I've always had trouble understanding the structures of things. Cars, houses, cakes, novels. Detailed instructions have provided little assistance. When my first son turned two, I tried to assemble a Donald Duck scooter. The job consisted of snapping axle locks and wheels to Donald's feet and wings — locks on the inside, wheels on the outside. I got three of them right and then snapped a rear lock outside its corresponding wheel. I only realized the mistake after my son was rolling across the floor. Seeing that it wasn't a sophisticated vehicle, the misplaced part caused no loss of function. But it looked odd, like Donald had suffered a compound fracture to his leg.
I've written two novels in the years since, and I confess they both have that Donald Duck, splayed-leg construction to them. The first novel started as a collection of stories that I had hoped would work together as a whole. I didn't quite get it there, and the advice I received was to rewrite the stories as a novel.
I had no idea how to do this. I did read and enjoy novels, but I'd always favored short stories. My first experience was in high school, when a teacher assigned Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge. It wasn't just the form of the short stories that got me (the weight of every word and the volume of emotion contained in 20 to 30 pages) but the fact that they were set where I had grown up, in Georgia. Before then, I'd always assumed literature focused on places and periods of time that were unfamiliar to me. It's not that I didn't appreciate understanding history or the larger world, but sometimes the biggest mysteries in your life can be the places and people you see every day.
After Flannery O'Connor, I was struck by the stories of Raymond Carver in Cathedral. I didn't quite understand what minimalism meant, but I was drawn to his characters and their sadness. Carver's work made me think to try writing short stories myself. For 20 years, I only wrote short stories. The closest thing I had to a method was to write a scene and see if the characters felt alive to me. If they did, then the following scenes seemed to happen on their own.
At a loss for how to turn my story collection into a novel, I decided to set the stories aside and start from scratch. I hardly felt like I'd become a competent short-story writer, and now there were new challenges to face — plotting a novel, in particular. I wasn't sure where I wanted the novel to go or what steps it should take to get there, so I stuck with my old method and strung scenes together, hoping the characters would come to life in my head. The characters did their job, but the plot remained elusive. I lost count of the rewrites and revisions. Somewhere along the way, with the guidance of my agent and editor, I found a structure and a story arc. It wasn't expertly assembled, but it rolled across the floor without toppling over.
Just before that novel was published, I started a second novel and resolved to do a better job with plotting. I didn't post notecards on the wall, and I left room for the characters to push the story where they wanted it to go, but I knew what sorts of situations I wanted to throw them in and what obstacles I wanted them to encounter. After it was finished, someone who'd read the book mentioned the word plot. There were some problems with the plot, they said. I was just happy to hear that a plot existed.
I felt very fortunate to have published two novels, but I also understood that, from a business standpoint, a third opportunity from my publisher was not a realistic expectation. I thought I could give up fiction writing, but I compulsively went back to it. And when I did, I found myself writing short stories. Again, I tried to make the stories work together as a whole. The collection became Wake Up, We're Here.
My publisher passed on their option to buy the collection. I understood their decision and was grateful for the opportunity they had given me with my novels. Afterward, I realized I'd spent years asking editors and publishers to take a chance on my writing, but I'd never taken a risk myself. I sensed there might not be an audience for the short-story collection, but it was important to me, and I wanted to see the book through to the end and know that I'd done my best.
Once I'd decided to publish the story collection myself, a friend taught me the basics, such as how to purchase ISBN numbers and set up a print-on-demand title. Another friend recommended a terrific editor, Steven Bauer. And finally, the publicist who'd worked with me on my two novels, Lauren Cerand, said that she would promote the book. Without her help, I doubt that anyone outside of friends and family would have ever read the collection.
The track of my writing life had moved backward, from legitimately published novels to a self-published short-story collection. But I understood when the novels were published that I had plenty of weaknesses as a writer, stretching far beyond the structure thing. And now, with the short stories, I know that I haven't regressed as a writer just because of how the book was published. More importantly, the process has had value beyond any perception of the book. Succeed or fail, I've learned the great benefit of any undertaking is the relationships built with people during the process. And with writing, which is such a solitary activity, those relationships mean even more.