One Story Workshop Day Four: We Map Our Stories

new-york-public-library-lions (475x347)One Story’s fifth annual workshop is starting to wind down. Our incredible workshop teachers, Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino, led us in critically analyzing each other’s work for an additional hour today. Whew! But, as usual, the feedback and guidance was well worth it.

After a lunch of falafel, in which we stuffed our bellies as much as we could, the Editor in Chief of One Story, Hannah Tinti, took us on another writing excursion: to the New York Public Library. That’s the one with the two lions in front from the opening scene in Ghostbusters (also where Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the lion in the movie version of The Wiz). By the way, the names of those lions are Patience and Fortitude, which as Hannah sagely said are, “Perhaps the two qualities that a writer needs most.”

First Hannah talked about ways we could use maps in our stories, from creating action, to filling out setting, to keeping track of our novels and longer works. She also gave us blank story maps and floor plans as tools to keep our readers grounded. Both techniques helped us to learn to navigate our worlds. Our “on-site” exercise at the NYPL was to go look through maps and atlases, find one that we liked, and use it as a jumping off point. Characters are always in a setting. And that setting always has some topology. Creating mental or even physical maps allows us, the writer, to better explore our world so that we don’t get lost. “When the writer is lost, the reader is lost,” said Hannah. “We never want to do that. It’s the quickest way to make a reader put down our book.”

For our evening panel we enjoyed a visit from author Rachel Cantor, who read a few excerpts from her new novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Think of it as a really twisted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or a fusion of Ray Bradbury and Italo Calvino. Bizarre, funny, quirky, she had us all in stitches. Then Hannah interviewed Rachel about the struggles and joys of an emerging writer, and how Rachel got this marvelous book published, from first draft on her computer to hard copies in bookstores.

We’re upset that the week is coming to an end, but tomorrow night is our big send off, with a visit to One Story’s office in Brooklyn, an open mic for students, and a grand finale dinner. Stay tuned!

One Story Workshop Day Three: Breaking the rules on Flying Bicycles

flyingbicycleIt’s the third day of One Story’s fifth annual workshop. Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino led their wonderful workshops after our students drank as much coffee as they could. Following a lunch of sandwiches, soda, chips, and more coffee, the editor of One Teen Story, the fabulous Patrick Ryan, gave a craft lecture on guidelines for writing a story.

“You cannot take risks if you strictly follow rules,” he said. “Allow room for surprise in your writing, readers read to discover and writers write to discover. Don’t spoil that for yourself or your readers. Writing should make you happy. Also, always read your work aloud.” Leaning over his lectern he joked, “Of course you don’t want to speak it in your quiet writing studio. Disturbing other writers while they’re working…bad idea.” We all laughed.

Patrick went on to explain that writers need to think of many mediocre or terrible ideas in order to find a good one. His technique is to type up any idea, even if it’s only two words, print it out, and put it in a box. The act of having a physical, separate note makes the idea stand out, rather than being in a list, where we are tempted to scan through and pick the best one.

We took a break and then did a writing exercise with Michael Pollock where we worked in groups to write a short story in about 30 minutes based on three random ideas. My group’s: a hot air balloon, a bicycle for two, and a lemon. Didn’t figure out how to put the lemon in the story, but our flying bicycle for two was like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Everyone needed a break after that. We reconvened at 6:30 for an editor panel, but not before the front legs to a beautiful leather chair suddenly gave out in our very cozy writing space. But we writers can’t sit down writing all the time, in any case; we need to get out and explore the world and be social and engaging and talk to people.

Our evening panel consisted of Maria Gigliano from Slice, Lincoln Michael from Electric Literature, Sam Nicholson of Random House, and Jonathan Lee of A Public Space, all led by our own Patrick Ryan, an editor himself. The editors were very knowledgeable, coming from big publishing houses all the way to small magazines—a nice spectrum of the industry. All agreed that the best way to stand out is to make your writing unexpected. Plot and character can always be edited, but language, style, voice, etc… really can’t. And as for debut novelists they said, “It’s a wide open future. They don’t have any history that could work against them. It’s nothing but promise!”

