Category Archives: Fiction

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.

Nerd Alert!

space

Last weekend, I “attended” a writing conference. I put “attended” in quotation marks because the event took place online, so there was nowhere literally to be present. I enjoyed this setup because I got to sit in my kitchen, near the snacks. And I didn’t have to be out among people, a bonus for an introvert.

Put on by Writer’s Digest University, the conference focused on science fiction and fantasy. Unless the sitcom The Big Bang Theory isn’t true to life, fans of these genres have the reputation of being, well, nerdy. So imagine how nerdy the writers must be! Delightfully so. Seven accomplished, award-winning authors presented webinars on various topics, such as worldbuilding, creating suspense, and crafting three-dimensional female characters. Let me tell you, these folks were legit. They didn’t just phone it in (unless the microphone on their computer wasn’t working).

Here are some tidbits, one from each session, that I found interesting, helpful, amusing, or surprising:

  1. Foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy do very well overseas, especially in Germany. Other big markets are France and Russia. In fact, the bulk of income from such works may come from outside the United States. (Michael J. Sullivan)
  2. Fictional universe. Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy takes place at both the macro and micro levels. Macro relates to the external factors that affect societies and individuals; micro refers to the internal factors that make characters seem believable. On the micro level, one of the most important factors is power, which is the ability to affect or control others. (N. K. Jemisin)
  3. Structure. A mistake to avoid when writing a science fiction or fantasy novel is failing to hit the three major plot points hard enough, causing the story to drag. The first of these revelations (the “tent poles” of your story) occurs 25 percent of the way in, the second at 50 percent (the “midpoint”), and the third at 75 percent. (K.M. Weiland)
  4. Raising the stakes. One way to add suspense to science fiction or fantasy is through the villain. It is more effective for a villain to pose the threat of menace than to be omnipotent. Avoid the “evil overlord syndrome,” opting instead for “less is more”: let the reader wonder what the relentless villain is capable of doing. (Jeff Wheeler)
  5. hatThe past that never was. Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, reimagines modern technology as powered by steam, set against a 19th-century backdrop (such as Victorian England). The colorful essentials of steampunk include airships and steam locomotives, “brass works” (such as weapons and armor), goggles, corsets and waistcoats, and bowlers and pith helmets. (Tee Morris)
  6. Human women. In science fiction and fantasy, avoid female characters who are purely objects, exerting no influence in moving the story forward. Other things to avoid: having just one female character in your cast, and making your female characters suffer in order to motivate the males. (Pip Ballantine)
  7. Grabbing and holding. The opening scene of a science fiction or fantasy book should follow the “punch, push, explain” format: punch your reader in the face (first sentence), push him to the floor (first paragraph), and then explain why you did it (next few pages). (Philip Athans)

As for my own nerdiness, I believe that was confirmed when I spent the first weekend of summer indoors, learning about writing.

 

Have All the Stories Been Written?

Romeo and JulietSeveral months ago, I felt inspired to collect ideas for short stories. (This step, which precedes the actual writing, is wonderful, because it isn’t the actual writing.) I tried to find scenarios that would convey concepts I found interesting. For example, I wanted to write about oneness—specifically, how the notion of oneness is difficult to comprehend because we appear to be in individual bodies.

I thought maybe I could illustrate this idea via conjoined twins. Identical twins who are physically joined seem less separate than the rest of us; there is no space between them to suggest disconnection. Indeed, to get along in life, conjoined twins must cooperate; discord would lead to suffering. Mark Twain’s 1869 comic sketch of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Thai-American conjoined brothers, humorously illustrates the nature of inseparability:

By an understanding between themselves, Chang does all the in-door work and Eng runs all the errands. This is because Eng likes to go out; Chang’s habits are sedentary. However, Chang always goes along. . . . Upon one occasion the brothers fell out about something, and Chang knocked Eng down, and then tripped and fell on him, whereupon both clinched and began to beat and gouge each other without mercy. The bystanders interfered and tried to separate them, but they could not do it, and so allowed them to fight it out. In the end both were disabled, and were carried to the hospital on one and the same shutter.

Twain may have used the Bunker brothers as a metaphor for national unity.

Around the time I was researching conjoined twins, I became aware of a writing competition calling for short stories in the categories of romance, thriller, crime, horror, science fiction, and young adult. I reasoned that the goal of entering this contest might inspire me to do the (dreaded) actual writing. I chose horror to convey my tale about conjoined twins, although any of the genres might have provided a compelling framework. I fleshed out the plot and characters.

AHSThen the fourth season of the popular TV series American Horror Story premiered, depicting a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Among the characters was a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. I found numerous similarities to my prospective horror story about conjoined twins! I surmised that the show’s writers had referred to at least some of the same online sources that I did. Another parallel emerged in the second episode. The freak show’s bearded lady and strong man were portrayed as exes who had a child together. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story (in response to a Writer’s Digest prompt) about a bearded lady and a strong man who get married, and she becomes pregnant!

