First-time fiction writers seeking agents and publishers are urged to categorize their work according to the book world’s increasingly specific buzzwords. There is the genre: mainstream, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. There is the reader: children, middle grade, young adult, chick lit, hen lit and others, including the latest label—“new adult.”
The broadest delineation, perhaps, is this: literary or commercial.
Defining “literary,” however, can present a challenge. It is not as epigrammatic as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum on obscenity in the 1964 legal case Jacobellis v. Ohio—“I shall not today attempt further to define [it]. . . .But I know it when I see it.”
Linda Legters writes literary fiction. Her first published novel, Connected Underneath (Lethe Press), was released in April. Connected Underneath follows the intertwining lives of several characters in the fictional upstate Hudson River town, Madena, New York, as witnessed and imagined by a wheelchair-bound woman, Celeste, from her kitchen.
In a recent conversation with the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (and in an appearance as a guest speaker at the Fairfield Public Library’s monthly Writers’ Salon in the autumn of 2015), Legters shared her views about what makes literary fiction—an opinion articulated in far greater detail than Justice Stewart’s about obscenity. Along the way, she offered advice about writing and submitting short stories, the importance of a story’s first paragraph, what it takes to really create a character, the importance of making yourself uncomfortable and more.
A native of western New York State, Legters began writing as a child. She also studied piano and now paints. “I grew up reading novels and assumed I couldn’t do any such thing,” she says. “When I was in my 20s I read a novella by Edith Wharton and I thought, Oh, I can do this. Not that I tried. I’d always written, but I hadn’t really written anything formal or organized. I started dabbling with short stories. But life got in the way. So I didn’t go to grad school until decades later.” She had earned a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. When she resumed her schooling, she earned an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, she teaches writing and literature at Connecticut’s Norwalk Community College and the Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She is currently revising her first completed novel, which grew out of a story she wrote in grad school and for which she found an agent but not a publisher. “Since Connected Underneath, I better understand how to write a novel, the sort of novel I want to write, so I think I can make [the revision] more successful,” she says.
The basic difference. For Legters, commercial fiction is heavily plot driven, ties up all of its story’s strands at the end and has the goal of satisfying readers with events and characters that are fairly predictable. In contrast, literary fiction is unpredictable and doesn’t tie loose ends: “You don’t know how it’s going to end because you don’t know how events in life are going to end.” It may never satisfy the audience in terms of easy answers or safe endings, “which is why it is harder to get published.” As a writer of literary fiction, Legters says she knows she may never have a large audience. But although she sometimes thinks she’d like to write commercial fiction that would be an easier sell, she knows she could never become sufficiently engaged to complete the project.
Use language to capture life. “Literary fiction is more language driven,” Legters says. “I’m fascinated by the effort and the ability to capture something in words. Just like a painter might be fascinated by capturing light or the quality of movement, I want to capture with words what I see or experience or imagine.”
But you need to have insights to capture. Simply putting words on paper was not Legters’ greatest difficulty in becoming a literary fiction writer. “I knew I could write a good sentence,” she says. “But I didn’t feel I had any fresh observations or any fresh takes or really understood human nature well enough to do anything interesting. My college major was 19th century British literature. The complexity of that influenced me. If I was going to write anything it was going to try to cover new territory as opposed to just telling one more story. I just didn’t feel I had anything to say. I had a lot of experiences but I had no new insights. I don’t know why I grew up at the age of 40 or 45 or 50. But I did.”
Is there an age factor? Legters’ experience as a teacher of young writers has led her to some of her conclusions. Her students tend to write plot-driven material, and “often they have not told everything in a story. They think they have explained something, but they haven’t; it’s still in their heads. They have experienced things deeply, but the hardest thing is really seeing what you put on the page versus what you think you put there; it’s good to find objective readers, and to put your writing aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.
