Heidi Pitlor knows short fiction.
She reads hundreds of short stories each year, hunting down the best of the best for The Best American Short Stories – a line of annuals for which Pitlor has served as series editor since 2007. She’s worked closely with some of the biggest names in the industry: Stephen King, Lorrie Moore, Richard Russo, Junot Díaz. A different guest editor selects the final lineup every year, but it’s Pitlor who ultimately steers the ship, separating the true contenders from the rest of the pack.
But although Pitlor is an avid reader of short fiction, her writing tastes currently lend themselves toward longer endeavors. She’s the author of two novels: The Birthdays (2007) and The Daylight Marriage (2015). Before becoming series editor of Best American, she worked as an acquisitions editor for Houghton Mifflin, giving her a uniquely empathetic perspective on both writing and editing that stems from working on both sides of the process.
I spoke to Pitlor about her work both as a novelist and an editor for The Best American Short Stories. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What’s your writing process like?
I usually start with kind of a smudge of an idea. I start with almost nothing: A question I want asked, or a feeling, a sort of weird conflicted feeling that I have and I want to explore. So I think all my books start that way.
And then, as it always does, the book takes on a life of its own. So it becomes really more about the characters than that indoor conflict.
So that’s sort of how I tend to work. I don’t plot anything out. I don’t have an outline, for better or for worse. I’ve tried, but I feel like that kind of hems me in. I’m someone that works with a lot, a lot, a lot of drafts and changes things dramatically as I go. I sort of like to follow my nose a little bit, if that makes sense.
How long did it take you to write both The Birthdays and The Daylight Marriage?
The Birthdays – pre-kid – took maybe three years. The Daylight Marriage – not a long book – took eight or nine years. And that was for a few reasons. One was that it took me a long time to get the story right. I sort of was stuck on the wrong road for a long time. But also I had my twins during that time and I was also working on 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. So it was just a busy, busy eight or nine years.
How did you juggle all of that?
Not well! Really not well. This is the problem: You think you can impose order on your life as a writer. And you can, if you live on another planet and have no one you love and don’t need to work. But most of us have a life and work. So it just was madness. We were also renovating our house – it was just too much going on.
So what did I do? It was like a revolving door. I would have one day where I would work on the annual, one day I’d work on 100 Years and then I would write and I would hear that Lorrie Moore wanted me to read this story … I just felt like I was constantly reacting.
What did you learn from your first book, The Birthdays, and how did that impact The Daylight Marriage?
Oh gosh, they’re such different but similar books. I think I learned how to write a novel when I wrote The Birthdays. There’s that funny thing that when you write your first novel, [it’s like] you’re walking into this big empty house. So I had my MFA and I was used to writing stories, which aren’t quite as daunting. I think I learned from The Birthdays how to fill the room, how to see a lot of empty space in one vision. So for me, that meant creating four different stories, going back and forth, having them play off each other. I learned that I am a writer who [seems] to be interested in plot, but also in depth, too. So some of the forward motion of The Birthdays was going deeper into the characters’ minds and lives.
I think I learned that it’s a way harder process to write a novel than anyone thinks. When you think you’re done, you’re nowhere near done. I learned how many revisions a novel takes. That was a real surprise to me.
With The Daylight Marriage, I probably learned a little bit more how to create momentum – it’s always been really important to me to write something that will keep the reader turning pages and keep the reader interested. And I learned to write a book that hopefully does that.
One big thing I learned how to do was how to write a short novel. I didn’t set out to. It was a much longer book initially. So much got trimmed away. And it really made me look at writing differently. Now when I read a very long novel, I just feel like peeling away so much. It’s just in the aftermath of writing The Daylight Marriage. You just see things through this lens for a while.
It was very tight; it’s a very, very tight, lean book. Which I felt like was right for the story – not every story, but I definitely learned how to write a book like that. I learned how to let go of what’s not immediately connected to the plot.
You said you learned how to write a suspenseful book, and you did: The Daylight Marriage is impossible to put down. How did you do that on the page?
Well, so much of it was when I happened upon the structure. I wanted there to be two different storylines told at two different paces. So one would cover a day, and one would cover months to a year.
I thought that would be really interesting tension. And I thought you get a lot of tension by keeping things from the reader early on … I just thought it would be really interesting to have this feeling that something bad’s happened, but not let the reader in on it. I just wanted a slow release of information, in a way.
I think a big part of it is withholding information, but not too much that it seems manipulative. Once you get your metronome going, and your rate of information release on the page, the reader knows what to expect … it’s not going to feel manipulative.
