Recently, I’ve been reading as many of the Best American Short Stories anthologies as I can. With 20 stories by 20 different authors in each addition – edited by a different guest editor each year – they’re all excellent. I’m entertained while also learning from the various styles and techniques of these award winning authors.
I’m not reading the collections in any particular order, just reading whatever anthology I find next at my used bookstore or library. That’s how I came across the 1998 edition, guest-edited by Garrison Keiller. It includes incredible stories by Annie Proulx, Carol Anshaw, Akhil Sharma, and others, but it’s the authors’ bio sections that really caught my eye in this edition, because a short story writer named Poe Ballantine wrote the best author bio I’ve ever read.
Since it’s not available online, I’m going to retype his bio for you right here:
“I am forty-two. College dropout. Live in a motel room. I generally move every year, but I am tired of moving and I like this room so I think I will stay another year. I have had lots of odd jobs, mostly cooking. I worked at the radio antenna factory just across the tracks for a while, then sold a couple of stories, so I quit March 5, and if I live on $400 a month and this wisdom tooth coming in doesn’t knock the rest of my teeth sideways, I will be able to write until August.”
Never a bad idea to go to Chuck Wendig. A clip from his new post on writing resolutions 2014:
“I Will Give My Work The Time It Needs:
Sometimes a story comes out fast. Sometimes it comes out slow. And this isn’t just about a single story: learning to do this thing and do it well may not take the arbitrary 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell suggests, but it’s not learning to play beer pong, either. Overnight successes never are; what you see is just the iceberg’s peak poking out of the slush. This takes time. From ideation to action. From writing one junk novel to a worse novel to a better one to the ninth one that’s actually worth a good goddamn. From writing to rewriting to editing to copyediting. Don’t “just click publish.” Don’t just send it off half-baked to some editor or agent — they get hundreds of stories a day that are the narrative equivalent to a sloppy equine miscarriage or half-eaten ham salad sandwich. Don’t punish your potential readers by squatting over the Amazon toilet and voiding your creative bowels into the digital porcelain. Take pride in what you do. Go the distance and get shit done. Not just a little bit done, but all-the-way-to-the-awesome-end done.”
The writing process can be incredibly simple:
Write more and you’ll write better.
Read high quality writing and you’ll write better.
Read well AND write a lot, and you’ll be even better still.
But a few writers, editors, and agents have written excellent books on the process, the craft, style, structure, and motivation. Going into the new year, many writers are looking for texts that will help improve their writing, help them get a first story published or finish revising that novel. The following five books are some of the best texts I’ve read for specific writing instruction:
Stein explains, “This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions–how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.”
Another book written by an experienced editor. This book was incredibly helpful leading up to the sale of my first book. Lerner guides an aspiring author through the entire process.
A lot of literary writers are snobs about Stephen King, but I don’t understand that attitude. King has put in the work, understands plot better than most writers ever born, loves his readers, and markets incredibly well too. This book is half memoir and half how-to, the second half of the book working as a nuts-and-bolts guide. If you read On Writing, it will be useful.
An anthology of short essays by America’s literary greats on topics like “obsession,” “illusion,” “first love,” and “beginnings.” Any writer, published or unpublished, will get something out of this collection.
No “how to write” list is complete without Lamott’s best book. She is brave, honest, truthful, harsh, and funny. I kept quotes from Bird By Bird above my writing desk while struggling through my first failed novel. Lamott kept me going.
My article on writing and ignoring failure was published by Writer’s Digest:
So here it is, my story album with the band Mankind, released today, titled “The Great American Afterlife.” After three couples came to me and cried with me in my kitchen about their impending divorces, I decided that I had to write a story about what was going on.
I read this piece at Tsunami, and a local band approached me about recording the story with them as an album. It ended up being a really cool experience working with dedicated musicians, a gifted producer, and someone who actually knew how to mix sound.
You can listen to a sample track and/or purchase here:
If I want my wife to read a short story collection, I don’t tell her that it’s a short story collection. I say, “Oh, Junot Diaz’ Drown? Yes, that’s a really good book. Incredible voice. You should read it.”
No mention of stories. Separate stories. Stories that are not linked to make some sort of a novel.
People don’t want to read short stories. Not anymore. Or at least they don’t think they do. They don’t buy them. They don’t seek them out. They don’t ask their friends, “What’s the best short story you’ve read lately?”
But when I teach Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” my students say, “Whoa. That’s such a good story. That was incredible.” When we read The Moccasin Telegraph by Kinsella, they love the collection. Same with stories by Miranda July or Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven.
Why do they love these stories so much? Because good stories are like perfect espresso. They smell and taste so good and they can be consumed in less than twenty minutes – good for a short attention span or small blocks of time. With a good story, there’s that single effect, that one change, that precise moment.
And, honestly, I love writing stories even though I’ve never sold a story collection (How does an author actually sell a story collection?). None of the three books I’ve sold are story collections. I have a complete story collection, a manuscript (not necessarily a good manuscript but a manuscript nonetheless) and my collection even won an award – The Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for Fiction. But it hasn’t sold.
Because stories don’t sell.
Stories are art. To write a story, a writer has to love the process. He or she has to read good poetry and care about every last word. Each image. The rhythm and precision. The short story writer must revise and revise and revise.
This year, I decided to release a story album. One short story produced with a band. The band members approached me with the idea, art for the sake of art. Art in collaboration. And I loved the idea. Sometimes, all a short story writer wants is for someone to understand what he is doing, to recognize the intended effect.
This band’s sound was clean (the guitarist, bass player, and drummer don’t mess around – they work). They wanted to produce a professional quality album of a story I read at a reading last winter. I said, “Let’s do it.”
So we recorded and re-recorded. The producer mixed and mixed the sound. It was mastered by a professional. And now it’s ready. We’ll release it to the enormous hoards of short story fans (legions, really, the uncountable masses) next week.