Grand Ballroom East, Hilton New York Hotel | January 31, 2008

Episode 8: Shaping a Short Story Collection

(Steve Almond, Brian Evenson, Daphne Kalotay, Ellen Litman, Deb Olin Unferth) Short story collections are notoriously hard to get published. Editors complain that collections don't sell. Agents ask for a novel. Magazine articles regularly proclaim that the short story itself is dead. And yet, every year new short story collections come out, win awards, and generate buzz. Some have recurring characters, others are labeled "a novel in stories." Some center on a specific theme, while others are set in a particular location. What makes for a compelling short story collection? What is the best way to arrange the stories? How to develop an arch? The fiction writers on this panel have published one or more short story collections. They will attempt to answer the above questions by sharing their own experiences, discussing their favorite collections, and trying to identify some useful strategies.

Published Date: October 8, 2009


Speaker 1:

Welcome to the AWP Podcast series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in New York on January 31st, 2008. The event features Steve Almond, Brian Evenson, Daphne Kalotay, Ellen Litman, and Deb Olin Unferth.

Ellen Litman:

This is Shaping a Short Story Collection Panel and my name is Ellen Litman. I wanted to say a few words about how I came up with this idea for the panel. I was one of the best AWP panels I've been to. It was a couple of years ago in Vancouver, and it was organized by novelist Sherry Joseph and was called This Dog Won't Hunt. And the quote came apparently from Barry Hanna who said, allegedly this to one of the panelists upon reading a draft of her novel. And the whole idea was how do you know if your novel draft is actually going to succeed and become a novel? Are you on the right track? And it was a great panel, but at the time I was revising a short story collection, and I was really wishing there would've been a panel for short story writers or people working on a short story collection that would be similar. This is how the idea came about.

If you are here, chances are you're probably writing short stories, you're probably thinking about a collection or putting together a collection, or maybe you already have a collection that you're shopping around. And as you probably also know that I've been told repeatedly how hard it is to sell short story collections, how editors don't want them, agents don't want them, and yet the collections do come out and a lot of them are quite successful. I decided to ask some of my favorite short story writers who've published books of stories to join me here so we could talk about what are the realities of putting together a collection, what kind of advice we can come up with together. And all the writers here are very different and subject matter and style, and hopefully we will generate the best possible pool of ideas and information.

Let me introduce the panelists. Steve Almond is the author of two short story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal, published by Groove and the Evil B.B. Chow, published by Algonquin. He's also the author of, Which Brings Me to You, Candy Freak and his latest collection of essays, Not That You Asked. Elizabeth Gray says about My Life in Heavy Metals, Steve's first collection, "The stories are as sexy and funny as they're sad and knowing. Steve Almond takes us deep into the tangled country of lost love and heartbreak and proves to be a remarkably talented guide."

Next we have Daphne Kalotay. She's the author of Calamity and Other Stories published by Anchor, a division of Random House, a collection of loosely interrelated tales following three pairs of friends over three decades. The book was a Boston Herald Editor's Choice, as well as one of the notable books of 2005 profiled in Poet and Writers Magazine. Jean [inaudible 00:03:29] called Daphne Kalotay's stories, "Old Fashioned in the best sense of the word, plain-spoken and melancholy about ordinary people struggling with the trials of ordinary life. Few writers I know speak with such clear-eyed compassion, such quiet humor and grace."

Next up we have Brian Evenson. Brian is the author of several novels and five short story collections, including Altmann's Tongue, published by Knob, Contagion and Other Stories from Warcraft and The Wavering Knife from a Fiction Collective 2. His most recent novel is the Open Curtain. Samuel Argelani wrote about the Wavering Knife, Brian's most recent collection, "Like Pose Evenson's stories range from horror to humor. A similar high critical intelligence is always in control. We read them with care with our guard up only to find they have already slipped inside and gotten to work, refining the feelings, the vision, the life."

And we have Deb Olin Unferth, who's the author of Minor Robberies, part of a book set from McSweeney's 145 Stories in a Small Box. Her novel is coming out of McSweeney's this coming year, later this year. And the soft cover version will be coming out from Grow Atlantic. And a review in Timeout New York has this to say about Deb's stories, "On for genre busting minor robberies specializes in dark fairytale like stories and wickedly clever narratives. Many of the skewed tales play up the impossibility of reaching a truth, but even when she's at her most atmospheric and captures a distinctly tragic and funny of kilter world."

If you can see from those introductions, the stories, the collections are very different. And to round up of the list, there's myself, Ellen Litman, and my first book is a collection of Stories. The Last Chicken in America came out from Norton this year, well actually last year as a novel in stories. And we can talk about novels and stories probably at some point too.