In both The Birthdays and The Daylight Marriage, you use several different characters’ perspectives to tell the story: In The Birthdays it’s four siblings, while in The Daylight Marriage it’s a husband and wife. What draws you to that, to use multiple “vehicles” to tell the story?
I think that’s probably a beginner’s way of writing a novel, because again there’s that sense of how to fill a big house. And one way to do it is to give it a lot of people. So the stories don’t need to be quite as big if there are many stories, or if there are many people.
My third book that I’m writing has one character. It’s very scary to me, because it feels like “Oh, God, now I have to give her way more action!” I think a big part of writing a novel that moves and that turns pages is, well, writing a novel that moves and turns pages. You’re always going to hit that saggy second act. And one way to avoid that is to have alternating viewpoints. When you hit a wall with one, you switch to another – at least in early drafts. There is energy just in the movement between characters.
And I’ve always liked this idea that the truth comes out of many perspectives, not just one. You get a different story when you ask four people to tell it than when you ask one person. And I always think it’s interesting to look at the little delusions and white lies that people tell, and what that says about them, but also what it says about the other character. I think there can be a lot of energy to that.
I find your characters so human. They have definite flaws, but they’re complex. And a character doesn’t have to be likeable, but I think all of yours are. How do you walk that line as a writer, between making a character flawed but still sympathetic?
It’s this funny headspace you get in, where you’re acting, really … You literally pretend you are this person, and you go about your life as if you are this person. And so, when people will ask me, “Did you like this character?,” I don’t know. Because I’m so far inside them, I can’t judge them at all. You’re behaving as if you are this person.
I think in every character I write, there’s a little piece of me. And they’re all interesting to me, enough that I would write a book about them … It’s exciting to imagine being different people, I think. I love flawed people. I’m a hugely flawed person. As a reader, it’s always great to read messed-up people, because you know you’re not alone. But it’s the same thing as a writer, to sort of get in the heads of other people and try to understand people that are really different from you. It’s sort of a lovely thing, I think.
Is that what draws you to fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
Oh yeah, I think so. I’m just really fascinated by people. And I think that’s probably what draws me to fiction: It feels like the most elastic place to explore people. And probably the most forgiving place. If you got that wrong about the character, well, it’s fiction, you know? Or it’s more about consistency than right or wrong: It’s all subjectivity, which is really interesting to me. I love reading all other forms, but I seem the most comfortable writing fiction for that reason: my absolute endless fascination with people.
You said you’re a writer who goes through many drafts. What does your revision process look like?
It’s just torturous. I try to write the first draft very quickly. I don’t write the end. I don’t write the last quarter. So I write my draft. And then … my next draft is usually cleaning it up and seeing what’s there: “What do we have here?” And then I sort of alternate really digging in revision – changing things dramatically, cutting scenes, adding characters – with lighter revision, cleaning up language and making things sing a little more. I find it really hard to do both at the same time.
How many drafts do you go through in total?
I know. And it’s not like I’m the greatest writer in the world, so I probably shouldn’t admit that. But a lot of those are tweaking things here and there, proofreading – I consider every time I start from the beginning and go through to the end a draft.
So in terms of actual rewrite revisions, 20 maybe.
How do you think being an editor has influenced your writing?
Well, I think it makes me a lot more self-critical. I never feel done with anything. Even when I pick up a finished book, I want to edit it.
I really envy those writers who are like “This is done, and I’m proud of it,” because I never have that feeling. I’m just a constant picker. I always want to sort of nit-pick things.
As an editor, do you think you have more empathy for writers now?
Yes! Absolutely, I do. I feel enormous empathy for them. It is such a hard thing to write a book. It is incredibly hard. And it’s a solitary, isolated thing to do. And writers need every ounce of support they can get. So I feel like I’ve come to feel way more empathetic for the process. I have way more writer friends now than I used to have, and their support is everything. It really is.
Because it is so difficult, and it’s such a long process.
Yep. Exactly. And those people who are there for you, those other writers – they make you survive. I feel like I haven’t been on the other side of that as an editor. I think I was a pretty empathetic editor, but it just makes you realize – I mean, now that I’ve been on a long book tour, I feel like, “Ah, now I get it.” When you’re in publishing and someone complains about a book tour, you just roll your eyes. You want to give them the finger. It’s like, “Oh, poor you.” But there are some trying things about it, and it can be really hard in some ways. And so I feel more empathetic to that than I used to, I think.
What’s your best advice for writers on working with editors?
