Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Fiction

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:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 11.06.26 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 3.10.10 PM

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!

On Writing Badly

I’m not sure when I became a fanatic about the writing process. It was probably not until after I got my MFA in fiction writing that I settled into a more coherent process of writing a free-flowing, often somewhat sloppy first draft, then going back to it to rewrite and revise. Up to that point, I had steadily become much more comfortable writing every day, and often writing a lot in terms of word count. That was a positive development for me as a writer, but as I’m just beginning to fully appreciate now, that was only part of the final evolution.

For a long time—as far back as high school—I’d really valorized writing every day, and especially of hitting a word-count goal like 1,000 words (which I’d seen recommended in Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, one of my early writing heroes). At some point, this became a religion for me, and I felt I had to write 1,000 new words or I hadn’t worked at all. This belief lasted a long time, well through graduate school. (I can see now that the facet of grad school I most enjoyed and appreciated, having the time to write, prolonged this mania for daily writing, because I usually had enough time to write 1,000 words and look over a draft of an earlier story. That’s an ideal situation, and it didn’t necessarily prepare me for having a day job and only being able to scrape up about 45 minutes of writing time. In the real world, sometimes you have to choose.)

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve made peace with the notion that revising can be a day’s work. I held myself back for a long time by insisting on writing 1,000 words of something new when I had a finished draft of something else getting cold in a Word file on my computer. It seemed like I never had time to go back and work through those finished drafts, and the obvious—letting myself off the writing hook for a few days—was something I wouldn’t even consider.

Today, I’d go further than allowing that revising can be a day’s work and say that it’s practically the start of my work as a writer. It’s the stage of the process you’re aiming for when you sit down and hammer out that sloppy draft. It’s the stage where you get to think about what you’re saying, and look critically at this character and ask if he makes sense, if he could add to the tension in this scene, if he even belongs in this story. Everything is up for debate at the revision stage. You’re working at double your own capacity, because you’ve put your wild, unconstrained self on the page and now your critical self gets to have a look and pick out all the places where the wild self has created opportunities, along with those choices that just don’t work.

A book that helped me to appreciate what revision even is is The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I remember reading this during the period between college and graduate school and wrestling with one of the key points that Koch makes, which is that after that first draft, you should essentially throw out what you’ve written before. You should be married to nothing in that first draft.

This was not dramatically different from what I’d read and been told other places, but Koch seemed to pointedly answer questions I’d been asking without realizing it. Not even questions so much as doubts, statements of skepticism and disbelief: So when I revise, I’m literally rewriting the story? Every single page? Before this, I’d thought of revising the way many young writers do: going through an existing draft changing some words around and cleaning up typos. (For this reason I spend a lot of time, possibly too much time, in all my writing classes unpacking the differences between proofreading, copyediting, and “real” revision.) Koch’s book helped me accept that yes, a working novelist will literally write her 250-page novel again, multiple times, in the process of drafting. It had always seemed somehow impossible that “real” writers did that.

Accepting that and committing to deep revision was a good first start. And it was liberating, in its way: these are the rules, and ifI wanted to produce my best work, I simply had to accept that this was what it took to produce something worth reading.

But since that time, I’ve not only gotten comfortable with this sort of deep revision, I’ve even gotten good at it. And that has yielded an additional benefit that I was not even aware I was missing out on. The benefit is alluded to in the title of this post. It’s the freedom to write badly.

Admittedly, writing badly is something I’ve probably always done, though unwittingly. But now I am confident enough in my ability to fix and dramatically re-work things at the revision stage that even when it’s painfully obvious that I am writing badly, I don’t stop or become discouraged by that knowledge. To be sure, it never feels great to write badly, and a whole day can later seem indefinably “off” if I’ve spent a morning writing badly, but I know that the trash I wrote in the morning can be fixed when I go back to the finished thing at some later point.

I’ve been thinking about this fairly simple point lately because I’ve been working on a novel that, for one reason or another, has been coming out quickly. I had a period of a week or so where I was writing many, many pages a day, on one or two days 5,000 words or more. That is kind of crazy, and when you write 5,000 words you are surely sacrificing quality. I would not want someone to publish the novel as it currently exists, because there’s certainly something embarrassing in the pages that emerged from these marathon sessions.

But in working this way on this project, I’m able to accept 1) that I’m writing badly and 2) that this is just a stage in the process; I can clean this all up later. Being confident in my ability to revise later and make this all make sense, make the characters more coherent, make their dialogue smoother and more believable, allows me to generate material at a rate that I could never match if I still labored under the misconception that every sentence I write has got to be good.

Worrying about writing well at every turn has been a great habit to grow out of, and I hope my students (and readers of this blog) can work their way past it as well.