[Tuesday Reading Room] Zombie Psychology by Sarina Dorie

While this short story isn’t perfect [1. Pet peeve: you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is the bit where the volume is increasing.], it is fun and entertaining and had some likes that made me smile and frankly, that’s good enough for me.

Zombie Psychology starts with a great first line, too:

“I’d been expecting my ex-boyfriend to show up sooner or later, and when he did, I knew he’d probably want to eat my brain.”

I mean, really. How can you resist reading on?

 

Clocking in at less than 900 words, this neat story uses lots of zombie tropes without taking them too seriously, but without mocking them either. Zombie fans won’t be annoyed by someone trampling all over their myths, but the non-zombie fans among us won’t be left rolling their eyes.

 

Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, which published this story, is an interesting publication: an online paying market that doesn’t waste it’s budget on design fees, but that offers a great selection of really well-written stories in written and audio formats. It’s open to new fiction from  new writers and seems very well-run. Check it out.


 

[Tuesday Reading Room] Orange by Neil Gaiman


One of the things I love about short stories is the way they can play with form. They are, at their best, unpredictable. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman (which I found in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 anthology)  is a perfect illustration.

Written in the form of answers to a police interrogation, the story never actually tells you what those questions were, leaving you to both speculate and laugh out loud at times. It unfolds gradually from the shallow answers given by a teenaged girl about her less-than-perfect homelife, to something much more complex and true. And funny and touching and hopeful and sad.

That the protagonist is answering a interrogation tells you immediately that something has gone wrong and you read in part to find out what. But after a while, as I often find with Neil Gaiman’s writing, you are reading just for the sheer joy of it. His use of language and character are masterful, engaging and accessible.

After reading this story, I immediately called over my precocious nine-year old son and read it again, over his shoulder. Upon finishing, he flipped back to the start to read it again too. It’s like that.

Highly recommended if you feel you’re getting into a rut with your short story writing and need some inspiration for a shake up. Or if you just want to read a fine, well-written short story.

[Reading Room] The Women by Tom Barbash

At the start of “The Women” the narrator and his newly-widowed father are attending “holiday parties” dictated by the season. It is immediately clear that Andrew, the son, is unhappy with his father’s behavior but rather than baldly state this fact, the author makes Andrew’s feelings plain by showing us not what he thinks as much as what he is noticing.

The narrative style is clever: self-aware first person. Andrew is telling us, the readers, this story in a careful way, as anyone would: trying not to make himself look bad, but bursting all the same to show us his outrage.

“Before long the women were dropping by our house, and I’d see them late at night drinking coffee in my mother’s kitchen…”

But this is not just the sob story of a young man left doubly orphaned by his mother’s death and his father’s actions after it. The story moves on through the first year of his grieving, of his new life. By the following winter, things have started to change for Andrew.

This is a skillfully told story peopled by some engaging characters — and some realistically flawed. It will stay with me for a long time.

You can find it in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 and it was originally published in narrativemagazine.com

[Reading Room] “Ziggurat” by Stephen O’Connor

This week I’m listening to “Ziggurat” by Stephen O’Connor, which I found on the NPR Selected Shorts podcast. (It’s read by Tim Curry who does a fantastic job. It’s worth a listen. You can find it here.)

It tells the story of what happens when the Minotaur encounters a new arrival in his Labyrinth, a computer-savvy girl who affects him an an entirely unexpected way.

It’s a wonderful example of how to take a hoary old story and make it fresh and relevant and laugh-out-loud funny — without descending into slapstick — and poignant and full of suspense without being a mystery.

The author has a light, deft hand with description. At one point the girl is teaching the Minotaur to play pool (yes, really!) balances a particular brand of pool cue on her foot and the whole thing seems as real as a dank, mythical Labyrinth can seem. When he is leading the girl somewhere (and not, to their mutual surprise, eating her) the imagery is full of eating-imagery (“gnawed through the rocks”, “digested”).

