Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On short story collections

Kathryn A. posted a question in the comment area of Sunday's blog on lengths. She wants to know about short story collections, what does "full length" collection mean.

I would think it means that the publisher is looking to publish book length collections of short stories. So if your stories are a page long, then you'd probably need at least 200 stories to make up a collection and if they were 50 pages long (too long!), then you'd need at least four.

What I hear over and over from agents and authors of short story collections is that unless most of the stories that make up your collection have been published in prominent literary journals and magazines, it will be almost impossible to find a publisher. Even well-known short story writers are encouraged (prodded) by their agents and editors to write novels.

Nothing's impossible, though. And if a short story writer is what you are, then that's what you have to do.

Work to get them placed in respected journals: Tin House, Granta, Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, New Yorker, etcetera etcetera. A story in Pig Farmers Quarterly just won't impress.

Does this help, K.?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Going to great lengths--or not

A former student who now lives in Hawaii wrote to me and asked me about the word lengths of short stories, novellas and novels.

The last short story I wrote when I was at Goddard College ran 9,000 words. LONG. My instuctor, the novelist Kathryn Davis, never talked about word lengths. She was more interested in the art of the story, and in craft, and figured a story would run as long or short as it needed to. I, of course, had no idea that it would be considered too long, though I did end up placing it in a literary journal. Short stories run typically 1,500 - 3,000 words, with some as short as 250 words. Amy Hempel has some very short stories--a couple of paragraphs--and there are anthologies called Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction with these very short shorts. I also always say, whatever works...works. If you are writing a story that is running long, let it. Let it be what it is going to be. From writing that long short story, I came to realize I was more interested in book length pieces.

A novella, even more difficult to place than a short story, said the wonderful short story writer Antonya Nelson when she came on my show, and tend to run around 20,000 words to 40,000 words give or take a few thou.

Novels usually begin at 50,000 words and go to 100,000. For first novels, to go longer than that, I hear, is taking your life into your own hands. At 50,000 words, picture Brave New World, picture Animal Farm.

But again, if it works, it works, no matter the length.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Joe Eszterhas and serendipity

I've been hosting, producing and engineering my radio show for something like nine years; truthfully, I've lost track. My son was a toddler when I began--I know that because when he would come with me to the show, I would often hear him clomping and jumping and screaming happily in the lobby and in the hallway. He is 12 now, and when he comes with me he is much calmer, doing homework or reading or skateboarding outside and every so often he looks at me through the window in the door to the studio, checking in, telling me he's there and that everything's fine.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with doing the show along with everything else that I do (which is why I've been using my guest host Debbie Keith more and more) but I keep doing it because of the people I meet, most of whom I would not meet otherwise. I've never been the sort of person who emails or calls someone and says, "Hey, I'd love to pick your brain. How about I take you to lunch the next time I'm in town?" It's just not me.

The great thing about my show is I pick who I interview. No one is foisted upon me. And last week I had the good fortune of interviewing Joe Eszterhas, the very successful, rebellious, anti-Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote Basic Instinct, Flashdance, Music Box and Jagged Edge. I met him through his daughter Suzanne Perryman who had written to me after she read my book and started listening to my show. At some point she said she was his daughter and would I be interested in having him on my show when his new book came out?

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. OF COURSE I WOULD BE INTERESTED, I told her. I'd admired the guy for years and years, his independent spirit and ability to not become a part of the Hollywood clique while becoming immensely successful.

The interview is now in the archive and you can listen to it at http://writersonwriting.blogspot.com.

As an afterthought, I must say that this blog post was inspired by another PA host at KUCI, T.R. Black. After my interview with Joe, T.R. wrote and said, "I especially enjoyed (all of your interviews are good) your conversation with Joe Eszterhas on Thursday. I have always liked his screenwriting and find him a compelling character. In that I see over 200 films per year in theatres, I have seen nearly all of the films with which he has been involved (sans Big Shots). I too, think The Music Box is his best effort. It is complimented by an A-list cast featuring a strong performance by Jessica Lange. He has been written about in the LA Times on many occasions, and featured o television and radio, as well. But, I thought you evoked some original answers and really had a special rapport with him. Very illuminating."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Beware contests

Sigh...yet another contest for unpublished novelists has been announced. Lest you think I am recommending this contest, I am not. I'm cautioning you about this contest and all contests that charge reading fees.

The very wonderful short story writer Ron Carlson (and contest judge) said that contests do one thing: They get you out of bed.

But they do little else. Because they get you and every other aspiring writer out of bed to write, the competition is fierce. So you send off your story or your chapters with your fee and you wait and hope and wait.

Many contests don't even have to award the prize if the readers feel that no one qualifies.

Listen, it's hard to publish fiction, but it's still possible. Look at all the novels coming out, all the short stories. You do need a combo of great writing and sheer good luck. Doesn't hurt if you have some great publication credits or a famous writer who knows and loves you.

But contests, they make you feel like something is happening when nothing necessarily is.

