Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Post from Robin Black; How One Book Became a Book

My first book, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, is coming out next month, which is thrilling for me and scary and also means I talk about the book a lot more than I ever have before or ever dreamed I would. It's a collection of unlinked stories and a lot of beginning writers have asked me recently when and how I knew it was a book - as opposed to just a bunch of stories. The short answer is that I worked on these stories for a good four years, maybe longer, before ever admitting I was trying to write a book. There's also a long answer, of course.

At first I just wanted to write a single good story. (My definition of "good" back then was that other people had to like it.) I hear a lot of writing students say "I'm writing a collection," before they've completed a single piece. I'm not at all saying this is wrong for them - but it would have been wrong for me. When I started writing seriously, at the age of 39, after a hiatus of many years, I felt incredible insecurity and definite doubt about my ability to write even one story that even one person would like. So that was my ambition, and in fact that's exactly what I did. I wrote one story that one person liked. I marched it off to a workshop and twelve of the thirteen participants hated it - but one guy thought it was great. I had reached my goal (Congratulations?) Not too spurprisingly, that didn't seem to satisfy me much at all. So, after that, I tweaked my goal to have less to do with counting yeas and nays and more to do with just writing as well as I possibly could.

The problem was, I had no idea how to do that. Back then, before being in a workshop long-term, before my MFA program, before I developed a higher level of self-consciousness for better and worse, stories seemed to just arrive on my keyboard - or not. There wasn't a huge element of volition involved. It felt more like being seized with some kind of fever for a few days, a fever that produced a first draft. (I sometimes miss those days. . . ) So again, the idea of designing a book was a completely alien one. How can you consciously construct a book of stories if you can't even figure out what's making you write them, if you feel entirely passive in the process, like a person possessed? For me, the answer was that I couldn't.

But then, within a few years, I was in grad school at Warren Wilson, working toward my MFA, and though we talked about theses - in my case four stories - we all knew we were aiming toward books. Yet still, I would deny it, saying that my stories "didn't play well together." Whatever their individual merits, I would say, they weren't meant to be collected. I had my well-prepared explanations having to do with themes and with styles but mostly, now what I think is that I was terrified that if I admitted I was writing a book, I would freeze in my tracks. I'd always been bad at finishing projects. If I couldn't complete a crocheted scarf, how would I ever finish a book? And I felt presumptuous. I'd been home with my kids for nearly two decades. I was a forty-something woman with no professional background of any kind. Who was I to call myself an author - which felt very different to me from someone who wrote short stories. And, maybe most of all, admitting I was writing a book would make me vulnerable to a kind of disappointment I just couldn't face. I didn't aim as high as I might have because I didn't want to fail - in large part because I was afraid it would make me quit writing; and writing, it turned out, made me happy in a way I had never been before.

Eventually, after experiencing enough failure, enough rejection to know it wouldn't stop me and after gaining my MFA, I did admit what I was doing. I was writing a book. A collection of unlinked stories. And if it didn't find an appreciative audience, I knew would keep writing anyway. I might feel bad, but I wouldn't feel invalid or as though I had to quit.

That was about five years after the first workshop I walked into.

When I tell this story to people who are just starting out, I think it disappoints them. It all sounds so passive - on my part - such a mish-mosh of neuroses and nascent skill sets crowding each other out, quarreling among themselves. But it shouldn't worry or disappoint anyone. It's just my story. Just another example of how different a process this is for each of us, how different a process it is meant to be. And the point is, whatever I thought I was doing, I kept writing. And writing. And writing. So maybe, if you too feel at times as though you really have no plan about where it's all leading - as I felt for so, so long - my story may help you remember that it very well may be leading exactly where it's meant to go, even so.


  1. Congratulations Robin on your first book and this great blog. As a short story writer I identified with many things you said. I wondered how you got an agent/editor and publisher interested in your unlinked stories. If you have time to tell us, I would greatly appreciate it. Again congratulations! I look forward to reading your book.

  2. It's a really good question. A large part of the answer is sheer dumb luck - I met the right agent at the right time. I really wish there were some better answer, one that involved a strategy one could put in place. I did see a lot of story writers on his list which was a reason I queried - but that was true of several others. He just had a hunch that the stories would sell - and believe me he was in a tiny minority, a minority of precisely one in terms of the agents with whom I spoke. No one else had any interest in trying to sell them - just a novel later on. And in fact I did sign a two book deal, the collection and a novel-in-progress which I'm working on now. I very much doubt I could have sold the stories without the promise and some evidence of a novel.
    I initially attracted attention from agents with a story in One Story, and there's no doubt that a good placement helps. But one of the hardest and most frustrating things about this profession, one of the hardest to accept, is the role of luck. Every writer who has had any degree of success has also had a degree of good luck along the way. There aren't many "truths" about this profession that I think are absolute, but that's one of them. You need to have some talent, you need to work really (really) hard and you need some good luck.
    Sadly, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of agents still do not want to sign writers who only have unlinked short stories. But 2009 was a great year for short story collections!! And for many reasons - including self-interest, I admit - I'm hoping 2010 will be even stronger. The only way to get agents to change their view is for story collections to sell. . . There are a lot coming out this year. . .put a few on your list. (Doesn't even have to be mine!) Support the form, and eventually the form will thrive.

  3. Robin, thanks for this glimpse into how your stories turned into a book.