“I teach a course at Norwalk Community called Creative Voice. We just finished a whole section on music. It occurred to me, when I was hearing what the students like, they will often pick songs that mirror what they feel. They go to it because it’s familiar emotional territory. We all do—it’s escape and validation. And commercial fiction is largely the same. It’s familiar. It’s safe territory. Even if, in commercial fiction, the story is about divorce or dark, dark things, somehow it ties itself up and doesn’t tend to go into the emotional darknesses of the range that literary fiction attempts. I think that’s a huge difference.”
Don’t equate experimental prose or structure with literary fiction; it may not be. “When art of any kind is experimental,” Legters says, “it’s too often experimental for experiment’s sake. It doesn’t accomplish anything but being gimmicky. So if I attempt to do something different, it’s because I need that difference to convey the emotion I’m trying to covey, or the character or the moment. The writing must be organic. It’s got to grow out the moment.”
One epigrammatic definition. When it is suggested to her that literary fiction deals a lot more with the interiority of its characters than commercial fiction does, Legters says, “Definitely.” Last fall, she told the Writers’ Salon that in literary fiction, “It’s the who, not the what.” Her reaction upon having her quote read back to her: “I said that? I think it’s true.”
A literary editor’s invaluable advice on character. “Tom Jenks is now the editor of [the online journal] Narrative,” Legters says. “But he also worked with Raymond Carver for years. He was editor of all these big name people, so it was a pleasure to spend a few days with him at a workshop in New York. He saw that I was holding my characters at arm’s length. I sort of knew that. I worked hard to get rid of that. You need to be brave. Really, really, really think yourself into your character and allow yourself to inhabit that person. It takes practice. It doesn’t come easily. It’s a willingness. It’s a willingness to confront fears and motives and unpleasant things about yourself as well as what happens inside that character. Because the tendency—and I see this in new writers—the tendency is every character essentially mirror themselves. That makes it difficult to produce characters that go beyond themselves.”
More on language and life. “The language used to describe a character’s inner life [is a key element of literary fiction]. In commercial fiction, people present a more recognizable inner life. Literary fiction is recognizable, but it’s different territory. It’s graver. I find it graver.”
How grave is her novel? “Even though Connected Underneath is a little bit dark, there is hope for us. I want readers to come out with hope. And also with a sense of responsibility. That, in fact, we are responsible for what happens around us. I think we neglect to see that all the time. We’re so absorbed in our daily lives or in our cell phones or whatever. There’s always hope.”
Make yourself squirm. When she spoke to the Writers’ Salon last fall, Legters’ most impactful statement was: “If you are writing about something that makes you uncomfortable, you’re writing the right thing. Truth is uncomfortable, it can be painful. But the truth is what you are trying to get at.”
Writing in the zone. While she doesn’t say it is right for everyone, in terms of her writing process, Legters prefers to be in what she calls the zone: “At lot of people say, write every day, no matter what. Write a hundred words, write three pages or whatever. I just did a guest blog thing for Nina Mansfield. It was about the roller coaster of confidence. I said that [a daily quota] doesn’t work for me. If it’s not going well, walk away. Do something else. Maybe do something else creative. I don’t know how [entering the zone] happens. I suspect that it’s surrender. I suspect it is the same thing that happens for an athlete who’s in the moment. Either you’re in the moment or you’re not.”
Keep revisiting your first paragraph. “I feel the first paragraph sets the tone for an entire book,” Legters says. “It has to be perfect. It had to be perfect in Connected Underneath. Because it’s Celeste talking about what’s going to happen, I knew that I didn’t know, I didn’t understand [the story], really, until I allowed her to be honest with herself.” So Legters never stopped trying to improve it. “I’d rewrite. I’d think I was happy and I’d move on. But I’d always come back to it.” When asked what she ultimately was searching for by doing so, she answers in a word: “Truth.”