Well worth a read ( Julie DuffyPosted on Categories Inspiration, Reading RoomTags , , ,

[Reading Room] The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury

I came a little late to the stories of Ray Bradbury and that’s probably a good thing. I was much too literal as a teenager and probably wouldn’t have known what to make of his fantastic, thought-provoking, stories with their lyrical language.

When I did discover his writing, of course, I had my mind blown in little controlled explosions by stories like “A Sound of Thunder”, “The Rocket Man” and “The Fog Horn”.

But I hadn’t read any of his stories for years. Now, getting ready to introduce them to my own children, I picked up a collection of his early stories and sat down to read.

The very first story in the collection was “The Fog Horn”, one of my very favorites.

As I started to read, I was a little worried that I had over-romanticized Bradbury’s stories in my memory. Here were two lighthouse-keepers oiling the lamp and chatting in a fairly mundane way about their job. Maybe I wasn’t going to be as transported, at this age, as I was a decade or more ago.

Then the older lighthouse keeper tells the younger a theory he has about how the fog horn was invented.

“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, an being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll made me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.'”
The Fog Horn blew.

And that’s just for starters.

The ideas in Bradbury’s stories are wonderful and the worlds are fantastic or sometimes mundane and all of the experiences are deep and human, and the language..ah the language.

You might not love his stories the way I do, but I would recommend reading a few of them if only to see in practice this truth: you should not be afraid to write in your own voice.

Bradbury is often referred to as a science fiction writer because his most famous stories deal with rockets, and Mars and time-travel. Bradbury was writing during the ‘Golden Age’ of speculative fiction and that’s where his stories were being published – in Sci-fi magazines. But he doesn’t try to sound like his peers, nor does he limit himself to descriptions of the cold depths of space, spaceships or alien planets. He writes in an inimitable, poetic style about ideas that fascinate him in words that could only come together in that order, out of his Bradbury brain.

Go you, and do likewise.

[Reading Room] “Goodbye and Good Luck” by Grace Paley

I’ll tell you this up-front: I’m an optimist, a romantic. I like my heroes larger than life and my endings to, well, end. I get impatient with stories that are just like life: a little change here and there, but then they just stop and life goes on. I can appreciate stories like that. I can admire them. But I can never love them, or their protagonists.

The title of this Grace Paley story, “Goodbye and Good Luck” was an implicit promise from the author to the reader that this story would have a real change in it, that life wouldn’t just trickle on as before.

This was the first story I’m aware of having read that was written by Grace Paley, so I didn’t know if I could trust her to deliver on that promise, but she did.

Not only does the story have a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end, it has a real character as its protagonist — and I say that not in the literary sense, but in the way your grandmother would have said it: “Oh yeah, that Rosie. She’s a real character!”

Written in the first person though, the character doesn’t seem outsized. That, I thought, was an interesting lesson for writers. Just as your villain never sees himself not as the villain in someone else’s story but the hero of his own, truly remarkable characters don’t see themselves as remarkable. They are just as they are. Telling the story from their perspective is an interesting way of avoiding moralizing or lionizing or any other kind of -izing.

At the start of this story Rose begins to tell her niece Lillie, the story of her life. I was a little adrift at first, trying to figure out who was talking and where and when and why. I didn’t understand the rhythms of her speech or the minutiae of all the things she referred to. But as soon as I relaxed and let the story go, I realized it was useful. My unfamiliarity with the world of the story made it seem more realistically set in its own time and space. The author didn’t need to waste time explaining what “novelty wear” was. It was enough that the character, Rosie, knew. Perhaps even her niece didn’t know but Rose bulldozes on, telling her own story from the past, without stopping to check, and that told me plenty about Rose herself.

Rosie worked for a theater company in the grand era of Yiddish theater and is, herself, a grand storyteller. Soon you forget to wonder why Rose is telling this story to her niece. It pulls you along, capturing the rhythms and sounds, the mores and daily details of another time.

But of course there is a reason for the story. I sensed it coming and hoped I was right and then, there we were at the end of the story, like the end of a satisfying meal.