One Story Workshop Day Two: We Find Our Spirit Animals in the Rain

AMNHIt’s the second day of One Story’s fifth annual workshop. Today our students braved severe thunderstorms and flash floods, all in the name of good writing. We started off the morning with workshops at the Center for Fiction led by Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino, our fantastic instructors. After eating some delicious wraps and sandwiches for lunch, we sat down with One Story’s Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti, who then began a lecture about creating unique characters, using three techniques: “10 Facts,” “Superhero” and “KWL”.

The “10 Facts” technique is self-explanatory. It involves writing ten basic facts based on the character’s appearance. Hannah used herself as an example. Students immediately listed off some facts about her, some of which included “curly hair”, “creamy skin” and “wearing a large bracelet.” These facts added up to give us a sense of who she was, at least on the surface. The students were then asked how this could apply to their own characters; what does their appearance say about them? What conclusions could be drawn from that, even if eventually proven wrong?

Next was the “Superhero” technique. Hannah used Superman as an example, and asked the students about his costume, superpowers, backstory, weakness and quest. By outlining all of these details, we were able to create an image of Superman that even someone unfamiliar with the comics or movies could understand. While our own characters may not be superheroes in the same way that Clark Kent is, we could use the same approach for them. What do they wear? What are they good at, or bad at? What is their personal history? What do they want most? Hannah used a quote from Kurt Vonnegut to further emphasize that last point: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” She then asked the students to consider how each character’s individual needs could intertwine to tell the story.

Finally, the “KWL” method. What does the character know? What does the character want to know? What has he or she learned by the end of the story?

With these methods in mind, we set off for the American Museum of Natural History. After some minor delays (thanks to a sudden downpour and one extremely late B train) we arrived at the exhibit for North American mammals. We split up and searched for animals that we felt most strongly about, and used the techniques Hannah had taught us to brainstorm stories about them. We used the information given to us by the museum’s placards to jot down the animal’s strengths and weaknesses, and we used our own imaginations to fill in backstories and quests for them. Then we took it one step further, and gave them an obstacle–whether that included a hunter, an opponent to compete against for a mate’s attention, or even, referring back to Vonnegut, trying to find some water–and we sketched out a brief scene, in which our characters succeeded, failed, or decided to change their goal entirely.

We headed back to the Center for Fiction, and were treated with a very informative discussion from a panel of literary agents: Jim Rutman, Sally Wofford-Girand and William Boggess. They offered plenty of advice to our students, and they parted with these three important tidbits: “Don’t rush your first offering. Wait until you’ve done everything you could for your story”; “spend time with a workshop group to make your story even better”; and, lastly, “the writer is really the source of the talent; trust your own work.” We wrapped up the night with snacks and cocktails, laughing together and enjoying some great company before heading out into the terrible storms once again.

One Story Workshop Day One: New York City Writes the Story for You

Taken inside the Center for Fiction's famous elevator

Taken inside the Center for Fiction’s famous elevator

Readers and writers, One Story’s fifth annual workshop has begun! Some travelled thousands of miles, others dozens of city blocks to arrive this morning at New York City’s Center for Fiction. Ahead of us lies a week of craft lectures, agent panels, guest author talks, and workshops. Hannah Tinti, the Editor-in-Chief of One Story, welcomed students with coffee and tea before they split into their morning workshops led by our instructors, Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino.

After a lunch of tacos, salad and salsas so hot that they brought tears to our eyes, we sat down with Hannah, Will and Marie for a brief insight into the writerly lives of working authors. Each spoke of their path to writing, which featured ceiling-high piles of submissions and many rejection letters. Will Allison talked about his journey as a writer and an editor, and how, when he started working at Story magazine, it challenged him to make his own work better. Hannah then opened the panel to questions. “Describe your style,” one student asked. “Dark, twisted, funny,” she replied. When asked to give writing advice, Marie-Helene Bertino encouraged students to wander the streets of New York. Eavesdrop. Open your eyes. New York City will write the story for you.

After several hours talking about writing, it was time to get down to business. Hannah led a writing exercise given to her from one of her own mentors, Dani Shapiro (author of the great book Still Writing). The exercise is derived from Joe Brainard’s I Remember. She read from Brainard’s book:

“I remember the first time I met Frank O’Hara. He was walking down Second Avenue. It was a cool early spring evening but he was wearing only a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. And blue jeans. And moccasins. I remember that he seemed very sissy to me. Very theatrical. Decadent. I remember that I liked him instantly.”

