I met Gay Degani back in 2013, when we were both part of the Pure Slush project 2014, A Year In Stories—and this is not the first time she graces this blog with her insight. She wrote two pieces for Quiet Laughter during the A2Z challenge in 2014, one on Setting, and one on using Pinterest to increase a book's audience, which has become a top-five in the blog's most viewed posts of all time.
Her 'Old Road' series in the 2014 project (now collected as part of her newest release, Rattle of Want) had me hooked; the characters jumped off the page, the plot—half mystery, half personal drama—kept me riveted, and this cohesiveness to her writing made me certain Gay was a novelist. She had to be. Anyone who masters 'story' at that level must know the longer arcs well.
Imagine my wonder, then, when I found out that—although she does have a published novel— Gay is mostly a writer of incredibly prolific and award-winning flash.
That opened up, for me, the possibility that writing flash can, or perhaps even must, be a precursor to writing extraordinary fiction of a longer caliber. And, after reading Rattle (find my review here), I was very curious to talk to Gay and hear her thoughts on this duality.
(Pure Slush Books, November 2015)
Rattle of Want ranges from brilliant brief experiments (such as Abbreviated Glossary and Appendages) to a novella-in-flash (The Old Road) for the canon in that new genre. Together, these stories mine the wants and desires in the breakups of families, rebellions of youth, and occasional ascents of the spirit.
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Your latest collection, Gay, encompasses fiction of an amazing variety—of themes, of voices, even lengths. How did you go about making the selection?
Guilie, thanks for reading Rattle of Want and liking it so much, and for giving me this opportunity to talk about it. My decision for what went into this collection was based on a variety of factors. I wanted it to contain as many stories as possible and keep it cohesive. The title was a factor, the idea of desire, need, "wanting." Since all stories—at least those that include some kind of arc—must focus on want, this was a priority to me. The second criteria was that the intention of each story should reflect some human strength or frailty. The third quality was that I had to love the story, that I am proud of what it says or what it does, and that meant I needed to include those that had received recognition.
A couple of the pieces were previously published in a shorter collection, Pomegranate Stories (2009), with the theme "Mothers and Daughters," which makes them the oldest. I included "Spring Melt" in Rattle because it received a Pushcart nomination, "Monsoon" because it was a Glimmer Train Finalist, and "Pomegranate" because it hadn't been published elsewhere.
I didn't consider length a factor in the selection of stories. I wanted to put together my best stories—what I considered my best—and I wanted to produce a substantial book. (For a writer of mostly flash, 260+ pages feels substantial to me!) With the addition of the novella, The Old Road, I felt I had enough to do that.
It absolutely is substantial—especially taking into account that most of these stories are under (and often significantly below) 1,000 words. And yet, it reads smooth… Creamy, like chocolate. Which brings me to something remarkable: the order. How did you decide on it? Is it chronological, theme-based, or something completely different?
The order of the stories!! It took me over two years to pull together the submission manuscript. I put them together in all kinds of ways, I included certain stories, I later took them out. In the end, I weighted each one in terms of quality, that quality based on recognition of some kind by others and those of which I was most proud. The final order was decided on by me as to which led best into the next, which would—in my opinion—keep the reader going.
Quality and segue… Well, you nailed it, because it works inordinately well—notably so, given the variations in length. Rattle covers the spectrum all the way from cut-to-the-bone pieces of just a few lines, to the 20,000+ word story arc of a novella. I’m in awe, Gay. It takes different skills to write short than to write long—and many will argue that it’s impossible to do both well. Yet here you stand, with a long list of flash publication credits, two story collections, and a full-length novel under your belt, the perfect refutation to that argument. How do you feel about story length? Do you have a preference? And what have you learned in writing short vs. long—and long vs. short?
Love this question, Guilie. When I started writing stories, the only thing I understood was long, long, long. My first goal was to write one of those longer stories that I'd read in America's Best Short Stories. I studied those stories, wrote several long pieces and sent them off only to have them declined. I stopped writing for a while—REAL LIFE getting in the way—and when I came back to it, I was in love with all those 80's comedy films and wanted to see if I could come up with a good one. I wrote six screenplays, even had one read by an agent—and got a no. This all happened over a long long period of time and I began to feel embarrassed that I had so little to show for my efforts. Then a friend of mine told me she had a story published online and would I read it and comment. I thought, “Online????”
