For most aspiring writers, a finished novel is the Holy Grail of accomplishment. A published, bestselling novel is the Holy Grail topped with Beluga caviar, whipped cream, and a marischino cherry. But the truth remains, not all writers are cut out to be writers of novels.
I, for instance, have the attention span of a rain dog, and the stamina of a fruit fly. Expecting me to grit my way through a novel is akin to locking a puppy in a room with a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and expecting to see a pretty picture when you finally open the door. Ain’t gonna happen.
So, I write short stories. Yes, Virginia, some people still write short stories. No, Virginia, we’re not all ‘tetched in the head’.
If any of this sounds familiar, read on. If it doesn’t sound familiar, read on anyway—there’s a good chance you’re tetched in the head, too, but fooling yourself.
Short stories are neither aborted, nor truncated novels. They represent a separate and discrete art form. Short stories require an author to adopt a specific mindset—plus, an adherence to and an appreciation for some devilishly clever, and valuable tricks.
But before I reveal these foolproof and valuable tricks to you, I require that you deposit a mere $100.00 into my PayPal account (without mentioning it to the IRS, if you please).
Thank you all very much. I assure you it’s money well spent. Especially when you consider what I intend to spend it on. Best if you remain in the dark.
Now that our finances are in order, let us begin.
Writing Short Stories Rule #1: Weather
Skip the freakin’ weather report, Jack. I know, I know, every novel you’ve ever read starts with a ‘dark and gloomy night’ or a ‘new-fallen snow’ or ‘the fragrance of hibiscus wafting on a golden breeze of sunlight.’ But that’s all crap. Novelists have the luxury of spreading words around like manure on a hayfield. But we’re short story writers, Roscoe! So can the damned weather report (unless your story is about a hurricane), and don’t step in the manure. Didn’t I tell these tips are valuable? Heck, Jethro, you’ve already broke even.
Kurt Vonnegut preached, “Start your story as close to the end as possible.” This is the Golden Rule for a short story writer. It’s my guess that most writers start with a weather report because they think it’s some sort of Stephen King-ordained rule. Well, it ain’t. Weather has squat to with most stories, Irene, so let your first sentence do something important: Jack Stank never got hit in the face with a baseball bat before. No that’s a first sentence!
Writing Short Stories Rule #2: Setting
Listen up, my friends, because this one is worth your $100 all by itself.
Set your short story someplace you don’t have to waste words describing. For instance, if I say ‘bowling alley’ to you, do you need me to describe it? In a pig’s belly! You already know exactly what a bowling alley looks like, smells like, sounds like. Sure, I can add to the ambiance with a few well chosen descriptors, but as soon as I write bowling alley, my readers are already experiencing the scene through all of their senses. Write your setting in shorthand, and you have more words to spend on your short story. Damn, this is good. I should have charged more.
“But,” you say, “my story takes place in Vietnam.”
Doesn’t matter. Tell your Vietnam story from the bowling alley. Stories within stories are ideal for shorts. I just wrote a baseball story that took place in an airport bar. Believe me, this is a very useful technique. (See Rule #4)
Now, a measly $100 doesn’t entitle you to all of my magical, no-work settings, but here are a few of my favorites: Diners, libraries, bars, airports, log cabins, barns, park benches. See what I’m getting at? Keep your short story short by reducing your need to be elaborate when setting the scene. The more familiar the kitchen, the less time you have to spend setting the table. Geez, I only charged you $100? You should be ashamed of yourself.
Writing Short Stories Rule #3: Characters
First, keep the number of characters in your story to a minimum. Pretend every character is another piece of baggage, and you have to pay extra to get it on the plane. See what I mean? Each character you introduce needs some sort of backstory, and every backstory steals words you could be using for the real story. So, here again, I recommend you focus on the familiar. And use titles—Doctor, Professor, Detective, Indian Chief. Titles save words, Wilma. Personally, I like to use ‘ex’—ex-Marine, ex-ballplayer, ex-wife. When you describe a character as an ‘ex’, your reader will automatically fill in perceptions about this character. It’s all right if the perceptions turn out to be wrong, in fact that can be a useful device in storytelling. Allow your readers to assume something erroneous based on a stereotype, then prove them wrong in a ‘reveal’. Brilliant! As counter-intuitive as it may sound, readers love to be fooled, misdirected—as long as you don’t cheat, and when they look back, they can see you fooled them fairly. Never lie to your readers—unless you’re sure you can get away with it.