Students wrote their own stories built of “I remember”, and shared their memories with the class, which were full of sharp details and all kinds of interesting experiences.

In the evening, Irina Reyn gave our first craft lecture on perspective. Using Frederick Reiken’s 2005 essay on the “author-narrator-character merge,” she revealed techniques of varying closeness and distance in narration. “The one that feels the most on fire, that’s the right perspective,” she said.

I (will) remember the first day of the One Story workshop. Stay tuned for more updates!





Write a Short Story with
Hannah Tinti July 6-12!

Write a Short Story with Hannah Tinti

When I first started writing, I didn’t know how to tell a story. I had a lot of ideas, some descriptions, and strings of scenes that didn’t work together. My friends and family would read something I wrote, then hand the pages back saying: I liked it. But I could tell that they were not moved.

It wasn’t until I started studying and working with editors that I began to understand structure—how to bring shape and form to the page and use it to guide a reader through my fiction from start to finish. It was like someone had handed me an X-Ray machine. Suddenly I could see the backbone running through all of my favorite books and stories. So that’s how they did it, I thought. That’s how they made me feel this way.

Learning this technique changed the way I wrote. Now, I’d like to share it with you—while also having some fun (it is summer, after all). So let’s write a short story together! Through videos, power point presentations, online lectures, and discussion on the message board, I’ll lead you sentence by sentence, explaining each step along the way. At the end of the week—you’ll have a story with strong bones, ready to go wherever you want to take it.

Write a Short Story with Hannah Tinti is my first online class, and will take place July 6-12th. Deadline for sign up is July 5th. For complete details, go here.

I hope you’ll join us!

Hannah Tinti

New 1-week online class: Write a short story with Hannah Tinti!

typewritter_once_uponLearn how short stories work from the inside out! In this one week (7 day) online class, July 6-12th, 2014One Story Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti will examine the basic structure and core elements of short fiction.

With videos, online “lectures,” and guided writing exercises, Hannah will lead you sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph through the writing of your own story. At the end of the week, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of storytelling and story structure.

You’ll also have the chance to take part in an active discussion board of like-minded writers, the opportunity swap work with fellow students, and be able to ask questions along the way. Sign up now for this fun week-long event, the first online course offered by Hannah Tinti.

One Story Literary Debutante Ball: The Pictures!

There's Got to be a Morning After (640x427)Thanks to everyone who came out to our 2014 Literary Debutante Ball on May 22nd at Roulette in Brooklyn. It was a wonderful night, honoring Mentor of the Year Colum McCann and the first books of our seven Literary Debutantes: Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans); Rachel Cantor (A Highly Unlikely Scenario); Amelia Kahaney (The Brokenhearted); Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You); David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals); James Scott (The Kept) and Ben Stroud (Byzantium). Here’s some pictures of from that wonderful night! You can also read a great play-by-play of the evening over at The Story Prize blog.


Q&A with our 2014 Mentor of the Year: Colum McCann

columMcCannAt One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community should include helping others. In that vein, each year at our Literary Debutante Ball we honor one established author with a “Mentor of the Year” award for their extraordinary support of fellow writers. This year, our Mentor of the Year is Colum McCann.

Mentoring is the kind of work that happens behind the scenes, but is vital to keep the literary world alive and kicking. It comes in all forms—from teaching, to blurbs, to recommendation letters, to late-night reads, agent advice, one-on-one conferences, career guidance and inspiration. Behind each book on the shelf is an unseen mentor, giving an author the help they need to make their work better, to keep writing when they are ready to quit, and eventually give them a boost over the publishing wall.

Colum McCann exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.

In today’s post, Colum kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk with One Story about writing and teaching, the importance of being a mentor, and what he’s looking forward to the most at the big party this Thursday night.

