Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Michelle Ross, an award winning short story author, and the editor of Atticus review. For the serious writer, all her answers bear attentive reading. I’ve highlighted a few points, but really, if you write short stories, read the whole thing.
- What are your preoccupations as a writer?
Science, horror, adolescence, sex, gender, misogyny, the body, mother-daughter relationships, death, social class hierarchies, secrets and lies, cruelty and violence, failure, obsession, mythology and fairy tales, and snakes (strangely, I’ve written a couple stories about snakes now, “Rattlesnake Roundup” and “When the Cottonmouths Come to Feed,” and I don’t know why exactly except that I’m both terrified of snakes and curious about them; I seem to be generally drawn to things that scare me.)
2. Which authors have been your biggest influences?
It’s always slightly challenging to answer this question. I think the answer depends on my mood, what I’ve been writing recently, and what I’ve been reading recently. But sticking mostly with writers I’ve been rereading for many years, here’s the list that comes to mind at this moment: Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joy Williams, A.M. Homes, Yoko Ogawa, Mary Gaitskill, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, Katherine Dunn, Dana Johnson, Dan Chaon, Eric Puchner, Grace Paley, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
3. To your mind, what makes a successful short story?
A successful short story is usually one that does the following:
- The prose is sharp and tight.
- The story’s structure and content work together well, seem inevitable perhaps.
- The story is unfamiliar or at least does something unexpected. It subverts conventions, say. It surprises.
- The story is meaningful and moving in some way. By moving, I don’t necessarily mean serious; funny stories can be moving too.
- The story is memorable.
- And the best stories, I think, are those that you can read again and again and keep coming away with more to think about, more to appreciate.4. Other than length, is there a difference between a short story and flash fiction?
Flash fictions run the gamut, and so do short stories. Some flash fictions share more in common with poetry perhaps than longer short stories. Some flash fictions go so deep into character that they feel quite similar to longer stories. And some flash fictions, and longer stories, so subvert our expectations of what a story is that it’s difficult to categorize them at all. To my mind (at least at this moment), there is no one correct definition of what a story is or what a flash fiction story is. When writers do offer definitions, I think those definitions often tend to be limited by cultural trends.
One distinction between flash fiction and longer stories that I think is fairly universally true, however, is that flash fiction must be urgent. It has to jump right into the story. There isn’t space to develop multiple plot lines or to take one’s time the way there is in a story.
Also, the shorter a piece is, the more its flaws stick out. A few typos or sloppy word choices in a long story might be forgiven by an editor or reader, but much less likely in flash fiction.
5. If you had to give just three pointers on ‘writing technique’ to aspiring authors, something general creative writing books don’t tell them, what would they be?
a. Writing basically comes down to making choices. It’s really that simple. Of course, there are an infinite number of choices to make. Sometimes there is a right choice, but more often than not, there are a variety of choices that will do quite well. There are also plenty of wrong choices. The difference between a good story and a not-so-good story is that the writer of the good story made better choices. Some writers have a natural instinct for making good writing choices, just as some people are naturally good at math while others struggle no matter how hard they work; or some people have an eye for interior decorating, while others couldn’t make a room beautiful no matter how much money they had at their disposal. But comparing ourselves to others is rarely a good idea. And sheer determination and perseverance count much more in the long run than natural talent. We can all greatly improve our abilities to make good choices.
How? By learning to be more conscious of the many choices we’re making, by not taking a single word choice for granted.
How do you do that? The simple answer is by reading widely and closely and by writing, writing, writing. The more you read and write, the more cognizant and more confident you eventually become about making good writing choices.This isn’t to say you should let anxiety about making good choices paralyze you. Some writers like to think hard about their choices before they begin writing, but those of us who tend to write first drafts more blindly don’t need to think much at all about the choices we make in first drafts.
The important thing is to make choices and keep plowing ahead so as not to lose momentum. Let the subconscious do its thing. A lot of the time the subconscious delivers unexpected gifts. But the subconscious is hardly always right.
In the revision process, I try to reconsider every choice, both conscious and subconscious, made during the drafting. This means reconsidering every word. It means rewriting a difficult sentence a hundred times if necessary to get it just right. It also means being willing to change my mind again and again about big stuff, like the story’s shape and plot, until I no longer feel hesitant, until nothing nags at me anymore.
b. This one I’m stealing from George Saunders. I don’t recall where I read this exactly, but in an interview or article, Saunders said that at some point he decided to just not do the things in fiction that he didn’t enjoy doing, that bored him or whatever, say describing a setting. I adore this piece of advice.
