Third Day’s a Charm: The Workshop Continues Full Force

3 days in, the writers of One Story‘s summer workshop are continuing to gobble up the tricks of the trade and the helpful feedback from peers and professionals. After another fabulous morning workshop with editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison, the students enjoyed a craft lecture by One Story author Darin Strauss (Issue #15: Smoking Inside).

Darin came in to discuss how to begin a story and incorporate a formula into something creative. “The only rule,” he explained, “is that starting a story has to work.” While One Story editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti had earlier compared the first page of a story to a first date on Day 1, Darin’s approach was slightly more scientific. This wasn’t love; this was strategy. “Each decision needs to make tactical sense.” Through examples like “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, Darin showed the writers how bringing in an essence of drama at the very beginning brings a piece of work from just a curiosity to an actual story. To keep the story worth reading, one must follow (most of the time) the following formula: X + Y + Z = Structure. X=the goal or desire of the protagonist, Y=the conflict (“anything that thwarts desire”) and Z=the plot, or a series of events within the conflict that continually escalate. If applied correctly, this structure = story success. In simpler terms for the mathematically challenged (we are writers, after all), Darin believes that “you can write about anything as long as there is conflict and the character cares about it.”

After a break from scribbling notes in margins and pondering the role of scientific formula in fiction, our writers reconvened for yet another entertaining and informative panel. Editors from four exciting and unique literary magazines spent their night discussing with our attentive workshoppers the process of submitting, editing, and publishing their finished products. On the panel were Patrick Ryan (Issue #53: “So Much for Artemis”) from Granta, Anne McPeak from A Public Space, Scott Lindenbaum from Electric Literature, and James Yeh from Gigantic. In an effort to give you the best idea of what these bright minds had to say, I’ve created a list of advice and wisdom from their brains to your computer screen:

1. “Read the magazines you’re submitting to is the best answer,” said Anne McPeak, and this was strongly agreed upon by every panelist. Blindly throwing your work around isn’t the way to go. Every magazine has a taste, a direction, a feel. When you’re trying to get published, you’re attempting to join a community. James Yeh explained that the goal is to find the “community you make sense in or would like to make sense in.

2. Be careful with your cover letters (or in Electric Literature‘s case, please don’t write one). No one wants to read a list of your credentials. It’s fun to hear if you’re a fan of the magazine, but simply stating accomplishments doesn’t make you a better contender.

3. Don’t be afraid to send a little nudge email in March if you haven’t heard back about your submission in December. Short and sweet, a small reminder can be a necessary push.

4. “If you start to develop a relationship with an editor, keep going.” This was said by Maribeth Batcha, Publisher of One Story (and mediator of the panel). If you’re submitting and you’re told by a magazine they want to see some more work, take 6 months to improve your writing and resubmit! Encouragement is honest; what they say is what they mean.

5. Don’t worry about drowning in the slush. Patrick admitted that there “isn’t a lot of difference of quality in what comes in from the slush pile and what comes in from the agents.” The truth is that all of these magazines are looking for solid writing and it’s as simple as that. While we were sitting among the workshop students and listening to the editors play off of each other, my fellow intern Abby looked at me and said, “What’s horrifying is that this actually comes down to talent.”

And this, ladies and gentleman, is the ultimate lesson. The terrifying but purely beautiful truth is that good writing is good writing and that’s what editors want to see. Whether you’ve published four novels or are twiddling your thumbs in a summer workshop, there’s an open playing field out there. With some dedication and pro-activity (and adhering to the aforementioned tips), X + Y + Z may = your name in print.

Second Helpings: One Story Summer Writer’s Workshop, Day Two

After resting up from day one, the spirited writers of our Summer Workshop jumped into their second action-packed day with gusto. In the morning, the twenty students divided into groups of ten as they did the day before for their daily workshop with One Story editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison.

