About One Story’s next online class, and why character is its focus

PR May 2015 AltWhen I was sixteen, I had a wonderful English teacher who recognized my passion for writing and encouraged me to pursue it. On my portable Olivia, I would bang out a story about life on a submarine during World War II. I would bang out “chapters” of a detective “novel” set in the year 2750. I would bang out the “status report” of a fly assigned to follow a moose around Canada and report back to the other flies. “You have a good ear for sentence rhythm,” my teacher told me. “But why are you writing about this stuff?”

“What should I write about?” I asked.

“Go to the mall,” she said. “Take a notebook and a pen, and watch people, and listen to them, and write about them. Don’t worry about writing stories. Write vignettes.” (She had to explain to me what a vignette was.) “Just try to capture what they’re like.”

And that’s what I did. Some of those vignettes were half a page long; some were three pages. Some had dialogue (overheard); some had thoughts (imagined). They were plot-less, story-less. I wrote as many as twenty a week and showed each one to her, and she read them all and said, “Keep going.”

I had no way of knowing then that she was helping shape me into the writer I would be for the rest of my life: a writer who puts character above all other aspects of fiction writing, a writer who follows his characters and listens to them and collaborates with them as a means of creating short stories and novels.

For years, I’ve wanted to teach a class that focuses on character and how that one aspect of fiction writing is not only the spine of a story but the connective tissue that runs through every other aspect: setting, description, dialogue, point of view, even plot. And now it’s happening.

Please join me for From Character to Story: A Craft Intensive from October 1st-8th.

Through online lectures, exercises, videos, and message discussion boards, I’ll walk you through the tools in your fiction writing toolbox and show you how character is the secret to making the most out of them. At the end of the week, you’ll feel more confident about your ability to get into, explore, and finish short stories—all through the lens of character.

This online class will meet on your schedule. Each day, the next class will be automatically uploaded. You can log in any time to access the materials. Have a question? Jump into the discussion boards and I’ll post an answer to the group. You’ll also be able to share you work with fellow students and connect with writers across the globe. If you fall behind, no worries; all the class materials will be available to you for an additional week for you to catch up.

I hope you’ll take part in a fun and enlightening week that promises to breathe new life into you, your characters, and your writing process. The deadline to register is October 1st.

Issue #210: That Summer, ’53
by Victoria Redel

210-coverI’m writing this in the final moments of summer, which always feel both relaxing and fraught. I spend every minute I can outdoors, enjoying the last of the good weather, and at the same time, I wonder at how fast the days have gone by. Luckily, I have Victoria Redel’s remarkable story, “That Summer, ’53,” to help me remember the smell of BBQ cooking, the cool joy of jumping into a cold lake, and the lazy stretch of a summer night with friends, sipping drinks and watching the sun filter pink and orange through the trees. Set in 1953, this bucolic lakeside life is the American dream for Serge Solta and his young Russian family, their own little piece of Shangri-La. But things are more complicated than they seem in Serge’s work life and his marriage. The McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg executions are broadcasting through everyone’s TV sets, and soon Serge finds himself caught between two worlds, muffling his misgivings with Seabreeze cocktails and the rhythm of Pérez Prado’s “Mambo Number Five” while trying to keep Shangri-La from slipping through his fingers. Check out Victoria Redel’s Q&A with us to hear the family history behind this sharply-turned tale. Then it’s time to get out your vintage cocktail shaker, fix yourself a Gin-and-It, open the pages of “That Summer, ’53,” and enjoy a literary Indian summer.

Issue #209: Things I Know to Be True by Kendra Fortmeyer

209-coverIn the 1960s my mother worked as a librarian in Brookline, Massachusetts. She still talks about how the building was a lifeline to the community there–not only for students and families but also for the elderly, the unemployed, the lost and the dispossessed. At libraries, people who can’t afford an education (or even a newspaper) have access to books from around the world. At the very least they can find quiet and shelter until the stacks close at night. Our new issue, “Things I Know to Be True” by Kendra Fortmeyer, explores the library as refuge through the unique voice of Charlie Harrison, a Vietnam vet struggling to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Charlie uses books to escape the visions in his head, but when an incident gets him banned from his local library, he must find a way to build his own stories, and eventually face the past he has been hiding from. In Kendra’s Q&A, she discusses the challenges of creating a point of view like Charlie’s, and how libraries have played a role in her own past (and future—as she is now in library school!). “Things I Know to Be True” is an important story about trauma, mental illness, family, and the power of words. I hope it will inspire some of you to dust off your old library cards. There is a whole world waiting at your local branch, and with any luck, a friendly librarian, who can put the right book into your hands.

