tip is to put your story in a drawer for a month and then re-visit the piece with fresh eyes. Re-write your story again! When you finally do submit work to journals don’t expect to be published first time out. Rejection is part of the writer’s life. Acceptance rates for most journals are often less than 1%. Eventually when you’re ready to assess the marketplace and your story’s place within it, good starting points are the websites duotrope.com, New Pages, and Review Review.

At a reading last year, Tobias Wolff noted that he had not been the best writer at his school or displayed the most talent. Yet he’s the one who became a writing icon and one of America’s current best short story writers. Perseverance and a dedication to the craft kept him going while his peers migrated to other professions. So keep going, one day you may be that writer.

Pre-1978 The Best American Short Story series had a single editor. For decades, from 1915 to 1941, Edward O’Brien fulfilled this role. After his death, Martha Foley took over. Raymond Carver mentions Foley’s importance for American short fiction during his superb 1983 interview with The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Is it true—a friend of yours told me this— that you celebrated your first publication by taking the magazine to bed with you?

CARVER

That’s partly true. Actually, it was a book, the Best American Short Stories annual. My story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” had just appeared in the collection. That was back in the late sixties, when it was edited every year by Martha Foley and people used to call it that—simply, “The Foley Collection.” The story had been published in an obscure little magazine out of Chicago called December. The day the anthology came in the mail I took it to bed to read and just to look at, you know, and hold it, but I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife.

The Best American Short Stories 1988 was a strange collection of work. From Raymond Carver’s “Errand” (a story of almost all summary and filled with a heavy dose of biographical material taken from Henry Troyat’s Chekhov) to Majorie Sandor’s enigmatic “Still Life,” there was a wide berth of subject matter, character, and thematic emphasis. Interestingly, 1988 appears to be the first year writers were asked to provide some background on their stories, and it’s worth checking out these back pages for some nuggets on each work’s genesis.

The guest editor—the right-leaning Mark Helprin—introduces the collection with an in-depth and intellectual essay that rails against minimalism, left-wing politics, writing programs, and the surge of women writers and ethnic literature. In terms of the latter two, he argues these forms of writing have taken over English literature college classes in the U.S., deemphasizing Shakespeare and many other authors Helprin holds close to his heart. Although well argued, his essay is misguided and reactionary on so many points, it would take an equally long rebuttal (his introduction “The Canon Under Siege” is 8,500 words!) to defuse many of his conjectures.

The questions Helprin raises about the minimalist aesthetic are interesting and are worth noting here:

Why are so any minimalist stories about despicable people in filthy unkempt garden apartments filled with ugly bric-a-brac, where everybody smokes, drinks, stays up all night, and is addicted to coffee? Why are the characters almost uniformly pudgy, stiff, and out-of-shape, even if they are in their twenties? Why do they watch so much about television? Why do they have so many headaches? Why are they impotent, frigid, promiscuous, or all three combined?

He continues asking questions for another half a page. For me, some of these observations are indeed facets of the genre, this “Dirty Realism,” which in the following years went out of vogue. Although these scenarios appear infrequently in contemporary literature, they occasionally reemerge in similar or sometimes innovative forms (see some of my stories! or Carve magazine, for example), they are for the most part relegated to a few names: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and others, and a period: the late 1970s to the 1980s. The editor of Granta, Bill Buford, coined the term in a 1983 issue of the magazine.

Standout stories:

Tobais Wolff’s “Smorgasboard” and Ralph Lombreglia’s “Inn Essence.”