There is no right way to write a story. In fact, a lot of the best stories tend to subvert our ideas of what a story is by shaking up conventions in some way. What I know for certain about writing is that I do my best writing when I’m having fun doing it (even if there’s something difficult about the material). So if there are conventions that bore me, then I’m better off and the story is better off by shrugging them off and doing what interests me.
I stuck with short stories for this list because as hard as it is to narrow down this list, I feel even more stretched trying to come up with a few favorite flash fictions. I also cheated and chose six.
- “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel
- “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders
- “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill
- “People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore
- “Melvin in the 6th Grade” by Dana Johnson
- “Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner
7. You’ve won many prestigious awards for your short stories. What pointers would you give a writer submitting to these?
- Don’t ever rush a story to make a contest or other deadline.
- Take your time and give yourself the distance needed to make the story the best it can be.
- There will be other contests or journals to submit to when the story is ready.
8. What would you like to see more of in the submissions to Atticus Review, and what would you like to see less?
What I’d like to see more of is writers experimenting and taking risks. And having fun. Getting a little wild on the page. At the same time, I want to see more stories in which the writers are clearly hyper-cognizant of the choices they’re making. This is not a contradiction. A little messiness/wildness in terms of story shape and plot can be great, but on the sentence level, the prose always needs to be sharp and tight. The writer needs to have carefully considered his or her choices before sending the work out.
What I’d like to see less of:
- bar scenes
- stories that open with a character waking or a description of sun coming through a window
- boring sentences that the story could do without, sentences such as “She opened the car door and stepped out of the car”
- boring, mundane dialog such as “Hello. How are you?” and in answer, “I’m fine”
- clichés, maybe especially those pertaining to women’s hair (e.g., hair described as “cascading” or as “tendrils”)
- women characters characterized by the size or shape of their breasts (that this is enough of a trend that it comes to mind now makes me tired)
- stories that make fun of characters for being fat or physically unattractive in some way
- stories in which white characters are just people, but black or brown characters are described by their skin color
- stories that are competently written but too safe and familiar and ultimately kind of boring
- stories in which the writer tries too hard to be clever, in which I can sense the writer patting him or herself on the back again and again
9. What is your comment on the future of literary magazines?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I wish there was an easy solution for whom should pay the costs associated with literary magazines. That’s a tough one. Submission fees are a serious issue that prevents writers from submitting to journals that charge them. At the same time, writers are pretty much the only audience for literary magazines, and the editors of these magazines are writers too, and someone has to pay printing costs or Submittable costs and so forth. I’m a fan of the “tip jar” solution—inviting writers/readers to contribute to the costs of the magazines they love and submit to, but not demanding they pay for the privilege of having their work considered.
Outside of financial issues, it seems to me that literary magazines, at least the online magazines, are kind of thriving. There are so many new ones starting up all the time. And a lot of them are publishing really good writing. And there’s quite a writing community out there now, largely thanks to social media and online journals and online writing courses, I think. One doesn’t have to embrace any of these things to be a successful writer, but I know that for a number of writers, having this online community helps.
10. When planning a short story collection, what factors do you keep in mind? Could you tell us about your collection There’s So Much They haven’t Told You?
A story collection isn’t simply a grouping of stories; it’s also the sum of its parts. Reading the stories individually is different from reading them together as a book. A collection is an opportunity to bring greater meaning to the individual stories, and to do that, one has to be cognizant of a variety of factors:
- story length
- point of view
- style and structure
I strive to order the stories in my book in ways so that the collection as a whole feels varied (i.e. just as you want to vary sentence length in a story, you want to vary story length, tone, etc. in a collection) but also meaningful.
For example, I placed a flash fiction “Prologue” next to a longer story “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” because, albeit in different ways, both are about complicated mother-daughter relationships and also because “Prologue” is a retelling of the story of Hansel and Gretel and “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” at one point alludes to this tale. I placed “How Many Ways Can You Die on a Bus?” next to “Sex Ed.” because the former story ends on the word “sex,” and with the naïve young protagonists fantasizing about their fabulous futures as adults, while the latter story begins with sex and kind of fast-forwards to the more grim reality of transitioning into adulthood.
Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Do you read more short stories or novels? What sort of short stories do you like? Have you read Michelle’s work before? As a reader or writer, do you have questions for Michelle Ross?
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