Okay, so I figured that, and I apologize, I can't really make eye contact with anyone because the lights are so blinding I can't see anyone. I thought if we would start by way of introduction with people talking a little bit about the collections, about how they came about, how did the idea come about? Were you just writing stories and then realized suddenly like, okay, well this could be a book, or did you have the idea for the collection right away to begin with? How did it all come about? At what point did you know that you actually had a collection on your hands? And I guess we'll start with Steve.

Steve Almond:

Yeah. I didn't have an idea. I didn't have a big idea. Maybe some of you, I just was writing stories for probably about seven or eight years. And finally stories got placed in slightly better literary magazines. Originally, the collection went out, an agent sent it out as an earlier version of it was one of these kind of gimmicky agent things they do where they said, okay, it's a collection and it's in three parts, the head, the heart, and the groin. Because the collection was, I don't think she said groin. Maybe she said loins, I don't know.

But the idea was that it is just one of these fucking gimmicks, and the stories weren't that good. And so that idea of the story collection never got taken, but I continued to write stories and eventually what happened is an editor at a magazine who I'd been sending a lot of stories to got in touch with an editor at a publishing house, which is the best way these things can happen, frankly, as if it's the editors who are involved. Because there the ones who really give a shit about the writing as opposed to the commercial value of what you're writing. And this young editor who my agent had already pitched to that same house, but not to this young editor. She'd pitched to her pal who she has lunch with. This young editor actually said, "We'd like to buy the collection." I had called it The Body and Extremis that I thought was whatever, literary or something. And they said, "Sure. We'll buy it, and we'll give you a little advance. But it's now called My Life in Heavy Metal." Which I think was part of their maybe smart, I don't know, idea of how they were going to try to position the book.

Daphne Kalotay:

And I too was just writing short stories. It was the genre that I felt comfortable working in. I guess I was learning at first just practicing, and I always assumed they would be a collection because they were thematically related. Just I tended to write about quirks of fate or of the heart or failures of relationships. I always had the idea of calamities big or small, and I thought that one theme was enough to unify a collection. I thought of it that way, and I guess I'll answer the question about how it came to be published maybe later. I have a feeling that will come up.

Brian Evenson:

My first collection that I published was not actually the first collection I wrote, and the first collection I wrote, I had a very kind of fixed notion of what it should be and had all sorts of ideas and it fit together really well. And I got a contract for it from a small press. And then it just, for various reasons, the press kind of collapsed. And so I had this kind of complete object that felt like it was finished in all the piece and that I had nothing. I didn't know what to do with. And then I sent a short novella to an editor at Knopf, and he didn't want it. But he passed it on to another editor and that editor didn't want it either, but he thought that we might be able to work out a collection. And so I started writing stories towards a collection.

And then after I'd written about half the stories that are in Altmann's Tongue, I was given a contract. It kind of came about very randomly. And I can think about a lot of people I know who, I mean as Steve was saying, it's often weird luck or just someone who talks to someone at a party or something that makes a book come about. And I can think Francois Camoin used to tell a story of he stayed in a summer house once, and he left his manuscript under the bed and it happened that an agent stayed in the house after. As long as you can arrange to only stay in houses that agents stay in, I think you'll be just fine. You can't afford them.

Deb Olin Unferth:

At first I was just writing stories like everybody else. And then I think that at some point I realized that all those stories that I was writing to form a collection of some kind just weren't working at all. And then I started writing stories, really short stories that were all very voiced. And I really quickly decided that I wanted to do a collection of all pieces that were sort of told in the same kind of voice. The title at the time was A Serious Explanation. I wanted it to be this person sort of explaining kind of confusedly all of these things and each one was going to be a separate story. Even though it really wasn't the same narrator, it was like they were connected in that way.

And at first it was longer stories and shorter stories, and then it was basically rejected by every press in the country, and then some presses more than once. And then McSweeney, well Dave Eggers came up with this idea of putting three books of short shorts into a box and one of them would be by him and one of them would be by me, and one of them would be by Sarah Manguso. I had to cut out all my longer pieces and then it was just short shorts in a box. That's how it happened.

Ellen Litman:

I think I also knew pretty early on that what I had in mind would be with a collection. My book is about Russian immigrants in Pittsburgh of all places. And I think when I started to write like everyone in classes, workshops, writing stories, and I fairly quickly came to understand that this was something interesting, this is something I wanted to keep working on the immigrant stories. And I knew that they would be all set in the same neighborhood. I knew that they would be all about Russian immigrants. I knew that there would be some recurring characters, but I didn't know many how I was going to do that. And I knew that I wanted to organize them in sort of chronological order, starting from stories about characters who just arrived in America towards stories about people who've been there for a few years to 2, 3, 4, 7, just to show how the experience accumulate, how they adjust, how their lives change.

