Long Story Short

Gazebo in the main square, Canary Falls

I’ve asked around, and it seems normal not to want to look at something you’ve created after it’s finished—though I’d hate to think Shakespeare read Hamlet just the once. The subtext here is that I finally completed a writing project! My creative coach, Ziva, had tasked me with entering the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. I was still drafting, editing, and proofreading thirty minutes before the deadline.

After I submitted the piece, I never wanted to see it again—which didn’t stop me from tossing and turning that night as I reflected on its flaws. These gyrations were purely mental, as there was a 45-pound dog lying across my legs. While my feet fell asleep, I lamented numerous aspects of the work I had delivered with my entry fee:

  • Length. The composition was based on a synopsis I had written for a story intended to be 3,000 to 5,000 words. Contest entries, however, were limited to 1,500 words (hence, “short short”). Telling the tale was like trying to squeeze a size-ten foot into a size-six shoe.
  • Word choice. Every time I proofed the story, I would change certain words—and then change them back in the next pass. I should have changed them one more time.
  • Perfectness. I had only two weeks to write the story, so I wasn’t able to craft it to the level I desired. Ziva had advised me to take my perfectionism down to 70 percent, even speculating that 70 percent could turn out to be 100 percent. I still don’t get the math.

The result of the exercise described above appears below. Should you decide to read it, please forget the negative things I just said about it. To pique your interest (or save you seven minutes), the story is about a combat journalist who experiences a close call in the field and returns to her hometown.

Canary Falls

Thirty-seven-year-old Leigh Forrester had been scared before: When she started prep school mid-semester. When her first boyfriend asked her to have sex. When a 1974 Ford Cortina collided with a black bear, making her an orphan. But as a cable news reporter from the globe’s conflict zones, she possessed a preternatural composure. Untrained to deal with dangerous situations, and protected only by a helmet and bulletproof vest, she never considered she could die. Her determination to capture major world events, sustained by adrenaline, insulated her mind from such thoughts. Nor did she worry when her lover, Michel, a war photographer, hadn’t made contact since Christmas; he always resurfaced.

Embedded with U.S. Marines in the volatile Helmand province of Afghanistan, Leigh confronted her vulnerability. On a bright, brisk morning, as she recorded footage outside a reopened clinic in a district liberated from the Taliban, rocket fire from the city limits spread mortar bombs over the area. One landed on the hunter-green Afghan police truck in which she had traveled, sending shards of metal and glass in all directions. Shaken, Leigh realized she needed a respite from peril. She didn’t even wait for the network’s approval. Rather than return to the Notting Hill flat she shared with other combat journalists, however, she wanted to feel the comforts of home.

Leigh walked into town carrying her duffel bag as the sun, still below the horizon, started to color the sky. She barely remembered arriving in Canary Falls, though she knew she must have taken planes, trains, and a bus to get there. She feared she had a concussion from the blast and made a mental note to visit the physician—for as much as a mental note was worth to a person with a brain injury. She had heard Dr. Starr passed a while back and was replaced by a young woman.

The local diner, Logan’s, hadn’t opened yet, but Leigh noticed activity inside. Approaching, she marveled that the business looked just as it had in her youth: mint-green walls, mismatched tables and chairs, tchotchke-stuffed shelves. The eponymous proprietor, who already seemed old when she was a girl, unlocked the door and led her to a hickory stool at the counter, next to an antique cash register. He gave her a big breakfast free of charge.

Leigh set off toward the Dandelion Inn, where she planned to spend a week under a floral quilted bedspread. The breeze carried spring’s freshness, with a hint of summer’s warmth. “I used to love a day like this,” she thought. “In this picturesque New England burg,” the correspondent in her added. After a few minutes, she stopped in front of a two-story, sky-blue house with a wraparound porch. Fifteen years earlier, she had sold the dwelling, furnished, to a young family. She wondered if the Kims still lived there and, if so, why “FORRESTER” still appeared in faded black letters on the white mailbox. Aware she might be committing a felony, Leigh eased the metal door toward her; it creaked a tune she recalled from childhood. Inside was an envelope bearing a single word in a graceful hand: “Leigh.” She slid her thumb beneath the barn-red wax seal, impressed with a calligraphic C. A shiny key fell into her palm. She must have sent word ahead and forgotten.

