I used to think that a short story collection was just an author’s previously written short stories cobbled together. And then, five years ago, I ran into Molly Antopol at AWP in Denver and asked her what she was working on. She said, “A short story collection, “and it was like the first time it occurred to me that a collection isn’t random. It’s planned. It has a theme and a feeling to it. So, I started looking at my stories differently. What was I really trying to talk about in the ones I’d written, and how did I want to continue to explore that going forward? I knew I was writing about the ways we get broken, and how we live with that, how we can remain whole, despite our brokenness.

When I started sending the collection out, I didn’t really have a sense of how to organize it. I was trying to think like an editor — ordering the stories so the book, as a whole, had its own narrative arc (“Man, if I end on this story the reader will be simultaneously devastated and fulfilled!”). The collection kept getting rejected, then Natalie Serber (author of Shout Her Lovely Name) told me to front load it with my absolutely strongest work. Make the editor fall in love immediately, and they’ll be more likely to either edit less successful pieces later on, or say, “Okay, just because the second-to-the-last story doesn’t work doesn’t mean this isn’t a great collection.” Which should seem obvious, right? But it was a revelation to me.

Liz Prato
Interview in The Rumpus 7th May 2015

how you revise

January 1, 2020

My sense of a poem — my notion of how you revise — is: you get yourself into a state where what you are intensely conscious of is not why you wrote it or how you wrote it, but what you wrote. You just read it as a piece, as someone else might read it, and you see where it’s alive. If that voice that you created that is most alive in the poem isn’t carried throughout the whole poem, then I destroy where it’s not there, and I reconstruct it so that that voice is the dominant voice in the poem.

Philip Levine
Interview with J.M. Spalding and Guy Shahar for The Cortland Review – Issue Seven – May 1999

I had to write

July 19, 2019

I spend a year researching my books before I start them, and they slowly take shape over the course of the year. With Monsters (The Monsters of Templeton) I had to write four completely different drafts — with different techniques, different modes of storytelling — before jettisoning the drafts and starting anew. But with Arcadia, I knew, pretty much from the beginning, what the overall arc of the story was going to be (paradise lost, semi-regained), and so I had the architecture of the book in my head before I began. The trouble was balancing everything in storytelling, which was breathtakingly difficult in that book.

Lauren Groff
Interview in Superstition issue 11

I write in longhand. I am accustomed to that proximity, that feel of writing. Then I sit down and type. And then I retype, correct, retype, and keep going until it’s finished. It’s been demonstrated to me many times that there is some inefficiency in this, but I find that the ease of moving a paragraph is not really what I need. I need the opportunity to write this sentence again, to say it to myself again, to look at the paragraph once more, and actually to go through the whole text, line by line, very carefully, writing it out. There may be even some kind of mimetic impulse here where I am trying to write like myself, so to speak…I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another.

James Salter
Interview in Paris Review Summer 1993

Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult. Actually, I’ve done it recently. The story “Carried Away” was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I’d have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So, I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behaviour. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.

Alice Munro
Interview with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson
Paris Review Summer 1994

the writing process

January 27, 2019

For me, the writing process is something related to like exercising your body, taking a walk, stretching. It’s better if you do it on a regular basis. You won’t be as stiff, so all my life I’ve tried to write every day. It doesn’t have to be great. Doesn’t have to be even good. Just keep that pen rolling. Write down you know, whether you’re writing a journal of what’s been happening during the day or signs you saw that day or conversations you overhead.

It really doesn’t matter what you’re writing every day whether you’re working on a project at every given moment or not, but keep the pencil, the pen moving and the more you write, the more you feel writing as a process, as a world that can be shaped and reshaped and re-envisioned. I really love the word “revise,” like a new vision, revision or something and of course when you’re young you don’t realize that that’s the most fun part of writing, going back to something and, you know, throwing parts out, adding parts in, giving another scene, sharpening a conversation.

