got chickens?

I often see things I know to be signs of great import and meaning, but I don't know what the meaning is, so I make it up.

Today out walking in the warm, blossom rich spring air, I encountered a white rooster with a red comb. He was just stepping around a little narrow sidewalk in front of a house. The street was quiet, except for the sound of two women who sat in a parked car, talking.

I stopped and watched the rooster, maneuvering the stroller around so my daughter could see him too. He gave us the full profile, high and proud, then stepped about a little more and started scratching. There were no open gates or holes in the fence that I could see, and he could clearly fly, so I thought he had probably winged it for some fresh perspective, it being such a fine day.

Reluctant to leave him and imagining his owner's dismay at seeing him on the street, I paused near the car where the women were talking. I thought of waving to them, and saying, "Do you have chickens?" They didn't notice me, or the rooster, and continued to talk, oblivious to us.

I walked on, leaving the rooster to his sidewalk scratching and the women to their parked car chatting.

Now for the quiz: What does the white rooster in this story symbolize?

For me, the voice of my novel's character. I've been studying up on good story writing lately, reading especially those whose inventive and rockem sockem language I admire, just to get the juices flowing. The other night in the bath, it was Barry Hannah in a story from an old Best American Short Stories. What I love about that series is the feature in the back with a bio and short statement about each story by the author. Many give insight into the source of the story's content and the process of its writing. Hannah said in his blurb how key voice is, how you can get people to listen to a good story around a campfire but in black and white on the page, you've got to grab em, and you do that with voice. I'm paraphrasing.

I also read a killer one by a guy called Chris Offutt. Man o man.

But the rooster is the voice of my hero. She's got to be that unexpected, that strong, reaching her neck up to give the mighty profile when confronted with a foreign vehicle in an unprotected area, that cool--step and scratch, not bothered.

And me? I just have to be sure I'm not like the women in the car, too enamored with my own voice to see what's in front of me.


chris offutt said...

killer on what?
oh, i bet it's killer one!

anyhow, thanks


kf gallagher said...

(whoops. that's fixed now.)

thank you, chris. it's quite a thrill to hear from you. any chance i could ask you a few questions via email?

chris Offutt said...

sure, ask away.
i'll check this in an hour!

kf gallagher said...

Chris, Thanks for being willing.

If a hierarchy exists between voice, setting and plot in stories, which would you choose as most key for your work?

Do you consciously plot and plan stories, or work from an idea and wait for plot to develop through first draft development?

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?

What was your process from aspiring writer to published? Would you recommend it, or do you know of a better way?

What are the three most important things you'd tell a beginning writer?

chris offutt said...

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.

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.

The potential danger of a writing group is unsconsiously 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.

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.

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.