March's stories aren't picked in March. They're chosen in the winter, January or February, when the nights are long and dark, the days are mostly overcast and there's always too much snow, too much cold wind, and it seems like the sun, when it makes an appearance, has forgotten it's supposed to be warm.
That mood seems to have seeped into the story selections for this month. As it happens, the darkest of these stories were selected in January and February while the two least-dark were selected in October and March.
I wonder if there's been any kind of research on phenomena like that. Might a writer have a better chance of selling a dark-themed story in the mid-winter months, and a lighter-themed story in spring and summer?
Ironically, the least-dark of these stories is the one that has "Night" in the title. And even in that, the only real light is the blonde hair of the hooker. It seemed to me that Sonny was missing a bet. An apparently attractive young woman who just became available liked his coffee. He should have stepped outside after her and asked her for a date. This is a literary story, but not one popular with editors that specialize in literary stories. Something happens.
The author manages to use the readers' knowledge to his advantage. Everyone knows what the inside of a diner like this one looks like. Only a few key words are needed to set the stage, and the reference to fighting the Japanese sets the era as well.
"Doll House" is not that terribly dark, but it is sad. The juxtaposition of the eleven-year-old girl who understands romance and the physical love that accompanies it while her parents are admitting the end of their romantic love is well done. Chelsea understands that the positioning of her two lovers mimics the real positioning of adults in love. She may not yet know the details, but she knows that this is how it should be. It is no more with her parents; and she wants so much for it to be again. The child's naiveté in believing that the physical intimacy is all that is necessary for love contrasts with the beginnings of adulthood she feels within her, there in her underwear.
Clearly the dolls present the idealized version of her parents. She so wishes she could restore their intimacy as easily as she represents it with her Disney dolls. Before she has to go downstairs—she at least suspects what's coming—she placates the fabric that covers her two make-believe lovers. Perhaps somehow she can placate her parents, or they can placate each other.
"The Orchid" is a story of hope within hopelessness. The narrator, Jeanine, is so desperate that she will try to befriend a boy who had the courage to stand against his father, violently, in defense of himself and his mother. Perhaps this boy will do the same for her? One must wonder if there was ever any love in Jeanine's marriage. The statement that Mister (that's all her husband is to her—just "Mister.") took motherhood from her is chilling in its implication. How would a man do that? It suggests an ugly and tragic picture.
Labeling the mark of abuse as a potential beautiful flower does give the reader some hope for the narrator. If she can turn the ugly mark of violence into something at least pretend-beautiful, there may be hope for her...psychologically if not physically.
But there is this question: does she want the boy to visit simply to give him the mothering she wants to give, and the boy apparently needs? Or...does she think, somewhere in her mind, that "Mister" will abuse her in the boy's presence, or abuse the boy himself, and the youngster will take the violent action he is clearly capable of?
The editors usually do an outstanding job of matching the picture with the story, but this time I wondered. The picture is of a smoking gun, but I got the impression a knife did the damage, mostly from the description of the bandages.
I'm not especially fond of second-person present tense stories. Nevertheless, it is used effectively in "Heartland." This is also a story of hopelessness, but of a different kind. This man, "you," cannot protect his family from what is to come. But he can protect them from the worry and sadness of the knowledge. Physically, he is nearly done already and at a relatively young age. Yet he will do what he can—he will, in fact, extend himself to his limits for his family, even though that little bit might, in the long run, mean nothing. But what else is there for him?
Writers have few tools to really put emphasis on a statement. We have exclamation marks, of course, but their overuse reduces the content to childishness or unplanned comedy. There are all-caps, italics, underlines, even bold face. But those, too, must be used sparingly, or, many purists feel, not at all in the text of a story.
One of the devices we have that may be underused is the structure of the paragraph. When a sentence, especially a short one, stands by itself in the text, it can't help but acquire an impact it doesn't have when stuck in a paragraph with other sentences. That attractive sexy person doesn't have near the effect on the libido when in a crowd as he/she has when standing alone, inviting closer scrutiny.
"You're forty-two." deserves its own paragraph.
