Today, I’m talking to Danielle Lazarin about how to get your short story published by a literary magazine, how to know when your story is finished, and how to write stories no one else can write.
Danielle has a forthcoming story in Glimmer Train, and has published in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, and on FiveChapters.com. She received her Masters in creative writing at University of Michigan. She knows her stuff.
Let’s jump into the interview!
Danielle, you’ve written for some of the most competitive literary magazines around. How long had you been writing before you had one accepted?
I began submitting stories to literary magazines in college; my first story was accepted by Michigan Quarterly Review shortly after I finished my MFA in 2007. Time wise, that’s well over a decade. But of course the quality of the stories I wrote in high school and college are vastly different than what I was working on in graduate school and am now.
How many short stories did you write before you were able to get that first one published?
That kind of counting doesn’t end well, in my experience. Let’s just say enough to know that that particular story was ready to be out in the world in ways that most of the others were not.
Do you know why that first story was chosen and not all the others?
I think the other stories I had sent out were simply not ready, for various reasons. Oftentimes when I got rejections they were unsurprising; I felt not sadness but relief, because I knew in the back of my head that there was still more work to be done on the story, and now I could do it.
I’m still working on being patient with myself and my work. The plan is to build a career, to write till I can’t type, or mind-meld, or however we’ll be using technology to tell stories in fifty years. I want every published story to be one I can stand behind for a long time. Some of those stories I sent too soon have since been published, but after much revision. Some are still in revision.
Generally, though, it’s really hard to say why one story is published after many rejections or never at all or quickly, why some stories win contests or don’t. I always try to remember that a reader is subjective. Pick up any story collection or literary magazine and it’s clear that the world is full of stories with engaging character and strong arcs and beautiful prose. But that doesn’t mean that each of those stories are amazing in my eyes; it might not get me as a reader.
When it comes down to it, for publishing purposes, you are speaking to a small group of readers, and your story just might not connect with them. Before that, of course, you have to be sure that you have done all that other work, that you have satisfied all your criteria for characters and arc and sentences.
What do you enjoy about writing stories? What do you hate about writing them?
I love living inside the suspended disbelief of stories, of the act of writing when you feel like you are reporting rather than inventing, when the stories you are telling feel so true to you you forget that you are indeed making them up.
I love when I am out in the world living my life, on the way to the playground with my girls or catching a bus, and something comes to me in a flash—a detail about a character, or a plot point, and that rush to write it down, that hunger to sit down with the newfound knowledge and see where it takes me, how those little details open up portals.
Having those tidbits stored up is exciting. I ride on that excitement, as the time I have to write is not as much as I’d like it to be, as I’m home with my kids, who are not in school full-time yet.
I hate the feeling of missing puzzle pieces. Of having a story be almost there, and knowing there is something wrong with it, but being unsure what it is, or even if I know what the problem is, not knowing how to fix it.
I’ve had a number of stories where this is true, and I tried various revisions, but they weren’t working, and I felt as though I was spinning in circles. I put both of those stories away for some time, till I felt I had shaken their familiarity out of me.
Then I went back when I started thinking about them again. One of them was published by Five Chapters and the other won the Glimmer Train contest.
What are three things a writer can do to write publishable short stories?
1. Find a few good readers.
By a good reader, I don’t mean someone who loves your work unconditionally. I mean someone who adores your work as a whole, but who is also serving its greater purpose, who is not afraid to give you criticism and from whom you can hear and use that feedback. It can take a while to find that reader. I have a few friends from graduate school and college whose feedback is invaluable to my stories.
2. Hone your own editor.
This perhaps contradicts number one, but you also have to gain a sense of what you want out of your stories.
Sometimes the most useful feedback I’ve received from other writers or teachers has been things I’ve disagreed with, someone telling me that an element doesn’t work at all, and my knowing that that non-working component is vital to the story I’m trying to tell. And then I have a burning desire to make that line or sentiment or secondary character work, to make that reader understand how vital it is.
Often in workshops people tell you to cut what isn’t working, but I think first you have to check and see if you want it to work. It’s a different way of listening to feedback, of understanding your goals for your story.
3. Write a story that no one else can write.
I spoke of this some in my essay for Glimmer Train: I believe you have to claim your territory through specific details, through a sense of ownership of a kind of character or experience. You do this by tapping into your own history, the places and characters you know most intimately.
I took a workshop with Julie Orringer some years ago and she asked us to write from an area of our own expertise—to draw on a narrow experience, such as being a competitive piano player, or the daughter of a mother in a wheelchair, or spending summers in a particular town or house.
When I teach, I use a variation of that exercise, and it always generates the most vivid, confident stories, far more interesting than students trying to think of a wacky or surreal set of circumstances in an effort to stand out. Those stories often read as inauthentic because it’s so outside their experience that they look in at their characters rather than see from inside of them.
If you feel connected to your work, if a character reminds you of a place or person you are connected to emotionally, that will come through and give you a sense of stake in your stories.
What’s your favorite story you’ve written?
The one I’m working on now, if, of course, I’m not struggling tremendously with it that day. I feel very connected to each of my stories, or I wouldn’t spend so much time with them. But once they are done, I move along to the next character or idea. They’re like students, really. I want to see them do well in the world, but if I spend too much time admiring them and looking after them after they’re gone I can’t move on to what’s next; I can’t fall in love with some other story enough to write it all the way through.
I am not a fast writer; many of my stories take years from draft to final version, as I find I need to put them down for a bit when I get stuck and focus on a different story. I move forward bit by bit on a number of things at one time, and I need the promise of something new just ahead or I just stay stuck.
Right now I’m working on a novel, which is a different kind of beast, but it has a multi-character point of view, and so that keeps it fresh; if one character is giving me problems, I just ditch them and hang out with someone else for a while.
And yes, I do think of it as hanging out with my imaginary friends.
If you want to learn more about how to write a publishable short story, check out Let’s Write a Short Story, an ebook about the art and science of writing and publishing short stories.
I love the idea of “drawing on narrow experience” that Danielle mentioned. You have experiences that make your life unique, whether it’s your childhood memories, your work experience, your travels, or your relationships.
Write about your narrow experience. Be as specific as you can.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.
And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few posts by other writers.