All my guests here at BSF have been short fiction writers in addition to novelists. As I wrote in an earlier post, “short stories are lovely journeys that will get you home in time for supper.”
Today, I talk to a short fiction writer with serious street cred. He’s a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Narrative Magazine Contest Winner, and Best of the Net nominee. His short story collection, The Outskirts of Nowhere, was a 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest semi-finalist and a 2015 St. Lawrence Book Award semi-finalist. His 2016 collection The Second Time Around was named a finalist for the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for Fiction. His story Man of Letters was ranked number five in the Saturday Evening Post’s Top Ten Stories of the year. And these are just a few of his accolades.
Literary magazines throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe have published his works.
Full disclosure, his wife Sheila’s company, City Tracks, produces all my audio projects for Canary Cliff Productions, and Bob and I have shared too many beers while discussing much of the stuff I’m sharing with you today.
BITE-SIZED FICTION: How many stories have you published?
ROBERT MCGUILL: I haven’t done a count for a while, and I need to because I think I’m coming close to 100 stories published.
It seems odd because I haven’t been writing that long. You know it’s like anything else; it comes and goes in spades. You go through a long period where no one seems interested, and suddenly everybody calls or emails at once and wants something. Maybe I need to do a nod to myself for my centennial issue.
BSF: How did you get started?
ROBERT: Like you, I cut my teeth in advertising. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I loved writing copy for ads. You learn a lot from writing ads–how to be concise, funny, sincere, whatever—but get to the point right away. It’s like in the old days, writing a sonnet. You got 14 lines, and you’d better make the most of it. No excuses.
Those are lessons that are all well remembered when getting to fiction writing – I apply them all the time. Stories tend to be more expansive than ads, but my first default is to be brief. Keep it to a particular word limit, and so, then I need to adjust accordingly. So, I suppose what I struggle with now is to adhere to the rules but allow myself some room for more imaginative and deeper thought.
BSF: Do you still keep a foot in advertising?
ROBERT: I do. It’s not reluctant foot, but it’s smaller than it once was. It’s just that the marketing world has changed quite a bit, and so has traditional ad work. The short format stuff is the fun stuff, and nobody wants to give that up. But those of us who have done long-format stuff go, that’s a nice challenge. And that’s where a Creative Director will happily punt the ball to someone experienced, like me, who’s done it before. So, occasionally I’ll pick up work like that and run with it. I’m just not in it as heavily as I once was
BSF: How do you keep the advertising and fiction writing separate? I’ve never been able to master that.
ROBERT: I never allow myself to write fiction in the same office or the common set of hours that I set aside for advertising. One comes out of this drawer, another comes out that drawer, and you have to learn to separate them.
In terms of style, temporal things go on with rhythms and so forth that complicate the transition from one to the other. You’d be immersed in your ad writing, and then you come out, and you try writing fiction, it takes a moment to shake all those things out of your head and reset. In other words, it takes a different skill set to write a short story than it does to write a three-sentence homage to a cheeseburger. Having said this, there are efficiencies in ad work that are worth learning, and applying to your fiction writing. And there are a lot of cool tricks you can pick up in fiction writing that can help with copywriting. They’re the same animal and yet different. I think it’s neat to have been able to pull from both in life. Of course, ad writing pays. Fiction writing? Well, that’s a much tougher turnip from which to squeeze blood.
BSF: Why did you start writing fiction?
ROBERT: Once you get marginally proficient in one area of writing, your imagination takes you to other places, and you think, well, there’s no one out here in the city that’s going to pay me to tell this story, so maybe I’ll just write it myself. I began dabbling at first, and challenging myself to push a little further, delve a little deeper, until I was so far gone I couldn’t turn back.
The first time you send a story out, it’s paralyzing because you think, ah, man, why did I do that? Now I’m going to have an entirely different set of human beings crap all over my work. But you get over it, you know, and after you’ve been kicked around a bit the rejections don’t hurt anymore. I guess it’s just a desire to explore something inside that needs to be explored.
BSF: What’s your workday like?
ROBERT: I’m up early every morning. I come out here to the cottage in the back where I have my office, and my wife has her recording studio and start right away. I try not to read or listen to anything else before I sit down at the keyboard. I try to come as a completely blank slate. I don’t have any voices in my head or preconceived notions of where I want to be, I just start in. And I find that’s usually pretty effective. I’ll work for a couple of hours, then I’ll take a break, have coffee with my wife, and we’ll chew on the day’s fat for an hour or so. Afterward, I’ll go back to it. I usually go to the gym in the afternoon as a way to bust things up. When I get back, I go back to my desk again, and look over what I’ve done. That’s kind of the way it works almost every day.
I have, on occasion, listened to music while I work. But not often. At best it doesn’t get in the way. But most of the time, for me, it’s a distraction. Funny. I met Kent Haruf (Our Souls at Night) once, and he said he wrote with a bag over his head. Literally. A bag over his head. I don’t know anyone else who does that, but whatever works, right? The important thing is you want to compose to the voices in your own head, no one else’s.
How many drafts of a short story do you write?
