“500 Words” by Valley Haggard – Fact and Fiction: The Best of Both Worlds

Valley Haggard is the moderator for this year’s VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which celebrates Justin Torres’s first novel, “We the Animals.”  She is the founder and director of Richmond Young Writers, a year round program for students, and teaches creative nonfiction workshops and retreats for adults. She served as Style Weekly’s book editor from 2004-2011, sat on the board of the James River Writers from 2008-2011, has written regularly for various publications and currently has a monthly column in Belle, Style’s Magazine for Women. (more…)

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“500 Words” by Harry Kollatz: Five Pages Every Day

Photo by Amie Oliver

Harry Kollatz, Jr., is a writer for Richmond magazine and the author of several nonfiction books about the city. Having been lured to the dark side (fiction), he was a member of the workshop from 2010 to 2011.

On May 11, 2011, I started a project of writing five pages each day on a novel-in-progress already underway.  I’d started it in VCU’s year-long workshop, the class had just ended, and I needed a way to keep myself anchored to the project.  My wife thoughtfully departed for an artist’s residency in Paris, leaving me adrift.  I had to come up with a Plan.

Part of my challenge was overcoming the desire to rewrite the same twenty pages for weeks at a time.  I had to motivate myself to
move forward.  So, like a captive or castaway, I decided to draw hash marks on my office wall to record the progress. Five hash marks per day–four vertical and a diagonal strike through them. The schedule calls for getting up around 6 a.m., to crank out five one-sided, space-and-a-half 18-point pages. This setup makes for easy, visible revision reading and corrections I know I’ll make someday.


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“500 Words” by Leslie Pietrzyk: My First Novels

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many journals, including The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, The Sun, and The Washington Post Magazine. She teaches in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University and in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College. She is the editor of Redux, an internet literary journal that features previously published work not available elsewhere online, and she blogs regularly at Work-in-Progress.

It all depends on what one means by the word “first.” My first official novel is Pears on a Willow Tree, published by Avon Books. It started as a short story–not a novel–and it wasn’t a novel for a long time but a family of mothers and daughters about whom I kept having questions I needed answered. The way to answer those questions was to write another story about them. Eventually, I saw that I had a novel. At about this point, an agent read one of the chapters in a literary journal and called me: Did I have a novel I could send her? Yes, it so happened that I did. After some revising, she sold the book in the first batch of submissions to editors. Yay!

That sounds easy, doesn’t it?

But there had been an earlier first novel that I had written: a full 300-page manuscript. After much querying, I found a great agent for that book, and she sent it out to everyone and then some. In exchange, I received a lot of nice rejection letters from editors. That book was never published, and probably rightfully so.

So I wrote another first novel, another 300 pages. While there are aspects of this novel that I still like, it had some major flaws, and though I queried a couple of agents, no one was interested. I knew the book wasn’t right, and I wasn’t interested in those characters anymore, so I gave up quickly (considering I’d just spent three years writing the book).

So I wrote my third first novel. This novel brought together everything I had learned from writing the first two books. I got dozens of very nice rejection letters from agents, but no one agreed to represent it and there was no clear consensus on what was “wrong” with the book. If I were ever to undertake the major revision that would be needed for one of these early novels, this is the one I would choose to revise. (Not that I plan to, but if.)

And then I wrote Pears on a Willow Tree–maybe twelve years after that first first novel. I suppose it would have been nice to come up with Pears on a Willow Tree right from the start, and to save all that time and energy and paper. Of course, doing it that way would have been impossible. I had to learn how to write a first novel before I could publish one.

Then I had to learn how to write a second novel, but that’s another story.

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“500 Words” by Rae Bryant: From “Genesis” to Marrow: Turning a Three-Page Short Story into a Novel

Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, was released from Patasola Press in June 2011 and has been nominated for the PEN Hemingway award. Her stories have appeared or are soon appearing in StoryQuarterly, BLIP magazine, Gargoyle magazine, and Opium Magazine, among other publications. Rae has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a master’s in writing and currently teaches multimedia and creative writing. She is also the editor of the highly regarded journal Moon Milk Review. Read more at www.raebryant.com.

My short-short story “A Pop-Modern Genesis,” published in Gargoyle magazine, came to me in a playful form while I pondered what a postmodern Garden of Eden might be. Somewhere in that vision, the Garden became a Super Walmart, and Adam and Eve, small business owners. The American Dream turned on its sins. The structure wanted to be surreal and liquid. Psychedelic. For this story, that meant short form.