One Story Workshop Day Five: Last Day of Camp

flowers. (448x640)Our final recap is brought to you by Tony Wei-Ling. Thanks to all of the interns for their stellar work this week! We couldn’t have done the workshop without you. -HT

And so One Story’s Summer Workshop for Writers draws to its grand finale!

In the morning, Will Allison and Patrick Ryan taught their last workshops, giving editorial feedback to each student and answering any lingering questions they might have.

After lunch, our writers sat down for a nuts-and-bolts industry talk from One Story Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti, who discussed different ways to get out of the “slush pile”: the giant mess of unsolicited manuscripts that come through the doors of any magazine or literary agency.

Hannah began with simple presentation tips – how to make your submission fit industry standards and be kinder on the reader’s eyes and laptop. (The topic of writing cover letters made everyone anxious, but Hannah calmed us by walking us through a basic template.)

“Don’t overthink it,” she said. “The bio especially. Keep it simple and short. The first read, whether it’s for an agent or a magazine or a press, is almost certainly done by an assistant, an intern, or a volunteer. They are the first hurdle you must get over. So thank them for their time, and be courteous.”

More complicated, but less stressful, was Hannah’s advice on researching and submitting work strategically. “You want to find a place that publishes writing like your own, a magazine that matches your aesthetic. Most places – especially small presses – have a strong point-of-view.” The same went for agents: submit to people who represent writers you admire, authors you’d be comfortable “being in a line-up” with. Hannah didn’t just recommend doing research beforehand, but outlined how to do so, emphasizing the AWP conference and yearly anthologies as the best way to get to know the field.

That evening, everyone gathered one last time at the Can Factory for a (slightly nervous) cocktail hour before our student reading. But the nerves disappeared once each writer took the podium, or rather stage. Who knew introverted writers could be such good performers? Each student took on a different readerly voice and pace as they presented their work, which ranged from whimsical poetry to experimental short fiction to Borgesian existential horror.

Hannah broke up the reading with a brief tribute to her former teacher E. L. Doctorow, a literary giant who passed away this week. Then, to close out the evening, she was joined by instructors Will and Patrick, and together they sang/spoke a group campfire version of “Eye of the Tiger” on Hannah’s ukulele. When dinner arrived (gnocchi with fresh peas and mint, and casarecce with tomato, chard, and anchovies), we refilled our drinks and relaxed for a few final hours with new friends.

Goodbyes were difficult, and lingering. Many promised to meet up again, and to exchange manuscripts over coffee or drinks. It many ways it felt like the last day of camp. Everyone was tired but full of new experiences and new friendships.  “This isn’t goodbye for real!” people said as they hugged, “I’ll see you very soon.”

That’s it for the 2015 One Story Writers Workshop. We’ll see you next year!


One Story Workshop Day 4: Calvin Baker & the Writer’s Obsession

Calvin.Baker.OneStoryToday’s recap of our summer workshop is brought to you by Tony Wei-Ling.Enjoy!-HT

The fourth day of One Story’s Workshop for Writers was a marathon. We started our day with double workshop sessions with Will Allison and Patrick Ryan, followed by a meditative craft lecture on obsession and finding the themes in our own writing from Author/One Story Assistant Editor/Workshop Coordinator, Ann Napolitano.

Earlier in the week, Ann had asked all of the students to take a picture with their cell phones. During class, she projected each of these photos on a screen, and had the students use them as stepping off points for writing exercises. Together the group discussed how these pictures could unearth themes in their writing, by revealing what each author was “obsessed” with. Ann shared how over time in her own writing (of both successful and unsuccessful novels) she’s learned to pay attention to her obsessions and use them to guide her work.

“Some things are societal obsessions,” she told us. “Things trending on Twitter or among your friends and family, or in the literary world. We feel like we have to keep up with all of those trendy books, movies, shows, and you can fill up your life doing that.”  But that won’t feed our writing, Ann said. In fact what we should do instead is pay attention to what keeps us personally obsessed, what draws our eye and our attention. “Notice the patterns,” she said. “Notice what you notice.”

After a break spent exploring the neighborhood’s parks and pie shops, our writers reconvened at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore, where One Story author Calvin Baker  read from his new novel, Grace, and spent time answering questions about his writing process. (Meanwhile, the bookstore’s cat, Tiny, prowled the cheese plate.)