I would never walk a mile for a Camel since I never smoked cigarettes, but I might walk a mile for a Lee Allen Hill story. "The Scout" is not Lee at his best—it is Lee at his typical. Not that he always writes sad or tragic stories. But the writing here is genuine LAH. The jargon and dialect are spot on; the story doesn't waste a word, yet tells the reader everything they need to know. Nowhere is there an occurrence or a situation that leaves the reader wondering where it came from, or why it is there. Everything in the story is essential, and everything essential is there. Could it have been a story with a happy ending? Of course. But a happy ending is just that—an ending. Tragic outcomes like this one assure the reader that there is more. We may not ever know what, but we can speculate. A story that seemed to be about success and redemption turned dark and cold. That's like a mirror image of March.
I have just one point of discontent with Mr. Hill's writing. It is not nearly sufficiently available to the general public. Page and Spine, plus FanStory.com (where he wins contests so regularly you might think he owns the site) are two of only three venues where his work can be seen (as far as I know). He should anthologize his stories. Not for money or recognition, just as a public service, so more people who like to read excellent short stories would have the opportunity to read his.
"So This is What it Feels Like" immediately reminded me of the January story, "The Real Thing." The two narrators have much in common. Both have subverted their search for affection with a search for sex. Both have made the mistake of equating sex with some kind of game—a game they win if they score.
But while the narrator in the January story cheats himself, the narrator here is much worse. Both treat their "dates" as objects of conquest, but this narrator actually resorts to drugging and bondage. He deserves worse than what he's going to get...more on that later.
This story is much shorter than the other, so valid comparisons of the writing are difficult. Petra McQueen has written a story of gentle words and soft control, a distinct contrast to the harsh contempt that colors every thought and word of "The Real Thing."
"So This is What it Feels Like" does have an implied flaw. What does this girl have planned for him? He has told us some of the physical difficulties inherent in his activity. It is hard to believe that the girl will be able to do to him what he has done to her. How will she get him from the public place to her private chamber? It is her turn, but how will she accomplish her aim?
However, there is potentially a very clever double meaning. The "it" in the title might mean the experience of being drugged and helpless. And I think it is intended that the reader's first impression is just that.
But perhaps the "it" is in fact the gentleness that he has craved and never before experienced, until now.
Will she treat him like March treats us? She has begun this night like a lamb. Will she or won't she finish it—and him—like a lion?
♦ Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
I think I’ve made it, finally reached a pinnacle in my writing career where I can clearly see the next mountain range without losing sight of the valley below.
It does sound like a load of crap, doesn’t it? But, you see, that is the point. When I first began posting my stories on a writing site, I really believed that everything I wrote was golden. Quite frankly, when I finished posting my first 1000 word plus piece of work, I felt like I’d climbed Everest. How’s that for milking a metaphor to death?
Recently, I noticed that I could write crap exceptionally well. This epiphany is noteworthy. My technical skills have improved so much, that I truly can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Of course, I owe the improvement to the scores of reviewers and mentors who invested in my writing, but I digress.
On top of that, I realized that for me, writing is the new smoking. This would not be a bad thing if it replaced my nicotine habit, but oh no, it is in addition to my other vices.
Some people might argue that a writing addiction is not a bad thing. Really? Let’s take a look at the foul habit—smoking. When I spent my days among civilized people within a daily structure, my smoking was restricted to breaks in the day when I wasn’t expected to do serious work. Now I smoke whenever I want and wherever I want. The freedom and lack of intrusion to anyone else has led to obsessive indulgence.
The same hold true for writing. I write at least four or five hours each day, and that is just the measure of time where my fingers are moving on the keyboard. It doesn’t take into account checking E-mail, flipping over to my gaming site, reading other people’s work or staring at the screen with a blank look on my face.
I use writing as an excuse to avoid chores and try to convince myself that it’s okay because, after all, I’m writing! Bravo for me. Where the hell did that extra twenty pounds on my rump come from? Ah yes, the sacrifices I make to sit, rooted to my computer.
But here’s where my sudden awareness sprang from. Yesterday, I spent four hours writing a story. It hadn’t hatched (hit the crisis) before I started filling up the screen, but that is often the case with me, characters come to life, plots and back-stories fill in gaps while I peck away.
Before I finally called it quits, I read it again and yawned as I noted the word count—1,400. This morning I reread the story and marvelled at my glib phrases and highly likeable characters. Damn that’s good, I told myself. Now, this was justification for blowing another afternoon hovering over the computer.
