Category Archives: Short story

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.

On Purpose

necklace

My writing talisman

At least one subscriber to this blog has noticed that my posts are always published at the same time: Close to the end of the month. Very close to the end of the month. The last day. Sometimes a few minutes before midnight. Many months, I doubt I will be able to fulfill my self-assignment. Doing so requires that I place as much importance on what I wish to accomplish as on what others expect or need of me. In other words, I have to be as responsible to myself as I am to others.

menuDue to various commitments, it would be a relief to take this month’s post off my plate. Yet if I don’t cobble something together, here’s what will happen: At some point, I will search my blog’s archives, and there will be no entry for March 2016. I won’t get a failing grade, Earth won’t be sucked into a black hole, but I will know I didn’t meet my own minimum writing requirement. (Ironically, I have now completed the second paragraph of a post I didn’t have time to write. Similarly, in junior high, I wrote a poem called “If I Could Write a Poem.”)

Over the last six months, I have completed the first drafts of 2.5 short stories. (One needs an ending, and another needs a new ending—hence, the decimal number.) Next, I would like to take a novel-writing class. But my work projects are too demanding right now. I feel frustrated that I am devoting so much time and energy to activities that have nothing to do with what I perceive as my purpose in life—to share my ideas through writing.

I don’t know how many people ponder their purpose and whether or not they are living according to it. In New Age circles, this inquiry is hugely popular. Two individuals whom I respect recommended the same book to me on the subject, about creating the “great work of your life.” According to Kindle, I made it through 14 percent of it. Ultimately, I don’t believe my purpose is related to what I accomplish in the world—even if that is sharing my ideas through writing.

miami vice

“Miami Vice”: half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri

In other words, I can still fulfill my purpose if I never publish a book or write one or even edit one. I can fulfill my purpose at the grocery store, on an airplane, or walking my dogs. I do it by being an example of love. Only love is real. To become aware of love’s presence, and to let it shine out through me, I need to let go of my grievances, which attack love. No matter what I seem to be doing—or seem too busy to be doing—I can always practice my real purpose.

Of course, I have found it is easiest not to hold grievances while vacationing in a tropical paradise . . .

 

Does the Paranormal Have to Be Proven?

rainbow_paint daubs

Earlier this month, I accompanied my husband to Florida for an art event in which he was participating. We shared an Airbnb property (“vintage Spanish revival with pool”) with six other street painters. One morning, one of the artists and I were the last two left in the house. We got to talking at the breakfast table. I described a pair of short stories I had been working on: a ghost story about conjoined twin sisters born in Victorian England, and a science fiction tale about a physics professor who invents a device to talk to the dead.

She said the subject matter appealed to her, and we shared that we both had an interest in the paranormal. We never knew this about each other, despite having been acquainted for over 10 years. I think there is a stigma associated with curiosity about phenomena that aren’t conclusively supported or explained by science, such as aliens, angels, energy healing, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. This stigma tends to keep us quiet, especially in the presence of vociferous proponents of “rational thought.”

A skeptic is someone who questions the legitimacy or genuineness of something alleged to be factual. Some skeptics automatically reject claims that do not fit their worldview or that challenge the status quo. The Skeptics Society tries to distance itself from these “cynics” and “grumpy curmudgeons.” The organization’s mission is to investigate the paranormal by “continuously and vigorously” applying the scientific method to it. “We must see compelling evidence before we believe,” the group says.

While this approach sounds reasonable, it makes a major assumption: that science can prove the truth or falsehood of everything. What if certain aspects of reality can’t be measured by the instruments of science? Albert Einstein said, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” In other words, science is too rudimentary to account for all of reality. Interestingly, there are non-paranormal occurrences and circumstances that science can’t explain satisfactorily, including ones we consider basic scientific principles, such as gravity, magnetism, and time.