Early in the afternoon, award-winning author of Bee Season Myla Goldberg delivered a craft lecture about the relationship between acting and writing. Using Maile Meloy’s short story “Paint” as a springboard for discussion, Myla covered many topics about creating believable characters (ask yourself: what they would do on a Saturday morning? What flavor of ice cream would they prefer?) and helpful tips about what makes dialogue and action most realistic (she suggested having a private space for those moments when you want to act out facial expressions or read aloud for that one character that has a sarcastic drawl). Yet the core of her lecture focused primarily on the importance of imagination to make a character three-dimensional. “If you do a good acting job,” Myla said, “you can be anyone you want to be. There are no limitations.” She encouraged writers to step out of their comfort zones, and try writing characters that differ in age and gender. “It’s all about stretching your brain and the amazing power of empathy.”

After a break to either power-nap at the hotel, grab a bite at a Park Slope café or read through workshop pieces, the group gathered once again for the evening panel. Managing editor Tanya Rey moderated an informative discussion about the elusive yet alluring MFA degree with representatives from NYU, Brooklyn College, Vermont College and Sarah Lawrence College. Each representative went through the basics of his or her MFA program, including the application process, selection of students, pros and cons of the degree as well as the overarching question: what will an MFA degree do for me? The panelists were honest and straightforward: “There is no real professional reason [to get an MFA],” said Brooklyn College Program Director Joshua Henkin. “You are setting aside two years to focus intently on your writing. The degree is the experience.” Each representative also encouraged writers not to get discouraged if they don’t get into their desired program the first time around.  Zachary Sussman, from NYU, also recommended that undergraduates wait a few years before applying, as the Master’s programs are intense and very different from an undergraduate degree. “When you’re older, you’ll have more perspective on how to best use your time,” he said. “Just because you get in, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should go then.”

Tune in tomorrow for more updates from the trenches and in the meantime, be sure to check out the new issue of One Story, Elissa Schappell’s “The Joy of Cooking”!

One Day in, our Summer Writers’ Workshop is in Full Swing

The heat wave held steady as we kicked off our 2011 Summer Writers’ Workshop today, right here at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. We’ve doubled the workshop’s size since last summer, bringing twenty talented writers together for a week of intense work, plus a better look at some of the industry ins-and-outs. Over the next five days we’ll be hearing from award-winning authors, agents, editors, MFA directors, and all-around great literary minds, so check back for updates as my fellow interns Rose, Eva and I bring you the highlights of all the panels and discussions.

The morning began with writing workshops, run by One Story editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison.  Later, after lunch, we got to hear from One Story’s very own editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti, who gave us her insight on how to write good beginnings and endings. Incidentally, we also got a basic lesson on romance. “Starting a story follows along the same lines as going on a first date,” she explained. “You don’t cry, you don’t say ‘I love you’, you try not to be boring. You give them some of your history, but not too much–leave a little mystery. You want to charm the reader, you want to get a second date.” She’s right: the connection between readers and books is a sort of relationship. There’s an initial spark, something that makes you want that second date, and so you keep going, investing your time and your trust. The stakes rise, and you hang on, all the way till the end, which hopefully goes as gracefully as possible.

After cocktails, we were lucky to have the chance to hear from a panel of literary agents, one of the most important dates a writer (or story) could hope to score.  Jenni Ferrari-Adler (Brick House Literary Agents), Julie Barer (Barer literary) and Renee Zuckerbrot (Renee Zuckerbrot Literary Agency), helped to de-mystify the process of how a writer’s work goes from a manuscript to a true and solid book. Turns out, that process is not as scary as it looks from afar. Literary Agents are far more accessible than the high-school quarterback, and getting on their good side rarely involves eyelash-batting or glossy pouted lips. Though it does, as Hannah said earlier in the day, mean writing a catchy beginning. “Ask yourself,” Barer advised, “is your story interesting to you? Why should a reader care?” Zuckerbrot was also pretty direct: “Limit the number of adjectives you use in the first page.” Ferrari-Adler agreed that the best stories are usually “not so much about fanciness as about clarity. Don’t confuse your reader.”