  1. You’ve been a great supporter of emerging writers. But who were your mentors and how did they help you along the way?

I remember getting to meet of one of my heroes, Benedict Kiely, in Dublin when I was about sixteen years old.   He was a  friend of my father’s, and my first mentor.  He wrote me a beautiful note about some pretty awful stories that I had written.  I remember, years later, drinking with him in the pubs of Donnybrook.  He was an incredible raconteur.

And then for years I have had a correspondence with John Berger who sort of took me under his wing at a very early stage.  He once sent me 12 pages of notes about a novel of mine, Dancer.  There were many other mentors and spectacular acts of generosity all down the line.

Also, there were so many great teachers from my early years in Dublin, both at the primary and secondary school level.  All those songs and stories and poems.

Ultimately, however, I’d have to say that it was my father, Sean McCann, who was my primary mentor.

  1. Besides being an active member of various literary organizations such as PEN, and a founder of Narrative 4, which promotes empathy through the exchange of stories, you also teach writing at Hunter College’s MFA program. How does community work and teaching others fit into your literary life? And is it difficult to keep the balance with your own creative work?

Vonnegut says we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.  That’s how I feel about teaching and being involved with all these non-profits.  It keeps me on the edge.  It propels me forward.  It forces me to learn new things.  And my students keep me current in many ways also.  I see so many things through their eyes.  I don’t really find any tension there between my teaching and my creative work.  I like both immensely.  I think they compliment one another.  It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  I could do with another eight hours.

  1. You’ve recently published your 8th book, TransAtlantic. But could you share what it was like to publish your first book, Fishing the Sloe-Black River? What was the most surprising thing about becoming a published author for the first time?

I remember I went to London when Fishing the Sloe-Black River came out. I thought it was going to be a big deal.  I wore my torn black overcoat and a ridiculous beret.  I wandered around the publishing house, waiting for them to make a big fuss.  Nobody gave a tupenny bit.  I was distraught.  I stuffed my beret in the coat pocket and walked around, sulking.  But at the end of the day — just when I was about to give up on any pretense of celebration — my editor introduced me to Edna O’Brien who happened to be in the offices that day.  She was amazing.  She invited me to come read with her that very evening in a shop in Hammersmith.  It was my first ever reading.  An incredible experience.  Of course I read too long and didn’t have a clue, really, but it was unforgettable to read with Edna, another one of my heroes, one of the world’s great writers.

  1. Any words of advice for our 7 Debutantes as they start their literary careers?

My favourite quote from Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

  1. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on May 22nd?

It’s a real honour to be seen as a mentor, but mostly I’m looking forward to hanging out with some of my students, and meeting the debutantes.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Molly Antopol

UNAMERICANS1On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Molly Antopol, author of One Story issue #132, “The Quietest Man.”

The voices that populate Molly Antopol’s remarkable debut collection, The UnAmericans, are both foreign and familiar. Foreign in the sense that they span across the globe and time, from Communist-era Prague to modern-day Brooklyn; familiar in the sense that they feel lived in, fully embodied, told in the intimate, compassionate manner that the best family tales are. The stories share echoes with many great masters of the form from the past – Paley, Malamud, Bellow – but Molly also forges her own unique path through the tangles of history. As Jesmyn Ward, who selected Molly as one of 2013’s 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honorees, said, “This book isn’t simply powerful and important—it’s necessary.” We definitely agree.

Thanks to Molly for taking the time to answer a few questions about her work and the writing life for One Story.

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

I was in New York doing book stuff, and that day was hanging out with my good friend Stuart Nadler. His new novel, Wise Men, had come out that day, and we were toasting to that when I got the call about my book. Over the years there had been many other times when Stuart and I had catastrophied about our writing and stressed over when we’d finally finish our books, so it was a wonderful thing to get to celebrate our two books coming into the world at the same time.

2. Your One Story “The Quietest Man” came out in March 2010. What has happened since then? How has your writing changed and what has remained the same?

Right now I’m working on essays, and on a novel, The After Party, which is set in the U.S and Israel. When I was working on my collection, I felt like I was pouring everything I had into whatever story I was writing—and so there was something intensely gratifying about starting fresh with a new setting, time period and cast of characters to research and explore, getting to see the world from a completely different vantage each time. I worried about what it would feel like to be in the heads of the same characters for as many years as it takes me to write a novel, but so far—at least in this early stage—it’s been pretty enjoyable to wake up and think about the same people every day.