To sum up: Restrict yourself to a manageable number of characters. Make the ancillary characters vaguely recognizable in as few words as possible. That way, you can lavish (not really) descriptions on your most important characters.
Writing Short Stories Rule #4: Dialogue
Oh, no. Your initial deposit of $100 has just run out. Tune back in a few weeks for the rest of the short story story! And be sure to have another C-note handy.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER
I slam off the alarm, 4:30 a.m. I've been lying in the dark for hours. I drag my tired body down the stairs, fill my favorite cup with coffee, carry it to the sun room, and sink into my soft chair by the window. As the steam floats up to warm my face, I stare out into the darkness. Fleeting thoughts drift through my head. Maybe I'll dye my hair a different color, or take up golf, or scrapbooking. Will I still get up early? Three decades gone, like fog burned away by the morning sun. Am I really ready for this? A shiver runs through me.
The clock lifts me from my armchair ease. I proceed to the basement, pick out my favorite outfit, the yellow top with the tiny purple flowers, purple pants to match and press out the wrinkles. Will I even care if food stains are dribbled down my front, like old folks? I hurry back upstairs, grab breakfast, a cheese stick, yogurt, and apple sauce to go; finger foods I can eat and safely drive. Will I care if I get fat? That's what people do; my friend Rosie told me so.
Traffic's not too bad today, but it's not raining. I hate when it rains. People get scared, drive too slow or stop, clogging up traffic. I don't want to be late, not today. I pull into my parking spot, gather my lunch, walk to the back door, steps I'll never take again. I take a deep breath, turn the door knob, and enter the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last word of my nursing career.
The program director passes me in the hall. "Oh, this is the day," she says, pressing both hands against her cheeks. "What will you do tomorrow?"
"I'm like Scarlet O'Hara. I'll think about it tomorrow," I say, trying to summon a smile. What will I do tomorrow?
I walk past the front clinic, morning greetings are exchanged, phones ringing, nurses chatting, on past the sing-song hum of the hyperbaric chambers, lined up like submarines ready to launch, their bellies filled with gown-draped patients. I wave to Sally, sitting chamber-side. She gives me a half-hearted smile, waves back, her smile turns upside down. I hurry to the back clinic where Dr. Cline and I will soon start seeing patients.
"Is there anything else I can say to talk you out of this retirement business?" Dr. Cline asks for the umpteenth time. Dr. Cline's a good-natured man. He talks enough for three or four people and has a nervous way about him.
"No." I say, shaking my head and choking down the lump growing inside my throat. "I promised my husband Willie. He's been retired 13 years and waiting for me to join him. He can't do the upkeep alone anymore. His health isn't what it used to be. I cherish this, but I cherish him more." Dr. Cline walks away without a word or a change in his pale face. Willie's such a night owl, and I'm a morning person. I wonder how that'll work.
I'm Dr. Cline's case manager. Together, we develop the patients' care plans. Our patients seem like family. They come--often suffering intolerable pain--for treatment of their diabetic, arterial and other chronic wounds. Treatment often takes months. I love working with Dr. Cline and the hustle-bustle of a fast paced clinic day. I enjoy the patients and the challenges they present. I take care of coordinating multidisciplinary options they may need and handle issues concerning their care.
This, my last day, a typical day, ends too soon. I'm alone at my desk. I remove my family pictures and slip them into the cloth bag I've brought from home. Here's my case study I worked so hard on before presenting it at our monthly meeting. I clear my computer. Decades of my life--deleted.
Ah, here's my hyperbaric medicine certification; Certified Hyperbaric Registered Nurse, it reads. A smile spreads across my face. I clutch the certificate to my chest, close my eyes, and remember. I'd studied my brains out for that exam, mornings before work, at lunchtime, evenings, and even at red lights; the toughest test ever. I walked out of the exam, stunned and cross eyed, knowing without a doubt I'd failed. I feel honored to have this title. I slip the certificate into my bag with my other keepsakes. I empty my drawers, years of accumulated important papers, and toss them into the shredder--gone.
I may as well go on home. I turn around for one last look. My desk sits empty, as if no one had ever been there. Who'll take my place? My computer stares, lifeless and blank, like a dead man's eyes. I turn out the lights, sling my bag over my shoulder, and walk back to the front clinic where everyone is sitting around the u-shaped nurses' station finishing their paperwork for the day.
