Writing Panel Notes, Part 3
On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: The Art of the Short Story
Panel members: Greg Spatz, Sarah Stonich, Shawn Vestal, Claire Vaye Watkins
Moderator: Robert Stubblefield
Panel description: Sometimes short stories serve as laboratories for ideas that evolve into a longer form. Sometimes their workshop-friendly length attracts young writers and their teachers. And sometimes the short story format is just the form that feels right—ask John Cheever or Anton Chekov. Four writers discuss their new short story collections and how they came into the world.
Mod: Every few years, critics call it a Renaissance of the short story. I argue that it isn’t. Short stories have more than a novel. Alice Munro primarily wrote short stories. Can you talk about your newest collection, your influences, and whether you will continue to work in the form?
CVW: I’m pragmatic. I didn’t know how to write so I learned by writing. Battleborn was my thesis for my MFA. I wanted to try new things every time. It’s exciting. The pressure was to take advantage of the time that I had. The short story is demanding. You take risks. It’s freeing but you also have to be ruthless because of the form.
SV: I had a similar experience although I did my MFA later in life. I like the short story because of the compression, intensity and density. It’s like poetry. Short stories feel like they’re perfectible–even though it’s probably an illusion. A novel doesn’t feel perfectible. The health of the short story is more about the economics of publication. I can’t keep up with all the short stories out there. I wrote Godforsaken Idaho in my 40s. It was helped by my MFA–half of it I wrote as a student.
SS: I’m primarily a novelist. The short story is freeing–it addresses things you don’t in a novel. It’s fun. The publishers talk about the demise of short stories, but now with Alice Munro winning the Nobel, there’s more discussion of short stories so we’ll probably see more. Short stories feel like a vacation. Novels are hard. Short stories feel like a walk in the park. You can write a short story in a month while a novel can take a couple of years.
GS: The viability of the short story is more about marketing. Publishers have difficulty talking about short stories (since they’re about many different things) so they find it difficult to sell. Many authors break out with short stories. I started with short stories–most of it was my MFA thesis. In my most recent book, I gave twice as many short stories to my editor who picked the stories to go in the book. In my first collection, the stories were organized chronologically. There’s a narrative arc and it shows how my writing developed. In my current collection, it’s ordered by my editor. Alice Munro and Andre Dubus are my influences.
Mod: You address that it’s economics on how short stories are presented, but every year there are excellent short stories. How did you bring your collections from the imagination to the table? What’s your process?
CVW: Maybe I was freakishly lucky? I sent a few stories to an agent. They asked me what I wanted to do. I said I had a short story collection. The agent said, “Great!” I didn’t feel abused.
SV: I had the typical trajectory of 20 years of rejections. Then I published short stories really quickly. I didn’t feel abused, but they kept asking, when are you doing a novel? I got an agent who submitted stories for me because she believed in the short story. Seems like a dream come true.
SS: My first two books were novels. Then I did short stories. My agent refused and so we parted ways. Another agent didn’t tell the publishers it was a short story collection but then marketing couldn’t do it. So I took it to a university press and they didn’t change anything. Small and mid-sized presses pick up a lot of authors who are maligned by big publishers. My short stories are structured around a resort so it reads like a novel even though each story stands on its own. I would probably not go back to a big publisher.
GS: A National Book Award winner also did small press for short stories. Ann Close, Alice Munro’s editor, had to rescue a manuscript because another publisher wanted to change Munro’s stuff. Close became her editor ever since. Publishers can wreck something good. Another author was out of print for a long time because a publisher refused to print until he wrote a novel. It nearly derailed the author.
CVW: 99% of what’s published is a market driven phenomenon. A short story is very challenging to the reader compared to the novel. For example, I have to read an Alice Munro story again and again before I get it. It’s demanding and artistically tough.
SV: Everyone says they don’t like short stories. That they want to get into a bigger story and that short stories don’t sell as well.
SS: Make the short story interactive with the reader. If the author revisits something, the readers like it, especially if they want to read it again. Short stories can be difficult to read especially if they’re all different. So do things in common with each short story.
Mod: When you choose to write a short story, you can experiment with pacing and use unique and bold point of view even though that point of view couldn’t be sustained for the length of a novel. Are there stories that are perfect for short stories but not novels?
SS: I had a short story about a man in Sarajevo which couldn’t be done for a novel but I could do a short hop. Short stories allow many different characters.
GS: Something you can do in a short story but not a novel is experiment with tone and pacing. In a short story, you put the character under more pressure than a novel–push them to the brink faster and get out faster.
SV: You can’t do fracturing in a novel. In a short story, you can manipulate time. In shorter form, manipulation can gain power. Experiment in short stories.
Audience question: You’ve talked about short stories in the context of not being a novel. How about oral storytelling?
CVW: Short stories have been described as a new form, but if you describe it as oral storytelling, it becomes much older.
SS: I would rather call it all as “fiction.” We should drop the term “novel.” The reader should decide.
Audience question: Novels usually have a beginning, middle and end. Short stories don’t do that. It doesn’t have to resolve like a novel.
CVW: It’s not about you being comfortable as a reader. It’s more about the negative space. Short stories are sexy. Novels are boring.
GS: People read to escape–they want to disappear for a while–so a novel can do that and resolve happily. But people actually read for different reasons (intellectual stimulation, want to be challenged, etc.) so they read short stories.
Audience question: What is the effect of online publishing on the MFA? Are just writers reading other writers? Do they read in a different way compared to regular readers?
SV: Sometimes it feels like it’s other writers reading writers.
CVW: It can be a good thing. I’m lucky to sell 6,000 copies. Who cares with the stakes so low?
Audience question: How do you develop characters in short stories since there’s a tight time frame? Are characters important? Plot? Or does it depend?
SS: Most successful short stories are character portraits. I had a book club where the reader didn’t find the plot interesting but he couldn’t forget the character. Be the character when writing. characters need to be interesting.
Audience question: Do you focus on one character in a short story?
CVW: Not necessarily. Every short story has different rules. Everything is free. You can keep developing the character. They change. They can be anything. We make the decisions.
Audience question: So the problem is with marketing the short stories. What if the publishers were smarter?
SS: With the short attention span–you’d think it would be embraced.
CVW: But the form is hard.
GS: If they can think of a way to sell it, they’ll sell it. The problem is that they can’t say one thing about it. They’ve tried but failed.
SS: But if the publisher rallies behind a collection, it will sell. Bestsellers are predetermined.
Audience question: What’s the revision process of a short story? I’ve heard that it’s okay to wait one year to revise, but people can write novels in that time.
SV: Revising is the most important part of writing. I can’t see what I’m doing until I’ve already written it. I learn as I write. I’m working on the psychology even late in the story. The first draft doesn’t count.
GS: Some stories take different times to write it. I published one story but later revised it for the short story collection.
Audience question: What about marketing short stories with historical content?
Panel: It can be done.
CVW: Short stories can do anything. There are no rules. You can’t start with the market. Write what you want.
Mod: You start with the assumption that there is no market.
Audience question: Do your characters in your short stories want to live on and come back in another story?
CVW: Not mine. There are thematic tendrils recurring in the stories. But I don’t want cameos. I wanted to see images of the expansiveness of the West. It’s not like Seinfeld.