And I also knew that I think the first story and the last story have to be very strong in the collection. That's one piece of advice that I think I've heard early on, and beyond that I had no idea really how to structure, how to put everything together. Which leads me to my next question to all of us, I guess, how did you know how to organize the stories within the collection? Did you have some kind of guiding kind of idea of how it would be? And on a more general note, should a short story collection like a story or a novel, have an narrative arc? And if so, how does one find it? How does one decide on what that arc would be?

Should we go back to you?

Steve Almond:

You always do that. Well, this is going to be a disappointing answer. I don't think that I have the kind of mind that makes those kinds of maps of this is my collection that's about... Daphne had a clear idea of a theme. I don't even think I know entirely what a theme is. And so when I was putting together My Life in Heavy Metal, I maybe had the idea that it was about the way people throw their bodies before their hearts, sort of suffering of desire and heartbreak. But not all the stories were about that at all. There were three stories that were the same character at different points in their lives. And the first story sort of predicted the kind of trouble that this character would get into and by the last story. And so they form maybe the spine of that book, but the other stories within the collection are very different.

And I was quite intentional about that because I didn't want to write this sort of story collection that people would be able to put into a box, which is essentially what this kind of incredibly anemic, superficial critical culture in this country does. They just are trying to look for the angle that gives them an excuse to be able to write about a book. And I'm very sorry to be saying that and to say that with some ranker, but that is what you're facing and these stories that are very precious to you that are making a very inimitable personal kind of map that might be geographic and might be socioeconomic, but is more likely in its deepest form to be emotional and psychological. Critics aren't going to get that and the kind of pressure that they're under. And I use critics very loosely. I mean the people who end up writing reviews.

For instance, I put as very intentionally and had big long arguments with the publishing house about trying to place second in My Life in Heavy Metal, a story that was very quiet that was not at all about sex and young people and dealing with death and the failure to make emotional connections with your family. And then third, I put a story that was told from the point of view of a woman and was dealing with a whole different set of concerns. The second story, which I thought surely would maybe establish that this wasn't just kind of a one note collection was never mentioned. I think that was a disappointment, but it kind of taught me the lesson that you're going to get put in a box and the less you cooperate with that, the better.

When I put together a second... Unless you really have in mind something that's internal that is, it's not imposed by the market, it's the kind of map that you want to make. It happens that you're fascinated to be writing about the Russian immigrant experience in Pittsburgh. That's the map that you want to make. But it shouldn't come certainly not from a fucking agent, and it shouldn't even come from an editor if it doesn't resonate within you. If they've got great suggestions that help push you further, that's terrific. But if they're just imposing it, then you're allowing the invisible hand of the market to be messing with your art.

The second collection is completely, if anybody has read it, which you haven't. But it's completely disorganized or it doesn't have any... You can't say he's writing about X, Y or Z. But in fact, if you're writing good short stories, I honestly believe that your preoccupations and your concerns, your obsessions are naturally just going to emerge in whatever fictive disguise. Because if you're writing well, you're writing really about the deepest part of you and that's unified by you being you with your own crazy [inaudible 00:18:18].

That second collection, because it was something that was almost an afterthought with another book, they didn't force me to try to find a theme, like My Life in Heavy Metal. It's young guys. They didn't try to do that at all. And as a result, the stories are all over the map, which are a lot of how my favorite story collections are. They're hard to get into the world and not a lot of people are going to read them, but I like when it's just tooty fruity, and you don't know what you're going to get.

Daphne Kalotay:

And I like that too, and I want to add, I imagine some of you already have maybe a whole book of stories and are trying to figure out exactly how to order it. But I think the bigger question to keep in mind again, is just that you're writing them from the heart rather than being forced into that idea of order. Because, and I'll just give you quickly some background from my book. I had a book of random stories that I thought were good, and then again, that were thematically linked. I thought it was really tightly linked by that they were all about this sort of similar theme.

At the same time, I was trying to write a novel about all these characters going to a wedding. And some of the characters in the novel were a lot like the characters in my stories. And a friend sort of pointed it out to me at the same time in my story collection, I had one story about a bridesmaid going to a wedding, and I had another story about a bridal shower. This must have been on my mind. Anyway, I have to say, it wasn't until an agent said, "You have to link these for me to sell it." I should say sorry. The actual manuscript that I had of my kind of random stories actually had four stories that concerned the same characters. I had four linked stories and 6, 7, 8 random ones, which I thought was fine. I've read books like that. I didn't see why that was a problem. But of course the minute the agent saw that, "Can you link them?"