All of this advice in one day could easily seem daunting. But as it was, in the end everyone seemed to have more or less the same bottom line. When you’re writing, Hannah said, “trust your gut. Just follow your instincts, get it down.” And when you’re editing, take your time. The agents aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the publishers. They want writers on board as much as writers want them. But still, make sure you polish your manuscript before sending it out on its hopeful way. Make sure it doesn’t have spinach in its teeth. Or if it does, hope that it is still charming.

Golden Oldies: Revisiting Issue #15, “Smoking Inside”

nullRemember when One Story didn’t have an entertaining and wonderfully informative blog? Before we could tweet all of our exciting news straight to your computer screen? In an effort to fill that technological gap, we’re revisiting some old issues to remind you that before we were blogging about it, we published some talented writers you may have missed! Today, I bring you back to Issue #15: “Smoking Inside” by Darin Strauss (January, 2003).

After reading “Smoking Inside” and setting it back on the table, away from me, my heart is still pumping and anxiety-ridden for the story’s protagonist, single mother Nanette McQuaid. Strauss portrays the unfortunate repercussions of placing an eBay ad for bratty children in a moment of motherly frustration. Nanette’s perspective of the world unleashes Strauss’ strong understanding of how people are quick to judge and the lines of social class. A reader can fully appreciate the motherly love and the honest humor consistent throughout the story. If you signed on as a One Story fan post-Issue #15, I strongly recommend you pass the time between current issues by picking this one up instead of obsessively checking your mailbox everyday in anticipation for the next one!

Since his 2003 publication in One Story, Darin Strauss has been very busy, and this certainly has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, he released his third novel More Than it Hurts You, which earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as several Best Book of the Year awards. That summer, Strauss appeared on the public radio show/podcast This American Life in which he told the story of his teenage car accident that resulted in the death of a classmate (click here to listen to the recording). Through dealing with this traumatic event and attempting to make sense of the deep effects it had on him, Strauss completed his memoir Half a Life in 2010. The book received smashing reviews, more Best Book of the Year awards, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Strauss lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at New York University. He will be a craft lecturer in our 2011 Summer Workshop here in Brooklyn next week.

To learn more about Darin Strauss’ writing process, check out our Q&A with him or click here to order “Smoking Inside”.

One Story Staff Summer Reading List

Whether you’re actually at the beach or just lying on a beach towel atop your mattress with a fan angled towards you, the books on Flavor Pill’s 10 Decidedly Highbrow But Still Beach-Appropriate Summer Reads should certainly keep you entertained. The list includes a variety of authors and genres: ranging from Virginia Woolf to John Waters, a graphic novel to a nonfiction account of a sneaky NASA intern who tried to steal a piece of the moon (why don’t One Story interns have access to such items?). Be it a beach chair, hammock, or a seat on the subway, you can maintain a balance of sophistication and class alongside some well-deserved indulgence with these reads.

Here at One Story, I asked my fellow interns and managing editor Tanya Rey to share what’s on their summer reading lists:

Eva Jablow, InternUnaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: I read Interpreter of Maladies three times in high school and it’s about time I see what else Lahiri can do. Also, I’m secretly hoping she sees this and decides that she will, in fact, speak at my Commencement (at Connecticut College) next spring. (Please, Jhumpa!)

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: Her first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife got me out of a serious book slump a few years ago, so this is my act of gratitude and excited anticipation.

Abby Ryder-Huth, InternLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Gabriel Garcia Marquez is always one of my favorite summertime authors—his writing just feels so lush and verdant. Pretty much anything he’s written goes well with hot, languid afternoons. But Love in the Time of Cholera feels especially fitting with its all-around theme of heat. Read it with a glass of something cold and sweet, preferably with a hibiscus flower in your hair.