Poe argued that a story needs a “single effect.” This notion stuck with me as a young writer, and I’ve thought about it a good deal over the years. I think it comes down to connection between reader and story, especially for surreal stories. The short form allows a writer to play with this single effect within rolling landscapes and wild pathways while also allowing accessibility in length. Just as a poem is meant to be read more than once, so is the short story. The same can be said of a novel, but not many readers have time to reread novels as they would short stories or poems. So how does one adapt a surreal three-page short story into a novel with some element of accessibility?

Originally, I thought adaptation meant changing the surrealism to realism. This was an issue because the surrealism in “Genesis” wasn’t merely stylistic but also structural. Okay, rewrite the entire story. Problem was, pockets of magic realism repeatedly found their way into the realism. On top of this, it was the spring of 2011 and my debut collection of short stories, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, was in full editing and release mode. I was trying to write a “realism” novel while working with my publisher on a stylistically diverse collection of short stories. Yes, it all played havoc on my creativities, and the novel has taken a number of turns and parries. In truth, the novel has slapped me upside the head more than once. Finally, I had to let go of the prescribed definition of Realism, yes the one with the capital “R,” and let the novel do what it wanted to do. Interestingly, the manuscript is stronger for it.

On the topic of length: It was never a problem. The short form presented a beginning framework for the novel, and exploring characters and details are the essences of building any story. Now, the novel’s story is really quite different than its “Genesis.” I seem to be writing short stories within the larger context of an overall intellectual landscape, a form I’ve enjoyed in other works, notably Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Some of the scenes want a surreal element, while others call for more realism, and because the sections are character-specific, each takes its own structural nuance while keeping a piece of the overall landscape–or at least that’s the idea. Appears to be working so far, on good days. On the not so good days, I give it a rest, have a glass of wine, and return tomorrow.

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“500 Words” by Amira Pierce: Pep Talk to Self

Amira Pierce received an MFA in Fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her first short story to be published, “Gun, Rainbow, Husband, Key,” was awarded the A. David Schwartz Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from Cream City Review. She has lived in New York City, Cairo, Egypt, San Francisco, and San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico and currently teaches writing composition at VCU. She is at work on a collection of stories and a novel.

I started drafting a novel last year. It was my third such attempt. I wrote nearly two-thirds of it, with the support of an weekly workshop and a generous and knowledgeable professor. It was helpful to have regular deadlines, to know that every few weeks I had twelve readers at my disposal. It’s quite a gift, I realize now, a way I didn’t think of it enough of the time, then.

This summer, though class was over, I kept up with the writing with the help of a trusty colleague from the workshop, as well as two weeks at an artists’ residency in Maine–fourteen days on an island covered in pine forest with no responsibilities or expectations. I wish now I had been more frugal with those precious days up north. In addition to fiddling around and revising stories I’d already revised many times, tweaking endings and reading through story lines for sense-making, I did draft a handful of new novel scenes, moving my plot nearly to its next section, and clarifying certain ideas about how I will rewrite when I’m ready to go back to the beginning. I grab my head: I could have done so much more! If only it were still July!

But my project now is to get back to moving forward, and it’s not summer again but fall. To be truthful, the novel has been doing little but standing still since Maine. I won’t bore you with detailing how life has changed now that school is over, how many new responsibilities and goals and stresses. But I will tell you this: the novel is always with me, albeit as a quiet voice as of late.

Most often, when people ask me about it, I say that it’s going fine and find a way to move the conversation along, but a few times lately, I’ve had real conversations about it–about motivation in the rape scenario I am hung up on, about what it is my two main characters really want, about the ramifications of focusing on Arab characters and the Arab world. Each exchange stirs me and makes me realize: I still care about this project, despite getting caught in the rush of everyday life. After all, people who have kids write during nap times and Young Einstein. People who work sixty hours a week write on the train on the way to the office. People with eighty students and twice weekly meetings write by talking to a tape recorder as they walk their dogs. People write stories in their minds while falling asleep at night and wake early to jot them down. And none of those people are me, but I will find my own way. After all, people write, everywhere, all the time.