3. You mentioned back then in your interview with One Story that, “I love the feeling of trying to understand what it would have been like to live in another place or during a different time,” and you do such a lovely, seamless job of inhabiting a great variety of voices in your collection. What story or voice was the most challenging to write? Which did you enjoy the most?

Thank you! To be honest, all of the stories were hard. Every one of them took at least a year to write—and the book itself took a decade. It was really important to me to try to write convincingly from the perspectives of women and men, young and old, American, Israeli and European. While I don’t have any stories in the book about women living in San Francisco and teaching creative writing, I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I obsessed over and questioned during the years I was writing them. Interestingly, the hardest story to write was the one most closely related to my own life, “A Difficult Phase.” Like my narrator, I’d also once dated an older man who had a child and a complicated backstory—and it was only years later, when I was back in the town where we used to live, that I started thinking about the dynamics of that triangular relationship, and the complicated repercussions my leaving must have had on his son.

I really enjoyed writing “Retrospective.” That was the last story I worked on for the collection, and because it was a longer piece, I gave myself more room to breathe and try some technical things I hadn’t yet attempted in the book. And it was a lot of fun learning more about the underground art movement in Russia and the museum world of Jerusalem—in addition to an insane amount of time in the archives (my favorite nerdy pastime), I got grants to travel to Eastern Europe and Israel for it, and ended up talking a lot with former dissident artists and museum curators. 

4. Your book’s title carries echoes of McCarthy’s infamous crusade in the 1950’s and many of the stories take as their subjects characters that are often identified with an outsider status – Communists, dissidents, immigrants. What drew you to these cultures and periods in history? What do you hope modern readers learn from them?

Many of these stories were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. I didn’t know my grandfather well—he died when I was six—but a little more than a decade ago my family gained access to his FBI files. The reports followed him across the years and across the country. In the files, I was able to see exactly what the FBI was looking for, but nothing else. They showed nothing of the angst that led him to quit the Party, and how painful it was for him to learn of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin—for him to realize that the cause he’d dedicated his life to was corrupt. And they didn’t reveal what being surveilled might actually have felt like for his children—what being watched does to a family psychologically and emotionally. Those were questions I found myself exploring in the book.

It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The moment I finished reading it, I began writing The UnAmericans.

5. When did you know that you had a collection on your hands and what was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?

In the beginning, I thought a lot about the difference between writing individual stories and putting together a collection—I was concerned that the stories weren’t related to one another in a neat enough way. In addition to the McCarthy-era stories, others are set in Eastern Europe, where my family’s originally from and where I’ve spend a good deal of time myself; while others take place in Israel, where I live a few months every year and used to live full-time, working at an Israeli-Palestinian human rights group and with new immigrants from Russia and Chechnya. I was about halfway through writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were finished that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?

In terms of writing advice, I heard Philip Roth speak once and he said something that really stuck with me: never let people read your early drafts unless you’re certain they’re on your side.

6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

Meeting the other writers being honored that night. And trying out some new dance moves.

At the Ball: Handwritten Advice From Your Favorite Authors!

writedrunk (523x365)At this year’s Literary Debutante Ball, on May 22nd in Brooklyn, supporters of One Story will have the chance to take home handwritten advice from their favorite authors!

Over 30 authors have “donated” handwritten and personally signed advice, framed and ready to hang over your writing desk for inspiration.

Donate on the night of the ball, and leave with advice from: George Saunders, John Green, Ann Patchett, Roxanne Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, Meg Wolitzer, Pam Houston, Andre Dubus III, Walter Mosley,  Michael Cunningham, Susan Minot, Dani Shapiro, Colson Whitehead and many more!

We’ll also have framed advice available from your favorite “classic” authors, such as Franz Kafka, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, James Baldwin, Raymond Carver and Zora Neale Hurston.

And back by popular demand, our cigarette girls from last year’s party will be returning, hawking the one thing no writer can do without: PUNCTUATION!

Advice and punctuation will be given for donations of $20-$250. All proceeds will go toward One Story’s mission: to celebrate the art form of the short story and support the writers who write them. Tickets are almost sold out! Buy yours today.