Tanya Rey, Managing EditorWhite Woman on a Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey: I just got back from Trinidad and picked this book up while I was there. I like reading novels set in the places I travel to, and this one came highly recommended. It’s about a British couple living in Trinidad in the 1950s, amid racial tensions and the beginnings of the Black Power movement. From what I understand this is one of the most defining times in the country’s history. Plus, I think we’d all agree that any book set on an island is the definition of “beach read.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: I’ll admit it, I’m pretty much a Cormac McCarthy virgin. This brings me great shame. I figure there’s no better time than the summer to read a suspenseful, Western love story.

Rose Heithoff, Intern (Me)The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker: Just some casual trauma reading to prepare for my senior thesis on the (possible) topic of World War I and post-traumatic stress disorder in postmodern literature.

Bossypants by Tina Fey: When I find myself having graphic dreams of head wounds and trenches, I switch over immediately.

So whether you take up Flavor Pill’s suggestions (and!) or follow in a few of One Story staff’s reading traces, you should have plenty of fun and literary language to fill you up for the summer.  This is only after you’ve devoured your latest issue of One Story, of course. Sunscreen advised for all reading locations.

Miroslav Penkov’s Debut Collection: East of the West

We’re excited to share more good news about another One Story author, Miroslav Penkov (Issue #148: “A Picture With Yuki”)! Penkov’s debut collection of stories, East of the West: A Country in Stories, is a creation inspired by the eighteen years he spent growing up in Bulgaria (as well as the distinctive wit that grew up with him).

East of the West has already received great reviews that highlight Penkov’s notable sense of humor and his unforgettable characters. His devotion to the history, pain and exile of these characters helps lay the groundwork for intense but comical stories. The powerful plot turns and dramatic setting found in “A Picture With Yuki” are consistent throughout East of the West, assuring an intriguing read.

I encourage you to learn more by reading Penkov’s interview with himself (Parts One & Two) on his entertaining blog,  in which he tackles the question of “Why do you write?” as well as why interviewing oneself should never be socially acceptable. Example:

Interviewer (a.k.a Miroslav Penkov): “Why read when you can write your own?”

Interviewee (a.k.a. Miroslav Penkov): “This might be the stupidest thing you’ve said so far.”

Go here to learn more or to purchase East of the West.

Stiltsville selected for Oprah’s Summer Reading List!

stiltsvile coverWe’re so excited for OS author Susanna Daniel (#134 “Stiltsville“), whose novel Stiltsville has been garnering acclaim from all over the literary world.  Amazon.com called it “disarmingly good” and named it one of the top 10 debut novels for 2010, Barnes & Noble selected it for their Discover Great New Writers series, and Publishers Weekly called it “an exquisite debut…beautifully told.”

Oprah.com is the latest to feature Stiltsville by selecting it for the 2011 Summer Reading List. Daniel’s book “stands out due to its lovely, unexpected normalcy,” they wrote, though many others have noted it for its lush descriptions, honest characterization, and the quiet compelling power that certainly caught my attention when I first encountered Daniel’s work through One Story. You can check out her website here to see more about what critics are saying, learn more about her experiences as a writer, and see what she’s up to next. Congratulations, Susanna!

From the Trenches: Audio Books and the Experience of Listening

Each summer, One Story opens our blog to the interns in a section we like to call “From the Trenches”. Our first piece is by Abby Ryder-Huth, on the magic of reading work out loud. Don’t have someone to read to you? Then I’d suggest tuning in to Public Radio’s Selected Shorts to hear great short stories read by top actors of stage and screen. (Full disclosure: I recently joined this show as commentator/sidekick.) Go here to find your time/station or listen to free podcasts. -HT

NPR’s story last weekend about Alice Ozma’s book The Reading Promise caught my attention: every single night for almost nine years, from when she was in fourth grade up till her first day of college, Ozma’s dad read to her. Even on prom night. Taking a break in between hair-styling and corsage-pinning to pause and listen to a story is probably not what most people did before prom; reading aloud and being read to are things that seem to have been mostly written off for people without young children, who are themselves no longer young children. It feels kind of decadent to be read to now. You have to really listen, which at once is very easy and can be done almost anywhere, but also forces you to slow down and focus your attention on just the sounds of the language.

