We've all sought out or come across writing advice as we hone this skill. One way I try to teach myself about what works is to read, read, read. Well, it turns out I'm not alone.
Chris Offutt was mentioned in this space as the author of one story I read, Melungeons, that blew me away and taught me a lot. Offutt is the author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, the novel The Good Brother, and two memoirs, The Same River Twice and No Heroes (Tin House Contributors, Vol 7 No 1). Offutt read the blog post and wrote to me in the comments section. In my reply I asked if he'd be willing to answer a few questions. Willing he was, and here are my questions and his answers. I'm sharing them because they're simply right on target--no magic formulas and no turning back.
KFG: If a hierarchy exists between voice, setting and plot in stories, which would you choose as most key for your work?
CO: I don't see a hierarchy among those three. Foremost is language itself, then character. I like stories with a strong sense of place in order to ground the character in a firm reality. Voice is how the writer thinks, the confidence inherent in the language. Narrative is what happens; plot is why it happens. A character's reaction to setting and event informs voice. My chief interest is learning how the character responds to difficult circumstances.
KFG: Do you consciously plot and plan stories, or work from an idea and wait for plot to develop through first draft development?
CO: My stories tend to evolve through the process of revision. I often think about them a good long while before writing. But I try hard not to impose myself upon them. It's better to give them free rein. I've ruined a few stories by trying to force them to be a certain way.
When I feel that I can't do anything more with a story, I set it aside for a few months. The number of revisions isn't crucial to me. What matters is gaining sufficient emotional distance from the story in order to revise it with a clear head. On average, my stories lie around for 2 years or so, and run to 15 drafts.
KFG: A story of mine just got raves at my writing group. It's in the fifth or sixth draft, with another to come. If it were yours, would you send it to a smaller literary magazine or to a big time one? Do you think getting published in little magazines accomplishes much for a writer? Do you think unknown writers (like myself) have much chance of getting published in big magazines?
CO: The potential danger of a writing group is unconsiously trying to write for their approval. If I believe the raves are fully legitimate, I might cease working so hard. Turning that around, if a story gets trashed by the writing group, I risk revising it to please the group dynamic. Feedback is necessary. Always listening to it isn't.
Yes, publishing in small magazines helps a writer. First, you feel good for getting in print! Second, strangers somewhere are reading it. Third, agents and anthology editors follow literary magazines, looking for strong material. Fourth, when you have enough stories for a collection, the fact that some have been published in literary magazines gives publishers a certain confidence. Fifth, publication is just plain cool.
I don't know the chances you or anyone has of getting published in big magazines. I do know that if you don't try, you never will.
KFG: What was your process from aspiring writer to published? Would you recommend it, or do you know of a better way?
CO: My process from aspiring writer to publication is embarassing to admit. I wrote stories for 10 years and never sent them out because I was too terrified of rejection. At age 32, I was shamed into it by a poet who assumed I sent work out, and was shocked that I didn't. To offset my fear, I decided to make rejection itself my goal. I wanted to get 100 rejections in a year. Things went well until #87, when a tiny magazine published my first story. It felt good. Last year I published two stories, and harvested 11 rejections. Each rejection hurt. But I'm getting better at accepting them as part of the whole deal.
I recommend finding the process that works best for you. My lame method did for me.
KFG: What are the three most important things you'd tell a beginning writer?
Three most important things for a young writer? Read, read, read. Try to write one minute per day minimum. (That works for me.) Only listen to 20% of any feedback. Read your work aloud to yourself. Trust yourself to improve with steady effort. Don't drink too much. Try to avoid full-time jobs. Make sure your romantic partner is absolutely fully supportive of your efforts. (If not--either you won't write or you'll break up.) Read, read, read.
Literary achievement is based on commitment, discipline, and endurance. For thirty years I've had one motto: Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.
You can't really hear this kind of advice enough, or at least I can't. Thanks, Chris.