Quotes that Say Something

"Please, dad, get down and look. I think there's some kind of monster under my bed."

Life when seen in close-up often seems tragic, but in wide-angle it often seems comic. -- Charlie Chaplin

"And when the cloudbursts thunder in your ear, you shout, but no one's there to hear. And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." -- Roger Waters, "Brain Damage"

Dec 15, 2013

Madness and Courage: Writing Short Fiction

            So thinking about these (writers), batshit-crazy and full of hope and dread, (who)
             trust our readers to judge their work, and for us to print their work, I used the
             word sacred. It still seems right in some way . . .  Art is made by anarchists and
             then sorted by bureaucrats.
                                                                                              Dave Eggers on
                                                                                                     The Best of McSweeney's

        This week, I have found myself reading about, talking about (to a few people), and desiring to write about what it's like to focus -- as a writer and creator -- on the short story in the American lit tradition.

       Need a definition of what makes a 'short story?' It encompasses more sophisticated criteria than just a story's word count. For example, 'flash fiction' (or a flash story) might be 1000 words or less. A traditional short story might be considered 1000 to 10,000 -- or perhaps a max of 15,000 words. Longer stories of approximately 15,000 words up to 50-60,000 should be characterized as novellas -- i.e., brief novels. Ask someone else how they might define such matters though and you might get some different estimates.

       Want more ideas on this subject? Though some points in this article are not well-made nor properly nuanced, try this for starters:


      Want to read a commentary that has more texture and depth? Try the book: The Short Story by Sean O'Faolain.

      My university degree studies long ago introduced me, in depth, to the English, Irish, and U.S. traditions of the short story. To this day, literature majors continue to learn how this type of fiction evolved while the 20th century unfolded then gave way to the 21st. 

      Some contemporary critiques of short story writing have focused wordcounts of course, but more crucially they have centered on the key fiction elements such as plot-development, character development, story structure, and literary techniques that are employed.

    The Irish short story has been subjected for decades to a serious, evolving corpus of theory. The great James Joyce's stories are confessional pieces and often predicated on epiphanies -- moments of heightened perception among protagonists. Sean O'Faolain and others have advocated a realist approach in short stories that leads characters in short stories to focus on a moment of life crisis or change. A great American author, Flannery O'Connor (in the U.S.), saw Irish stories as expressions of human loneliness.

     Still, some scholars who study modern literature think that holding stubbornly to overly-defined and stringent rules re: the development of short fiction is stifling. Like me, they seem to imply that you have to break a few eggs, as it were, to cookup (on a PC or a legal pad, etc.) a tasty, innovative, and relevant omelet today.

     But in all cases, the fiction writer should strive in a focused manner to draw upon the ancient art of oral storytelling. Critical guidelines for doing this are:

               Have a main theme or point
               Limit yourself to just the precise words you need
               Use symbols and metaphors 
               Use these creatively and judiciously
               Remember, plot really is character.
               It's okay t0 write about what you know

       As Mr. Eggers (see epigraph above) asserts, short story writing comes from a dynamic mixture of personal courage and flat-out madness in the author. It's always a difficult mission to fulfill. The guidelines I just mentioned should convince you. So, keep it simple then. Tell your tale deftly and succinctly so that it discloses (reveals) something new about real life to your unwitting but expectant readers -- and perhaps to you too.

     Finally, write like you are communicating about (i.e., seeing) something in/about the world for the very first time. Invite readers to experience this 'what's new' factor while you act as their navigator. 

     Why?, Eggers asks. (Because) Art is made by anarchists and sorted by bureaucrats."  That's right, creation is anarchic and essential to finding the meaning of life.

--  Butch Ekstrom  (12-20-13)



Dave Eggers is the founder and editor of -- a journal that publishes short fiction.