This story is a great example of how to use character and setting to tell a ‘simple’ story, in which there is little ‘on-screen action’, and how to include details without weighing the story down in acres of description and explanation.

Goodbye and Good Luck, indeed.

[Tuesday Reading Room] The Sun, The Moon, The Stars by Junot Diaz

Last month I went to Book Expo America, the big bookselling trade show in NYC. It was the first time I’d been at BEA in a dozen years.

Last time I was there, there was this funky new thing called the Rocker ebook reader, the size of a trade paperback with a big heavy battery and a black-on-gray screen that completely failed to excite anyone at the conference but me. I’m not sure Amazon even had a booth that year.

Fast forward to this year and everyone was walking the floor, smartphones in hand, skirting the vast Amazon presence right in the center of the floor. Added to that the publishers — most of whom didn’t even have email addresses last time — sent out a free ebook containing samples of the most “buzz-worthy” books featured at the convention. I got a copy for my Kindle (sorry, RocketBook. You never made it, but you helped blaze the trail, if its any consolation).

In the BEA Buzz ebook I found a short story called “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”, by the very buzz-worthy Junot Diaz. It was the first of his stories that I have read and it wont be the last. It’s from a collection called This Is HowYou Lose Hercoming out this year from Riverside Books.

The story takes us inside the head of a young Dominican guy with girl problems. Written in the first person and in the distinctive patois of the young idiot male everywhere, the story is a skillful demonstration of how to tell more than just one person’s story through one person’s voice.

Even though the narrator is clearly the “sucio” his girlfriend suspects he is, Diaz manages to show us, through his character’s voice, that he has the potential to be much more. Without whining, he shows how his struggle to be a good macho young man complicates his attempts to be a good man.

And when Diaz allows his character to go “home” to the Dominican Republic with the girl he’s trying to keep, we see the a very different young man, a natural poet and family guy.

The whole story is a subtle reflection on the difficulty of growing up, fitting in, finding your way, with one foot in two different communities, and in many cultures. But it’s all done with a light hand and extraordinary eloquence.

Look for “This Is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz from Riverhead Books in September.

[Tuesday Reading Room] How We Avenged The Blums by Nathan Englander

This story comes from Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories.

The title of the collection made me a bit nervous, I’ll confess. I’m not Jewish and I wasn’t – until last year – American, and I wasn’t sure where Englander was going with that Anne Frank reference.

I needn’t have worried. All the rave reviews were well earned.

The stories are universal in appeal, dealing with everything from growing up in a small town, feeling different (and who hasn’t?), to navigating the waters of relationships, to the world of the elderly at a summer retreat (don’t call it a ‘camp’!), from the very human costs of founding of an Israeli settlement, to the experience of an all-American boy visiting a peep show (and the ghosts of his past).

“How We Avenged The Blums” is the third story in the collection and feels like any one of the ‘it was tough to be the nerd in middle school’ stories you might read written by anyone bookish from any background. The boys in this story are different because they are Jewish and attend the Yeshiva school rather than the public school. When one of their classmates is attacked by bullies, the boys set about planning their revenge. They are almost comically unqualified for the job…until the fortuitous arrival of Boris, a Russian Jew, veteran of both the Russian and Israeli armies. The boys persuade Boris to help train them and spend weeks preparing for a showdown with the bullies.

The story is immersive, dropping the reader into the world of a 1980s suburban Jewish community of boys on the edge of adulthood, of adults preoccupied with the community’s problems in the wider world, of expectations and cultural references that you don’t have to have known  to nevertheless ‘grok’.

The writing is utterly engrossing. Englander spoons out cultural details and historical references in perfect portions while driving the story with strong characters. He evokes the panic and hopelessness of the bullied middle-schoolers without ever preaching. And then ends the story perfectly: maintaining the boys’ perspective, allowing the reader to filter it and figure out how the story should affect them.

