Stephen Delaney

Writer. Editor. Manuscript Reader.

Author: Stephen Delaney

Writing Spurs

After I’ve finished a story—and submitted it to journals so I won’t read it “one last time” again—my emotions typically range from relief, euphoria, and nervousness. Nervousness because my next project’s unknown, and because (an inner voice nags) this nonwriting period might last.

To shorten it, I ask myself questions. The method’s not foolproof (and sometimes, I’ve learned, downtime is more helpful than it can seem), but it does make me feel more grounded and in control of my own process.

When between projects, consider these five questions. With thought and a bit of luck, they might steer you toward your next story.

 

1) What helped spur your previous work(s)? Was it a prompt word? A writing exercise? Did the piece start with an image or snatch of dialogue?

2) Rereading a finished story, consider what worked and ask why. The idea here is to find your writing’s strengths, which you can build on when starting your next project.

3) Kim Chinquee has said her longer works often grow out of shorter ones that seem to need “filling out.” Reviewing one or more piece, can you see situations, places, or ideas you’d like to develop?

4) Study a finished story’s notes or drafts, learning what you can from your process. How did the various elements (e.g., plot and character) emerge over time as you wrote?

5) What subjects do you keep returning to? Could you explore one from a different angle? Through different eyes or circumstances?

Small Stories

Mailboxes, 2001

Mailboxes at sunset

 

Recently at matchbook, I had a short piece published explaining my mixed feelings toward micro-fiction. If you have any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear from you.

You can read the piece and a new story here.

 

Below are some venues for small stories. I’ll update the list as I come across more journals.

100 Word Story

111O

blink-ink

Cheap Pop

Corium

Cuento Magazine

DASH

Flash Magazine

Gigantic

Inch Magazine

matchbook

Matter Press

minor literature[s]

Monkeybicycle

NANO Fiction

Nanoism

New Flash Fiction

New World Writing

The Offing

Smokelong Quarterly

Sporklet

Sundog Lit

Threadcount

TXTOBJX

Vestal Review

Wigleaf

Word Riot

Stretching the Story

Bridge, 1998

Bridge, 1998

Lately I’ve been thinking about the range of stories out there, and authors who changed what readers expect from the form. Writers who stretched and reshaped it, influencing later writers or (if obscure or contemporary) suggesting story shapes the future might hold.

What modern-day tale-teller, for instance, devoted to compression and unity, doesn’t work under the shadow of Poe? Joycean epiphanies are so ingrained in us it takes an extra effort to resist them. And who besides Clarice Lispector ever magnified scenes so fervidly, to the extent that despite their lack of plot they pull us in and don’t let go?

Good writers can be rebels, but it isn’t mere orneriness that leads them to break rules and find new ones. New forms, new rules are means of expression, tools to dig deeper, to approach problems specific to one’s time. “Stretching” a story can mean reconfiguring its building blocks, questioning accepted wisdom when the truths of the narrative—found in its characters, its emotional core, its subjects—lead elsewhere. A risky business, but one that when successful imparts vigor and diehard honesty to the prose.

Below are collections of stories (roughly chronological) that in some way or another shook the form. The list is subjective and incomplete, and I’ve left out many amazing authors whose work is, at least surfacewise, more traditional. Also, some stories might seem traditional now, but they weren’t at the time they were written. And note that a few works, such as those by Baudelaire and Michaux, are sometimes labeled “prose poems,” but they seem to me more “prose” than “poem” and even more like today’s “flash fiction.”

I hope these help you to discover what short fiction is—and what it can do and might be.

 

Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems

Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales

Anton Chekhov, Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov

Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen

Sarah Orne Jewett, A White Heron and Other Stories

Henry James, Complete Stories, 1892–1898

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories

Robert Walser, Selected Stories

James Joyce, Dubliners

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

D. H. Lawrence, Selected Stories

Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories

Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

Henri Michaux, Selected Writings

Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass

Nathalie Sarraute, Tropisms

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style

Jean Ferry, The Conductor and Other Tales

Clarice Lispector, Family Ties

Julio Cortazar, Blow-Up and Other Stories

Janet Frame, The Selected Stories of Janet Frame

Paul Bowles, The Stories of Paul Bowles

Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots

Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Samuel R. Delany, Aye, and Gomorrah

Robert Gluck, Elements

Lars Gustafsson, Stories of Happy People

John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

Raymond Carver, Collected Stories

Kobo Abe, Beyond the Curve

Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower

Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

Peter Orner, Esther Stories

Carol Emshwiller, Report to the Men’s Club

Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

Charles Baxter, There’s Something I Want You to Do

Story Lists

blog6-forest (2)
Loire Valley, 1999

While writing short fiction, I’ve started to create, in a plain white 4” by 6” memo pad, what I’ve come to refer to as “story lists.” Using these most likely stems from insecurity and my steadfast belief in method’s magic: I want to, if not clinch writing’s Theory of Everything, at least uncover guidelines that push me toward likely success. Then, once a story is written (with the guide posts I followed recorded), I can reuse my list to orient myself and make my next story’s process less wild.

Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. But I do find the practice worthwhile, with the caveat that what’s helpful for one piece may, for another one, be entirely useless, and that the lists be works-in-progress, always amenable to change.

What follows is part of a list I wrote for a completed (forthcoming) flash story. I’m including it to give you ideas for your own lists, but keep in mind that what worked for me might be wrong for you—at least wrong for the story you’re working on. Gut hunches, half-formed ideas, and experimenting all play important roles, and as such we only want to make the process more wieldy, not limit our freedom and range.

– Force change on Jack and Staci; disrupt their relationship routines.
– Accept “messy” feeling as write. It’s okay. I’ve felt this way before and passed through it.
– “Test” characters’ feelings by comparing their experiences to own memories. Any responses ring false?
– Style more subjective, skewed like Jack’s viewpoint.
– Be fair to both sides of the issue; make the outcome/winner uncertain.
– Are the characters different enough from me? Is there something about them to relate to?
– Style high-flown or poetic? Toward honesty? Ego? Both?

Now, the difference between story lists and notes. As I write, I also jot things down in a small ruled notebook—revisions, ideas for future scenes, questions I want to explore. Typically, these are more specific than what’s in my story lists, relating to one problem or scene, while list items tend to be general and higher tiered, worth reviewing many times. Of course there’s some overlap (and with either tool, some items are written and later nixed), but the idea behind story lists is to have something to fall back on, a place to reflect and refocus.

Also, note that some days the items were in the form of moral support (“I’ve felt this way before…”); some days they were writing tips (“Be fair to both sides…”), things I’d heard or read that seemed relevant; while other times they were more exploratory (thoughts about style), tracking my growing awareness of this specific story’s needs.

I hope you find story lists useful. Think of them as words of advice and support—ideas that can prod you through, and just maybe past, the unknown terrain that’s calling.

Recommended Books

blog4-winter001
Loches in winter, 1998

Here are a few books you might find helpful. I’m not too fond of labels, but most of these are more geared toward literary fiction (emphasis on character and language over plot) than typical genre writing. I’ve put asterisks by those titles that are more generalized or that apply to more than one mode.

 

Baxter, Charles, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

Baxter, Charles, Burning Down the House

Bradbury, Ray, Zen in the Art of Writing*

Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Butler, Robert Olen, From Where You Dream

Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Checkoway, Julie (editor), Creating Fiction

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow* (on creativity)

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction

Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones*

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft*

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft*

Olmstead, Robert, Elements of the Writing Craft

Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer

See, Carolyn, Making a Literary Life

Strunk, William C., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style*

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