So, I will not complain. I will not try to explain to you why it’s so hard to write these days. Instead, I will promise to get back into the groove of it, into the place where I get lost in scenes and characters, where they follow me around in all the other parts of my life, not whispering, but shouting. I will swear to you that the novel will get done, and it will happen sooner rather than later. My separated main characters will reunite. Their problems will find certain resolutions. Their worlds will collide and then settle.

Got to go now. Got to go write.

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“500 Words” by Cynthia Gralla: Breaking an Editor’s Heart

Cynthia Gralla’s first novel, The Floating World (Ballantine 2003), addressed themes she later analyzed in a scholarly monograph, The Demimonde in Japanese Literature: Sexuality and the Literary Karyúkai (Cambria 2011). Her writing has been praised for its lyrical approach to the dark side of self-destructive sexuality and the hunger for artistic expression. Having earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley, she’s currently working on a new novel about five generations of a Polish Catholic family.

One of the things that strikes me most strongly, in retrospect, about how my first novel, The Floating World, evolved from wrinkled, whiteout-streaked manuscript to compact, strikingly illustrated, and published–published!–hardcover book was the last-minute editing that saved my book from being passed over, a near-miss that would have broken my heart.

It all started by my breaking my future editor’s heart–but not in a good way, as my literary agent told me. Apparently he loved the surreal coming-of-age story up until the finale, but the penultimate chapter and the ending were such a disappointment (“a trainwreck,” as my agent helpfully phrased it) that he said he couldn’t buy the book.

“Buy it, she’ll rewrite it,” my agent pushed him.

“I can’t take the risk of buying it before the changes are made, not with a first-time author,” my future editor said.

Dan, the editor, worked at Ballantine, and this was the first publisher my agent had approached in her attempt to sell The Floating World. Frankly, I was pretty happy that the first publisher had not laughed at my book, let alone liked most of it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to come this close and lose the interest of a good publisher–especially when, upon an honest close reading, I agreed that the ending was a mess, full of contrivances and absurd coincidences, and completely lacking both elegance and a satisfying sense of closure.

So over winter break during my third year in graduate school, I worked furiously on the ending, trying out different ways to tie up what was a somewhat mysterious story without entirely losing that enigmatic air (how to tie things up without tying things down?). Finally, through trial and error, I found an ending that I liked infinitely better than the one that had broken Dan’s heart with its sheer, sudden awfulness.

Wanting to resubmit the novel when the key players at Ballantine were all in the office, my agent waited out the summer and handed it to Dan the first week of September 2001. Later, my agent told me that the book had managed to hold his and other Ballantine editors’ interest during one of the worst weeks in New York City history. I was humbled, honored, and very, very happy that I had worked so hard on the ending and that the book now had a loving home.

With my second book, The Demimonde in Japanese Literature, a scholarly monograph published by an academic press, the process was totally different: early on the book was approved by the press’ editorial board, warts and all. They knew that my anonymous readers would ravish the manuscript and find all possible weaknesses. By contrast, rewriting the ending of my first novel so my agent could sell it to an otherwise supportive editor was challenging and terrifying, but it pushed me to create something I am much happier with today.

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“500 Words” by Monica Drake: Taking the Time Necessary

Monica Drake has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches at the Pacific NW College of Art. She is a contributor of reviews and articles to The Oregonian, The Stranger, and The Portland Mercury. Her fiction has appeared in the Beloit Review, Threepenny Review,The Insomniac Reader, and others. She has been the recipient of an Arizona Commission on The Arts Award, The Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, and a Millay Colony Fellowship, and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop.

Her bestselling debut novel, Clown Girl, is published by Hawthorne Books and has been optioned
by SNL’s Kristin Wiig. Click here to visit The Lit Coach’s Guide to the Writer’s Life, the blog on which the original (and longer) version of these comments appeared

I finished writing my first novel, Clown Girl, after working on it every day for three years. I had just turned thirty-three. Thirty-three, the “Jesus year,” seemed the perfect time to sell a novel: I could still be considered a young author. For some reason, age matters in the publishing industry. There’s a rush to get out a first novel, then a second. Prizes are geared toward age ranges, as in “Thirty Under Thirty,” and “Ten Authors Under Ten Years Old.” 

A kind of quiet panic can set in. If you let it, the rush to publish can overshadow the process of writing.

My manuscript was a beautiful stack of 250 pages, and I slid it into an envelope, dropped copies in the mail. I sent it to agents the same month that I signed up for “call waiting” on my home phone. Both the writing and call waiting paid off: a day came when three agents called, at the very same time.