Calvin emphasized the trust a writer needs to have in her senses, her instincts, and her inspirations, and remembered a moment of pure creative energy that sparked the idea for his first novel (Naming the New World) upon a hilltop in rural Kenya. He stressed the need to travel and explore the world, and the importance of finding your own voice on the page. Together with One Story’s Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti, Calvin also discussed influences on his work, from the Bible to ancient mythology and philosophy.

“As a young writer, I decided to make a personal canon for myself,” he said. “And I recommend that to all writers: make the canon your own.”

Hannah agreed, and encouraged everyone in the audience to curate their own personal canon, choosing the authors that they love and the books they need to inspire their writing. She  added that she creates a reference bookshelf for each project she works on. “I’ve seen Hannah’s bookshelves, and they go up to the ceiling,” Calvin laughed.

Stay tuned for a recap of the last day of our summer workshop, including our group dinner and student reading!

One Story Workshop Day 3: From 1st Draft to the Editor’s Inbox

One Story's Adina Talve-Goodman introduces One Story author Seth Fried

Adina introduces One Story author Seth Fried

The third day of One Story’s summer workshop for writers began with morning sessions of Will Allison’s and Patrick Ryan’s workshops. Halfway through the week, everyone seems to be benefiting from the intensive edits. “People want you to improve,” said one of Will’s students after her story was critiqued. “Nothing was missed. Everyone was super helpful!” Will gave credit to his dutiful students. “Everyone is reading very deeply,” he said.

In Patrick’s room, the two students being workshopped were talking animatedly after everyone else had gone to lunch. “I rewrote the first half of my story in my brain in the time between my workshop and yours,” one of the students said to the other, laughing. “It was like Tetris pieces coming together.” The other student agreed. “I want to go home right now and start redrafting,” she said.

After the writers ate lunch, they sat down for One Story author Seth Fried’s craft lecture, “Getting through the First Draft.” Seth is the author of One Story’s 124th issue, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and his speech focused on generating new writing material. He stressed the importance of writing even if you think that what you’re writing isn’t good. “The first draft is always shit,” Seth said, quoting Hemingway. He added that your “inner critic” is bad for generating work, and if you focus too much on what you’re writing, the content will end up being forced instead of fluid.

To get us all started, Seth assigned a writing exercise: write 200 words, right then, without thinking. The workshop participants said that the exercise was freeing, and that it was nice to write in longhand instead of typing. Seth also mentioned three great resources for generating fiction: John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.

Once the writers had their afternoon break, One Story’s Managing Editor, Adina Talve-Goodman, spoke with three other editors in our nightly panel. The editors were Julie Buntin, author of One Teen Story’s “Phenomenon” and Associate Editor of Catapult; Jonathan Lee, editor of A Public Space; and Lincoln Michel, Online Editor of Electric Literature and coeditor of Gigantic.

All four editors agreed that there was a certain thrill in publishing debut authors, and that mentioning that you’ve never been published doesn’t hurt your cover letter! They also stressed the importance of submitting your work to a magazine that fits. Don’t just send your story to whoever will take it—do some research and send your story to the magazines that will appreciate it the most. Lincoln said that the story was more meaningful if the author was attached to the magazine somehow, and Adina stressed the importance of not giving up. It’s all about getting the right story into the right hands.

We only have one more day of workshop before the final reading on Friday. Stay tuned for an event at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore with another One Story author, Calvin Baker, and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti!

One Story Workshop Day Two: A Guiding Light for the Rewrite

soap-operaOur daily update from One Story’s Summer Workshop for Writers continues! Today’s episode is brought to you by intern Tony Wei-Ling. Enjoy! -HT

Soap operas are maybe the furthest thing from the literary short story we can think of –low-brow, long-form, and commercial. But today, after intensive morning workshops with editors Will Allison and Patrick Ryan, followed by a healthy lunch, our students sat down for a craft lecture with One Story Contributing Editor Karen Friedman to discuss how soap operas can relate to the editing process.

With clips from Dallas, Guiding Light, and General Hospital, Karen walked us through how to revise our opening pages, and what vital info needs to be dropped in the opening paragraphs.

“As writers, we sometimes do ‘throat-clearing’ while we’re figuring out how to get from the first line to the rest of the story,” Karen said. “But openings need to quickly establish the main characters, where they are situated, and what the emotional situation is. If you don’t do those things in the first two pages, you’re missing your best chance to get out of the slush pile.”

Using clips that covered amnesia, evil twins, and ‘it was all a dream!’ surprise endings, Karen showed us how to approach rewrites with a big-picture plan, so that “editing” doesn’t just mean fiddling with the details. Everyone’s favorite clip was by far “The Slut of Springfield”–from a famous 1980s episode of Guiding Light–that Karen used to show “movement” within a scene. Reva and Josh are the characters. Some background: Reva and Josh were in love, but Reva married Josh’s father. Josh was so mad he got into a car accident and is now in a wheelchair. This scene happens at the end of a party. Josh starts off berating Reva, but she turns the tables on him.