These coincidences got me wondering if it was possible to write a truly original story. I remembered how shocked I was to read in The Riverside Shakespeare, as a college student, that the Bard had based Romeo and Juliet very directly on earlier material—namely, a novel published by an Italian writer circa 1530 (approximately 65 years before Will wrote R&J) that included the story of “two noble lovers”:

Luigi da Porto lays the scene in Verona and names the feuding families the Montecchi and the Cappellati. . . . His Romeo goes to a Cappellati ball to see a girl whom he loves but who scorns him, and falls in love with Giulietta, as she with him. After a longer courtship than Shakespeare allows, conducted mostly on the girl’s balcony, they marry, with the aid of the Franciscan Lorenzo, who hopes that the families will thus be brought together; but Fortune, “enemy of every earthly joy,” prevents this outcome by starting up the feud again. The rest of the story is substantially as in Shakespeare.

Da Porto had been inspired by a 1476 writing by Italian poet Masuccio of Salerno.

So, what is the point of writing stories with the same subject matter, over and over? Perhaps the meaning of a story is more important than the details—and we are willing to accept the same content in slightly different forms. The essential content of most stories is the resolution of a problem. This resolution is not necessarily a happy one, but a natural outcome of how the problem is approached. For instance, I have thought of Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as having the same central issue but different outcomes. In the former, Desdemona must defy her father to be with Othello; in the latter, Hermia must defy her father to be with Lysander. The first couple dies; the second couple marries without objection. Both death and marriage are resolutions.

And because our lives are a series of problems, the resolutions found in stories provide catharsis.

Dear Prudence: Time Waster or Idea Machine?

In my first session with my writing coach, she asked me to identify things I was doing that were wasting time; eliminating these productivity killers could free me up to do some writing. Two of my distracting behaviors were being on Facebook and looking out the window. (Damn, I just stared at the trees for half a minute.) I was a bit embarrassed to reveal a third habit: reading the advice column Dear Prudence. In addition to devouring the semiweekly installments, I had been delving into the Dear Prudencearchives all the way back to 2007. At one point, I even considered writing to Prudie herself for guidance on how to overcome my obsession.

Prudence (Emily Yoffe) fields queries regarding social etiquette, relationships, family, and the workplace. So what was it about the column’s questions and answers that merited hours of my time? For one thing, I enjoyed comparing my own reactions against Prudie’s. Often, we were in agreement. Yes, a man who asks his girlfriend to get a nose job and then wants to dump her when she is disfigured by the procedure is kind of a jerk. Yes, it is bad form for a bride to ask the groom’s mother not to wear a dress with spaghetti straps because she finds the look age-inappropriate. In other cases, I was enlightened by Prudie’s point of view.

I also saw a distinct benefit to reading the column, one with a direct application to my writing: The situations people described were fantastic fodder for fiction! For example, here are some story ideas based on actual letters:

  • Relationship drama: A husband and wife are having trouble conceiving when she finds out he is having an affair with her sister. After a traumatic confrontation, the couple moves away to make a fresh start. A few weeks later, the sister announces her pregnancy.
  • Psychological: A school bully becomes a young mother. When her daughter experiences some minor bullying, she is prompted to track down and make amends to the classmates she once tormented. She finds out that one girl, who switched schools because of her, committed suicide.
  • Thriller: A couple moves to the town where the husband’s bachelor brother lives. The husband, who travels frequently, encourages his brother to watch out for his wife. She catches the guy peering in through the bedroom window. Then he lets himself into the house while she is showering.
  • Romantic comedy: A woman discovers that she and her daughter are dating a father and son. Both couples have been talking about marriage.
  • Legal: A man who works at a small company finds out there is a plot to oust the controversial CEO with a false claim of sexual harassment. The human resources department is in on it. Should the employee warn his boss? Or just hope that truth will prevail?

If you are a writer, feel free to use these scenarios as prompts! After the exercise with my coach, I decided to limit my reading of Dear Prudence to just the new ones. I have successfully stayed out of the archives, except to research this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check Facebook.

Confessions of a First-Time Novelist

Confession

Having written the first 4,000 words of a novel, I will boldly (if grossly prematurely) call myself a first-time novelist. Making such an assertion, however, brings up insecurities about certain embarrassing qualities I possess—ones that would seriously seem to undermine the success of a budding author. If I contritely confess these shadowy aspects of my nature, perhaps I will be released from their consequences . . .

Confession #1: I don’t like to read fiction.

I usually can’t even make it past the first few words of the back cover copy. “On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri . . .” “Joe Rickman, head of CIA clandestine . . .” “It’s Christmas Eve . . .” Maybe my aversion to reading for pleasure stems from the fact that I read for a living. (I would venture to guess there are plenty of baristas who don’t drink coffee at home.) This is not to say I haven’t amassed a library of books I suspect would be entertaining (judging from their covers). I am not well-read past the Renaissance.

Confession #2: I don’t want to be a beginner.

That’s right, I vainly want to skip novice, apprentice, and journeyman, and go straight to master. I have been writing educational, nonfiction, and marketing materials for over 20 years, so undertaking a novel is like starting over. This idea extends to other areas of my life. For example, I started playing the guitar and rollerblading at the beach, but I didn’t get very far because being a beginner felt so yucky. (And the guitar was dangerously wide for the bike path.)

