Writing stories about difficult personal situations--write during or after?; publishing an excerpt before the novel is published
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: December 9, 2008
|I'm writing a story based on a difficult situation while I'm in the midst of it. Is this a good idea, or should I wait until later? |
The answer to this depends mostly upon you—your temperament, your writing practices, and just how entrenched you are in this situation. Go with your gut. If you're inclined to write, then do it. You may find the emotional energy fuels your writing. Perhaps what you write while in the trenches of this difficulty will make for a compelling story. Or perhaps this writing won't make up the finished product, but will allow you to think though your experience and emotions and help you begin to process your intentions for the story. If you're inclined not to write about it, there's no need to challenge that. You may just need time.
Whether in the middle of the mess or long past it, objectivity is crucial. This is true for all stories. You have to be able to see all facets, not just those you personally respond to or prefer. And you need to be able to judge whether someone outside your mind, emotions, and situation will interpret what you've put on the page in the same way you intend it. Strong emotions can hinder our ability to do this. It's the reason some writers have a hard time cutting beautiful passages that don't belong or are reluctant to put formidable obstacles in the way of a likeable character. That emotional connection can blind us to the demands of the story. Imagine the pull when those connections are even more personal and immediate.
Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog pits two characters against each other. Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic whose husband recently left her, is evicted from her house because in her depression she ignored letters about a matter she thought she cleared up. Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military, buys the house and plans to fix it up as a way to begin a respectable life for himself and his family in the United States. The conflict hinges on each character's very legitimate claim on the home and, even more importantly, what is at stake for each in owning or losing it. In an interview with Bold Type Magazine, Dubus said in order to write the novel he couldn't pick sides: "When I was writing from his point of view, I was on his side, and when I was writing as Kathy, I was on her side." He quoted Hemingway, "The job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek to understand."
Sometimes the distance of time is the only way to gain this level of objectivity. But not always. Some writers might never gain the necessary distance. And some can find it right in the moment through the process of fictionalizing. Once you start thinking of the characters in your story as individuals in and of themselves—as opposed to character versions of the real people in your situation—you're working toward objectivity. Changing the circumstance of the conflict can help, too. Draw on the emotional core of your experience to support the similar concerns in the story.
Find an emotional space where you can suspend judgment and develop an open curiosity toward understanding. Without this, characters run the risk of feeling flat, stories can lose steam, and agenda can take over the nuance of craft.
|Can I submit an excerpt of my novel to magazines to try and get it published before the whole novel is finished? |
Some magazines and journals accept unsolicited submissions of novel excerpts, but most do not. Always read writers' guidelines to see what individual publications look for in submissions.
Some writers find that a portion of their novel can stand alone as a complete short story and submit that. Technically, it is an excerpt, but it also functions as a complete work and fits the bill of a short story. Journals and magazines are open to this practice. And it can be a good way to build anticipation for your novel. But keep in mind: The story has to be its own entity. It cannot rely on other parts of the novel in order to make sense or feel satisfying and complete.
Flip to the copyright page of some novels and you'll find acknowledgement of those previous publications. Will Alison published several portions of his novel, What You Have Left, as short stories. Dean Bakopoulos' short story "Please Don't Come Back From the Moon" is the first chapter of his novel of the same title.
At most magazines and journals, copyright reverts back to the author upon publication. Make sure that's the case if you get an acceptance for this kind of short story. Be aware of what rights you're giving up, so that you don't give up the right to publish that section as part of your novel.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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