Storytelling too then manages to be a throwback to childhood/the world pre-printed book, while also being a (not so) innovative way for more people to experience more literature. Publishers Weekly recently took a look at the audio book industry (June is apparently Audio Book Month), which you can read about here. There’s an interview with celebrated audio book narrator Scott Brick that got me thinking how reading a story aloud really changes your own experience of it. Prose is usually not judged with the same criteria as poetry, but sound and rhythm can just as easily be crucial to a paragraph of fiction as to a stanza (for a very in-depth look at sonic sentence construction, check out Gary Lutz’s lecture, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” as printed in the Believer.) Reading “Tiger” on the train this morning, there were passages I wanted to read to the people around me, if only just to listen to how they sounded.

So if you have any favorite stories to listen to or read aloud, or thoughts on how hearing a story affects your experience of it, let us know—if a party ever gets too tiresome, reading a great story aloud is sure to make up for most of the dull ones.

Interview with 2011 Debutante, Jerry Gabriel

On April 29th, at our 2nd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating five One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we thought it would be a fun idea to introduce our Debs through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week, in our second installment, we had the pleasure of speaking with Jerry Gabriel, author of Drowned Boy (Sarabande), a harrowing collection that includes the story he published with One Story, “Boys Industrial School.”

Set in the hardscrabble borderlands where Appalachia meets the Midwest, Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy reveals a world of brutality, beauty, and danger in the forgotten landscape of small-town basketball tournaments and family reunions. Selected by Andrea Barrett for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, these stories probe the fraught cusp of adulthood, the frustrations of escape and difference, and the emotional territory of disappointment.

1) How did you celebrate when you found out your first book was going to be published?

In spite of the fact that the news came at a busy time—my wife and I were preparing to move to another state and trying to sell our house in the worst market since the Dust Bowl—we took a break, collected our friends, and repaired to a favorite Ithaca watering hole, where we made many, many toasts to, among other people, places and things, Sarabande Books and Andrea Barrett, who had judged the contest. It was of course fantastic news to learn of the book’s publication, but that Andrea, whose work I’ve long admired, had been the one to choose it was an incredible vote of confidence.

2) Your collection includes, “Boys Industrial School,” which you published with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your first book was accepted?

I had already published (or was in the process of publishing) many of the stories in the book in magazines when “Boys Industrial School” came out in One Story, but the response from that story was really of a different magnitude. For starters, people read it. I got emails about it from strangers. I heard from publishers, editors of other magazines. It’s how I was lucky enough to find my agent, Katherine Fausset. But the book was still some years off. During much of that time, I was writing a novel—it’s called Resurrecting the Single Wing and is a sequel of sorts to Drowned Boy—but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the publication of “Boys Industrial School,” which I have to say Hannah Tinti helped me make approximately a thousand times better, was what got the ball rolling for the collection.

3) During the editing of Drowned Boy, was there any single piece of advice you received or perhaps remembered from earlier in your career that helped ease the process?

I took a class with Stuart Dybek in graduate school and over the years have thought a lot about many of the things that he had to say about writing and art. He’s a very smart guy. I remember him once saying about the creation of his own book, The Coast of Chicago—one of my favorite collections of all time—that early on he had these stories that obviously worked together on some levels but not on others, and that as he began to think of them as a single book, he worked very hard to give them, in addition to the punch of the individual stories, a comprehensive, singular effect. Basically, he sculpted a loosely defined larger story out of the individual stories, one in which place was the key element, but other features—characters and events—overlapped. I took his experience to heart when I began to think of Drowned Boy as a book. I jettisoned stories that didn’t quite fit. I revised others to work with the narrative arc I was constructing. I changed the point of view of one story—this with the help of my editor at Sarabande, Kirby Gann. And I have been really pleased with the cumulative effect of it all.