Well, it just so happened I had this novel that had these characters who were the same. I had actually already played with that. I was ready. I'd done so much writing, and I think that's my advice is just if you're writing what you're thinking about, it all fits together. Within, it took me a week, I just plucked all these other stories. I thought they were chapters, they were stories. I had a book, but it took an agent to tell me that. And so I guess that's my advice beyond just ordering them.

And then I will say, even when I gave them to the agent, I did this Quentin Tarantino thing where I put them all in random order. Because I thought that was cool, and then she just put them in chronological order. Another friend did that at the same time too. Anyway.

Brian Evenson:

I think it's been really different for me from book to book. I guess I'll just talk mainly about the first collection. And as I was putting that together, I had a sense of what I wanted in there, but I had no notion of what the order should be. And so at a certain point I started making lists and moving things around and deciding if something fit or didn't fit. And eventually I got to the point where I decided what I needed to do was take a sequence of three very short stories, which are called the bully stories, and rearrange them so they're non-chronological. There's a story in which one of the characters is dead, and it comes before a story in which he's alive. And at the time it seemed like a great idea, but it always makes me wince ever since then because I don't understand why I did that. And I think it was just frustration with the whole process of having to arrange stories.

The other thing I do is I tend to write really up until the last possible moment. A story called the Sanzo Affair that's in Altmann's Tongue kind of long novella is something that I gave to the publisher when the book was already in proof pages. And we snuck it in and got it in, and they were generous enough to do that. But I felt like I had an order, but I also felt something was missing. And I think for me it's the process of realizing I have a kind of shape, but it needs something else that's a big deal.

I think that agents and publishers have two strategies they use when they're talking about marketability with story collections. The first is to think of it as a showcase. This author can do anything, look at the variety of these stories, it's amazing, fireworks, so on and so forth. And the second is to try to see it as linked stories or a novel in stories. It's really a novel, that sort of thing. And I think if you're really committed to the form, which I am, then those strategies will work for you for some books and not for other books. And you have to make a decision about that. I think in my case, sometimes that decision has been to go with the smaller press than I could go with if I rearrange the stories in a particular way or if I change the names of a character in one story to be the same name as a character in another story. And so this is just something you have to face. It's something that aesthetically you have to make a decision about.

I was very lucky early on to have a kind of religious culture react very negatively to my work. And that made me feel very committed to what I was doing and made me realize that if people were going to get very upset with me, then I better know what I'm doing and think about it. And so I think it is true. I know a lot of writers who very slowly have lost their integrity in the process of working with an agent or a publisher, and they've started with a collection that's very interesting and have ended up with a collection that's not. And I think as a writer, you really have to decide where you stand with these things, what your commitment is, what your understanding of your aesthetic is, and where you're going to end up at the end of the day. Are you going to end up with a collection that you feel is not your collection in some ways, as we see with someone like Raymond Carver in his nervousness about his being edited, or are you going to end up with a collection you're happy with?

Deb Olin Unferth:

That was really smart. When I was doing my collection, I had all of these small pieces, and I decided that I wanted it to be, like I was saying before, very voiced. I wanted the whole piece end to end to kind of sound almost like a song. I kept reading them over. This is when I was ordering them, I kept reading them over and over again and trying to find which one would fit next, how they would fit best next to each other in terms of sound. I wanted the last sentence of the last story to be sort of a lead in to the title of the next. And I wanted almost the title of the next to be in response to the last line or sort of angry at the last line, so that was really important to me.

I kept reading them over and over and over and trying to order them. And I got really confused, and I couldn't even read them anymore. It was like it just sounded like gibberish in my head. Eventually the editor just kind of ordered them for me, but I did like this idea of having an arc. I thought that that was really interesting. I think that what some people do is they try to put their strongest stuff towards the front, and then they try to end with a really strong piece, and then they sort of have the stuff that they're not quite sure should really be in there in the middle or toward three quarters of the way through. But that works really against the idea of having a narrative arc or having an emotional arc. My book didn't have a narrative arc, but I wanted it to have this sort of emotional building to a climax kind of thing, which I tried to do. I don't know if I did it successfully, but I did make that effort.

And the other thing that I wanted to say is that I really like what Brian was saying about just deciding at some point if you want the book to be yours or just how much are you willing to give up? Because when I was talking to different publishers, when everyone was rejecting me, I had so many publishers saying, "Well, we're really interested in this. If you could write a few more stories sort of like this." And it was like they were really pushing me to change what the collection was, and I will not be swayed. In retrospect, it took so long to get this stupid thing published that I probably just should have gone ahead and done it. But I didn't for better or for worse. I do think that it's something that you have to just decide how much are you going to give.

