This little number appeared on a Xenith last year. I was really flattered, since I'm not really all that published whatsoever, but the thought was nice and the questions fun and so here it is, in all its . . . whatever it has.
Given the numerous magazines in which this particular gentleman has been published, Xenith readers may have already stumbled across Andrew MacDonald’s short fiction. At 24, Andrew is working on his masters in creative writing and has been published in The Fiddlehead, Blackheart Magazine, Existere, qwerty, Feathertale, echolocation, and many other magazines. He also maintains a blog at caughtwithstring.blogspot.com. In this interview, he touches on the writing and revision process as well as his experience with publishing in the small press.
Interview by Patrick Nathan
As someone who has primarily published fiction, you’ve developed an undeniable skill for it. When you contrast your writing now versus your writing from when you first started out, what is the most marked difference? What, if anything, has remained the same?
That’s a good question. When I first started out, I didn’t pay much attention to plot logistics. I focused a lot more on style, mostly of the high fallutin’ kind. Lots of big words, lengthy descriptions, tons of exposition. Nowadays I’m more interested in crafting stories, not sentences. An old mentor once told me that writers tend to be stylists or storytellers. I used to classify myself as the former; now, not so much.
The more I write, the more I realize that language will always service the idea. That sounds complicated, but it’s not. Your goal is to entertain, or otherwise engage, your reader. An alienating text is rarely successful. Or at least I avoid them like the plague. Everyone denigrates the Dan Browns, the JK Rowlings, the Grishams. Not me. I admire their mastery of storytelling craft. We like to think that writing is all about beautiful words. Maybe that’s part of it, and certainly it’s one of the first things I worked on when I started. But the art of crafting a plot is a huge part of writing fiction, and lately that’s the part of the game I’ve been focusing on. Someone like John Irving is a good example of a, quote, literary writer, who pays attention to plot, makes things happen, and doesn’t have a really graceful style. I think of Dickens too, or Graham Greene (though some people might disagree about him).
Other than that, developing discipline and shedding the title of weekend writer. You have to take your writing seriously if you want other people to.
Almost everyone has some definable method of organizing thoughts and ideas in preparation for writing. What is the typical series of events that takes place between the initial spark of your short story and writing the first sentence?
I like to have a vague idea of where I’m going, but I’m open to change. Usually something hits me, a sentence, an idea, some weird event, and I’ll try to work through the possibilities. Once I have something, anything, I’ll write a few sentences. Most of the time they’re not in any kind of coherent order, at least on the page, but in my brain they fit like jigsaw pieces in a bigger picture. The less time I spend being anal and planning the better. The less restraint, the better. The less time I spend analyzing what goes into that first draft, the better.
So when you tell someone that you’re working on a story, and they ask you what it’s about, it’s pretty safe to assume that you aren’t sure yet? In that vein, when someone asks the same question on a finished story, are you able to answer?
Sure. For me, the summary is really about isolating the story’s conflict. You hear agents throw around this piece of advice all the time for novels, and I think it applies to fiction of all flavors: if you can’t summarize your story in a sentence or less, you might need to do some thinking. Going into a story I’ll probably have a good idea about what it’s going to be a about. At least generally. It could change as circumstance dictates.
How would you describe your revision process? What do your first drafts generally look like in comparison to the copy that goes to the publisher?
Revision’s more fun that writing the first draft. Still painful, though. Sometimes my first drafts are pretty solid, but mostly they’re awful, putrid, stenchy.
Let’s throw in a quote by Charles de Gaulle: “Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” What lambs have you digested? Who shows up in what way?
That was eloquently phrased. Well done, Chuck. Immediate influences? Salman Rushdie, Mordecai Richler, John Irving, Zadie Smith. Recent digestifs include Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Bechdel’s amazing graphic novel Fun Home, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Conversely, what lambs have given you indigestion?
This will get me chirps from both ends of the litgeek spectrum, but Chuck Palahniuk and Jane Austen. I think Chuck’s got a good marketing team and a bagful of gimmicks he employs every book. I enjoyed Fight Club. Anything after that . . . he just gets worse and worse. Sigh. Plain Jane’s got skills I respect, she’s just not my thing.
There’s no getting around the fact that you have an impressive list of publication credits. What is your usual process for submitting a piece of writing? Do you let it sit for a few months, awaiting revisions, or do you submit immediately after finishing? Do you submit to several magazines at once or just pick what you think would be a good fit? Do you write pieces and think, “Hey this would be a good fit for Fred’s Magazine” or do you come to that decision much later?
I used to be impatient, sending everything out the second I lifted my fingers off the keyboard. Which meant I’d have ten pieces floating in submission land, and ten rejections coming a few months later. While that didn’t yield particularly stunning results, it was an important step: send your stuff out there. Be too big for your britches. Grow thick skin and get used to the process.
Getting work out there, published in journals, is rough: the pay is crap, the wait is long, and most people don’t care. On the other hand, it’s a good way to build your CV and your confidence. And who knows who might be reading? An agent caught the story a friend of mine wrote in a nationally distributed literary journal and asked if he had representation yet. I don’t send stories out anymore unless I’m confident in them, and even then I expect a rejection letter. What used to be a week of editing a story has turned into months. Having one really sharp story is probably worth more than a handful of clunky ones. I’ve done some small-time journal editing and know from experience that editors are looking for reasons to trash your stuff.
I tend to avoid writing for specific markets, partly because I get caught up in writing what I want to, for better or for worse, and partly because I just plain suck when I try. Most of the places I submit to frown upon simultaneous submissions, so it makes for long waits. Duotrope is a fantastic resource and I use it every time I submit to a publication.
What would you say is cardinal advice for authors looking to start submitting their work?
Cardinal advice? Just do it. Follow the guidelines and get work out there.
If you could boil it down to something specific, what is the most important lesson you have learned in the years you’ve spent improving your craft?
Keep going when everyone else quits.