"Well gang, I guess this is goodbye," I say, setting my bag down. I'm suddenly surrounded by well-wishers. We hug, rock back and forth, and whisper promises to get together, do lunch, but I know we won't, people never do. That's just how it is. The lump in my throat swells. Final good-byes are said. I walk out, close the door on my nursing career, and step into my future.
Willie greets me at the door. "How was it?" he asks, scooping his arms around me. I feel the sting of tears I can't hold back any longer. I bury my face into his comforting chest.
As the days pass, I feel a sense of urgency, a sense of time running out. I clean like crazy, as if someone pushed my fast forward button. Willie dodges when he sees me coming like
a baseball runner sliding into home plate. I stand on the roof-top and wash windows; haul back-breaking loads of dirt, scrub floors, clean out closets, dust and shine until everything almost glows in the dark. Now what? I come undone.
I wake up with a sense of dread, pull the covers over my head and float to a place, dark and deep, a place that swallows me whole, buried so far under no one can hear me scream. I sleep way past the sunrise, past mid-morning, and soon past noon. Sleep dissolves the long days. Dressed in baggy sweats, I ramble aimlessly through the day, finding nothing challenging or interesting. The hurricane continues for months. Willie looks worried. I'm falling apart like those rockets that hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle.
Then, something happens.
It's the kind of day that makes a person shiver to just look out at the heavy gray clouds and cold drizzling rain, but this day changes my life. While walking in the cold rain I am overcome by how our marvelous world embraces us. The rain smells clean and fresh, crystal droplets gather and fall from my umbrella, soaking into the ground. I feel the chill of the wind against my face, and inhale the crisp air.
A spark, long snuffed out by raising kids, school and working, flickers, a spark rekindled by one sentence spoken long ago by my fifth grade teacher. "I'll see your name rolling in the credits someday," she said, after I won an essay writing contest sponsored by the Conservation Club. The footsteps of her words echoed from time to time, but somehow they were lost in the ruins of my dreams as I wandered off down a different path.
I go home and write about my walk describing the wind whipping down my collar and the forlorn old man sitting in his window with longing eyes, as if looking for someone--like a picture on a book cover. I post the story on a social network, just to see. To my surprise I receive plenty of positive feedback. One person writes, "Seriously, did you write this?" I am grinning like a fool. I write another description, this time about my ride through the forest--more good comments. Another person says, "I was riding right along with you." I hear from people I haven't seen in years. I float ten feet off the floor.
I research many writing classes, but one enfolds me, LongRidge Writers Group. It seems perfect. But, a discouraging voice worms its way inside my head, mocking.
"You're retirement age, you haven't written anything except boring nurses' notes or a shopping list since school. Your brain is dead. Forget it. You're supposed to get old, fat and crazy. Rosie told you so--remember?"
But I hear another voice, a small voice with quiet words that grow louder and louder, until it becomes a rebel cry: "You can do this!"
I take the required test for entrance, and rip open the reply as soon as it arrives. "Your story titled, 'The Walk', impressed us all," it reads.
"Don't you know they tell everyone that," the voice mocks. But the words of my fifth grade teacher rise again, urging me forward. I am going to do this!
Now, long before streaks of sunlight pass through the treetops, I'm racing downstairs to write. I thought I'd have nothing to write about, but there are so many stories, I stumble over them daily. I keep a pad and pen in my purse, beside my favorite chair, and stuck in my pocket while walking for jotting down any ideas I run across. I have a box I call my idea box which holds my collection of newspaper clippings, magazines, notes, anything I find interesting. I spend time in the book store exploring different authors' styles. I've learned children's books are good examples of active sentences; every word must count to keep young readers' attention.
I still write my first draft the old fashioned way, with a pen and paper. Sometimes the voices get the best of me and I'll have a waste-basket full of paper wads, and when my writing time is over, I haven't come up with one good sentence. The voices dance around inside my head, mocking and sneering, "You can't write. Who'd want to read this stuff anyway?"
Other days the words gush like water from a faucet, and I'll be on top of the world, but I know those voices will return to burn my efforts.
The writer Richard Bach says, "A professional writer is an amateur that didn't quit." Often, failure is the fuel that forges our successes. So what if I'm retirement age. I'm not ready to sit in a rocking chair and work puzzles, get old, fat and crazy. Not yet anyway.
The same feeling I had every morning of my nursing career greets me each morning, only this time it's a new and different kind of adventure. I'm recreating a dream, once melted like paper mâché left out in the rain.