Consider starting with short stories. Legters’ first published work of fiction was the short story “When We’re Lying,” in the May 2012 issue of Glimmer Train (where it was a “Family Matters” contest award winner), although her first acceptance, from Story Quarterly, preceded it. “I did start with a short story because it felt like something that was doable,” she says. “Not that short stories are easy. But it was something I felt was manageable.” Indeed. “The remarkable thing about ‘Spinning Through the Dark,’ [the Story Quarterly story] is that, although we all agonize over every word, I wrote [it] in eight hours—and it was published. The Glimmer Train story took me about eight years. So one never knows. . . .”
A story may be shorter, but. . . . “It’s not simpler. When I’m thinking about writing one, I go back to what Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of a short story is, which is that everything in a short story is about a single thing. Nothing is extraneous. Everything is very tightly controlled. It’s really about one event. Even Alice Munro’s stories—when you read them they feel like novels—if you look at them they are about one event, one single arc.
“Novels, of course, aren’t like that. They go in and out of arcs. I have been told that the difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel has subplots. And a short story does not. That does apply. People writing novels, I think, have the notion that in a novel you have so much room, you can put anything in it. I don’t feel that way. I think every line and every word should count, just as it does in a short story.”
Hone your submitting choices. When she first began submitting stories, Legters kept three lists—graded A, B and C—of literary journals where she’d like to be published. At any one time, she might have four stories out at 10 publications apiece. “I think that’s the way for first-timers to go,” she says. “Just get them out there.” But once you have some success, “be a little more discriminating. I have stopped sending to publications that I don’t really care if I’m in. A lot of people just try to get lists of credits. It’s time-consuming. I’d rather spend the time writing.” While she is not submitting shorter pieces currently because of the demands of promoting one novel and revising another, she says her C list, and perhaps her B list, have been shelved: “I have two or three short stories that have never been submitted. I’m only going to send them to the places I really want to appear.”
Her most important submitting rule. Legters told her listeners at the Writers’ Salon, “Don’t send a story out until it is done!” In her case, that moment induces an almost physical reaction, a full-body ”Wow, that’s it!” She said it’s a feeling she lives for now.
Imagining is the fiction writer’s job. Legters writes from imagination, fueled by everyday observation and conversation rather than deep research. Speaking about Connected Underneath, she says that, “No one who has read it has complained, how dare you write about someone who is in a wheelchair, which Celeste is, and how dare you write about a 15-year-old and how dare you write about 40-year-old single dad. No one has said that. You’re a novelist. You can do whatever you want. Whatever you can imagine. I mean, not doing so would be like saying that no men can write female characters.”
As for research, “For this novel there are two subjects that I checked out fairly thoroughly. One was the process of getting tattoos. And I wanted to know what would happen to his bike if [a motorcycle rider] falls off it at some point.” The rest of the story is purely imagined. “The power of imagination” she says, is what makes writing fun.
Beware a pitfall of query letters. When you reduce your novel’s story down to one or two paragraphs in a conventional query letter, Legters warns that it can sound “trite.” When reminded that in her autumn talk she had used the adjective “stupid,” she says, “Even better.” For her first novel, she used the pay service Writer’s Relief to help get her query letter in shape and to provide a list of possible agents, an experience she says was “worth the money.” For Connected Underneath, though, she approached small presses directly and, ultimately, successfully: “[Lethe] is an LGBT press, and I’m not a member of the community. So it’s been interesting to see responses from people. Initially I was concerned that it might be marginalized as a gay novel, but, thankfully, that sort of label is becoming a thing of the past. Gay, lesbian, transgender, they’re part of the fabric of our lives.”
So, does seeing the published version of Connected Underneath make her squirm? “When I got my copies of my novel in the mail,” she told the FWB in our recent conversation, “I didn’t open the box for days. I finally did just before I was coming down to a class. I took the book out. This is going to sound terribly immodest. But I read the last three pages. I was so uncomfortable reading those last three pages but I realized I’d written a good last chapter. [She laughs.] That was so uncomfortable. So I feel like, OK, I don’t know that anybody else will like the book or buy the book. But I know I wrote a good chapter.
“It’s complicated. I think, because I write for myself first, and not necessarily to be published, I’m not entirely sure I like having it out there.”—Alex McNab