Daphne Kalotay:

I just want to add though something about the ordering of the stories before you have the agent or the publisher and the after, and that's two different things. When you were saying maybe narratively for the arc, it might not make sense to have all the stronger ones at the beginning. If you're trying to get an agent, I would shove them at the beginning. And I just say that because I know my agent did the typical give me the first three, or she grabbed them off the top. And I remember when she called me, she said, "I was on the subway reading them, and I went back home to get the rest." Well, if I'd put some weaker ones at the front, she probably wouldn't have gone back home to get the rest. After that, then do that. But if you're still trying to get somebody's attention, obviously.

Ellen Litman:

It's really interesting to hear that some people talk about not having a map, not trying to map things. I came to writing from computer programming, so I feel like I'm constantly mapping and charting and drawing little diagrams for myself. But I think the best, for me, probably the most helpful advice I got when I was trying to figure out how to do my collection was to look at endings and see if endings are different and how they different. Do the characters basically end up at the same place on the same emotion maybe at each one, or is there some kind of change or is there some kind of movement happening from one ending to another? And that was really interesting, because before that I hadn't thought of it and that kind of helped me look at the collection and figure out the order.

But in terms of it's true that these days I think the collections so often they centered around a theme, a group of people, a place or an ideal concept of some sort, that's very easy to distinguish and market. And I think in some cases it works wonderfully and maybe in others not. But again, when I was working on my collection, I felt like, well, great, I have the theme. I know sort of what I'm doing. I have the place. I have the group of people. I should be fine. And then I finished the draft, I think by the time I finished graduate school, and I was lucky enough to have a couple of agents willing to look at it, to read the whole thing. And they both came back to me saying the same thing, which was that there was too much sameness. And I was kind of taken aback because I said, "Well, okay. Well, I thought sameness was a good thing." Yeah, there's the theme.

But then after I thought about it and looked at it for a couple of days, I realized that they sort of had a point. I had too many stories basically saying the same thing, feeling very much alike in what they're saying and in the tone and everything. I kind of had to sit back, and I spent a year looking at the collection, and I ended up leaving off three or four probably stories and writing three or four new ones over the year. And it ended up being a different book by the end of that year.

My next question I guess, and I think everybody already started talking a little bit about it, and Deb, you talked about you had to leave off longer stories, what things people had to leave out of the collection or collections and how different was the final version from what you actually had in mind in the beginning or how you envisioned it in the beginning. I'll figured I'll pick on you since you already started.

Deb Olin Unferth:

Yeah. I basically had to cut my collection in half. Well, I mean just off the top I had to cut 100 pages worth of longer stories off of it. And then I kept reading it over and over, and I ended up cutting another 10 or 20 short shorts out of it just because I kept reading it and thinking, no. That's not right. But in the meantime, I was writing new ones and I was sliding them in. I think in the end, not that it's necessarily a strong book as it is. I hope it is, but I think in the end it is way stronger than it was when I originally started with it. Because it is really tight, I think, I hope.

I think that the short shorts that I cut out, I cut them out partly because Dave Eggers told me to, and partly because my friends didn't like the stories. And then I think also because some of them sounded too much the same. The other pieces, there were several that it was like I was kind of trying to do something over and over and over and how painters, they paint the same lemon again and again. I was doing that, so I had to cut out all the lemons except for the one, and some were too different and didn't fit.

Brian Evenson:

I tend to, once I finish the collection, it's been accepted, then I try to think really seriously about what the weak stories are and try to just be as objective as possible, which can be very hard. The only way I can find of getting that objectivity is just having some time away from the collection or just reading 20 books in a row and being in other people's worlds for a while. And so usually when I'm writing stories and putting stories in at the end, it's so that I could take other stories out.

When I published The Wavering Knife, there were a couple of stories that were too similar, as Deb was saying, and they were perfectly, they worked well, but they didn't work well together and weren't comfortable together. And that was something that I kind of knew but had repressed, and that the editor of the book, once he said it, I realized, well, yes. This is a problem.

For me, I think that different books have had different kind of... I think pretty close to about 75% of the collection is the collection that I gave to the publisher. The collection I was talking about before, which was not published and then was later republished. I published it enough years later after it was written that I felt like I had to write about 40% of the stories are probably new. And it was very strange to go back into this space and rework this collection that I would've been very happy with at one particular moment in my life and no longer was.

Daphne Kalotay:

Yeah. My collection too ended up quite slim compared to how it originally went out. And of the stories that I cut out though, there's really only one that I regret not being in a book just because it was a good story, but it was not thematically, but the characters had nothing to do with the characters and the linked stories. There was no way to shove them in and pretend that they were part of that storyline. I had to give it up.

And at the same time, it's interesting hearing people saying how the sameness comes up. I mentioned before that I had a story about bridesmaids that I'd written as a story or about a bridal shower, and that this whole book that I'd had in mind as a novel, it culminated with a wedding scene that became the last story in the collection. The actual bridal shower party, I cut out in the end. Because it sort of said the same things that were happening in the wedding scene, which again had been part of a different book. I thought I had two books and I ended up with one. That shows how much was cut.