This is a great example, for writers, of how to lead a reader right up to the point of what you want to say, but not to ram it down their throats — and not to leave them feeling disappointed either. This story definitely ends. It just doesn’t end with the author standing up on a soap box and saying, “now, in case you missed my point…”

I recommend the whole collection.

Have you read this story? What did you think?

How do you feel about stories that evoke a very specific time/place/community? Do you like to learn about others? Do you feel disconnected from it? Do you ever write this way?

Leave a comment and let’s talk!

[Tuesday Reading Room] – Peeling

Today’s Reading Room post is by regular contributor Jami Balkom, who is reading a story a day during 2012. This week she was reading Peeling by Nathan Holic.

Diversion.

A woman struggling with fertility finds a distraction away from her marital and emotional struggle. She finds herself collecting beer labels, craft beers of all kinds, and saving them, pasting them into a scrapbook. As she catalogues this minutia, the reader sees her disintegrating mental state and can’t help but wonder if she will ever be successful in both removing that last unattainable beer label (a Sweetwater 420 label) and the pregnancy she and her husband so desperately want and have been trying for.

This story was well-written and compelling and a very different story than I’ve read before in its originality. Below is the link to the story. Enjoy.

http://necessaryfiction.com/stories/NathanHolicPeeling

 

Jami is reading a story a day in 2012. She is  a trial attorney in Panama City, Florida with an undergraduate degree in Literature from Florida State University. Jami is  currently writing her sixth novel. You can find out more at her Facebook page.

[Tuesday Reading Room] “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker

A guest post by regular contributor Jami who is reading a story a day throughout 2012.. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

This week’s post is a guest post by regular contributor Jami
who is reading a story a day throughout 2012 over at Worth The Effort. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

Suffering.

A woman questions God about why a lover hasn’t called her at the time he said he’d call. The pleading and negotiating she does which is clearly inner dialogue is painfully realistic and honest and it exposes the vulnerable side of every woman when she is in the first phase of a relationship.

Will he call?
Should I call him?
What will he think if I call him?
Will he hate me if I call?
How long should I wait for his call?
What happens if he doesn’t call?
Why didn’t he call?

WOW, Dorothy Parker really blew me away with this story. It was made more potent with its brevity and with an ending that leaves the reader counting down the seconds until the woman makes a decision and answers her own questions.

My guess about the ultimate resolution?

She calls.
He doesn’t answer.

Here is a link:
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/teleycal.html

(c)2012 Jami Balkom

[Tuesday Reading Room] – The Sellout by Mike Cooper

This story comes from the June 2012 edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. It features an unnamed protagnoist who is also the hero of a forthcoming book by the same author, Mike Cooper.

This story starts strong, with a clear sense of place and time, not to mention a few hints as to the type of story (and protagonist) we’re dealing with.

“Now, the subway station that was sharp thinking. A decade after 9/11 the MTA still hadn’t installed its fancy new cameras. So unlike any other crowded public space in Manhattan, the Fulton Street C Line platform was free of electronic surveillance. It was a nice solution for a total-deniability-type meet-up.”

Just a few lines in and we know this is set in the modern day, that the protagonist doesn’t have a lot of respect for bureaucrats, and that his dealings are likely quite shady.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking: hit-man. Right?

A few sentences later when our hero’s client says, “I need an audit done,” the reader is (a-hem) arrested by the unusual choice of word but assumes the client is just being colorful.

Wrong.

It turns out (slight spoiler alert) that our hero is a kind of tough-guy forensic CPA-for-hire, It is, as the hero notes, “a small niche, though a necessary one.” And I can totally see why some publisher looked at this idea, blinked twice and read on. It’s not an idea you hear too often and you almost have to read on to see how he’s going to make this work.

And Cooper makes it work by sticking with the traditional hardboiled detective style. He sets his hero up as a tough-guy with a dangerous past, not afraid to use his fists (in accountancy? Oh yeah!) and repeatedly uses military imagery to back up his protagonist’s view of himself:

“Sometimes you need someone packing a P226, not an HP12c, if you know what I mean” (which of course, most of us don’t.)
“If you capture a terrorist…you don’t read him his rights and call Legal Aid.”
“Okay, Waterboard Spin Metal’s CFO. Got it.”
“If I had a logo it might be a green eyeshade crossed by a nine mil. But I don’t.”
“A little recon first seemed like a good idea.”

