Category Archives: Short Story

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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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
new yorker
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
einstein's beach house
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.