The walls were still buttercup yellow with white molding. Vintage rugs still dotted the maple floors. Leigh recognized her grandfather’s cushioned rocking chair, beside the brick fireplace with a built-in niche for logs. Her gaze lingered on a framed photograph of a radiant couple on a beach, holding hands as they ran in the surf; she always thought of her parents this way. Leigh crossed the living room to a lampshade painted with violets, which she recalled “improving” with a purple crayon; she fingered the fabric, which was unmarked.

Upstairs, Leigh filled the claw-foot cast-iron tub from a faucet mounted on the rim. She stripped, lowered herself into the steaming water, and closed the pink pinstriped curtain around her. Settling back, she sought to understand how her home from ages eight to eighteen had remained intact and immaculate since she exchanged it, following her grandmother’s death, for enough cash to leave her comfortable. Did the Kims never move in? Do they rent the place out to vacationers? She would go into town and question the selectman or the gossip, whichever she encountered first. Back downstairs, in her old bedroom off the kitchen, she dressed in khakis and a white button-down shirt; in the field, she would add a scarf or jacket as necessary.

Through the textured glass of the double front door, Leigh thought she saw a carriage, drawn by two white horses, waiting at the curb. Indeed, roses, tulips, irises, and dahlias filled the spokes of the wheels. A plume of white feathers adorned each steed’s head. “Welcome home, Leigh!” the townsfolk shouted upon seeing her. When the team reached Main Street, Leigh found herself in a parade. The thoroughfare was lined with people displaying congratulatory signs and shaking ribbons on sticks; they smiled, waved, and yelled her name as she passed. Leigh viewed a truck-drawn float decked with streamers up ahead, and heard a marching band behind. She never expected such a reception, despite being a television personality. She laughed, her eyes filling with tears, and blew kisses to the crowd.

The procession ended in the main square, where lemonade was served, and a three-piece band played Dixieland. Leigh joined former friends and acquaintances, though none could provide insight into the old Forrester cottage. A message spread that a community barbecue would take place at five o’clock. Exhausted, Leigh excused herself; she was hoping to see the new doctor. On the walk over, she mused at the demographic shift in Canary Falls. The inhabitants seemed generally older, with a smattering of middle-aged folks and hardly any children. Perhaps others of her generation had also moved away.

The name on the shingle confused her: “Dr. Richard Starr.” She should have checked her sources; the doc’s wavy hair was still carrot-colored, without a trace of gray. “You’re the picture of health,” he announced, after examining her, “and will probably live forever.” He attributed her mental lapses to the trauma she suffered. Strolling home, Leigh noticed a familiar-looking dog with a curly brown coat. “Babette!” she called out. The mutt trotted over for an ear scratching and went on her way.

Burgers, ribs, chicken, trout, and vegetable kebabs cooked on innumerable grills. Side dishes—corn on the cob, zucchini, asparagus, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, baked beans, biscuits, ambrosia—were ubiquitous. Assorted pies, cakes, and cookies blanketed a long table. Donning the sleeveless plaid-print red dress she wore under her gown at her high school graduation, Leigh wondered if this cookout was being held in her honor. Her answer came after sundown, when Zack St. James, the town selectman, invited her up to the central gazebo, its columns wrapped in garlands of white stargazer lilies. Zack directed everyone’s attention to a theatrical screen hung on a building bordering the square. “Leigh Emily Forrester, this is your life!” his voice boomed over the mic.

The highlight reel mesmerized her: Running around the house in Dad’s gigantic shoes. Getting a shot, slurping a milkshake. Swinging on the veranda with Gramp while it rained. Riding in a car, blindfolded, with members of a secret society. Crossing into Darfur on a moonless night. Making love with Michel in his Paris apartment. Lying on the dusty ground in Bost, bloody, unmoving.

The final image faded, but Leigh remained transfixed. “Could I be dead?” she murmured, staring at the blankness.