The way the character talks to himself, sees himself, reinforces everything we’ve been shown about him. This is one hard man and he never lapses into soft metaphors or overt sympathy for anyone. He is cynical, even when the author is inviting us to be sympathetic to the other characters. The protagonist shows us people and events through his own skeptical filter, the author manipulates us to see them through our own.

It’s skillfully done.

I didn’t love this story because it’s not really my style. But I do bow the the author’s ability to make me even sort of care about the inner financial dealings of a corporate take over. Sort of.

And I do think this was an excellent piece of characterization.

20120409-133700.jpg

[Tuesday Reading Room] The Door by E. B. White

E. B. White's image

After reading the first few lines of “The Door” by E. B. White [1. found in Fifty Great Short Stories, Milton Crane (Ed.)] my immediate feeling was one of outrage: here I am reading a story by the author of a book that has generations of writers in terror of writing something the ‘wrong’ way (The Elements of Style by Strunk & White), and it’s all over the place! White is breaking his own rules with flagrant , jaw-dropping abandon!

Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid, or they were duroid (sani) or flexan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn’t quite rubber and you didn’t quite touch it but almost.

OK, so there aren’t actually many disregarded rules there, apart from possibly some missing quotation marks – but still! What an odd and unbalancing opening that is.

And I loved it. Because the words are doing exactly what the writer intends to convey: they are confusing and disjointed and all out of kilter. They are slightly beyond comprehension. Just likethat we are in the same emotional space as the main character.

You couldn’t do this without a good command of the norms of writing, so perhaps E. B. White is exactly the right person to be writing this story!

Why The Story Works

This was a trying story on a first reading. I was never really sure what was going on, although I have my own ideas. It was like reading a stream-of-consciousness Beat poem.

But it hung together. It worked even though little in the story is explicit.

Some reasons it worked:

  • It was visceral. The writer takes us right inside the head of someone who is disorientated and out of step with the world. He keeps us off-kilter with his language. We are never explicitly told what is up with the main character (they way we may not know what’s up with ourselves when we are ‘out of sorts’). We do, however, feel what the character is feeling, through this helter-skelter narrative.
  • We are inside his head, though it is not all first-person. The story switches point of view without fanfare, so sometimes we are in first person and sometimes not (“Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the name of things”).
  • The author sets up a metaphor at the beginning, that of rats in a scientific experiment, “…trained to jump at a square card with the circle in the middle of it…”. It is a clear and coherent part of the story. He then takes this metaphor and alludes to it throughout the story, using the phrase ‘the one with the circle on it’ in various places to let us know he’s talking about frustrated expectations or unexpected changes — about life changing the rules, just when we’ve got the hang of them — whether or not we know what’s going on in the particular moment (and on a second reading, these moments become more clear).
  • The story (and the protagonist) travel somewhere. At the end, I’m still not exactly sure what is going on, but I know more than I did at the beginning. The protagonist is moving on.
  • The ending has a finality to it, a sense of actually being an ending. The author ties everything up in a bow by bringing back some metaphors from earlier in the story, the way a modern stand up comics will bring us back around to a joke from the start of their routine, before taking their bow.

This was an oddly satisfying story.

I think it is made more difficult by reading it at a time (and as part of a culture) very different from the the one in which it was written. Life was changing for the protagonist in ways that reflected the times. Now, 70+ years later, it’s hard to catch all the cultural allusions (without studying more deeply).

The style feels very modern (or possibly “Modern”) in its form and ambition. In fact, I was stunned to find it was originally published in 1939. I think it would still prove a bit too avant garde for many readers.

But it was anything but boring.

 

Writer’s Tips

If you are uninspired by a story that you are writing, maybe it’s because you are sticking too closely to the rules, to a formula.

