Category Archives: Short story

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!

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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.

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.