Zack held the microphone to her lips.

“Am I dead?” she demanded.

“As a doornail, dodo, or mutton,” he replied, garnering laughs from the audience.

Someone squeezed Leigh’s right hand. She turned to see her mother’s sparkling eyes. When her knees gave way, her father caught her on the left. Behind each parent stood a set of grandparents. A sweeter reunion could not be imagined.

“While you get reacquainted,” Zack interjected, “I’d like to thank the former residents of Canary Falls for making this homecoming possible. You all got together and, through collective concentration, created this remarkable replica of the hamlet we cherished on earth. Sudden transitions can be difficult, but as you can see, Leigh is doing wonderfully.” The assembled souls applauded. “Soon you will be returning to your usual forms and roles, but for now, enjoy the party!” They cheered. To Leigh, he added perfunctorily, “Your guides will be in touch.”

Assuming she had eternity to catch up, Leigh took her leave after a while. In her mind, she still needed sleep. As she neared the house, she was startled by a shadowy figure on the steps.

“The village is adorable.” He used the French pronunciation. “Just as you described.”

“I am a journalist,” she responded. “Or was. You know you’re dead, right?”

Michel grinned. “C’est la vie.”

Hand in hand, they went inside.

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Yes, Coach!

Seven months ago, I started a writing project: a collection of short stories. I surprised myself by completing synopses for 10 short stories in 12 weeks; the synopses average a little over 1,500 words. Following such a promising kickoff, my plan was to spend a month writing each of the 10 stories. But I got stuck on the first one (“Story 1”), a redo of a piece I had submitted for an online course a few years ago. I logged approximately 4,500 words of a projected 6,000+.

I knew I needed to see my creative coach, Ziva.

We met two days ago in her white Dodge camper van, parked with the windows down in the scenic lot of the local natural history museum. (Ziva was hosting houseguests, so we couldn’t conduct our session at her condo.) I thought she would tell me how to get “unstuck” so I could finish Story 1 and move on to the other nine. But turning to face me in the cab of the vehicle, she blew my mind with a quick-and-dirty way to produce my entire first book (“Book 1”): a curated compilation of my blog posts.

I loved her idea for speedily transforming content (that already exists!) into a publication. I will pull my 77 blog posts off the Web, put them in Word, organize them into sections, cut the ones that don’t fit (or that suck), write an introduction and maybe section intros, do some editing, format the manuscript, and distribute the document through CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing tool). I assume this activity is meant to be psychologically liberating and affirming, and to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Before my 90 minutes with Ziva were over, I had enthusiastically accepted three additional assignments, none of which was to complete my partially written story:

  1. Hone one of my synopses for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. (That’s two “Shorts”s; entries must be 1,500 words or less.) The deadline is two weeks away.
  2. Write synopses for 4 additional short stories for “Book 2,” my short story collection (with a new target of 12 to 14 tales total).
  3. Set up an underutilized room downstairs as a writing den for myself. I am tempted to enlist a professional organizer to tame the space—or “kill the monster,” as Ziva puts it.

I’ll get back to Story 1 eventually, possibly in the spring. I kind of miss it already.

My Brushes with Captioning Greatness

A recent drawing for the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon contest showed what appeared to be a lecture hall filled with ducks sitting in front of laptops. When I saw it, my first thought was of the infinite monkey theorem, which holds that a monkey, or group of monkeys, infinitely striking typewriter keys would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, or at least Hamlet. Accordingly, I submitted the caption, “I hope they do better than the monkeys.” One of the three finalists selected by the judges was a much funnier and timelier version of mine: “No Shakespeare yet, but they have reproduced several Presidential tweets.” I wouldn’t call my caption a near miss, but at least it was in the neighborhood of the finalist’s ballpark.

Reflecting on the captions I have entered or come close to entering in 132 consecutive contests, I compiled my top five almost successful attempts.

Near miss #1: Contest #590, October 30, 2017
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My caption, submitted: “It’s a shame he won’t be appreciated until after he’s extinct.”
Winner, second place: “It will be worth even more when he’s extinct.”