It was unbelievable. My heart pounded in my chest; I juggled agents on my new call waiting system. My writing career had started
to take root. I chose an agent, and soon she circulated my manuscript with publishers.
  In my mind I sang just sell, just sell.

But the time frame of my ambitions and the pace of the creative process were not one and the same.

“There’s no reason to publish such a sad story,” the first publisher’s rejection note read.
“This book is tragedy upon tragedy,” the second rejection said.

Tragedy? I was baffled. I write comedy. So I had a clear audience problem; I had to rethink the manuscript. After a few more rejections, I asked the agent to pull the manuscript. I told myself I’d find the problem, fix it quickly, tap it all into place, and get back in the game.

It was three years later when I finished a revised version of Clown Girl. This one was better than the first. The book had a new shape, a clearer story arc, an increased sense of focus. I was thirty-six. I’d moved from call waiting to a cell phone. I found a new agent. Again, the manuscript went out.

“Beautiful prose,” the editors wrote, “but why doesn’t the narrator have more of a job?” A job? She had a job. She was a
clown, but I’d erred on the side of subtlety. Again, I realized I hadn’t made my point clear. After a few more rejections, I pulled the manuscript out of circulation. The book wasn’t ready. My plan? I’d take the book back, quickly tap it into place…

Three years later, as I turned thirty-nine, I had what turned out to be the final, and eventually saleable, version of Clown
. Dreams of publishing in my thirties morphed into dreams of publishing by forty. 

This time, instead of working with an agent I placed the novel on my own.  Clown Girl found a home with Hawthorne Books; the first print run sold out immediately. Now it was the book I’d set out to write all along. I’d taken the time necessary.


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Crazy for Novel-Writing

It’s almost Thanksgiving, which makes us wonder, where did November go? Thousands of people around the world have been using the time to write a novel, under the auspices of National Novel Writing Month.Under the FAQ page of the official NaNoWriMo site, we read, “National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.” And in the following lines: “It’s all about quantity, not quality.” Hmmm. Is that a good thing? As anyone who’s tried to write a novel knows, it can be painful just to sit down and write, to battle with the perfect image in your head of what you want your novel to be. Getting the words out is where you’ve got to begin.

According to Laura Miller, earlier this month, on Salon.com, NaNoWriMo is “a waste of time and energy.” We think her article is overly critical, cynical, and bitter, and we very much appreciated Carolyn Kellogg’s L.A. Times rebuttalbecause we support novel-writing in its myriad incarnations. Sure, novels are not all going to be good, but isn’t the act of writing one a good in itself?

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“500 Words” by Tom de Haven: Mutant Sex

039.JPGTom de Haven is the author of 18 books, including the Derby Dugan Trilogy (Funny Papers, Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, Dugan Under Ground), the King’s Tramp Trilogy (Walker of Worlds, TheEnd-of-Everything Man, The Last Human), Freaks’ Amour, Jersey Luck, Sunburn Lake and It’s Superman! His most recent works, Richmond Noir (co-edited with Andrew Blossom and Brian Castleberry) and Our Hero were published in early 2010. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and since 1990 has taught in the MFA creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a co-founder of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, now in its ninth year, and lectures and writes frequently on American cartoonists and comic strips.

My first novel, Freaks’ Amour, was published by William Morrow in February 1979, a few months short of my thirtieth birthday. It was edited by James Landis and Maria Guaranaschelli at a time when novels were thoroughly, even finically edited; in fact, both Jim and Maria set aside two full days for me to come into their Manhattan office and go through the final draft with them line by line. I’ ve never had that experience again.

Although published as a mainstream novel, the novel is actually near-future science fiction, about the mutated survivors of a nuclear accident in Jersey City, where I was living then. When I started writing the novel, however, it was a completely different thing. Originally it was about two people in the pornographic film industry.

After I got an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in 1973, I returned to New Jersey from Ohio hoping to find work as a magazine or book editor. The only job I was offered was as an assistant editor/staff writer for a line of men’ s magazines. I worked there for three years with a bunch of old-school editors who taught me everything there was to know (then) about magazine editing and publishing.

This was at the same time “Deep Throat” became such a big hit, when feature-length X-rated movies were suddenly hip and trendy, when actors like Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers, the former Ivory Soap girl, became national celebrities. I was sent out to write about all this for the magazines, and on several occasions hung around a Bowery loft where a porn film was shot over a Saturday and a Sunday. I interviewed the actors and directors and the tech crews and eventually I thought, well, this could make the basis for a very cool novel. Whenever I felt I had the chops and the courage to try writing one.