I read her story at Every Day Fiction and thought it was excellent. I realized I might have a new outlet. EDF publishes stories of 1000 words or fewer. I had to give it a try. I did and they accepted my first effort. This was pivotal for me. I realized that by writing flash fiction, I would be able to figure out what worked and what didn't in my own writing. I had always struggled with "story." By writing these shorter pieces, it forced me to look at story in a more clinical way.
What I learned writing screenplays and novels was to ask questions. What does my character want, what does she do to get it, what stands in her way, how does she react to failure. Still I was prone to getting lost in my own language. With shorter fiction, I could more easily understand my own underlying intention in writing the story, and more important, I could see how to rewrite until I got it right. This was so much easier to grasp in a shorter story than in some unwieldy length of text. In short pieces, though language had to be lyric, it also had to pay off, so sometimes, my pretty words, the ones I clung to and wrote around so I could keep them, had to be jettisoned.
These lessons have helped me write so much better, and they apply to any length. Every part of a story, a chapter, a paragraph needs to serve the story in some way.
Screenwriting! That’s something I’ve never dared to try… But, after hearing all this, Gay, maybe I should. Not necessarily with the intent of selling anything (though I won’t say No to a salivating studio—ha!) but as training… A sort of workshop, if you will.
Writing screenplays taught me how to structure a story. It was an invaluable lesson. Even a short 50 word piece must hint at some kind of arc, even if the arc is a single moment, a decision, a realization, something. The other thing I learned from writing screenplays is that if I use a mechanical means to look at a story, it will help me to ferret out unnecessary bits. Because screenplays usually span two hours, 120 minutes, and one page = one minute of screen time, most screenplays, especially those written on spec, shoot for that length, 120 pages. With a goal such as this, at some point in the writing (probably after 200 pages of words), the writer has to condense and/or pare the piece down to around 120 pages.
I discovered that strong straightforward sentences force a writer to find the perfect verb, the perfect noun, that if this is done there is less need for adverbs and adjectives. It makes the writer use language that is specific, visual, and precise. This is a discipline, a step needed to make both language and story resonate.
This makes perfect sense, Gay. And it also goes a long way towards explaining why your shorts pack such a powerful punch.
When I discovered flash, it felt like home.
In one of your interviews you said something about publication being validation… Something about wanting to be published not so the people around you would take you seriously but so that you would take you seriously. I know exactly what you mean, and I bet many other writers do, too. In today’s literary scene, though, with the self-publishing option so readily available (and our Western penchant for immediate gratification), waiting for a publisher may seem like an unnecessary delay to this validation we crave. Since you’ve done both—self-publishing and the traditional route—I’m interested in your perspective.
I'm at an age, Guilie, when I feel whatever gets my work out there works for me. The only book I've self-published is Pomegranate Stories, and while it gave me something to point people to when they asked me what had I published, I have to say that I wanted a publisher after that. Mostly because I wanted that second set of eyes, the advice about what I'd put down on paper (figuratively speaking), and so I was delighted to have Every Day Publishing put out my novel, What Came Before. I found it much easier to see my work through the publishers eyes, and a secondary benefit was that I learned to fight for my own way. It stretched me and made me better. Rattle of Want has also been a terrific experience for the same reasons. The feedback from someone who is going to pay you to publish your work carries so much more weight that that of writing workshop or group. The publisher is invested in quality and making your work shine.
However, that said, I know several people who've made a lot more money by self-publishing. They turn out a quality product and reap the benefits. Everyone's journey is different. We need to pursue wants and needs in our own way. I don't think there's a right or wrong path, except to cheat and steal someone else's work. Doing your own work, learning about who you are and what's important to you, these are the true payoffs to writing, and if you can make money and become famous as you do it… well, that's all gravy.
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Gay Degani has had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books released her collection of stories, Rattle of Want, (November 2015). She has a suspense novel, What Came Before, published in 2014 (second edition coming in summer, 2016), and a short collection, Pomegranate, featuring eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters. Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she blogs at Words in Place where a list of her published work can be found.
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Gay, this chat was a pleasure—and an illumination. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and your experiences, and I look forward to having you back sometime soon for more! Thanks, also, to readers of the blog, and I'd love to hear your own experiences in writing long vs. short... Do you feel writing different lengths—or maybe even different genres—has contributed to developing your skills as a writer? Has it modified your perspective on writing itself? And if you haven't tried a different length, I'd love to know why.
Thanks again, everyone! Looking forward to your feedback on this. In the meantime, happy weekend!