Monday, April 26, 2010

The thing and the other thing

Next week, I'm going back to my writers' workshop. Now that my novel is done, I need some new material to share with the group. So I'm attempting to write a new short story. I haven't written much short fiction. I haven't even read much short fiction. What, exactly, is a short story?

The main distinction is that a short story is short and a novel is long. A short story is usually under 10K words whereas a novel is over 50K. But there are other, more subtle, differences. Unlike novels, which may have several waves of rising stakes and climaxes and resolutions -- not to mention subplots -- a short story has one single climactic event. It usually has one or two main characters and is told in one point of view. And there's not much room for detailed setting and long chunks of exposition.

But that doesn't mean a short story is simple, or easier to write. In fact, it's often viewed as the purer, higher form of literary fiction (probably by short story writers). A successful novelist by no means makes a successful short story writer and vice versa. For example, The New York Times predictably skewered John Grisham's attempt at a short story collection, equating it to Michael Jordan's unfortunate baseball experiment. Personally, I might have used the Garth Brooks - Chris Gaines analogy.

It's been said (by Hemingway, I think, or someone like Hemingway) that a short story is about "the thing and the other thing." In addition to what physically happens in a narrative, the best stories also have some deeper meaning or theme that, while not explicitly stated, is really what the story is about. In a short story, the writer has to cover the thing and the other thing quite quickly, in a limited space. He has to make more with less. This as opposed to the literary novel, which allows more space, and therefore can be about the thing and the thing and the thing, and also the thing, and, if you're smart enough to get it, it's really about the other thing.

It's all too much to consider. I'm going to shut my computer and go watch "The Hills," which is just about the thing. Although sometimes that's about the other thing, too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hint Fiction Contest

As loyal Leaf Blower-ers may remember, last year I had a short-short-short story selected for publication in Robert Swartwood's Hint Fiction Anthology, which, by the way, is available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

As Robert puts it, Hint Fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.

This week, Robert is a having another hint fiction contest. The first prize is $100 and the finalists will be judged by none other than James Frey.

Check out the contest and give it a shot. I did!

Monday, April 12, 2010


For my next book, I've been toying with the idea of writing something completely different, like a horror novel. I grew up reading horror books, but I've steered away from them over the past decade or so. I'm not sure why. I guess because so few of them are actually scary.

Last week I read one of the most disturbing books ever, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. It's about a group of suburban kids who, over several months, torture, sexually abuse and ultimately kill a young girl. They do this under the direction of their mother, while other neighborhood kids watch and participate. It's even more disturbing when you realize it's based on a true story.

I started thinking about other books that have truly disturbed me. Considering how many "scary" books I've read in my life, the list was surprisingly short. Here are six more of my most disturbing books:

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Super-disturbing, but also kind of funny. The genius of books like The Girl Next Door (and one of my other favorites, Scott Smith's A Simple Plan) is that the author somehow makes the reader complicit in the events, and escalates them in a way that you could almost -- almost -- see how such a thing could happen. In American Psycho, however, the guy's just insane.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: Just read the first short story, "Guts." One of the only stories I can think of where I felt physically ill while reading it.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson: I read this about 20 years ago and it scared the hell out of me. I don't know if it would still be scary if I read it today, but I remember waking up at 3:15 a.m. a few times (like the guy in the book) and wondering if the evil had leaked out of the book somehow.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: Follows a band of outlaws hired to hunt Indians. Perhaps the most violent book I've ever read, but also one of the most beautiful.

Blindness by Jose Saramago: A city is hit by an epidemic of sudden blindness. What follows shows us the best and worst of humanity. This is another example of how, despite the horrors you're witnessing, the author escalates it in such a way that you can almost see how it could get to that point.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King: I had to include one Stephen King novel. Supposedly this is the one story that the master of horror was, for a time, too scared to finish. Much of my memory of the book is colored by the equally creepy movie, but I still consider this to be King's most disturbing book.

What's the most disturbing book you've ever read?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Special Agent

So begins my search for a literary agent. A literary agent is someone you hire to sell your book to an editor at a publishing company.
Do you have to go through an agent?
But do you really have to go through an agent?
Most publishers won't look at unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts. The slush pile is dead. According to this WSJ article, the last time Random House published something from the slush pile was 1991. At the SF Writers Conference, an editor told me that her publishing house still holds slush parties -- late night pizza feasts where the interns sift through the slush pile -- but only to slap on rejection slips and send the manuscripts back. The material goes unread.

It makes sense that publishers will only consider agented work. An agent's not going to waste her time -- and stake her reputation -- on something she doesn't think will sell. By the time a manuscript reaches a publisher, the agent's already taken the time to separate the wheat from the chaff -- so the editor doesn't have to.

That's why landing an agent is often harder than actually selling your book. And why this process is so tedious and discouraging. The only thing more depressing than searching for an agent is writing about searching for an agent. So I'm just going to go back to procrastinating by looking at these scandalous new pictures of Kim Kardashian.