It depends on the story. I’m not sure I have a fixed number in my head. I look back, and I think after 100 stories, I should have a better system for managing this. Drafting, that is. But to me, each piece is an individual endeavor, so when I sit down to write there are drafts that come more easily than others. The bigger thing is, I never throw anything away. If a story turns out to be a bugaboo, for whatever reason, I’ll put it away and finish it later. Sometimes years later.
I number my drafts, but each pass is rarely a complete revision. Sometimes it’s just picking up where I left off the day before. That said, the average number of pass-throughs is probably somewhere in the thirties. So, that sounds tedious, but what I’ve discovered is always to have a handful of stories in draft form. Because what you think sucked yesterday, two days later, when you go back and read it, you think, there’s some useable stuff here. Then I’ll start revising that one. So, really, I’m working on a whole collection at once.
For me, that’s the trick. Keep as many works in the mix as possible. It’s tough, sometimes, keeping the voices and characters separate, but here again practice makes perfect.
But I usually know when I can’t make a piece any better. That doesn’t mean it’s good; it just means I’ve reached the realization I can spend the next three years changing this word out with that word, and on the whole, it’s not going to make that big of a difference. That’s a ‘gift’ that takes time to cultivate. I’m one of those guys who loves revising. But I’ve also learned, the hard way, that not every sow’s ear has the potential to become a silk purse.
So, you submit it. Well, you send something out after just having gotten an acceptance slip; usually, you’re a lot more confident. You go through periods of drought; you go through periods of doubt. They say writing’s a business of rejection. The important thing is to not put too much stock in either outcome. If you get an acceptance, the best thing to do is enjoy it. If you get a rejection, the best thing to do is put the story aside and revisit it when you’re in a more welcoming mood. Experienced writers know this. Most of us have reached a maturity, or clarity, that we go back, analyze, revise if necessary, and take it in a different direction, which is why it’s good to hold on to something.
BSF: You’re an associate editor at Narrative. How has that affected your writing?
ROBERT: When Tom Jenks (publisher and editor-in-chief) offered me the position of associate editor, part of the promise was, you’re going to get to look at the best short fiction in the world and have a hand in promoting talented people—people who conceivably have never had a publication before—to literary notoriety.
When I began reading for Narrative, it was an eye-opener in a lot of different ways. One, it taught me what an insular world an editorship is. You’re working alone while being given the massive responsibility of passing judgment on another writer’s work. Two, it taught me that the best and only way to success was to listen to your own heart, and to speak in your own voice. Narrative has no stylistic preference. It’s a magazine whose only interest is literary excellence. What this means is you’re treated to an amazing variety of storytelling. The third thing I’ve learned is that critical exposure to other writers has helped me sharpen my own work.
True story. When I first sat down with Jenks and discussed a specific ‘rule’ of writing that had been giving me fits for years, he said, in a very genial way, “Why, that’s completely untrue.” It was the oft-quoted, much-insisted-upon rule that a short-story writer must always keep point of view strictly to one person. He pointed out that in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” there were as many as three shifts in viewpoint in the opening paragraph alone. All of which are homogenous in terms of what is being said, but when we learn these rules, we think monolithically. It’s this way, and that isn’t necessarily true. But a talented writer can do whatever they want so long as it succeeds. Anyway, it’s made me a better, more compassionate reader, and I hope a better writer.
BSF: What have you learned about submitting a story?
ROBERT: This is only from the very narrow perspective of one editor and writer. Myself. But it’s a simple way to avoid a page-one rejection, and that is make sure your manuscript’s clean. Follow the rules in terms of font, pagination, and formatting. Don’t try to stand out that way because it’s usually a red flag of some sort. In terms of story, trust your judgment, and your heart. If your heart isn’t in the story, it will be the first thing that shows.
I’d like to offer a word about rejection here, too. If you get a personal rejection, respect it, but take it with a grain of salt. You have to trust your instincts to a certain extent, and if someone comments “the pacing was off” or “this part doesn’t work,” well, that’s useful, but wait. Three editors say the pacing is off; then you need to take a close look at that but don’t rush off to rewrite your story to appease someone else’s sensibilities.
BSF: What’s next?
ROBERT: My dream is to someday work on a non-fiction primer about the business of story writing. Not the seamy underbelly, exactly—but the myths and realities of the world of short fiction. I’d answer important questions like, “What moron piggybacks a rejection slip with a subscription notice?” while offering amazing insights into why, at three dollars a submission times a thousand submissions a week, a university-funded literary journal is only able to afford to pay its hard-working writers in contributor copies.
Meanwhile, I figure to keep on doing what I’m doing.
The stories I’m currently working on are more complicated than some of my earlier pieces, but I like to push things, so we’ll see whether these new works can grow legs stout enough to bear them up. That takes a bit longer, and I can’t push stories out the door as quickly, but I’m hooked on writing fiction. It’s like a drug.
BSF: Well, thanks. I appreciate it.
ROBERT: Thank you, Scott. We should go out and chew the fat some more.
View the bonus content to get some additional submission tips and find out what happens at the publication once you hit submit.
To learn more about Robert McGuill’s work, view his blog.
And read Man of Letters in the Saturday Evening Post.