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.

This piece is cross-posted over at The Minnesota Review blog.

Near the conference hotel, a lakefront Hilton, in a line for coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts, a young woman stares at my nametag. For what seems like a minute, her eyes are fixated on my name. She thinks: Is he a writer? Somebody I should know? Or want to know? Can he get my story/poem/manifesto published? Can he get me a six-figure book deal? Or point me to someone who is able? I blush and tuck my nametag under my shirt. Sure, I’ve had a few things published in my time, but I’m still a bottom feeder, lowest on the rung: the plaid-wearing M.F.A. student.

The hotel bar is where AWP veterans, publishing bigwigs, established poets and writers congregate on the padded leather couches. These people have made it. You can tell by the absence of a nametag. They’ve been put away. Buried in their tote bag underneath a free pile of swag. Together—in a swirling mass of ten-dollar Budweiser, warm Chardonnay, and half-hidden hip flasks—the “made-its” laugh and hug, tell stories and gossip: Is that Tao Lin in the corner? What hair product does Michael Martone use? What do you mean Poet X won the Ruth Lily?! Don’t you owe me a beer from D.C.?

I vandalize my nametag. At the McSweeney’s booth, using a No. 2 pencil, I write “Tony Morrison” above my name. I tell people: I’m the other Toni Morrison. The one with a Y; the one who didn’t attend Cornell; the one who didn’t write Beloved; the one who didn’t win the Nobel Prize; the one who didn’t teach at Princeton; the one who didn’t get paid less than Snooki; the one who didn’t avoid this conference like the plague. I’m him. Tony. You know, the one stared at by a woman in Dunkin’ Donuts; the one picking up free literary journals; the one talking to hungover editors; the one attending panels; the one hoping for insights into the machinations of the publishing world; the one flailing in the hotel bar; the one trying to marry Sandra Beasley; the one plagued by a Y. A question he’s desperately attempting to answer.

AWP is the biggest writers conference held each year in America. Writers, publishers, professors, MFA students, CW undergrads, literary journals, agents, and editors all converge on one destination. This year was Chicago.

Below are some random quotes I heard, or perhaps said, over the four-day period:

“I’m Margaret Atwood. Where’s my suckling pig?”

“I’m the other Toni Morrison.”

“I’ve self-published two novels. Would you like to buy one? I have plenty of copies.”

“Are you Sandra Beasley?”

“I’m thirsty. Would you like a beer?”

“Take a free copy of our journal. We’d like a five-dollar donation for it.”

“It’s not a podium. It’s a lectern!”

“Oh, you’re that Christopher Linforth.”

Fun times! Feel free to add your own quote in the comments section.