Author Archives: karengreenfield

About karengreenfield

I am a professional writer and editor, as well as an amateur dog lover and cupcake maker.

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 . . .

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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
best american short stories
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
philip k. dick
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.

So Far, So Good

 

Grace Kelly charades

Grace Kelly playing charades aboard an ocean liner en route to Monaco, 1956

I have completed the first month of my 16.5-month plan to write 10 short stories. Oh, the excitement of being 6 percent of the way toward my goal! Some highlights since June 1:

  1. I watched a Writer’s Digest tutorial about how to craft a collection of short fiction. I learned the six key principles to consider in putting together a book of stories. It would be indiscreet of me to divulge those principles here; if we were together in person, however, I would have no qualms about pantomiming them to you. The tutorial’s presenter, Jacob M. Appel, offered to share PDFs of his work. I read his story collection Einstein’s Beach House and highly recommend it.
  2. I decided that two stories I wrote (or partially wrote) for a class a year and a half ago are salvageable, with changes (and endings). I may try to publish these pieces, once revised, as I continue to write the others.
  3. I refined my list of story ideas (now numbering close to 200). The challenge will be figuring out what on earth I meant by some of the shorter entries, such as “birthday,” “maintenance,” and “walk-in.” (Thanks, self.)
  4. I said I was going to limit my reading about writing, but I couldn’t resist buying a book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction. If there’s one thing I want to accomplish with my writing, it’s to engage readers with emotion. Unless that emotion is hatred for my writing.
  5. I ordered a guide for getting stories published; it lists fiction publications, contests, and the like. I had it shipped via snail mail because, well, you can’t publish something that isn’t written yet. When it finally arrived, it was a book about finding a literary agent! The customer service person submitted a replacement order and told me to keep the extra book, with the following advice: “Do whatever you would like with it, be it donation or origami.” I think I’ll keep it, in case I need an agent 15.5 months from now. Plus, I don’t know how to do origami.

twilight zoneThe overall theme of the stories I’d like to write (at least for this current experiment) is a subversion of reality that reveals human nature; accordingly, I have been binge-watching The Twilight Zone on Netflix. Rod Serling, creator of the classic series, said, “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”

And coming up with cool ideas that Serling didn’t already come up with is nearly impossible.

Taking My Umbrella

ray bradbury square

Ray Bradbury

Lately, I’ve been getting ideas for short stories, from things I see, read, listen to, or just find myself thinking about. Ray Bradbury suggested writing a short story every week. His reasoning was excellent: “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” But I think a would-be author might find this advice difficult to follow, presuming he or she is employed in some other activity in anticipation of becoming an author. I might be able to write the synopsis for a short story in seven days, however. Extrapolating, I have constructed (concocted?) a 16.5-month time line for penning a 50,000-word compilation of 10 short stories.

poster edgesThere’s a 90 percent chance this is a false start like many others I’ve had. And I’m being generous giving myself a 10 percent possibility of success. (Please, no wagering.) Then again, when a meteorologist predicts a 10 percent chance of rain, you almost always find yourself running to your car with a handbag over your head. I am considering enlisting the support of my creative coach as well as writers at local meetups. And limiting my reading of short stories and my research about short story writing (tempting delay tactics), relying instead on the resources I’ve collected and internalized thus far.

Here are the best intentions paving my road to hell:

  • Week 1: Review the short story form
  • Week 2: Refine my list of story ideas
  • Weeks 3–12: Write synopses for 10 short stories (one per week)
  • Months 4–13: Write 10 5,000-word short stories (one per month)
  • Months 14–16.5: Edit 10 short stories (one per week)

I’m sure I’ll have to make adjustments along the way. Perhaps one story will want to be 2,417 words long. Another might need to be a novella. Maybe I’ve given myself too much time. (Ha. Ha-ha!) If my plan works, I’ll write a book about it. The title will be irresistible, something like, Crafting a Collection of Short Fiction in Just Under 17 Months.

Subtitle: Ray Bradbury Could Have Done It in 10 Weeks.