Furthermore, does “compelling evidence” have to be scientific in nature—arising from a double-blind experiment conducted in a laboratory setting? Do personal experience and observation have no value? Is a mountain of anecdotal reports not persuasive? Why can’t we study and scrutinize phenomena ourselves, and then use our intuition to assess their validity? Such an approach would probably sound like sacrilege to a skeptic. But to quote Einstein again, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

I understand the appeal of science. Its systematic organization of knowledge imposes a sense of order on a world that can often seem chaotic. Its testable explanations make the universe seem predictable—and predictability is comforting. I also recognize the role of science in facilitating technological advances that improve our lives. Moreover, scientific insights and discoveries are often completely fascinating. But I am not willing to limit my inquiries about life to what science alone is capable of proving.

Fiction is a socially acceptable outlet in this regard. It lets us play with the acceptance of things that can’t be verified. What if there is an afterlife, and we can communicate with those who have passed on? What if aliens are visiting us? What if angels intervene on our behalf? What if we come back to earth in different forms, lifetime after lifetime? We can explore these “what ifs” in stories.

And then maybe the stories will open our minds, little by little, to the potential reality of the paranormal.

The Short of It

Dublin

A street in Dublin

Last month, my husband and I flew 5,200 miles to Dublin and spent three nights there. Then we came home. We didn’t tool around the continent, the British Isles, or even nearby towns. A 72-hour trip to Europe sounds crazier as I write about it here than it seemed at the time, although a woman at the hotel bar pronounced us “fantastic” for making such a whirlwind visit to her country. We were in Ireland’s capital long enough to have afternoon tea, take a selfie by the River Liffey, walk the city, catch a cold, and test the medicinal properties of Guinness.

When we returned, I felt a surge in creativity—to a degree I hadn’t experienced in years. Traveling to a far-flung destination had interrupted my routine, and my routine ways of thinking. I hoped to capitalize on this sense of inspiration by enrolling in an online short-story-writing course I had wanted to take for several months. It started on a Thursday, which was the same day I considered getting my money back. After reading the lecture materials, I discovered that the first assignment—the beginning of a short story—was due in just three days! I didn’t even have a topic.

reviewsOver the next four weeks, I met my deadlines and produced a 3,200-word first draft. Waiting for my instructor’s feedback was almost as agonizing as reading it. (I discovered that I would much rather be the person with the red pen.) According to my custom, I focused on the negative aspects of the critique and disregarded the positive. As I proceed to fix the issues with the piece (namely, its lack of an ending that works “in dramatic terms”), I will try to remember and be encouraged by my instructor’s favorable comments.

In the process of penning my first short story since I was a teenager, I made a number of observations:

  1. Writing is tedious; having written is thrilling.
  2. Writing is challenging. It makes you appreciate your day job. (“What I wouldn’t give to be proofreading an index . . .”)
  3. Adding your byline under the title is a heady moment.
  4. The instant you have a creative breakthrough, the dog needs to go out.
  5. I can still pull an all-nighter if necessary.
  6. I understand why writers go on retreats, because writing comes (at best) sixth or seventh, after work, chores, errands, exercise, spiritual practice, meeting the needs of others, etc.
  7. When you’re writing, every word is a decision.
  8. It’s good to have a plan, but you have no idea what might come to you in the moment.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne was right: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
  10. I don’t know why I waited so long.

The question is, will I continue to write creatively outside the construct of a class, without the threat of humiliation for failing to turn in an assignment? I think I have a shot, because I am so good at humiliating myself.

