Category Archives: Fiction

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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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!