Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ghost Writing

Let's talk about ghost writing.

I'm talking about some personage who has a story idea (usually a memoir) and doesn't have time, (or sometimes talent) but pays you money to write his/her story and keep your own name out of it.

1) should it be your best work?
2) why?

Monday, January 17, 2011

If something happens to you in real life that you (or people around you) think would make a great story, ask yourself: what’s the narrative arc?

It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare’s five acts, or the traditional three acts of Hollywood, but I believe there has to be some kind of structure in fiction (even if it’s an experimental structure: all the sentences begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet, or there is no letter “E”, e.g.) or else the human brain wanders off.

Think of a dinner party and that guy at the foot of the table who monopolizes the conversation talking about his trip overseas. If the story builds and builds (he lost his wallet, he was locked out of his hotel room, a strange woman took him in, they discovered a shared passion for fish…) you could listen to him all day. If he just lists a lot of things that happened in random order (he lost his wallet, it turned out it was in his luggage, the hotel room was sub-par, he had fish for lunch, the boss was late to a meeting) – all of a sudden your side dishes look really fascinating. Right? you want to tell this bozo to get tot he point or shut up and let someone else talk.

So in your writing this year, weed out the unnecessary to give your story shape. If what happened in real life to give you the inspiration for the story does not inherently have a narrative arc, impose one. Blend the interesting characteristics of three dull people into one fascinating character. Cut out all the events that are mundane. Describe only those things that matter. You are a writer of fiction and your stories should be so gripping that if you told one at a dinner party, people would forget to eat.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

how much is rush mail?

I recently met a literary agent at another author's event (okay, truth: it was an event I host every month, but because of the impending blizzard I was a bit crazed and mentioned to this visiting agent that I had a manuscript)...and that agent asked to see my novel.

The rush is liquid madness.

you go home. you stare at the buisness card with its precious email address. you open up the manuscript, you stay up until 3am, reading it "fresh" for the zillionth time, hoping against hope that it held up over time.

and it did. And it does. At least for the fifty pages or so that you manage to read before falling asleep on your keyboard that night.

and then in the cold light of the next day, you sort through the various ways you might get said manuscript to said agent. And what do you think of? Time and Cost. Hundreds of pages? It's going to fry your toner, and quite possibly your whole printer. But to use an online service (I recommend if you've got extra cash) is pricey and takes longer.

Cost. Cost. Cost. Rush delivery? Sign for it? Bring it over in a file folder tied with rubberbands? It feels like every single detail is going to make or break the acceptance rate of your masterpiece.

but will it?

allow me to lay aside that furry writer's hat I've just been wearing. As an editor, I get pissed off to receive coffee-ringed, wrinkled, single-spaced manuscripts, yes. Yes I do. I curse people who can't spell, dont know a pronoun from a verb, and need an introduction to basic grammar though they wave a fancy MFA. I call them rude, disrespectful, unprofessional, and worse.


I have never rejected someone for messy work; nor have I rejected someone because it took them four more days to do the final draft than I expected. If there is talent, it will shine through. It will sing. And it will still be there in two days or three. So save your headaches for the first and last sentence and mail the slightly-faded but otherwise neatly typed pages in a plain envelope with ordinary first-class mail. If you have a good story, there is nothing that will hide it from the world.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Q&A with M.M. De Voe, Associate Editor here at OS

M.M. De Voe's short fiction has been widely published and has won multiple mentions and awards: The Raymond Carver Short Fiction Competition, PRISM: international Short Fiction Competition, Phoebe's Short Story Contest,'s Annual Poetry Contest, H. E. Francis Short Story Competition, Fish Publishing's Short Story Prize, The Bellwether Prize, The Dana Awards, and first prize nationally in the Lyric's Annual Poetry Contest. Most recently, however, she was one of 20 international winners of the Campaign for Real Fear, which will result in an audiobook, as well as first prize winner of the Literal Latte Short-Short Fiction award. She is a three-time Pushcart nominee, as well as Best of the 'Net and Best of the Web for her stories. She also won the Regina Russo Outstanding Recent Graduate Award in June 1999, and has been listed in Who's Who of American Women and Who's Who in the World since 2004. She won two Editor's Choice Awards for short fiction published in 2007. "Dulce Domum" is available in the anthology "Best of TFL Editor's Picks: 2002-2006." She is also included in the literary erotica anthology Stirring up a Storm (alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood). Her novel in progress won the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Fellowship in 2006 for historical novels with gay-positive characters. The rest of the time, she runs a nonprofit called Pen Parentis that provides resources to authors who are also parents.

You can read more about M. M. and purchase her work at her website

Meanwhile, here's a short Q & A we've had with M.M. about her writing and editing ... Enjoy!

Q: In your editing experience, what are some common pitfalls in stories that turn what could be brilliant narratives into ones that become, well, boring?