And I will say in the end, I'm happy with it because it became this kind of unified book that tells a story that has an arc and goes forward in time and ends up I think in a satisfying way. I'm happy that somebody told me to do that, but just again, it's being aware that you have to write twice as much as gets published and gives something up that for me, that one story that I thought was really good that nobody will know about.

Ellen Litman:

I ended up cutting a story that probably the first story I wrote for that collection, and it was also the first story I ever published. I was very much attached to it, and I wrote it in the first person plural, and I thought it would be kind of having read and loved the Virgin suicides. And I really wanted it to be there, but it was, there was another story that was doing the same thing and doing it better. I did end up having to cut it. I also ended up with basically it's a thread of six stories about the same character and her family, which I think made it easier to call the book a novel in stories, which is basically a marketing thing and was a marketing decision done by the editors.

Switching to that to editors and agents, I think switching gears a little bit, I think probably one of the biggest questions is giving why is it so hard to sell collections and what can we do about it? What kind of advice can we come up with in terms of finding agents or finding publishers for the short story collections for these books? And anyone who wants to. Yeah.

Steve Almond:

I'll answer that real quick. And then real quick, I hope anyway, people have questions so we will speed it up. One thing I would say about, I think of short story writers as the poets of the prose world in the sense of not making any money really and letting go of the expectation. It's more like a drug addiction, frankly, like a kind of benign creative addiction, disapproval from family, a lot of depressed time alone. It's like an obsessive pattern, and you have to make your peace with that. If you really choose, as Brian was suggesting, if it's really what you want to do, if it's your art or your vocation, and you don't view yourself as just having training wheels until you figure out how to write a novel, which is how the commercial side of the business has and I suspect will make you feel, if it hasn't yet. Where's your novel? They should just have a fucking agent doll with a string you pull that says, "Where's your novel?" I could shoot it with a BB gun.

But you should make your peace with that, that this is not something you're doing to make money or try to support yourself. And I think a lot of people on the panel have the university as a patron, and God bless the university for serving as a patron. And I do other kinds of freelance work and so forth to make my nut. It's certainly not from short story collections. And that in a certain way is a relief, because it means the poets that you don't have to worry about. There's about one maybe profitable short story collection written in this country a year and [inaudible 00:39:56] already wrote it. Okay. Let yourself off the hook. That's not the business you're in. You're really trying to make the best collection of stories you can and think about rather than worrying about getting a big deal agent and whether you're really a made person, which is just an anxiety that's coming from your family anyway. Now that you've chosen to do this thing that's not quite as bad as being a homosexual, but it's right up there.

You should just think about, well, maybe I want to publish a set of stories with a small press. That's what I did, thank God. And that's what I'll do with the next set of short stories. I won't try to sell them to some big New York house. It's just asking for trouble. It's not saying that if you get an offer and they're excited, you shouldn't be excited about that. But they have to be interested in the work that you want to put into the world, and you have to know what that work is. It doesn't mean you don't listen to the voice of reasonable people suggesting whether it's an agent or an editor, "Hey, I think you're headed in this direction. I think your map will be even better if you do X, Y, or Z." That's great. You should always be open to that feedback.

But if you know the kind of work you want to be writing, don't have the stars in your eyes notion that an agent is going to make it for you and that getting a big New York house is what's going to do it. Because in the end, those story collections almost never make money. And that's how they're judging you because it's an industry at that level. The smaller presses are in it to a greater extent because they really believe in art and want to put it into the world, and it will find the readers it needs to. Not a zillion of them, but the ones that it needs to find.

Daphne Kalotay:

Yeah. That's great. I have two bits of advice. The first one is to just try and get the stories published individually to give them that life. First of all, because that's satisfying to you, if that's what you're doing. You know it's been read even if it never makes it to a book. And also obviously that's something you can put in your cover letter when you are trying to attract an agent.

And then as for the luck of finally getting it published, this is my personal advice, I don't know if other people will agree. I had about four different agents interested in supposedly selling my collection that whole time when it was this weird, some linked, some not, and I didn't go with any of them. Because each one of them would say either, going back to the big house versus small, "Well, we don't sell anything unless it's $50,000 to a big house." I'm thinking, well, what if that doesn't happen? Does that mean she just gives up on me? She didn't seem like she was sure she could do that, so I didn't go with her.

I thought this other person said they were willing to go to university presses. I thought that sounds good, but she seems a little insecure about the whole thing. I don't really feel good about that. And two other people, "Well, just so you know, it's really hard to sell." I thought, I don't feel comfortable. I waited until the person called me and said, "I'm going to sell your book. Here's what you need to do." And I thought, then I'll go with this person. I think go with your gut when it comes to actually selling the thing as a book. Go with your gut when you feel like this is time for it to go out.