Confession #3: I am a procrastinator.

My procrastinating is directly related to my perfectionism. If I delay starting something that requires my immediate attention, I can’t do it imperfectly. Problem solved! To put the perfectionism in perspective, I fact-check my Facebook posts—against three sources. As a professional editor and proofreader, I get paid for rejecting anything less than perfect—so this tendency is constantly being reinforced. One thing I don’t procrastinate about is my perfectionism.

Any of these shameful character traits should rightly disqualify or prevent me from being a first-time novelist. On the other hand, Camus said, “A work of art is a confession,” so perhaps a little guilt is a good thing for a writer.

Caution: Genre Crossing

In a previous post, I loftily announced that I wanted to write literary, as opposed to mainstream or genre, fiction. But doesn’t all fiction, ultimately, have a genre—even if it is simply “realistic,” as opposed to, say, mystery, humor, or horror? Ray Bradbury wrote works of science fiction and fantasy, but they were also, unarguably, literature. (How else could they have ended up on so many syllabi?) Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners. Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel (though my husband would dispute its literary merit). To Kill a Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman (word-of-the-day alert!), as is Great Expectations. Catch-22 is a war novel and satire. Around the World in Eighty Days is a classic adventure novel. I could go on and on, but I haven’t read that many books.

The Scarlet LetterAfter finishing The Scarlet Letter in college, I remember feeling raw, copious admiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne. And jealousy. “This is the book I wish I had written,” was my strange thought—as if my chance to write had come and gone, or what I wanted to write had already been written. If you haven’t read the novel, or if you have seen the Demi Moore movie, The Scarlet Letter is a love story set in Puritan Boston in the seventeenth century, two hundred years before the author’s time. Not until I started writing this blog post did I realize that my seemingly random decision to pen a historical romance (I prefer romantic comedy) might have been a subconscious response to my Hawthorne envy.

At first, I wondered if a romance set during the Holocaust would be considered taboo. A search on Amazon for Holocaust romances in the category of historical fiction yielded 27 results. One such novel tells the story of a young girl in the Polish underground who develops feelings for a Nazi officer. Another portrays the love between a captured British captain and a Jewish housewife from Dresden, both sent to the same concentration camp. Perhaps the most salacious story line follows the relationship between a camp commandant and the Jewish inmate he takes as his mistress. So Holocaust romance is not uncharted territory; at the same time, the market hardly seems glutted.

Caution: Genre CrossingBut I haven’t mentioned that my plot has a twist, a metaphysical one. By “metaphysical” I mean concerned with an ethereal world beyond the material. Metaphysical fiction is its own genre, with prominent examples including The Alchemist, The Celestine Prophecy, What Dreams May Come, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Cloud Atlas (being released this Friday as a movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry). Which brings me back to Hawthorne. Metaphysical elements recur in his works, including the “ghastly miracle” revealed at the climax of The Scarlet Letter: a red “A” (speaking of taboo) seared into Reverend Dimmesdale’s chest by a higher power. So with a metaphysical historical romance, I am still copycatting Hawthorne.

However, an Amazon search for metaphysical historical romances about the Holocaust revealed zero results. Let’s chart this territory!

Not the Most Novel Idea

I am researching a novel set during the Holocaust. I had never intended to write about the Holocaust, or about anything historical for that matter. History was never my favorite subject. I even liked math better. All I can say is that the subject chose me. Then it quickly overwhelmed me. The volume of information available about the Holocaust is, conservatively, infinite. I am reading five books on the topic right now.

The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published BookMy writing coach, in our first session, added another resource to the mix: The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, by Susan Page. As a would-be writer, I was excited to learn how to ditch the “would-be.” I was especially intrigued by the author’s presentation of the three main categories of fiction: literary, mainstream, and genre. As a former English major, of course I wanted to write something of literary merit! But could I remotely hope to pull it off?

Literary fiction does not rely heavily on plot for its appeal, but instead on the strength and power of the writing. Characters tend to be complex and filled with nuance. Literary novels are read not so much for action as for superb writing, rich character development, and originality of vision.

Character Development from the Inside OutI believed I could convey a unique viewpoint using decent grammar. But I didn’t know the first thing about creating psychologically rounded characters. I needed help. Three-quarters of the way through Scott Morgan’s Character Development from the Inside Out, I found myself reading about character clichés. Examples included “the rogue,” “the flaky genius,” and “the tortured artist.” Of course I would avoid these trite, stereotyped figures in my own writing! Then I arrived at the section’s final entry:

Nazis. Please, if there is nothing else you take from this book, let it be this: Don’t write about Nazis. Seriously. You can’t add anything new. Seriously. Stop writing about Nazis. A more interesting idea: Not Nazis.

AriesThe author’s strongly worded advice/plea/mandate touched on my own insecurities about the subject matter. But instead of throwing cold water in my face, it lit a fire under me. Maybe because I have so much Aries in my chart. Aries is my sun sign; I have an Aries rising; and Saturn, my north node, and my ascendant are in Aries. I don’t know what all that means, except that it’s a lot of Aries.

And Aries is a sign that welcomes a challenge.