As the fiction editor at The Atlantic, Curtis has discovered or edited some of the finest short story writers of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, including Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Richard Ford, Jill McCorkle, and many more.
Last week, my friend John Jeter, the author of The Plunder Room, asked me, “What is a short story anyway? How does it work? How do you write one?” I figured I could stumble through an answer (which I did, poorly) or I could go right to the source and ask the editor who has helped shape the answer to the question.
I am fortunate to teach part-time on the same faculty as Curtis at Wofford College, and have had the pleasure of co-teaching a class with him based on his anthology God: Stories. He is a kind, unassuming, and generous man with one heck of a sense of humor and a fixation with finding the perfect cheeseburger.*
Below, Curtis and I talked about writing and editing short fiction.
How does a short story work?
Curtis: A short story can “work” in a number of ways, depending on the author’s intentions. Some stories, the ones I tend to admire most, are “dynamic.” That is, they move forward toward a resolution of some kind, and have a fulcrum, or transforming moment, for which the author prepares us, and toward which the action of the story is plainly directed. This transforming moment provides a change of some sort: a concrete change of circumstance, an illuminating and life-altering insight, a moment of clarity, an authentic glimpse of the self, or the like.
The other familiar story type is “static,” or rooted in the moment. Such stories are meant to explore “How Things Are,” rather than where they’re going or ought to go. They depend upon shrewdness of insight, elasticity of language, a gift for weaving together apparently disparate elements into a revealing and organic whole. They illuminate problems rather than follow characters toward decisive action, and many are both shrewd about human behavior, and entertaining in their use of language and paradox.
How do you make a short story better?
Curtis: You make a short story “better” by tightening its focus, by removing clumsy language and irrelevancies, by making more plausible what is otherwise improbable, by incorporating wit and juxtaposition, by sharpening dialogue, by leaving unsettled the mysteries of why we do what we do, even when clear answers seem right in front of us.
I have heard you use the word “accomplished” to describe stories before. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Curtis: “Accomplishment” in the short story can be any of a number of things. Some writers have a gift for dialogue that is pungent, or clipped, or convincingly regional, or amusing. Other writers are skillful at generating the sounds and smells, the setting for the actions of their stories. A story can be “accomplished” in these or other ways and still not quite work, or bring its elements into synch with each other.
As a student in workshops, one of my frustrations (and joys) was the discussion of whether or not a story “is working” or not.
Curtis: If the story coheres, engages, moves its characters to a resolution of the tension that drives the narrative, then it “works.” As a teacher, I try to guide the discussion of workshop material with questions calculated to underline narrative intent and to reveal what is incomplete, or overdrawn, insufficiently attended.
In what ways has your understanding of the editor’s role changed since the beginning of your career?
Curtis: In the early stages of my editing career I imagined I was being paid to find mistakes and to correct them. As the years went by, I began to think more about preserving the writer’s voice and avoiding an unconscious drift into my own. I’ve stopped being surprised by what seem obvious mistakes in grammar and syntax, realizing that writers in the midst of a creative rush pay less attention to grammatical precision than to the impulses that bring ideas, characters, and narrative to life. This is, of course, why writers so often tinker with manuscripts far past the point that seems useful. As copy-editing at The Atlantic became more strenuous, in the early 1980s, I discovered an unexpected responsibility — to protect manuscripts, particularly fiction, from editing so aggressive (on the part of copy-editors and fact-checkers) that it threatened to launder all Atlantic writing to fit one mold, eliminating quirks in language and expression that gave the work its distinctiveness, even if challenging the Chicago Manual of Style.
The most rewarding part of my job as editor is two-fold: A) Discovering publishable or near-publishable work by writers not yet known to the wider reading public, and helping to bring that work into public view; and B) helping to refine that work (making it clearer, more direct, more emphatic, more sensibly arranged, more true to the author’s intention) before its appearance in the pages of The Atlantic.
What has been your greatest editing challenge?
Curtis: My greatest editing challenge. I can think of three:
A) Shortening stories far too long for The Atlantic format but so distinctive and artful that we hated to give them up. One early example was a story by Joyce Carol Oates, at the time a little known but already prolific writer of short fiction. Trimmed to half its original length, and retitled, the story appeared in The Atlantic in 1964 and was then chosen for inclusion in the O. Henry Prize Stories for that year and was awarded First Prize as the best of the stories in that collection. A more recent example: two stories by a writer whose first collection won a Flannery O Connor Award in the 1990s. We published two of his stories at roughly half their original length without, I believe, leaving out essential detail or nuance.
B) A second challenge: working with writers (often poets who have turned to fiction) whose ideas about language have less to do with literal meaning than with the sound of the words, in isolation or in sequence. This kind of writer often resists the objection that he/she hasn’t said what is plainly intended, and that other words would do a better job. “But I like that word,” he/she will say, “and why can’t I use a noun as a verb, or vice versa?” Problems like this get solved, eventually, but not always in the editor’s favor.
C) A third challenge lies in the use of language too frank or sulfurous for general audiences. When such language is fundamental to a story, can’t be changed without damage to the intent or affect of the story, we usually just return it. In many cases, however, alternates are available and are often just as effective. Such revisions, however, require negotiation and patience. In recent years, frankly, The Atlantic has allowed language it would not have published in the 1960s, offending a handful of readers but probably going unnoticed by the vast majority, and certainly by those familiar with, and comfortable with, the loosening of artistic boundaries in all the arts.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Curtis: Read a lot, in all fields, partly to see how other writers solve problems of dialogue, setting, pacing, theme, etc., and partly to become better and partly to become better grounded in the possibilities of form and become more aware of the models available.
“All fields” certainly includes fiction, a lot of it. I use the phrase, however, to encourage simultaneous reading in history, philosophy, economics, religion, etc. As for genre writing, I doubt it helps much, and it teaches at least some bad lessons. But sometimes you just want to get away.
Understand that first drafts tend to be spontaneous, urgent, much-loved by their authors, and almost always in need of revision. But don’t stop and edit in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. Write the thing, while the creative impulse has you in its grip. Later on fix those run-on sentences, root out awkward repetitions, remove needless emphasis, sharpen dialogue, etc.
Don’t expect to find a coherent, publishable voice overnight. Most writers produce a great many inept stories, or even novels, before the pieces begin to fall into place. A lot of practice is the usual solution.
*The perfect cheeseburger can be found at The Handlebar in Greenville, SC.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.
Note: Excerpts from this interview appeared in Jones’ weekly column in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.