It’s no wonder that Kim Zimmer, the actress who played Reva, won an Emmy for this scene!

In the evening the drama continued, as we enjoyed cocktails and cupcakes and chatted with three talented literary agents. One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti moderated the official panel, beginning with the question that we all wanted to know but were too nervous to ask: “What the hell is a literary agent?” Our guests – Sarah Burnes, Jim Rutman, and Samantha Shea – had different answers. Primarily working as the intermediary between writers and publishing houses, literary agents play many roles, from finding and editing manuscripts, deciding when a book is ready for submission, finding the right editor, ironing out contracts, putting out fires as the book hits the shelves and sometimes playing “bad cop” in negotiations. Sarah Burnes cited the importance of the gut check in picking new writers: “It comes down to this question: do I feel this thing?” And Jim Rutman explained that he often corresponds with writers for a long time before he finds the right project to work on together. “A rejection is not always a ‘no.’ It can also mean ‘not this book, but maybe the next’ if the agent is encouraging and asks to see more.” Regardless of all the industry talk of pitches, query letters, and market trends, all the agents agreed – the text itself is the most important. “The writer I pick is the one whose manuscript I can’t get out of my head,” said Samantha Shea.

Tomorrow, we’re meeting with a panel of editors and listening to a craft talk from One Story author Seth Fried. Stay tuned for more secrets from behind the editorial curtain!

Issue #208: Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

It is an enormous thrill to be publishing Bonnie Jo Campbell in the pages of One Story. I’ve been a fan every since I read her collection, Women & Other Animals. Everyone should be pre-ordering her new book, which includes our current issue, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” This marvelous tale inhabits a voice that will charm, shock, and ultimately haunt you.  With gratitude, I’m turning the introduction reins over to Contributing Editor Will Allison, who brought this wonderful writer to our pages. –HT

MTYD-cover (480x640)In our latest story, the narrator of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” (issue #208) is a tough woman—widow, mother of six, smoker, drinker, drowner of kittens, butcher of chickens and cows, breaker of horses, lover of men. But most of all she’s a talker; indeed, talking is, as Campbell puts it our author interview, “her great power.”

The problem is, this woman just had a stroke. She can hardly speak a word as she lies in bed in the old Michigan farmhouse her father built, cared for by nurses and her estranged daughter, Sis. “Now she can only try to explain her life to herself,” says Campbell. “Probably it’s what we all end up doing in the end.”

What this narrator has to say about her life might surprise you. She’s proud of the fact that she didn’t worry about her kids when she raised them. She doesn’t regret letting her husband and boyfriends beat her children. She refuses to apologize for allowing her kids to eat PBB and lead paint. And she doesn’t really like when her grandchildren visit. (What she’d really like, at the moment, is a jelly jar of elderberry wine.) As much as she wants to believe she lived her life right, however, she does have a few regrets, one in particular involving her boyfriend Bill Theroux and Sis. But if that sounds like the sort of regret you’ve read about before, get ready for another surprise.

We’re thrilled to present the title story from Campbell’s forthcoming collection; it features one of the strongest and most distinctive characters we’ve encountered in a long time—a woman you might come to love in spite of yourself, and a woman you definitely won’t forget. If you’d like to learn about the inspiration for this character—and find out which two words Campbell never uses in her fiction—be sure to check out our author interview.

Issue #207: Safety
by Lydia Fitzpatrick

cover_207One of my favorite school memories involves a giant parachute. Once a month, our gym teacher would unroll the colorful fabric. My class would stretch across the floor and play games, raising it up and down, catching the air. There was something magical about that moment, when we were all under the parachute together, and I remembered it vividly when I first read our new issue, “Safety” by Lydia Fitzpatrick. This finely-wrought tale explores a difficult subject: school shootings. The material might seem a bit daunting to some readers, but I will say now that if you do not open this story, you will be missing out on an astonishing accomplishment of suspense and point of view, that somehow turns a deplorable situation into a moment of courage, faith, hope and connection. Check out Lydia’s Q&A with us about how she explored her own fears while writing this compelling story. And when you’ve finished, you might find yourself thinking of your old gym teacher who always made you run extra laps, and the thrill of lifting a parachute over your head with the rest of your class. All those tiny hands making something enormous happen, with material strong enough to save lives, and still thin enough to let the light shine through.