A: The easy fix (I know that's what you really want to hear) is that people tend to describe the wrong details. Instead of describing the look on a guy's face when his own dog bites him in the leg, some writers will spend a paragraph describing the man's emotional state at the betrayal of his dog. But far better than either of these is to simply focus on and describe the action: the man calls to his dog, the dog trots over, he doesn't stop, his mouth opens, he bares teeth. The man just manages to say No, as Sparky bites through denim to skin to the bone. Dog food avalanches from the man's hand as he grabs for the counter, but Sparky does not let go...he kicks his leg, but Sparky hangs on, growling… Your reader will identify with the owner and you don't have to say a word about what the man's expression looks like.

When I said easy, I didn't mean easy.

Another common pitfall is that novice writers often confuse narrative truth with "what really happened"-- narrative truth is what has to happen in the story to make the story worth reading—make it worthwhile. What really happened after your aunt won 18K at craps last fall is completely irrelevant—and tends to be boring compared to what a clever mind can dream up.  Coming up with the perfect ending to a crazy situation is extraordinarily difficult. What if, instead of paying off her mortgage and putting you through college, she'd bought herself a mink and went parading the streets otherwise naked, handing out twenties to people? We can read facts on Facebook and blogs. Use fiction to really go wild.

Q: Could you share something about your own writing process? When (if ever) is a story "done," or at least ready to be sent out?

I generally get an idea and run with it for as long as I can—without stopping, without questioning—letting my imagination take me anywhere, and acutally these days I try to push the envelope: is this the most interesting place this story can go? Or can it go farther? I remind myself constantly to write scenes. SCENES! Not descriptions of scenes! Somewhere about a page or four into the story, I envision an ending and write towards it. Then I put the story away for at least a few days. When I come back, I try to come up with my "what is it about" sentence, and then I go through the endless editing process to weed out everything that doesn't fit, replace boring verbs with good ones, add description, cut extraneous stuff. I have found that it takes something like ten drafts to get a story tight enough to send out. And by fifteen or so, it gets published. Then it's done. :-)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

more on endgames

Thought I'd pick up on Townsend's comments on my last post--

Over drinks with my neighbors, I told the story of how I ran off with a group of jugglers when I was in college. The story is wild—and they wondered whether I’d ever written about it. I told them it was more memoir than story, and we got into a discussion on how these differ. – Ultimately we decided that it has to do with the ending. In Memoir, the end is predetermined by the truth: what actually happened. In Fiction, it is up to the author to invent an end.

An unsatisfying ending can cause you to hurl a book you’ve been reading across a room, disappointed and betrayed. So as a writer, how do you know if an ending is “right” for the story? In my real-life juggler story, I stayed with them one summer, came back to finish college and remain close friends with them to this day. That’s real, but in fiction, that’s pretty boring. Despite some extremely colorful characters, lush settings, and some really nutty events, the story would never work as a novel. I pose the question to you: how do you know if an ending is “right”?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Coal Picking, Kite Flying and 70-Year-Old Gangsters

This year my father is retiring. He has worked his entire adult life as the executive director of a non-profit organization for the prevention of child abuse and neglect in a small town surrounded by rural poverty.

While I was home for the holidays we talked about what he would do now that he won’t be going to the office. But the office is only part of it.

Q&A with Margaret LaFleur, Generation XYZ Contest Winner

Every quarter is a lot like Christmas Eve. It’s a gift to be able to discuss with a writer what’s dazzling in her work, what can be done to bring it closer to what it wants to be. Critiquing this issue’s Generation XYZ Contest winner, “This is Just Temporary,” was like getting the perfect gift. How I felt after the last sentence is something I get to keep. It was a pleasure asking Margaret what guided her story.

Q: What was the inspiration for “This is Just Temporary”?

A: I worked at a restaurant in high school (though not the Olive Garden). A couple of my good friends also worked there, and I remember it rather fondly. I had never seen myself as a “lifer,” one of the employees that stays for years and years. It was a surprise, then, when a friend did move back after college and returned to work there. So that was the initial inspiration.

I should also add that of course Sharon isn’t based entirely on that single friend. I actually thought a lot about the girls I was close to in high school as I wrote it. We’ve all faced disappointments and heartbreaks in ways that have surprised us, I think, which is really what I wanted to write about.

Q: Describe your writing process. How did the story change as you wrote it? What were some of the most important revisions you made?

I wrote this story during my MFA program, so the writing and revision process was decided for me a little bit. I submitted a rough draft and a revised draft to my workshop one semester and then set it aside for a while before I went back to it to include in my thesis. In the first few drafts Sharon was actually quite mean spirited. She’s still a little mean, now, but as I spent more time with the story I think it became clear why.