I think to be open to everything. A good writer needs to be edited. Even if the sort of “advice” does not hit you squarely in the right way, there’s usually some kernel of something that’s usable from what they’re saying. I mean, an editor is your boss, and you have to listen to them. And that doesn’t mean in a kneejerk way – go and do exactly what they say in exactly the same way – but oftentimes there is an idea in there that really does make sense. And so to take what they’re saying and make it your own and try to implement it, I think [that] is the ideal relationship between an editor and a writer.
You’ve worked for Houghton Mifflin as an acquisition editor, but The Daylight Marriage was published by Algonquin. What do you think larger publishing companies offer that small ones can’t, and vice versa?
Well I think the obvious thing is that larger companies offer higher advances. And the status that comes with a bigger name, which is not nothing.
Algonquin’s a smaller house, and they’ve been absolutely, amazingly wonderful. They offer more attention, more handholding, more energy. I think they have a much smaller list, so they’re selling fewer books [and] they’re going to put more into each book. And you can end up tailoring your marketing a little more thoughtfully and mindfully. They’re such vastly different experiences, so it’s really tricky. And I’m not sure – I mean, there really are pros and cons to both. And if we were all so lucky to be able to choose who’s going to publish our books…
There’s a case to be made for all different kinds of houses. I think people should really stay open to smaller presses. There are some small houses that are some of the best houses out there these days. Gray Wolf is doing amazing things. And they’re able to take more risks, and I think they can really get behind books in ways bigger houses don’t often do.
You read so many short stories for your day job with Best American Short Stories. What do you want to see more of in short fiction?
Humor. Topicality. In this year’s forward – the one that’s going to come out this year – I talk a lot about our attention spans, and how busy everything is in the world right now, and how much is compelling us in our day-to-day life. Not just in terms of social media, but we have a pretty big-deal election going on, there’s major issues around global warming, there’s terrorism – short stories have to compete with things like this. So I want to feel like there’s an urgency to the writing. And that I need to read this story. And it doesn’t mean it has to be about global warming, terrorism, Donald Trump. But it has to feel gripping to me in a sense. You know, a lot of what I read feels not urgent enough. Or entertaining enough. Those are the two big things, I think: You want to keep the [reader] engaged, and the best way to do that is to either entertain them or inform them. And those things are rare.
I really like stories that feel new and weird in some way. Just the feeling of relevance [is important], too. I’ve seen a lot of stories about war, which I think is good, and important. I always would like to see more stories about class. I think that’s a big issue that gets skirted over. I would love to see more stories about race in America. The racially diverse stories I read tend to be set in other countries, which is not to take away from them at all, but there’s not enough stories about present-day race, I think. Class and race.
On the flip side, what’s one short fiction cliché or trend that you never want to see again?
You know, it’s funny because I can’t say there’s a trend – it’s all in the writing. So you can say, “I’m sick of this storyline,” but then in the hands of a good writer, you don’t even know it’s that storyline. There are a lot of storylines I see, but they read completely differently depending on whose hands they’re in.
Trying to think if there’s something I bristle at … A common story I read a lot is like “New Couple Traveling.” But again, in the hands of a good writer, I would read that willingly. I used to really bristle at second person, but now it’s just all about the writer. It really is. It’s all about: Is the writing good enough?
So there are no rules, really. Write well. Have something to say.
Exactly. Write well. I know, it’s so not useful.
It’s something that’s so simple, but it’s so hard to find.
It is! I think it is. And also, I think, write with energy. I think energy is one of those things we don’t talk about enough, and it’s so important for the reader. You can feel a writer’s energy on the page.
So how do you try to do that in your own writing? How do you try to incorporate that energy?
There are a few different ways. One is to sort of crank out that first draft quickly, so that even if it’s bad, you’re writing it quickly and you’re getting something down. And also to go to those moments that are the most interesting to you. Like, OK, [your main characters are] this quirky family and they need to go food shopping. You maybe don’t need to drive them to the food store. Cut and get them into the food store. Cut to the most interesting, flawed [part] – where the broken freezer is, and what’s that weird object in the freezer? Skip the bridges that don’t need to be there.
And, especially in a short story, every moment matters. Get to those moments where there’s something that shouldn’t be there, but is. Or there’s some person having a strange thought. Get there quickly.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I’ll try not to give a cookie cutter answer, like, “read a lot.” But also to write what interests you, not what you think should interest you.
Because there’s so much that we feel like we should do. And you get into real trouble as a writer when you’re writing what you should be writing. Not what you want to be writing.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.