In 1976, I was accepted into a once-a-week fiction workshop sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. The moderator/teacher was a novelist named Craig Nova. Craig liked my short fiction and after the last workshop he pulled me aside and said that if I ever wrote a novel, send him the first 100 pages and he’ d try to find me an agent. True story. That night I went home and started writing a novel about two aspiring porn stars.

It may have continued in that vein if I hadn’t picked up Kurt Vonnegut’ s (then) new novel, Slapstick, which is a near-future fantasy about mutants (among other things) set in New York City. Suddenly I wanted to do something like that, that seemed a lot more fun, and more up my imaginative alley. So instead of being a novel about porn stars, Freaks’ Amour turned into a novel about two young mutants who put on live-sex shows.

After several months of writing on an Olympia typewriter that weighed about as much as a ship’ s anchor, I had 100 pages, with no idea whatsoever where the novel was going. No matter, I sent the manuscript to Craig Nova and within a week got a phone call from Francis Greenburger, who ran the S.J. Greenburger Literary Agency in New York; he wanted to represent me. Another true story. (But I swear, it’ s the last Cinderella story of my writing career.) Before I even had time to go in to Manhattan and meet Francis, he’ d sold the novel to Morrow. For an advance of $5000: $2500 on signing, $1500 on delivery of the finished manuscript, $1000 on publication.

I haven’ t read the novel myself in almost 20 years, not since the last time I was hired to adapt it into a script. I don’ t know if I ever will again. I doubt it. It’ s the work of somebody who was 27, 28 years old at the time he wrote it, a guy whose mind I can barely remember anymore, whose narrative flaws I’ d only just pounce on with exasperated groans and whose energy and drive I’ d envy like crazy.

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“500 Words” by Clint McCown: Three First Novels

clintmccown.jpgClint McCown has published three novels (The Member-Guest, War Memorials, and The Weatherman) and four collections of poems (Labyrinthiad, Sidetracks, Wind Over Water, and Dead Languages). He has received the S. Mariella Gable Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award, the Bree Book Award, an Associated Press Award for Documentary Excellence, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers designation, and an Academy of American Poets Prize. He is the only two-time winner of the American Fiction Prize. He has been a screenwriter for Warner Bros. and an actor with the National Shakespeare Company. His work has appeared in over fifty magazines and literary journals. The Member-Guest is currently in development with HBO as a television series, for which he has signed on as Creative Consultant. He directs the creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The book that I began as my first novel is not the book that was published as my first novel. My second published novel was actually my first published novel. And the book that was published as my first novel wasn’t really a novel at all. Here’s how it all untangles:

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in 1976-77, then wrote another draft in 1978 which was so different from the early material that only a handful of pages survived the revision process. I wrote another draft in 1982-83, and another in 1988. Then I put the still-mangled manuscript in a drawer and moved on to other projects, one of which was a collection of short stories which Doubleday published. But big publishers were (and are) wary of story collections, so the head editor asked if I’d mind if they marketed my book as a novel-in-stories rather than as a standard story collection. That was fine with me, since all the stories were linked by setting, time frame, and overlapping characters. Doubleday even went so far as to send me a mock-up of the cover for my approval, and the words “a novel in stories” appeared just below the title. But when publication time rolled around, they got cold feet, and when the book appeared, the words “in stories” had been dropped from the dust jacket. Suddenly I was
a novelist.

My second book of prose was an actual novel, published by Graywolf Press. So, depending on your point of view, that Graywolf book may have been my first novel.

Meanwhile, I’d continued revising that first manuscript, doing several more drafts in the 1990’s, one in 2000, and one in 2002. The manuscript was finally accepted (also by Graywolf) in 2003, but I still didn’t feel comfortable with it yet. I asked them if I could have another year to work on it, and they graciously allowed me to do that. The final draft included about fifty new pages to open the story in a different time and place. When the novel finally appeared in 2004, only five pages from the 1978 version survived. No pages from the 1976-77 version survived. Still, in some ways, this third published work of prose was my first novel, even though some would call it my second, and others would call it my third. I don’t know what to call it–other than a relief to finish the thing after 27 years.

Confusing, I know. Welcome to the world of publishing.

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