NaShStWriMo Update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year—but with a twist. Instead of writing a 50,000-word novel, I would attempt a 5,000-word short story. You might think of it this way: if NaNoWriMo were a traditional marathon, NaShStWriMo would be a breezy, 2.6-mile jog. I discovered that I wasn’t the only person proposing a more achievable alternative to drafting a novel in 30 days:

NaShStWriMo tweet

I can proudly report that so far, I have met (nay, modestly exceeded!) my average daily quota of 167 words. Of course, I have had incredible support at home. When I excitedly relayed the news of my early success to my husband, he said, “Okay.” I coached him that a more fitting response would have been, “Good job!” He caught on immediately and flashed me an approving thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, the pacing of my story is off, and I am actually writing the first 5,000 words of a 50,000-word novel. In other words, my ShSt is all beginning, with no middle and end. Still, completing the first tenth of a novel is good, just as running the first tenth of a marathon is good (I have to imagine, as the only running I do is for a bag when my semi-incontinent dog starts to go in the house).

The lesson I have learned in all this is that meeting one’s expectations for oneself feels great, so go ahead and set those expectations low. Despite a little guilt that I would bring down the overall numbers, I felt compelled to record my progress in the NaNoWriMo system. When I entered my word count at the site, various pieces of data related to my effort were conveniently calculated for me:

NaNoWriMo statistics

Of course, most of these figures would be thoroughly disheartening to someone who was doing NaNoWriMo according to the rules. For example, I would have to (quit my job to) write 2,501 words per day in order to finish on time. But the reverse statistic is actually encouraging: at my current rate, I will complete my novel on June 29, 2013.

I am marking my calendar!

What the Heck Is a Nanowrimo?

When I was in the fifth grade, one of our regular assignments was to find an unusual word in the dictionary and turn it into a multiple-choice question for the class. We were to provide four possible definitions for the word: the actual one and three fabrications. I remember feeling an impish sense of satisfaction when a schoolmate would select one of my made-up meanings. So in the spirit of Miss Brown’s vocabulary-building exercise, I offer the following MCQ:

What does the word nanowrimo mean?

a. A punctuation mark, proposed by English printer Henry Denham in 1580 and used until the early 1600s, indicating a rhetorical question

b. Any of several large, thick-skinned, odd-toed mammals of Africa and India, having one or two upright horns on the snout

c. One billionth of a wrimo

d. Thirty days and nights of literary abandon

If you answered a, b, or c, I applaud you as a very decent human being who graciously took my inane quiz. (If you recognized b as a rhinoceros, extra credit!) The correct response is d. But I sort of tricked you. The proper presentation of the word is NaNoWriMo. The acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo describes itself as a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.” The program began with 21 budding authors in 1999; in 2011, it tracked the progress of over a quarter million “WriMos.”

The Night CircusParticipants start writing on November 1, with the aim of completing a 50,000-word novel (equal to 175 printed pages) by November 30. And it works. National Novel Writing Month has yielded a long list of published novelists. Bestsellers penned during NaNoWriMo include Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen; and The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. The former was released as a motion picture last year; the latter is in development.

I have considered participating in NaNoWriMo for several Novembers, going so far as to create an account (where years’ worth of unread NaNoMail is waiting for me). Because I finally have a concrete idea for a novel, this year’s event seems perfectly timed. However, there’s an NaNoWriMo logoissue. NaNoWriMo values quantity over quality, “enthusiasm over painstaking craft.” The goal is to produce a crappy first draft, “to forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

Maybe therapy could help, but I am inherently incapable of writing without editing. I have been writing and editing, editing and writing, for over 20 years. The two activities are hopelessly intertwined for me, and my projects rarely involve one without the other. To misquote Woody Allen in What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, if you know me at all, you know that writing is my bread and editing my butter. Oh no, editing’s my bread, and writing is my butter. No, no, wait . . . I’m sorry . . . writing and editing are my various breads, and various butters.

To compensate for my quirk, I am proposing a scaled-down version of NaNoWriMo. Specifically, a 1:10 scale. My reasoning is that for every ten steps my writing takes me forward, my editing takes me nine steps back. So instead of generating an average of 1,667 hastily chosen words per day, I would shoot for 167 somewhat polished ones. By the end of next month, I would have 5,000 words, the length of a respectable short story.

Does anyone want to do NaShStWriMo with me? The name is catchy, you have to admit.