Monday, March 12, 2012

Preparing Short Story Manuscripts for Contests and Publication--AWP12 Panel Notes

Preparing Short Story Manuscripts for Contests and Publication (Saturday March 3rd, 10:30am)
·         Christine Sneed (Best American Short Stories 2008, Pen/O. Henry Prize, Grace Paley prize), Anthony Varallo (Fiction editor of Crazyhorse, NEA Fellowship), Douglas Light (2007 Ben Franklin award, 2010 Grace Paley prize) Lori Ostlund (2008 Flannery O’Connor, Lambda finalist)

·         DL: A collection of stories that have continuity, not just thrown together. “What is the essence of these pieces?” Looked at successful stories and figured out what worked. Often, writers have just one or two stories to tell, and are just trying to get it right. Structured the collection itself in an engaging way. Selected the first and last based on the strongest ones to convey the theme, then spaced stories in between based on length and gravity. Individually, you have a great piece, but as a collection things need to be cohesive. (For example, one “great line” that is repeated in several stories.) Pulling together collection revealed a lot about his own mind, what he has to say, and the process of writing.

·         LO: Life triangle, personal life, writing life, teaching life. If two are on track then things are good. Decided to give up writing, enrolled in paralegal classes and started teaching remedial classes. First day home, she had a message from University of GA Press and had trouble calling them back because of lightning. Had to talk to them next day and found out she won. She didn’t know much about it when she ordered them initially. FO’C editor helped her with ordering them. Look at POV, setting, tone, theme in ordering. Marketing, they send you a questionnaire, pay attention and don’t put it off. She was told to send stories to journals, say she won the prize, and ask for a quick response. From acceptance to publication, all but one were published in journals.

·         AV: I’ve lost so many contests…and I’m giving advice to people? My record is terrible! 2nd collection was rejected 15 times, including 2 times Drew Hines, and won the third time. Doubt is the first obstacle to overcome. Read stories aloud as you assemble the collection. Why do you want to include it? What do you like about it? The first half are the ones you most want to read aloud, those should “greet” the reader. Not shock, overwhelm, etc. There should be dark and experimental ones, but not before greeting the reader, entertaining them. 1st or 3rd person, sympathetic narrator, and that had a strong narrative drive and got off to a quick start.

·         CS: Do I really need to spend $25 to get a rejection letter? Stories sent out 20-50 times before getting accepted. You have to be persistent, you don’t know who will be a screener. She ordered them by picking stories she liked. Don’t just put ones that have already been published, pick ones that haven’t been published and go with a common theme. Some stories were older (2007). After picking them she realized they were all female narrators. Trust your instincts. Also may get input from one or two readers. Pick stories that you had fun writing, that had an element of joy. She hired her own publicist locally and it was a big help and worth the investment.

·         DL: Dos and Don’ts: Founding Editor of Epiphany magazine. “Wow, that has horrendous… and I do the exact same thing”. Query letters: Be professional. Don’t just drop a text message, send your best work. Electronic submissions can result in an easy “send” button. Help is only offered when you no longer need it—your work has to be “there” in quality first.

·         LO: Imagine someone who loves short stories and is absolutely overwhelmed. They are disoriented and tired, so she goes into it with the mindset of looking for a reason to say no. When looking at beginnings of things, can I switch the burden so they see that I am doing the work for them, and they can sit back, relax, and enjoy the work. As a screening judge, submitters need to look to see what the readers and judges are looking for. You NEED a table of contents. Read the first story completely, then may skip around. They are advised to read maybe 4 stories and then pass on the 12 best collections per screener. Instinct to start with something “writerly”…No. Forget about the italics and start with story. Best work first. A clean manuscript is incredibly important. Nancy, FO’C judge, “I care about the work, not who you are.” “Be practical,” “When she gets a “quiet” collection, she puts it aside until she can be in the right frame of mind.” She uses great literature as a yardstick. (Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, etc)

·         AV: Don’t need to order collection by POV parfait—1st, 3rd, 1st, 3rd. Don’t try to outfox your manuscript. Best work first. Don’t order based on rank of journals. Judges won’t care and neither will you. Don’t send unpublished stories to the back, just evaluate the quality of work. You don’t have to publish everything you write, or your collection doesn’t need to be every single published story you have. Don’t save the best for last. You can do that after you win. You are a writer, so you may write the same short story two or three or four times. Don’t be depressed about it, but don’t include two incredibly similar stories in the same manuscript. Don’t base if the judge would like your work on what the judge writes, just send it in.

·         CS: Don’t rush. Writing rewards the long view. Was out of her MFA program for 11 years before she won the Paley. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Think I love this, not I want to be famous.

·         Q/A: What about writers who use other languages in the manuscript. Should it always have a translation followed with a dash? LO: you don’t want to pull the reader out, try to make clear in context. If it’s important info translate it, but if a random word doesn’t stop the flow or pull you out of it is fine.

·         Q/A: Specific strategies for selection publications in individual submissions? CS: Read the journal, O’Henry, Pushcart. LO: Send to the journals you like to read.

·         Q/A: How do editors look at previously published? Depends on publisher for lit mags, but for book contests it’s fine.

·         Q/A: Do you need to get the publisher’s ok for contest entries? CS: No, they want that to happen.

·         Q/A: How long should a manuscript be? LO: The rules usually say how much, usually 150-2something.

·         Q/A: How old should/could the story be? CS: As old as you want, as long as it’s good.

·         Q/A: Advice for writers preparing linked collections? CS: Go for it, maybe be careful for chronology.  AV: Sometimes anchor stories and some smaller vinaigrettes, so group the anchor stories first, even if that’s not the initial arc, and re-arrange once you’ve won.

·         Q/A: Is it a problem to have a long (40 page) story in the collection? LO: no, CS: Recent winners includes a novella, probably shouldn’t lead with it though.

·         Q/A: What about Non-Fiction? CS: recommend the same sort of ordering and send out to journals, just look for nonfiction contests.

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