Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Fiction

New Fiction at Storyscape Journal

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I’m pleased and excited to link to a story, “Awful Magic,” in the just-released issue of Storyscape Journal, which I’ve read and liked for a while now.

The story is about grief, magic, and belief, among other things, and is set in one of my favorite places: Cleveland!

I’m still digging through this issue but there is some great stuff in it. Working with the editor, Alyssa Songsiridej, was a pleasure.

Looking through proofs for this issue gave me a chance to think about how many different versions this story went through before it found its way to publication. Let’s just say a lot. Glancing through my files, the version I submitted was either the 19th or 20th draft of this story.

What most struck me, reading through this version, was how much more I had written about various characters and ended up cutting. Example: one of the main characters, Brian, is a struggling magician who turns to “comedy magic” when he learns that he has better luck making people laugh than he does wowing them with his magic. Brian learns that a video exists of him from his days as a “serious” magician, working under the name The Great Tostini.

All that made the final cut of the story, but I cut out the origin of the name: he had a job working at supermarkets around the Cleveland area, doing in-store promotions and handing out free samples for various products, one of which was a line of tostinis. Brian is so taken by this name, feeling that it sounds vaguely exotic and mysterious, that he adopts it as his stage name.

Going through proofs, I was pleased that I’d taken out that detail—it really does nothing for the story and doesn’t give valuable new information on Brian. But I also felt like it really fit, and remained true even if it wasn’t something I told readers. I’m hoping the name The Great Tostini suggests some kind of story.

This is something I often tell fiction students, that frequently sounds artsy fartsy or almost cultish: knowing more about your story and your characters than you let on, cutting things out of a story, can have a surprisingly powerful effect. Part of this advice comes from the writerly truism that you can omit information from a story, but as the writer you should know what’s not there. Part is a more nebulous sense that the cut material leaves behind a kind of residue that sensitive readers will pick up on; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that readers can detect a kind of negative space where that information was, and know that an answer exists, that there is more to the picture even if they can’t tell what it is.

Anyway, that’s my perspective on this story, and hopefully not the most interesting or compelling thing for other readers. Definitely check out this really excellent journal. The thing that attracted me to Storyscape in the first place is the way they curate the journal, not using “fiction” and “non-fiction” as categories but “truth,” “untruth,” and “we don’t know and they won’t tell us,” where neither editor nor writer helps you out by declaring what’s true or not true. This last category is so much up my alley as a fiction writer and a thinker about fiction, it’s kind of funny to me that my story is squarely in the “untruth” category: it kind of feels like everything else I’ve been writing for the last couple years should be in that “we don’t know” box.

What creative writers can learn from professional writers

Since I embarked on a career as a freelance writer and a teacher of writing about four years ago, I’ve learned lots of things about the art, craft, and business of writing. One of the most useful and surprising has involved the breakdown of supposedly impermeable barriers between different types of writing.

I want to share how these observations have informed my writing process as both a professional writer and as a writer of fiction.

(Note: This turned into a massive (2,300+ words) post so I am charitably hiding the bulk of the post below the fold. You’re welcome!)

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“Getting Good” as a Writer

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

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Fantastic fiction

No, not one of my stories. I wanted to point everyone to an amazing short story published in June in The New Yorker: “Fungus” by David Gilbert.

I’ve only read it through once so I have nothing very earth-shattering to say about the craft, but I found much of Gilbert has to say in this interview with fiction editor Cressida Leyshon interesting and insightful. He talks about writing versions of the story in which the key fact or incident of the story (I won’t say what it is here) was only implied, never actually mentioned, and calls it “Subarus like white elephants,” a wry reference to Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a masterpiece of indirection and implication.

Anyway, although like many fiction writers I have numerous strong opinions about The New Yorker and its fiction selections, this is a stellar story and I highly recommend it.

On Rejection

For anyone who writes and seeks to publish their work, rejection is just a fact of life. Many times I’ve started entries like this one decrying how hard it is to get anything published, from a short short story to a novel. Thankfully, I’ve deleted most of them.

Being in a sunnier mood at the moment, I thought I’d offer some more positive thoughts on rejection, trying to put it into perspective.

A reality check, though: being “positive” really just means better coming to grips with what is a very grim reality. Two object lessons that will quantify that grimness:

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This is a screen shot from my Duotrope account, which (among other things) tracks submissions. It indicates that of the 31 submissions I’ve sent out over the past 12 months, I have a 4.2% acceptance rate.