The craft of writing is like any craft--the more you practice, the better you get. Writers get enough rejection slips to paper the walls. It's just part of the deal. Without trying, failure is assured.
"If you have something to share that can only be expressed in words, you will learn to write well in support of your vision." - Anne Underwood Grant, instructor, author.
Sometimes life saves the best for last, opening a special door that leads us down a perfect road, like an ideal ending to a good book. It's never too late, and you're never too old to chase after a dream. Of all my life's chapters, this could be the most outstanding--saved by the pen and page.
How tall do you want me to be? Pick the gender, choose the eye colour and the swarthy sneer, the derisive look that might make your day or send you into despair.
Yes, I am the hidden persona of the person who lurks behind the screen. I eat your words for breakfast and belch before I reach for a snack. You can’t gauge my mood, pander to my obsessions or kiss my ass.
I am an impartial witness to your fervent need to be published. I’m not the final authority, but if you pass through my gates, you’ve got a fighting chance.
The moat that lies between me and the final authority is not inhabited by snapping crocodiles or bloodied swords or littered by the carcasses--victims of my wrath. No, in fact, I’m generally kind, but even I have my sensitivities.
Please don’t submit plastic cheese—stories wrapped in individual sleeves that are commercial replicas of a marketing ploy. Have enough respect for my digestive tract that you’ll at least pay some cursory attention to presentation. Nothing annoys me more than poorly formatted stories that are forwarded with an inattentive copy/paste-send flick of the wrist. Read the damn thing before you forward.
I’ll forgive you if you are in a learning trajectory and have the moxie to begin your journey to the Pulitzer, but sloth and disrespect will etch itself into my brain. You’ll have a handicap when you submit the second time.
It takes something special to be an editor. It requires an open-ended compassion for the reason and purpose that a writer needs to share a story or an emotion. If I were to select a dream job for a day, it might be the journalist who interviews Bobby Orr’s coach or George Clooney’s agent. We don’t know their names. If they could skate as well or act, perhaps we’d know who they are.
Recognizing talent, nurturing and encouraging writers to excel is a lonely job and even the published authors who trip over their own egos might not remember me, but that’s fine with me. I’m hungry and in the mood for something special.
ESSAYS BY JADE
For writers preparing their own novels, ColumMcCann’s TransAtlantic is a good study. The backwards and forwards of the novel, the research required, the creative interweaving of fiction into an otherwise historical account spanning from roughly 1919 to 2012 (though it dips as far back as the Civil War period), are fecund lessons for emerging writers.
As with Let the Great World Spin, the opening chapters describe a daring feat. Anyone who has read his previous novel will not soon forget the way McCann thrilled us with Petit’s tightrope walk between New York’s famed Twin Towers. (The sadness of the towers’ subsequent histories hangs heavily in the air as one reads of this dangerous walk, those thirteen hundred sixty-eight feet up.)
Now, in TransAtlantic, McCann gives us an account of another dangerous crossing, that made by the airmen Alcock and Brown. They flew fromNewfoundland to a bog in Ireland, determined to take “the war out of the warplane” they’d refitted. (The two preceded Lindbergh’s solo flight by eight years.) The author’s research is soundly in evidence, although he admits in his acknowledgements to having “sometimes combined, conflated, and on occasion fictionalized quotes in order to create the texture of truth.” Writers can draw their own conclusions from this.
Real and imagined characters join hands, most notably, in a close account of Frederick Douglass during his months in Ireland, and in the unfolding of the life of Lily Duggan, an Irish domestic servant who leaves her blighted country. McCann allows the lives of these two to intersect briefly. He describes Lily’s progeny in America and tells of some of their return trips to Ireland. For these many crossings the book is aptly titled.
McCann, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hunter College and recipient of the National Book Award, wields a strong arm in his ability to turn a good phrase. An Irishman named Ambrose, married to Lily’s granddaughter inherits his family’s failing business interest: the manufacture of linen. McCann calls the inheritors of this dying industry “janitors for the ambitions of the dead.”
In other displays of linguistic skill, as he refers to Ireland at war with itself, the author describes the skies over Belfast as a “candelabra of violence.” Ambrose, unfolding his morning newspaper “accordions it out.” (We can picture it.) Early on, Lily listens to the horses eating. McCann writes, “She could hear the soft rip of grass in the mouths of the horses: the way it moved and crushed.” Other images I admired were, “The wind pulsed wintry along the river,” and “Rain spat down in flurries,” and “The children looked like remnants of themselves.” These are fine details deftly rendered.
