Category Archives: Story

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.

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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.

Life Is But a Dream

HouseA few weeks ago, I saw photos of the house where I spent my formative years. The residence had been expanded, gut-renovated, and impeccably appointed. Among the things I clearly recognized were the nook in the kitchen, where my family had shared a decade of meals, and the tree out back, which had often been the focal point of our imaginative play. But the tree, instead of being surrounded by untamed plants and uneven rocks, was now paved in with bricks and encircled by manicured shrubs.

Just a few days ago, after I had already started writing this post, my best friend from when I lived in that house texted me from the property! She described it as “totally different, but so familiar.” I could identify with her statement, based on the photos I saw—and on my own regular visits. You see, although I haven’t set foot in the house in over 30 years, I dream about it every few weeks. My unconscious mind returns there to weave new stories. And while the action is different from what actually happened in my childhood, the setting remains deeply familiar.

Action and setting are just two of the classic story elements present in our nocturnal adventures; others include character, plot, and mood. In this sense, we are all master storytellers! Last week, my husband relayed a vivid dream that could easily become a short story (or an episode of The Twilight Zone): Aliens abducted him and a group of people, imprisoning them as livestock to be eaten. As the captives realized there was a hero among them who could engineer their escape, our real-life dog insisted on her breakfast, and the dream ended. I wish I knew how the story ended! (Dogs must be amazing storytellers, too, given how they twitch, whimper, growl, snort, and yip in their sleep.)

The scenarios in dreams feel very real to us at the time. Only after we awaken do we have the perspective to say, “I had the weirdest dream!” Then we seek more stories, both fiction (movies, novels, television dramas) and nonfiction (news stories, friends’ stories, stories we tell ourselves and others about our own experiences). We invest ourselves in these stories as we do in our dreams, and then pull ourselves out in order to carry on with our day.

When you think about it, our lives are essentially stories in progress, bookended by birth and death. We wonder, “What’s next?” (in the plot) and “How will all this end?” (on the last page). Being unable to answer these questions with certainty makes us anxious, and perhaps we find comfort in the worlds of stories that have defined beginnings, middles, and ends. Some belief systems maintain that life itself is a dream, which would suggest that we author our lives just as we author our dreams. Maybe, eventually, we will awaken to the real reality and have no more dreams and seek no more stories.

Whether life is reality, a story, or a dream, we may as well row our boats gently (and merrily) down its stream.