Terrible, right? My work must be pretty bad, right? Actually, if you check out the note at the very bottom of this image, you will see that that pathetic 4.2% represents a better than average response rate (from the journals to which I submitted). So much so, Duotrope is congratulating me!

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New, tiny fiction

Here is something new for me: I wrote a tweet-length story and it has been published by Tiny Text (@Tiny_Text), a Twitter-based literary magazine that publishes writing of 140 characters or fewer.

My story, “Spoiler Alert,” boils down all stories to a single, tweet-length formula (really).

You can check out the story here, then dive into Tiny Text’s many fine, super-compressed pieces here.

UPDATE: Sadly, Tiny Text is closing its doors, so I’ve captured this screen shot of my story for posterity.

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New fiction at Euphony

I am very pleased and proud to have a short story, “Cruelty,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Euphony, out of the University of Chicago. You can read the story online here.

A little background on this piece. This is all that remains of a novel I wrote during graduate school, then drastically rewrote several times after graduation. That novel (working title: “Isolation Drills”), after lots of reworking, featured a narrator who was making an academic study of pornographic films and who met and began to date a woman. It was a classic first attempt at a novel, with lots of stuff pulled from my life (NOT the porn thing!), not much plot, and some not-very-well-drawn scenes and characters. The whole drafting process was an invaluable study in what’s required for a novel and how to write one (plan! Revise!), but I’m grateful I don’t have to look at or think about those pages anymore.

Even so, the central conflict of the novel and the relationship between the two main characters stuck with me, and at some point last summer I had two related thoughts: “Is there any way I can salvage anything from those multiple drafts and hundreds of pages?” and “What if the perspective shifted from his to hers?”

And so “Cruelty” came to be.

Notes for Next Time

(I was tempted to title this something flashy and contemporary-seeming, like “One Weird Trick to Make It Easy to Jump into Writing,” but opted for the more prosaic title you see above.)

Anyway, a note stemming from last night’s meeting of my “Writing Studio” class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (Briefly, this is a class whose purpose is to offer writers of all genres/backgrounds the time to write, with some hopefully-stimulating elements like a weekly craft talk, exercise prompts, discussion time, the option to share pages with me and get feedback. Basically, think of an open studio in pottery or painting—it’s like that, but with writing.) Two meetings in, the class has been great fun and very stimulating—for me but, far more importantly, for the students, a number of whom have told me they’ve been enjoying it and getting lots done.

We had a great discussion regarding writing process, and someone brought up Hemingway’s practice of stopping a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence so that he’d have a natural and easy place to start the following day.

This prompted me to share something I do when I stop writing for the day that has come to seem so natural, I quite forgot that I’d ever not done it. The students seemed interested, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

Going off the Hemingway practice, which was designed so that Papa could stop when there was more to be written and it would be fairly clear, the following day, what should come next, I have gotten into the habit of marking the place where I’m going to pick up tomorrow and then writing a short note about what I think can or will happen next.

For example, here’s what I wrote at the end of today’s work on a piece that I think will eventually add up to a novel:

“echoes of Homewood, someone saw him give Malaki a hug and wants a hug too; asks Pete’s advice on Hilda”

This will of course be complete nonsense to you, but it means something to me and when I begin work on this piece tomorrow I can look at this and remember what I thought might be a good next step.

I have the option to follow those notes as if they were a blueprint, but it’s only an option. What I think is important is that these ideas present suggestions I can consider following (and decide to do something else—for instance, I might decide this bit about the hug is stupid, after all, and ignore it), begin to follow and then change course, or follow to the letter if I’m simply not feeling very original (or if I still agree with these ideas).

As I said, this has become a thing I do unconsciously when writing, as ingrained as having a cup of coffee nearby and my internet connection disabled. But several of the students remarked that picking up the thread of a piece of writing often costs them a bit of time and effort each time they get started back up on something, and I remembered that that used to be an issue for me, too. Hopefully this is an idea that can be beneficial to somebody out there.

Fiction’s power to explain the world, using Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example

Not a new or penetrating insight here, but I recently came across a striking and somewhat unexpected example of the power that good fiction has to show us something of the world we live in.

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not a huge science fiction fan. I just saw it in a bookstore while traveling last month, and thought, “Yes. I am going to read that right now.”