In the original draft it was Christmas time, and it was pointed out to me in workshop that the holidays may not be the right occasion. Everyone goes home at Christmas, after all. So I moved it later in the winter, when things have really gotten ugly and there’s no cheer or houses strung in lights. That was a seemingly small change that I think made a big difference. A couple people also told me to pull the first paragraph from where it was languishing in the middle. It was one of those perfect suggestions that opened up the story in a great way.

Q: There are many paths to becoming a writer—of making enough money and finding the time to actually write. In many ways, “This is Just Temporary” addresses the difficulty of knowing what is next in life. What do you know about becoming a writer that you didn't necessarily know before?

A: Writing is as hard as everyone says it is. There was a point when I held out the secret hope that once I just started writing in earnest, it would become easier. That surely my next story would be as brilliant on paper as it was in my mind. This has never happened. Not to me or to anyone I know or have ever heard of. I lost that hope about the time I became convinced that it really was easy for everyone else, and they were all just putting on a show. I'm not sure when it was that I started to realize that no, we are actually in the trenches together, but it helps immensely to believe that we are. I see that happening in “This is Just Temporary,” too. It is easy to be caught up in the idea that we are the exceptions to the rule instead of finding comfort in being so much like everyone else.

Margaret LaFleur’s work has appeared in Stone’s Throw Magazine and at The Millions. She recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and currently lives and writes in Upstate New York. You can visit her on the web at

Stay tuned for a recording of Margaret LaFleur reading “This is Just Temporary”!

Best American Short Story Nominations 2011

Best American Short Story Nominations | 2011

Dear all,

It's my pleasure to announce our most recent nominations for the Best of Prizes of 2011.

All are included in our Best of Our Stories Volume IV issue which is on sale now.

Here they are, the envelope please:

  • Ozymandias by Roy Jeffords, Emerging Writer Award 2010 (Volume IV Issue IV, Pg. 223)
  • Touch by Jesse Goolsby, Richard Bausch Short Story Prize 2010 (Volume IV Issue II, Pg. 106)
  • Blue and Maroon by Chellis Ying, (Volume IV Issue II, Pg. 123)

Congratulations to these amazing authors and thank all of you in believing in Our Stories.

A link to purchase these stories in volume four is here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Writing like this, it makes me realize that I don’t often write like this…extemporaneously, with little editing. When I write fiction, I spend at least twice the time in edits as I did getting the words on the page. And when it comes to the opening and closing of a story, multiply that time by about six.

Thinking over the submissions I’ve recently been reading, I wonder how many new writers realize the importance of endgame to a story. New writers often have ideas: creative, bubbling, bursting forth, spilling all over the page. They are ready to “see where the story takes them”—either because they have an amazing concept or because they saw/met/invented an fascinating character or situation. This is why so many new writers get rejected on a story they thought was a sure-fire bet: the story starts out running strong, but it peters out and ends either on a whimper, or (worse) goes exactly where you would expect it to go, with no surprises. To be a really great writer, you should go back to that first, impetuous draft after giving it a few days to breathe: see if it can be improved, and in particular, see if the beginning draws you in immediately, and if the ending still feels satisfying. How much time to you give to your ending? Is it nearly as much as you give to your opening? And yet, if a friend comes to visit, which do you recall--the way they said hello, or the last thing they did before leaving your place?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Got Any Writerly New Year Resolutions?

So it's a new year, and it's time to get off your ass and write more. Well, that might be something we say to ourselves each year, right? No matter how much we've written, and perhaps no matter how far along a writer is in her career, we can always do better.

Of course, first a writer needs to schedule time to sit down and think, and write. That's discipline.

Maybe inspiration is next. I've got a lot of friends who say they can't write unless they're inspired. That's a little cowardly if you ask me. You've got to learn to whip yourself up into the writer's focus, into the mood, and that habit of sitting down and writing every single day (yes, I mean every single living day--no matter how brief) will eventually pay off. Rough first drafts eventually, months later, become more polished visions.

So ...

READERS of the WORLD, what are your resolutions? Come share with us what you're working on in 2011. Who knows, maybe we can help?

Our Stories @ Prick of the Spindle

My story "Summer Ice" just appeared in Prick of the Spindle, a journal I highly respect and admire. The story took me a year and a half to revise before I felt like it was ready to be sent out. Nothing feels better than for an editor, especially someone like Editor-in-Chief and founder Cynthia Reeser, to affirm that work.

And while you all are there, I'd be remiss not to recommend you read one of the most moving works I've read: "One Pure Thing" by Alexis Enrico Santí (editor in chief here at Our Stories). Of course, Alexis and I are friends, but that aside, this piece is tremendously gripping. "Form is content" is exemplified here. When it comes to tone of voice and imagery, though, the work conveys the most immediate sense of honesty and urgency I've ever experienced. Absolutely a must-read.