But was it—really? My second opinion was—yes. Indeed it was good writing, but it was a lousy story and had travelled so far afield of the original prompt, it would take another 1,400 words to pull together the threads that I left dangling. To indulge myself by finishing the tale would put an enormous burden on the reader.
Some stories are worth lengthy word counts, but others are simply not. How complex is the plot? Will the reader feel emotionally satisfied and entertained when he finishes my story? Will he feel the investment of reading time was proportionate to his enjoyment?
These are questions writers rarely ask themselves, but if they want to be published, need attention. Except for Internet magazines, almost every paper publication has guidelines based on allocated space. Every page has a cost association and a controlled word count. Paying attention to the publication’s usual practices will spare disappointment for submissions that do not meet the standards.
A Google search will define word counts for short stories that range from micro and flash fiction with very low acceptable mileage to the outer limit of a short story of 7,000 words before it is rated as a novella. There is a very limited market for the longer stories, and on average, most publishers are looking for work between 1,500 and 2,500 words.
From high atop my mountain, I take a third look at my story. I glance at the mountain range just ahead spiralling into the clouds and realize my story just won’t cut it. It’s not total crap, though. I create a file and put it to bed, unfinished.
♦ After a thirty year career as a sales and marketing executive, Ingrid Thomson is a top-ranked author in a website writing community and a published short story author who is working on the final draft of her first novel.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Metaphor, comparing two unrelated things without the use of “like” or “as”, is not just for use in poetry. Take, for example, the following two lines:
Sunrise gave me a headache and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Dawn’s fire burned into my brain and left on my tongue the taste of ashes.
They both mean the same thing. Which is better writing? Well, it depends what you’re trying to say. Is your protagonist hung over? Or has he spent the night coping with life-altering revelations after a long struggle?
The strength of metaphor is it conveys both information and emotion through vivid imagery.
Great! We all want our stories to be overflowing with riveting images and strong feelings, don’t we?
Er, not exactly. A well-placed, well-constructed metaphor minimizes the need for further description and explanation, but too much of a good thing ranges from funny to exhausting to downright annoying. Save your metaphors for those times when you need to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Face it, there comes a time when your PI or detective is going to come up against muscle who isn’t just a garden-variety mountain, but a freakin’ Alp. When that happens, have fun, but if something doesn’t need to be described or explained, leave it alone.
When you do decide a metaphor is called for, be original. Every woman need not be compared to a plant. Every man does not resemble an animal. Nights aren’t always velvet and stars are seldom sparkling gems.
And sometimes dawn is a wash.
N.K. Wagner is executive editor and publisher of Page & Spine.
When writing a short story, don’t add window dressing unless the draperies open and close.
I’m talking about utility characters. You know: the diner waitress who delivers the detective’s coffee. His reaction to her tight skirted pink uniform may help to define the detective’s character as she sways past to refill the cream, but the reader doesn’t need to know one-time-cheerleader Gloria Harris of 1045 East Hastings Drive depends on tips to feed her three children and aged mother unless Gloria reappears later as the prime suspect in her ex-husband’s murder.
A utility character has one task—to move the story along. The dusting parlor maid might be the reason the heroine and her love interest take refuge in the library for a moment of conversation that ends in unplanned passion, but we don’t need to know her name, description, or history. She doesn’t deserve that much notice. She’s done her job and received the reader’s absentminded nod.
Not only don’t utility characters deserve more attention, but if you spend words on them the reader will want to know why you haven’t bothered to finish their story when they disappear without another mention. The reader subconsciously stores information and will hate a tale that that makes him feel toyed with. So type-cast these animated bits of scenery, let them do their thing, and move on.
That said, if one day the protagonist declares, “The butler did it,” all hell breaks loose. An out of the blue reveal will annoy. With four simple words, readers are thrown into a frenzy: “What did I miss?” they demand. A good writer leaves clues, the subtle, forehead-smacking hints that slip past but are so obvious in retrospect. As a reader, I would much rather miss the smirk in paragraph 3 than be taken by complete surprise fifteen hundred words later. I don’t mind being fooled as long as there was a fair chance for me to have solved the riddle had I been more observant.
By all means, set your story’s mood with cardboard extras. But don’t clutter your work with irrelevant character details.
N.K. Wagner is executive editor and publisher of Page & Spine.