Near miss #2: Contest #559, March 6, 2017
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My caption, not submitted: “I thought he’d do a cannonball.”
Winner, second place: “See? A real pirate would have cannonballed.”

Near miss #3: Contest #548, December 5, 2016
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My caption, submitted: “I don’t care if you were obeying the laws of thermodynamics.”
Winner, second place: “I don’t make the laws of physics, sir. I just enforce them.”

Near miss #4: Contest #566, April 24, 2017
566 - cartoon
My caption, not submitted: “She bested the parrot.”
Winner, second place: “We’ll see how affectionate he is when he finds out who ate his parrot.”

Near miss #5: Contest #497, November 9, 2015
497 - cartoon
My caption, submitted: “I’m the little engine that couldn’t.”
Winner, first place: “She left me for an engine that could.”

I remain hopeful that, one day, I’ll come up with the right combination of words at the right time. I think I can, I think I can . . .

Read Me Like a Book

chaucer's

Chaucer’s Bookstore, Santa Barbara

When I sit down to read, Sophie gets scared. She’s unfamiliar with the scenario. What is that bound stack of papers receiving my attention? She’s especially unnerved by the whoosh of air as I turn the pages.

Over the years, I have made excuses for not being a more ardent reader:

  1. I did a lifetime’s worth of reading as an English major in college.
  2. When I was doing a lot of editing, I read manuscripts all day; I didn’t want to spend my free time doing the same. (Does a barista want to make coffee when she gets home?) Moreover, when I did read for pleasure, I didn’t enjoy it; I was always looking for errors.
  3. I wanted to be a content provider not a content consumer. I wanted to be the comedian, not the person who goes to a comedy show.

In his classic guide Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, former Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills proposes that a beginning writer could learn more from books about how to read literature than from books about how to write short stories. Taking my cue from him, over the last several months, I have semi-voraciously consumed short fiction, the genre that is my current focus.

Following are lessons about writing short stories that I have gleaned from my reading, by source. These personal takeaways are based less on analysis than on casual observation.

The Best American Short Stories, 2015
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Lesson 1: Negative is positive. Troubled characters are interesting. Be disturbing, dystopian. Make the reader uncomfortable. Show how challenging it is to be human.

The New Yorker
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Lesson 2: Go deep, not wide. Concentrate on a single occurrence or a limited series of events. Adhere to Aristotle’s unity of action, place, and time. Plunge into characters’ psyches and motivations.

Philip K. Dick
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Lesson 3: Plot meticulously. Keep the action moving forward, continuously engaging the reader as each scene follows logically on the last. Use details that mean something.

O. Henry
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Lesson 4: Shatter expectations and assumptions, after setting them up. Give the reader the delight of being surprised. (Bonus lesson: Be irresistibly droll.)

Jacob M. Appel, Einstein’s Beach House
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Lesson 5: Craft your language. A short story has limited real estate. Choose your words carefully, lovingly. Avoid unnecessary repetition. Make each syllable count.

Stephen King
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Lesson 6: Don’t trim all the fat. Marbling adds flavor to the meat. Let the narrative and dialogue flow naturally. Don’t edit the life out of them.

People write for approximately a million reasons. They write to inspire, educate, or entertain; to sort out feelings, share beliefs, or express a passion; to connect with others, be a positive influence, or change the world; to gain fame or leave a lasting mark on the planet. I can identify with all of these motivations.

Mostly, though, I want to write so that someone else can read.

All Q, No A

I have spent a full month writing (but not finishing) the first short story of a planned collection of ten. (Eight, actually—I expect to ditch the weakest two. They don’t know it yet.) At this point, I can safely say I have more questions than answers. The opposite would probably be worse, though; having more answers than questions might feel like a multiple-choice test, and tests are stressful.