Ellen Litman:

I agree with Daphne about sending short stories out as you write them, as you're working on them as they become ready, because that I think helped me a lot too. Well, the idea that they get read, but also in practical terms when you are writing those letters to the agent, that helps to get the agent's attention.

And I guess the biggest advice is probably just kind of don't give up and be patient, because for every acceptance, there's also many rejections. And you know this already, but I got this with agents. I would get letters that would be just basically saying, looks good, get back to us when you have a novel. And so I got those sort of rejections from agents. And once I had an agent, I think once the collection is to follow us got rejected from a lot of places. It does take one in hopefully that there will be one place that is excited about and believes in the book, and that we'll put it out. And that's the place to wait for, I guess. And it's because it's such a subjective world that it doesn't really matter anything if 20 publishing houses rejected it. It doesn't mean that there won't be one that will accept it, will believe in it and will make it a great success. History knows those examples, as well.

Brian Evenson:

For years I fought with agents about, I had think the same thing that a lot of people here had who really wanted me to do a novel and were willing to kind of look at my stories, but that's really what they wanted to have and sell. And then finally, I have an agent now who wrote to me and had read a lot of my stories and could talk really articulately about them and likes that I do them. And even though he knows that makes him potentially a great deal less money than it might otherwise.

I do think it's great to publish in magazines. I think that that's where the life of the culture often is in small presses and small magazines and all these things that are kind of swelling up out of the ground. I also think there's different sensibilities to novelists and short story writers that you do tend to be drawn as a writer more towards one or towards the other. And as a reader, I'm much more drawn to short stories, as well. I like the precision of them. I like that you can do a lot in a short space. I like especially those writers who do a lot with language and manage to get a lot in just a few pages. And I think you probably know where you stand in regard to that, whether you're someone who gravitates more towards one thing or another. And I think it's kind of hard to fake.

When I wrote the novel that just came out, I was thinking of it as just a series of three novellas, and that worked really well as long as I was writing the first two. And then I got to the third one and realized, oh my God, this all has to come together in some way. And then I had four years of misery as I tried to figure out how to do that. But I think I basically taught myself how to do it. But again, I do feel like I'm very committed to the short story.

Deb Olin Unferth:

Well, I think that you should probably just write a novel, frankly. When my story collection got rejected everywhere, and I had an agent who really believed in the short stories. I didn't have any novels when I came to her. And she's a fantastic agent and she was so tireless, she just kept sending it. She was so nice, and it was just rejected and rejected. And she was like, "Well, you should probably write a novel finally." So I did. I spent three years writing a novel, and then I sent it to her. And she was like, "This is awful." She was like, "Your stories are so much better than this. You don't even know what the hell you're doing." And I had to admit that I didn't.

Steve Almond:

Let me just say one thing about the short story form. And I say this as somebody who also has written a couple of really bad novels. I haven't figured out how to paint on that large a canvas, and I'll feel like a failure until I do, which is fine. That's part of what a career is. You figure out what your failures are and you try to be determined and succeed.

But I think part of the reason that short stories aren't more embraced in the culture is because they make a greater emotional demand on the reader. You cannot skip a line or a paragraph or a page. And a novel is a longer experience where there are multiple plot lines going. And the best short stories, mother fucker Frank O'Connor's Guest of the Nation is better than any novel I've ever read. And most of Hemingway's short stories are better than his novels and not having read his most recent novel, but I warrant that Jesus' son. I know having read Dennis Johnson's other novel, those that Flannery O'Connor, short stories. Anybody read the Violent Bear it Away? I read it, but I don't remember it. But I remember all her short stories. They're more intense. They make a greater demand. And that is, it may be devalued in the commercial sense, but don't let that confuse you in an artistic sense.

All right, marketing stuff, write a candy book so that you eventually are known as the candy book writer. I guess that's one possibility is find another genre. The only reason that I was able to sell my second short story collection was because it was attached to the chocolate book, and I sold those just without an agent. Just send them to a few publishing houses. That's one possible strategy is find a more lucrative what the marketing people call it platform, disgustingly, but I don't know. I don't really want to talk about the marketing stuff. Everything I do, which consists of writing lots of essays and just doing a lot of, are all oriented around getting people to the work that I think is the best, which is the short stories. And so I think that's fine. Do whatever you have to do, but keep in mind that you pretty much, if you're not trying to get people to the deepest work, then you've become a different kind of writer. You become more like a writer for hire.

