Tuesday, August 07, 2007

That First Chapter

By Amy

It was never intended as a first chapter.

I was intrigued by C. Michael Curtis, Agni and Ploughshares, the Bellevue Literary Review -- especially Bellevue because that literary journal was founded by Danielle Ofri. I'd read both of her memoirs of what it was to become a doctor and wanted desperately to write something that would impress her half as much as her writing touched me.

Short stories are difficult animals to tame, invested with a nature I find elusive. When recommending fiction to Post Road, I consider an accomplished short story to be dynamic, have a compelling voice and characters unlike the 10 other male ennui submitted that quarter, I want to be moved by something transformative. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. But my goodness, it's awfully hard to write, don't you think?

Mr. Curtis, past fiction editor for The Atlantic, believes first-person present tense is an affectation; Sven Birkets, the editor of Agni, expects language to arrest his attention; and frankly, I've never understood the tastes of those at Ploughshares. But Bellevue, I love the pages of that literary journal. It contains writing that is bound to this earth, sensible and enthralling, nothing that strains credulity. Its editors seek out stories that demonstrate an understanding of craft, a facility with language, and honest insight into the human condition that other journals can only reach toward. So when I finished my short story, I sent it to Bellevue, knowing Dr. Ofri wouldn't read it. It was enough someone there would.

Weeks passed, I was distracted by an illness in the family, a move to a new home. And then an email appeared from the Bellevue Literary Review. It had to be a rejection, I expected nothing more and surely it was from the fiction editor. Well, yes and no. It was a note from Dr. Ofri:

"We considered this story strongly. Good writing, nice tone. But the ending isn't as strong as it could be; it seems to stop rather than end. It also feels like we need some more mortar in the story: We need to know early on that woman is embalming and that narrator is female, how old. We need a bit about her life, how long has she worked there, what is private life like. It was a touching moment when little girl wanders in, but reader needs to understand how narrator's life is like the girl's. If you decided to fill the story out, we'd be happy to read a revised version if you submit it late summer or early fall (during our next reading cycle). -Danielle Ofri"

I must have read her words a hundred times. Everything she wrote made sense, but nothing more than, "...it seems to stop rather than end." The problem was I hadn't written a short story at all, I was inept as ever. What I'd done was write the first chapter of a novel. I knew this was true, knew it at my core, because my characters wouldn't leave me be, they had so much more to say.

A few moments of Dr. Ofri's time spent reading my submission and a hurried email with editorial feedback encouraged me to take a path I'd never intended. Perhaps she'll be happy to know I worked on that first chapter for five more months before continuing on with the rest of the story. Like the reader, I, too, needed to discover how old my protagonist was, more of her private life, and the ties that bound her to the little girl. As Dr. Ofri said, I had to build the "mortar" of her life. I've done that, I think. We shall see if it's good enough.

So thank you, Dr. Ofri, you were right. It wasn't an ending at all, just the beginning.


Therese Fowler said...

Amy, this is a love story!

And it reminds me that I have a story I ought to submit to Bellevue...

Lisa said...

This is fascinating and I wonder how many others have recognized that an unsatisfying short story isn't a short story at all, but the prelude to a novel. Short stories frustrate me often in the same way that many poems do; as you said, recognizing a good one is a bit like knowing pornography when you see it. I've been thinking a lot about poems and this post about an almost short story, turned into a novel feeds right into my musings this week. Thank you for sharing this.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Therese, yes, it's true, I love Danielle Ofri. Please let us know what happens with your submission. Make sure to include in your cover letter that Souvenir is the LEAD TITLE for Ballantine February 2008!

Lisa, what I like about this story is that so often we fail to see that a dead end is just fate's way of pointing us in another direction. Sometimes we need someone, like Dr. Ofri, to actually step in and direct traffic. I loved your post on poetry and the link to the Writers Garden. Your blog is incredibily powerful.


Larramie said...

What inspiration, Amy. I've always wondered how the idea of your novel came to you. Dr. Ofri's words literally changed your life...

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Larramie, isn't it amazing how a well-placed compliment can change everything -- or even an act of kindness like sending someone a sought after book? Kindness changes everything, I hope.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the part about the story stopping. Full Stop. It didn't come to a conclusion.
I wonder if that is what turns off novelists from writing short stories. They want to have a bigger canvas, while the short story is essentially a miniature or even a passport sized photograph.
Good Luck.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Reality, there's simply a different structure all together which I find difficult to encapsulate in so few pages. There has to be an economy of words, gestures, an intent focus on building to that transformation. At this point in my writing life, I don't have that skill. But I refuse to give up. How about you?

Melissa Amateis said...

I'm so pleased that Dr. Ofri took the time to send you a personal rejection and tell you how to make the story better. What a feather in your cap!

I have a hard time writing short stories because all of them can be novels, IMO!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Melissa, isn't Dr. Ofri special. I hope you have a chance to read her books. Have you had any luck with short stories? I'm crafting one now, I'll let you know.


Anonymous said...

As to your earlier question: I have written a few short stories. The two most recent that I wrote, was before I embarked on my novel.

A friend in media wants me to covert one of those into a script, from which he intends to make a short movie for film festivals. I have received that offer twice now. Problem is I know nothing about scripts and I am too engrossed in my novel.

I think I can do short stories. But I have heard that it is difficult to get them published.