But the more you write, the more you treasure that part of it. So I still stick to my primitive travel with a pencil sharpener at all times, my primitive tactics and when I was a kid I felt happy to participate in the cheapest art as I saw it. You know, it seemed like kids who wanted to be ballerinas, for example, you know, that cost their parents a lot of money, a lot of tutus, a lot of lessons, a lot of shoes and to be a writer was like a dollar, $1 for a notebook, a pencil, a pencil sharpener.

So I always carry my tools with me and it’s very portable art, so I believe in writing every day and revising frequently and there’s nothing scary or negative about revision. It’s a very positive building, making part of the process.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Interview on AdLit.org

need to rebuild

November 17, 2018

In general, I look for placeholder language when I revise. That is, moments in poems where the language seems to get habitual and is, let’s say, falling down the stairs in an uninteresting way. Those are the spots I need to tend to. Often, those spots are indicative of larger structural issues I need to address. Like, I need to rebuild the stairs so the falling down them gets more interesting. Or, I need to remove the railing so the falling can happen more quickly. Or, I need to install a new spiral-y railing so the falling knows where it’s going. I realize I’m extending this falling-down-the-stairs metaphor very, very far. But what this metaphor also demonstrates is that for real revision, I need to immerse completely in the world of the poem; I have to move through it intuitively and with everything I’ve got.

Chen Chen
Interview with Allison Peters for the Michigan Quarterly Review

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Charles Bukowski

years of revision

December 17, 2017

Karl Christian Ludwig Hofer aka Carl Hofer

I started thinking about the story about ten years ago, but didn’t fully commit until about five years ago. It took me a year to write the first draft, another year to revise it for submission, two years of revision with my editor, and another year in the cooker at Penguin. Such a long process…

…towards the end, I had to rely on my inner voice. I knew I’d put in the work. I’d agonized over every word. I was able to let go of the manuscript knowing that I’d done the best work I could possibly do on my own. It was extremely gratifying to have such a strong and immediate response from agents and editors. I knew I was on to something good.

Kim Liggett
Interview with Lisa Morton, December 2015, for Nightmare Magazine

leave the wretched thing alone

September 29, 2017


I do revise a little as I go along. When it flows, as a rule I don’t need to change more than perhaps the odd word or emphasis. Sometimes I need to add in a short passage, or remove ditto, or move an existing one up or down the line. Sometimes the scrawl is so uncivilized I realize even I won’t be able to translate it by the hour I again reach that point during typing, so I rewrite it slightly more legibly. As I type out the MS I may also change some small thing. Rarely does it amount to much. Now and then, luckily for me not often, I may struggle (at the longhand stage) over a tiny paragraph or piece of continuity. I’ve found, across time, (having been writing since 9, that’s roughly 55 years) that the best way here is to leave the wretched thing alone and go on regardless. Almost always, a while later on returning to the scene of the crime, I can sort it out in 10 minutes or less. Here and there I may, and have become, stuck. In some of the huger novels, especially the early ones, a certain amount of these stickings seemed very much in the nature of the beast. One swam, floated and flew for 150-200 pages — than ran into a granite mountainside. But by slow, persistent hacking with a mental axe, or scraping with a mental knife — or sometimes blowing the whole confounded mess up with mental high explosives — I’d eventually emerge into the light.

Worse by far than these hold-ups are, however, the very few novels / stories that simply would NOT start. A fine example of this is the first Piratica book. I’d engaged enthusiastically to write about pirates….It was, though, to be a YA scenario. I don’t pull punches, whatever I write, but obviously in work for a younger audience, I firmly believe in keeping the worst sorts of violence off-stage. And so I had to face up to how difficult this would be, when dealing with some of the most blood-gulpingly ruthless and foul thieves on Earth. The book duly went into hiding. After about 5 false starts, (some of the material of which I was still able to use later in the book) my genius husband suggested (it’s by now fairly well known, so not too much of a spoiler, I hope) that with my heroine at least I could begin — not among throat-cutting crews, but with the talented actors who played them in The Theatre. (Actors are some of my favourite people). And inside a couple of days the book was off and sailing fast. Certainly, as it progressed, the real vile wickeds came in, but by then we all had our sea-legs, and there were, for me — as opposed to my characters — no problems at all.

Tanith Lee
Interview with the Chronicles Network November 2004