I knew the basics of the story from having seen David Lynch’s film version, and more recently from having seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I’d recommend far more than the Lynch film. I knew about sandworms, the spice melange, and a villain so disgustingly fat he had to use little rocket-powered suspensors to keep from smothering in his own girth.

The novel surprised me in a couple ways. First was a massive amount of heavy ecological stuff, featuring a lot of well-developed explanations of the desert landscape and how certain groups were working to cultivate it with the long-term goal of creating a lush, liveable planet, plus lots of great details about the lengths people go to to conserve water (including, most fascinatingly/disgustingly, suits that capture sweat, urine, and feces and wring all the moisture out of them and essentially dumping that moisture into a kind of Camelbak reservoir that allows the wearer to drink it). Second was the heavy, heavy attention to intrapersonal and non-verbal communications in the book.

Item #2 really surprised me because I figured most of the book’s 800 or so pages would be filled with descriptions of sandworm battles, palace intrigues, and so on. That stuff is there, but on nearly every page there is an incisive description of a character using a certain kind of special training—I’ll just call it witchcraft, which is how it’s sometimes referred to in the novel, though it’s (often) less magical than that and more a situation of recognizing intonations of voice, body language, and so on, to read people deeply and accurately—to see through hidden motivations and anticipate another character’s next move.

Here’s a case in point, and the example I wanted so share. It’s a scene where Baron Harkonnen, the fat villain mentioned above, speaks with the Count, an extremely devious court hanger-on, and the Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, whom the Baron is grooming to eventually take over the desert planet, Dune. The Count has just said something insincere and kind of belittling to the Baron. Feyd-Rautha is standing by, watching and learning. (Note: the weird “mm-m-m” seen below is a quirk of Herbert’s, a verbal filler that a number of characters use for reasons that don’t seem worth the weird typographical experience of reading this stuff.)

“You are too kind,” the Baron said. He bowed, but Feyd-Rautha noted that his uncle’s eyes did not agree with the courtesy.

“When you’re mm-m-m ironic, that ah-h-h suggests you’re hm-mm-m thinking deep thoughts,” the Count said.

There he goes again, Feyd-Rautha thought. It sounds like he’s being insulting, but there’s nothing you can call out for satisfaction.

You can see all this non-verbal communication: Feyd-Rautha reading his uncle’s eyes, and the Count also reading the discrepancy between the Baron’s words and expression, and then responding by saying something kind of catty and ironic about the Baron “thinking deep thoughts.”

But what I really want to point out here is that what Feyd-Rautha notes is basically the very definition of “micro-aggression.” I was immediately struck by a sense of recognition upon first reading this passage. (From looking around for a quick definition, I see that “micro-aggression” is often linked to race and to white privilege, but I’m using it here more broadly, the way Feyd-Rautha defines it: This guy is being passive aggressive, going right up to the line but holding back enough so that if I said something, I’d be the crazy one, and he’d be able to back up and say, “Whoa, buddy, you’re putting words in my mouth.”)

The idea of micro-aggression, so far as I can tell, is relatively recent. Here, Herbert is using Feyd-Rautha to call out something that simply didn’t have a name back in 1965, when Dune was first published. In some ways it’s an incredible insight, and it suggests a remarkable depth of character that Herbert accomplishes in Dune.

I love finding stuff like this, recognizing the real world in fiction and, in doing so, seeing the world a bit more clearly. That’s a trite observation, I know, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve in fiction that I find these instances worth recording and sharing.

Runner-Up in Nelson Algren Literary Awards

I’m very pleased to announce that a story of mine, “Klamath Falls,” was named a runner-up in the 2016 Nelson Algren Literary Awards, presented by the Chicago Tribune. Here’s the Tribune story on the contest and the grand prize winner, Lee Conell. Congratulations to Lee as well as the four finalists and three other runners-up!

For their sake, not mine—well, also for my sake if we’re being honest—let me say that this is a big deal. The Algren Awards are deluged with submissions every year, and this year the judges received more than 4,200 entries. To make it out of a pool like that, through multiple rounds of judging, is an accomplishment.

The stories will be published in the Tribune‘s “Printers Row” supplement and online via the paper’s Printers Row app. I’ll post a link when “Klamath Falls” is out there, but Conell’s story appeared this past weekend. Go check it out!