And it's okay if I need to support my family, so there's various kinds of writing I have to do. And I also do want to have other venues through which maybe some people might read my Dopey Dad blog and maybe get to my short stories and that would be a mitzvah. It'd be wonderful. But if that's not the end goal to be creating the best work and somehow getting readers to it, then you're just sort of a gun for hire at that point. And marketing.

Have you guys ever heard Bill Hicks talk about marketing? Anybody ever heard Bill Hicks's routine about marketing? You should kill yourself. If you're in marketing, kill yourself. No, I'm not kidding. Kill yourself.

Daphne Kalotay:

I'll just say quickly. I know there are some writers who are really good at doing things like keeping blogs and websites and stuff, or being interactive somehow with their audience, no matter how big or small that is. And I think in the end with the story collection, it's probably not going to make a huge difference in how many copies you sell, but it's whatever makes you feel like you have a hand in it or if you want to feel like you're doing something to promote it. I don't like doing that kind of thing, so I didn't do it.

But there's a marketing department, when you meet with editors, it kind of freaked me out. They introduce you to the marketing people. And that was when I realized it was about kind of can we look and see who you are and how we can market you? But maybe just pick, if you have a choice, you pick the publisher who looks like their marketers are more serious about you and have ideas about how to market you. But probably most of the time, if it's a story collection, there's not going to be a lot of push for it anyway. I don't know.

Brian Evenson:

I think it really varies from press to press. And so when I published my first book with Knopf, they gave me a marketing budget of zero. And I thought, well, this is strange. It's a big press, and it's just that they have so many other books that were bigger than mine and more interesting to them than mine that they just were, they knew they'd have a certain number of sales just by publishing the book. And so anything that was going to be done to support the book was something I had to do.

And other presses, it's been different. I had a press that got very excited because they had made a poster for me, and that was kind of the extent of their marketing. I had another press who was very excited to arrange a tour for me, but very excited to have me pay for the tour. And you learn to do certain kinds of things like that and enjoy them or at least tolerate them.

But I have other press, my most recent press Coffee House, they have to be, since they're a small press, they have to be behind every book they do. And they don't have a lot of marketing money, but they figured out ways of getting the book out to blogs. And everyone in the press ends up being very supportive of the book. And every book has to work for them. They can't just publish a book and not let it work. I think it really varies from place to place, depending on the size of the press and everything.

Steve Almond:

Brian, can I say one quick thing about that? Which is do what when it comes down to you have a book and now you're figuring out how to market, do the stuff that you really are good at and that you enjoy. For instance, when the first book came out, Heavy Metal came out, they gave me 2000 bucks, but they set up 35 readings and all around. It's like, all right, here's $2,000. Have at it. You really love doing readings. And I just slept on people's floors basically. These stupid fucking hotels. We're authors of short stories. You shouldn't be in a hotel unless it's a Motel Six.

I think that it's important to just make sure that you want to do, if there's things that you're good at, that's the stuff that you should do. If you want to call it marketing, I call it trying to get people to the work, but do the stuff that you dig.

Brian Evenson:

No, I agree with that completely. You shouldn't do a blog if you're going to do one entry on your blog and then never do it again. You go to your strengths and figure out how you're going to support it that way.

Deb Olin Unferth:

I think that marketing is really important, and it's the only thing that's going to help your next book. It's not the only thing, but it's a really important thing in terms of getting your next book accepted somewhere. No one ever does anything for me in terms of that. I have to do it all myself, and I have no idea how to do it, so it's pretty awful. I just set up a lot of readings.

I think one thing that McSweeney's did do... McSweeney's is the best because people want to just sort of get their stuff anyway. Whoever's name is on it, if it's says McSweeney's, they want it. I was really, really lucky in that regard. But one thing that they did do was they took the book, and they sent it out to a bunch of places. I guess that presses just do that, right? They send it out for reviews, and it didn't really get a lot of reviews. But it did mean that at least people knew that it existed in the world. That was really helpful.

But I set up a lot of readings just myself. I didn't do a blog or anything like that. I don't know if maybe that would've helped. I don't know. It seems to me like blogs really help, but I didn't do it.

Ellen Litman:

I also ended up setting readings, and these days editor, the official line is that readings don't sell books. Reading tours is kind of a waste of time and waste of money, and that's why publishing houses don't send short story writers on tours. But one thing I found out, I sort of set it up myself, and it wasn't as huge as 35 cities or anything like that. But it took me a while. One thing I found out that once you are actually going somewhere, there is a good chance that the publicist will actually set up an interview or try to get a book review, because you happen to be somewhere in Wisconsin or in Seattle. Interviews or a book review can pop up here and there that wouldn't have happened otherwise. That makes it make more sense to do readings well and of course connect with the people. And that's very gratifying. Though, having done that this past fall, I want to hide somewhere and not travel anywhere for the next five years. That's me.

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