In the last four weeks, the following mysteries, among others, have presented themselves to me:

  1. QsHow much craft should go into a first draft? I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.
  2. Do they call it a draft because it has holes? Come on, I’m serious.
  3. Which is more important: sticking to the schedule, or taking the time to get it right? Within reason, as defined by a perfectionist.
  4. How much is too much backstory? Do you need a narrative providing the history of this question?
  5. Is it normal to crave frozen yogurt? Chocolate-vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles.
  6. Is it okay to write to entertain, rather than to be literary? My dream is to have a story published in a middle-school anthology.
  7. Literary magazines have length limits, so am I shooting myself in the foot (or accomplishing some other gory metaphor) by writing 5,000- to 6,000-word stories? Sounds like a job for an editor!
  8. How fully realized should the main character of a short story be? Same question for secondary characters. Screw the tertiary characters.
  9. How much time should I allow for research? Isn’t it easier to make facts up?
  10. How important is it to follow rules about writing? I’m not much of a lawbreaker.

I welcome answers to any of the above, and the sooner the better!

A Numbers Game

old londonReflecting on the second season of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone, creator Rod Serling observed that a third of the episodes were “good,” a third were “passable,” and a third were “dogs.” I just finished writing synopses for ten short stories in about as many weeks, and I can only hope for a similar breakdown. Fingers crossed, there’s something worthwhile in there! You see, for each story idea, I could have spent more time searching for the characters, plot, and setting that expressed it perfectly. Instead, I latched onto the first scenario that seemed to work.

The bad news, then, is that the stories arising from this initial effort could be better. The good news is that I am in possession of ten fleshed-out story ideas rather than one or two (or maybe zero, the perfectionist in me opines). The even better news is that there’s tremendous room for improvement! According to author Jacob M. Appel, “Profit comes from book number five.” In other words, it’s a long road. And I’m finding comfort in the fact that I’ve left so much material untapped.

In the process of nailing down the parameters for these soon-to-be short stories, unexpected themes emerged: houses, heart conditions, 911 calls, first kisses, small towns, murder, religion, prison, motherhood, empathy, England, technology, and the late 1800s. Perhaps a psychoanalyst could help me figure out why these elements recurred—though I’m not sure I’d want to know the answer. Unsurprisingly, some stories also feature dogs, baked goods, and references to Shakespeare.

synopsis filesStarting September 1, my plan is to write one story per month for the next ten months. This is when the real research happens, the characters are developed, the plot details are filled in, the setting is described, the dialogue is crafted. (I’m using the passive voice here, which probably means I haven’t yet accepted that I will be doing all this work.) My main goals are to entertain and surprise. Correspondingly, my greatest fear is that my writing will be derivative, hackneyed, and predictable.

Or that I’ll go back into the files from the last three months and see, repeated over and over, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Sunny-Side Up

neuron

This month, I have explored the connection between synopses and synapses. Though only one letter apart, these words have very different meanings. As you may recall from grade school, a synopsis is a summary of a novel, movie, play, etc. (Another name for this: book report.) A synapse is the small gap across which nerve impulses pass. (Remember the illustration of a neuron in your science textbook, the fried egg with a long tail?) When all your synapses are firing, you’re focused and your mind feels electric.

To write synopses for stories that don’t exist yet requires that your synapses be firing—allowing communication from one brain cell to the next, thereby facilitating the creation of characters, plots, settings, and themes. But synapses are squirrelly. They don’t like pressure. They won’t produce synopses on demand. All you can do is ask them a question (“How does the protagonist get from point A to point B?” “When does he learn to speak German?” “What are good names for conjoined twin sisters?”) and then wait, as patiently as a perfectionist with a self-imposed deadline can, for an answer.

So far, I have written synopses for six short stories in six weeks, and I’m working on the seventh (out of ten). I won’t lie; there has been a fair deal of panic. I choose a new story idea every Thursday. When Saturday rolls around, and the characters, plot, setting, and theme aren’t clear yet, I’m tempted to yell at the synapses, “Think harder!” At this stage, I can be seen staring into space a lot. I know I must commit to something, any direction, and start writing—because it will be next Thursday before I know it.

Each synopsis feels like an experiment: I am discovering something unknown, and it may or may not be viable. I won’t know if it holds together until I flesh it out in 5,000 words. And even then, I won’t know if it’s any good until someone reads it and feels like he or she hasn’t wasted half an hour.

I anticipate further panic.