4) You were the recipient of the 2008 Mary McCarthy Prize, which in addition to a cash award, also includes publication of a book length manuscript. How has your life changed since winning this prestigious prize and what has it been like working with the folks over at Sarabande?

First things first: the people at Sarabande are the absolute best. In preparing the manuscript and getting the word out about the book, I have worked with everyone there—Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Gorham, Kirby Gann, Caroline Casey, and Meg Bowden, as well as two people who have since moved on, Jen Woods and Nickole Brown. These people are all ridiculously good at their jobs. I feel so lucky to have worked with them on this book. I couldn’t have scripted a better experience, seriously.

Since the book came out, life hasn’t changed a great deal, except that along with my wife, whose first book of poems came out in 2009, I have done quite a bit of traveling for readings. While we used to go to the Adirondacks or Argentina for vacation, lately we’ve gone to Ohio and Illinois. Which, I should say, has been really great.

5) What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 29th?

Having myself a BULLDOG gin cocktail, naturally. And getting the chance to chat with so many talented writers.

For more information about Drowned Boy , check out Sarabande Books. Or read more about Jerry at his author website.

AWP Panels & Events You Must See

This year’s AWP Conference will be held in our Nation’s Capital. One Story will be at the book fair again this year, supporting our fantastic writers. As usual the conference offers an incredible amount of writers, discussions and panels. Here are just a couple panels which stuck out to me:

Beyond Print: Digital Directions in Literary Publishing. (H. Emerson Blake, Michael Archer, Jeffrey Thomson, Ram Devineni, Steven Lagerfeld) Digital media is often presented as a challenge for literary magazines and journals—an obstacle to be overcome. But digital media also presents dynamic opportunities for the world of good writing. This panel features the editors of five print, digital, or online-only publications—Guernica, Orion, From the Fishouse, Wilson Quarterly, and Rattapallax—that are using digital media to find new methods of expressing their missions and new ways of connecting with their audiences.

Filling the Void: Growing & Sustaining Literary Communities. (Jill Pollack, Christopher Castellani, Alix Wilber, Kyle Semmel) What is the beating heart of a city’s literary community? Writing centers across the country are doing more than filling a void: they are building vital links and opportunities to serve writers at all stages of their careers. Panelists from some of the largest centers in the country will share the successes and challenges of helping writers to study the craft, creating training grounds for MFA graduates to teach, developing reading audiences, and participating fully in a city’s cultural life.

Double Duty: Writers Who Work in the Publishing Industry. (Parneshia Jones, Randall Horton, Toni Margarita Plummer, Dan Bernitt) Join four accomplished writers who happen to be successful publishing professionals from the commercial, independent, and university press backgrounds. They will discuss the pros and cons of being on both sides of the literary coin, as well as how they have learned to make wiser decisions about their own writing careers while being responsible for publishing award-winning writers from all over the world. Get the inside writer’s view of the publishing industry.

Building the Literary Robot: The Lit Journal as New Media. (James Engelhardt, Scott Lindenbaum, Jurgen Fauth, Zach Dodson, Zachary Schomburg, Travis Kurowski) Lit has gone viral, adapted to fit Twitter feeds, iPhone apps, and social networks, and fashioned into flash animation for posting on YouTube. How do literary journals step into these new, far-reaching modes of publishing? What role will e-literature have in contemporary publishing and the teaching of creative writing? What will this mean to the traditional short story, poem, and essay? Writers and editors of online and print literary journals tell how they’ve explored new e-lit territory.

And for those of you who got stiffed on getting into Junot Diaz’s reading at NYU back in November (myself included) there is redemption ahead–the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will be reading at the conference, as will Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Gaitskill, and others… See you there! Don’t forget to stop by the One Story booth and say hello.