McCann’s carefully researched details included the specific items of clothing worn by people in their given eras and settings, the pathetic treatment of dying Civil War soldiers, the early business and marketing of ice harvested in Missouri’s cold winters, and minute details about transatlantic flights made by the still-living Senator George Mitchell as he negotiated on Clinton’s behalf for the ending of the Irish festerings in 1998.
Disparate elements are finely interwoven through McCann’s focus on his specially chosen characters. These elements are neatly bookended by a letter written around 1919, as we learn early in the novel, and still unopened in 2011, as given in McCann’s final segment, “The Garden of Remembrance.” Critics may say the novel is too disjointed. I feel McCann has succeeded, though in the hands of a lesser artist, the effort might have failed. It was a daring attempt.
See ISBN 978-1-4000-6959-0 (Random House, 2013)
ABOUT CAROLE MERTZ
POEMS BY CAROLE MERTZ
ESSAYS BY CAROLE MERTZ
Some of the more artistic citizens in our world take umbrage at the very ‘shallow’ idea of having to make a living in a traditional job that brings home a pay-check. They put on a cloak of denial, expecting some form of respect for their artistic nature, taking food, lighting and electricity for their computers for granted, a small price for the rest of us to pay for the privilege of being in their august presence.
I’ve met a couple of people that fit right into this category. When making small talk at a cocktail party the inevitable question arises: “What do you do for a living?”
With a look of utter disdain, the man--it’s almost always a man--declares, “I’m an artist.”
Quick to pick up this conversational thread, and being alert to the ego on display on the silver being jockeyed around the room, I choose my words carefully. “That’s fascinating. Do you work in oils or acrylics?”
This overture, and the appropriate stroking of the arrogant ego, usually leads to a full dissertation on the artist’s entire portfolio. Now unless the man is renowned for his work, in which case, aside from the free food and drinks, I’m not sure why he’s hanging out with the rest of us lowlifes, this small display of interest in a fellow guest might easily turn into a very boring one-hour monologue.
I find the easiest way to make the artist slink away, taking his aloof attitude to the other side of the room, is to ask which gallery I can visit to see his work. Following a list of extreme reasons why his paintings or etches have not yet found the perfect venue, I smirk and he departs, dragging his obvious dislike for me along behind him.
More often, I meet people who have difficulty declaring their life-long avocation publicly. When asked the same question, people will tell me about their jobs or their families. It takes a little probing to find out their real passion is golfing, fishing or writing.
They're shy about their true interests, thinking that no one cares, and they correctly slip into cocktail-hour chatter. Most people aren’t terribly interested. They use social events as diversions. Some like to hear the sound of their own voice or to make casual connections with strangers, hoping they’ll be asked about themselves.
If you reveal that you have a love of language and have been writing poetry or prose throughout life, often it’s greeted with a nod, or the far more insulting response: “What a nice hobby.”
Many people don’t understand that writers would love to live in a closet and tap out stories all day, if only destiny had given them that indulgence. But, just as almost every Hollywood super-star admits to having waited tables between auditions, so do the rest of us need to make a living. The kids go off to university, the laundry loads lighten, and suddenly we have time to do the things we wish we could have done sooner.
A person who takes their passion for writing more seriously in later life is not a hobbyist filling in time between bingo and lawn bowling. It may be the first time in life they’ve had a chance to put themselves first.
It's not a disability for them to lack expertise or confidence in their technique. It's merely a threshold to cross, another price to pay to skillfully present their stories. There are writing classes in every community, on-line businesses that cater to hungry and passionate people who have the humility to approach their new career with the disciplines they learned while working in the commercial world. There are on-line writing communities, filled with people who have the same goals, who will give the writer feed-back, tips and strength to believe they can achieve--even make a living in the new career.
The one asset most late-start writers don’t give themselves credit for is the wisdom and experiences of living. Every person has a unique biography, a library of stories to tell. As a reader, I open a book and want to be invited into that author’s world. I want to understand what it feels like to live his life and experience, his joy and fear.
I’ve learned a great lesson about meeting people in social situations. I no longer ask what they do. Instead I ask what they like to do.
STORIES BY INGRID THOMSON
ESSAYS BY INGRID THOMSON