If you insist on submitting to contests, though, search out the good ones. Look on the acknowledgment pages of novels for the names of contests that the author is thanking. And then make sure your story or novel exerpt (or entire novel) is stellar--as stellar as you can possibly make it. Those first paragraphs/pages mean so much.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reading phases

Deborah's comment yesterday got me thinking about phases my reading has traversed.

In high school I read a few books of merit, but mostly I read--um--trash. One title was Swing High Sweet Pussycat. I suppose it was romance. Amazon doesn't list it so who knows. Toward the end of high school and in the years between it and college, I read essays (Paul Williams--the writer, not the singer), Jack Kerouac and the Beats, bought Swann's Way by Proust though I never finished it, and tried to read Rod McKuen but it didn't work. I read The Prophet and lots of books about California, especially Haight Ashbury. I wanted to travel to L.A. and do Primal Scream therapy, but I was too young. (Remember Janov?) I read books on gestalt therapy and read Jung.

At Goddard, I discovered Raymond Carver, the poet Stephen Dobyns, Michael Ryan (whom I later came to know), and the magical realists. Borge struck a chord. So did James Baldwin. I loved all of his novels, especially Giovanni's Room. I loved Margaret Atwood's Edible Woman and Surfacing. I admired Virgina Woolf and I believe I wanted to be her, though her writing wasn't my favorite. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady I liked very much.

Later, Terry McMillan's first novel Mama impressed me, and so did Clarence Major's first novel (he's mostly known as a poet), Such was the Season. Joan Didion.

Then writers like Amy Hempel and T. Jefferson Parker (my favorite crime writer) and Don DeLillo came onto the radar screen. And now....now there are too many to mention. I've made lists on my Web site, penonfire.com and at Readerville.com, on my author's page, but they are inconclusive lists because they just keep growing. I just finished Lolly Winston's Happiness Sold Separately and LOVED it.

I hate writing about my favorite books because as soon as I say what one is, another pops up.

What are you reading and how has your reading changed over the years?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What Hemingway might have to do if he were writing today

My friend Jordie called me yesterday about an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times: "What Hemingway didn't have to do." The piece was by Michelle Slatalla who wrote about how authors, these days, must do promotion. Jordie is upset at the state of publishing and wishes things were different, like in the old days, when writers wrote and publishers promoted.

I don't know what to say about this. It depresses him, this state of publishing, Me, I accept it. Doesn't hurt that from '89 to '96 I had a small publicity biz and thought it was fun to get a client's name in the paper or get a reporter to call him/her just because I wrote up a press release and sent it to the paper.

I'm not an extrovert and yet I do find it fun to give talks and teach. I mean, you can only write so much, and then it's time to get off your butt and get out of the house.

Jordie's an extrovert so I doubt this is the problem. Maybe he's too much an extrovert and longs to be able to sit at his desk and muse and write; he's a wonderful writer. But he's disgusted with the publishing biz and I wonder if this discouragement causes him to just not write so much anymore.

I can see it from the publisher's point of view (the problem with being a Libra is you can see things from not just both sides, but multiple sides--from each facet!).

Publishers publish books and need to make money doing so. Publishers aren't exactly big business. So what should they do? If they publish a book and it just sits there, who's fault is it? It's theirs for not promoting it, but isn't it also the writer's fault, for not doing what he/she can do to get it out there? And if no one is buying, who's fault is that? Good books do sell via word of mouth, so a writer can do virtually no PR and if readers love it, it will sell.

It's a complicated issue with no easy solution. There's so much else to take up a reader's time. You're reading this blog, yes? At one time there was no blog and no Internet and so you'd read the paper or--ahem--a book.

On the other hand, maybe you read as many books as you did before the Internet. I do. I just don't watch TV anymore--except, of course, for the Turner Classic Movie channel. Yes, I've seen To Kill a Mockingbird numerous times and I will continue to, so shush.

What do we do, as writers, to support the publishing industry? Buy new books or used books? Borrow books from the library or a friend? This doesn't really support publishing. Or, if you write poetry, do you buy books of poetry? Or look up poems on the Internet? We've got to buy books to keep the machine lubricated.

Don't we? Or do we hide out heads under bushel baskets and chairs, like Rosie is doing above? Slatalla came up with a creative way to promote her book--by writing a piece for the L.A. Times. The piece might be construed as complaining or whining about publishing, when in fact she's having fun with it. No?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Books on the mantle in September

The shades of fall--fall back east, that is, or up in the mountains--are back on the mantle. Here in the O.C., a few blocks from the beach, yards and trees glow green. If you want to see evidence of fall, you look to the hills. The South gets hurricanes; Southern California is headed into fire season.

It's Friday afternoon. Travis is at the beach with a friend and his mom. Brian's out doing errands. I just worked on Starletta's Kitchen using the timer; the timer works over and over again, no matter how long you've been writing. Once you set it you just can't turn it off. You've got to write till it goes off on its own.

I bought a paper shredder today. TC Boyle's novel (Talk Talk) and his words on my show--"I shred, and then I burn"--are fresh in my mind. It shreds credit cards, staples, paper. Cross-cut shreds.

Travis is shredding his workbooks from the 6th grade, now that he's veering into 7th.