Original Web Source  (see below): http://www.salon.com/2013/12/13/dave_eggers_it_takes_a_particular_mix_of_madness_and_courage_to_write_short_stories/

Madness and Courage: Discovering New Writers

by Dave Eggers

Publishing other people’s work is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than publishing your own. Publishing your own work is fraught with complicated, even tortured, feelings. Invariably you believe that you’ve failed. That you could have done better. That if you were given another month or another year, you would have achieved what you set out to do.

Actually, it’s not always that bad. But usually it is.

Publishing someone else’s work, though, is uncomplicated. You can be an unabashed champion of that work. You can finish reading it, or finish editing it, and know that it’s done, that people will love it, and that you can’t wait to print it. That feeling is strong, and it’s simple, and it’s pure.

That’s what’s driven McSweeney’s for fifteen years now—far beyond the four or eight issues we originally thought this journal would run. We thought the fun of it would end after a year or so, but that feeling, of finding a new voice, or a new piece by an established voice, and setting it into type and printing it and sending it into the world, is still just as good as it was back when we started in 1998.

Back then, it was me opening submission envelopes in my kitchen, and being astonished that anyone would trust this new quarterly with their work. When I was the only one reading the submissions, I was an easy audience. I was so overwhelmed with the whole thing that I pretty much accepted every other story. And then I couldn’t wait to get them into print.
 would usually accept a story and lay it out the same day. If I couldn’t get a digital version of it soon enough, I would just retype the whole story and lay it out that night. This is what I’m talking about: this simple and good feeling of knowing you’ll be able to introduce a new writer to new readers.

Early on, most of the writers in McSweeney’s were lesser known, or were starting out in their careers. After a few issues, we began getting work from some established authors—even without asking, which was startling—and since then, our goal has been to balance these known quantities with the newcomers, and balance both of them with an eye toward occasional experimentation -- some of these experiments improbably successful. Sometimes these commissions were simple acts of matching a great writer to unusual subject matter. Thus we sent Andrew Sean Greer to a weekend NASCAR rally in Michigan. Sometimes these commissions were based on iffy notions that yielded great results—for example, when we asked dozens of writers to each write a short story in 20 minutes. In one issue we asked our writers to write stories based on the notebook jottings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In another we asked them to help resurrect dead forms like the pantoum and biji.


But most of what we’ve published over the years has simply come through the mail. We still open every submission envelope, and each time we do, we want to be surprised, we want to be reawakened. I’m rarely the person opening these envelopes anymore, but the other day, while talking to the volunteer readers about the responsibility entrusted to them, I found myself using the word sacred. It was hyperbole, I’m sure, but here’s what I meant: it takes a particular mix of madness and courage to write short stories—they do not pay the rent, they are not widely read—and it takes even greater courage to put them in the mail, submitting them for judgment by strangers. So thinking about these senders, batshit-crazy and full of hope and dread, and the fact that they would entrust our readers to judge their work, and for us to print their work, I used the word sacred. It still seems right in some way
Art is made by anarchists and sorted by bureaucrats.

Thus, over the years, there have been a few bureaucrats who, feeling the need to categorize and label, have posited that McSweeney’s has some house style. But this is not the case. Even the earliest issues, which even I assumed did lean toward the experimental, always balanced these formal forays with more traditional storytelling. Issue Three, for example, included a story by David Foster Wallace that we ran on the spine, but it also featured a 25,000-word essay about a writer’s correspondence with Ted Kascynski. This balance has held true ever since. We’ve sought to publish the best work we can, no matter its genre or approach or author. We’ve published everything from oral histories from Zimbabwe to experimental prose-poems from Norway. The only thing common to all in this collection, to the work in every one of our 45 issues so far, is that the work was good and told us something new.

Some years ago, I was in Galway, Ireland, and happened to meet a man named Timothy McSweeney. I got to know him and his wife, Maura, who also had the last name McSweeney. We talked about a writer she liked, and she said, “He writes like he’s seeing the world for the first time.” That’s what we look for—writers who make us feel like they’re seeing their world, whatever world that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words.

Excerpted from “The Best of McSweeney’s.” Published by McSweeney’s Books. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

Dave Eggers is the author of "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."
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