Try taking a leaf out of E. B. White’s book and mess with your readers a bit.

  • Try a different style.
  • Say less — or more.
  • Drop the dialogue attributions.
  • Throw out the quotation marks.
  • Write run-on sentences — or write in fragments.
  • Tell the story out of order.
  • Try to make your language sound less like you and more like the inside of your character’s head. Let the words race, if your character is running; or make them lugubrious if she is weary.
  • Allow yourself to take some chances.

After all, words are just squiggles on a page, and even the most experimental squiggles can be erased and re-written.

Take some chances in your writing today.

Read it online here


Did you try any new techniques after reading this? Leave a comment (and a link, if you’re daring) and let us know what worked – or didn’t.

Tuesday Reading Room – Live From The Continuing Explosion by Simon Kewin

This week’s story is “Live From The Continuing Explosion”, taken from Perfect Circles, a collection of previously-published short stories by Simon Kewin. (Full disclosure, Simon is a former StoryADay participant and co-founder of  Write1Sub1, a year long writing and publishing challenge that I highly recommend you check out. The new collection is available on Kindle and, at the time of publication, is priced $0.00!)

Live from the Continuing Explosion is a Big Ideas story.

Perfect Circles (eBook) by Simon Kewin

When I was writing about Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living“, I spent some time talking about how short stories are fabulous for taking a tiny moment and using it to create characters and events that stay with the reader, regardless of scale.

This week’s story, Simon Kewin’s “Live From The Continuing Explosion” is, by contrast, a Big Ideas story. Yes, it starts with – and stays with – a moment in time, but the moment contains a huge, earth-shattering event that shapes not just the lives of the participants but grips the whole world in its fall-out.

I’m reluctant to say too much because this story unfolds gradually, but at its heart is a terrorist event and its effects on one person and on the world.

Kewin manages to share his big ideas while creating characters that grow more and more real throughout the story. He uses the event to talk about ideas as personal as the relationship between twins and as vast as philosophy, global politics and the nature of mankind.

The Dangerous World Of The Big Idea

This story, if categorized at all, would fall into the ‘sci-fi’ bracket. One of the attractions of sci-fi is its ability to deal with big ideas, even more than the appeal of technology, spaceships or characters in tight-fitting jumpsuits (only one of those three sci-fi staples appears in this story, and it’s not the jumpsuits!).

The danger of the big idea, however, is that it can hijack the story – that the author’s voice leans over your shoulder and lectures like a pompous professor. It’s hard to insert thoughts about gods and politics into a story without jumping up on a soapbox.

One of the ways “Live From The Continuing Explosion” deals with this danger is by giving various characters a virtual soapbox as part of the story. Right at the end, for example, one character makes a speech about “what has been learned”. It doesn’t jar, however, because it is an actual speech, in front of a crowd. As reader,  you’ve come along on the journey with that character as she moves from by-stander to reluctant figure-head, and you have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of the action before the end is sketched out, implied, and I was happy to have the character tie everything together at the conclusion. Plus, that’s not the end of the story…

Beyond The Big Idea

If this story dodges the danger of using big ideas it is because the author spends time building up the characters, even the minor ones. He concentrates at times on descriptive writing so that the reader can *see* the set-pieces and isn’t just being lectured to. He does that with vivid descriptions – not of the height and weight of his characters, by how they move, what they look at.

 The two children run, screaming with delight. Around the legs of the adults in the crowd, legs like planted trees. They run in easy harmony as they veer left or right, speeding up or slowing down together without needing to watch each other. They laugh so much they can barely breathe. They hold hands, letting go only at the last moment as they split off to go around someone before reuniting.

A dog, watching them, barks excitedly, wanting to join in.

They run as if they have practised the whole set of manoeuvres beforehand. They run almost as one, a single being with two halves.

It’s a lovely, vivid moment and — given what follows — a really great opening to the story.

Staring Down A Cliche

It’s hard to describe the world in terms readers understand without stumbling into cliches. Of course it is. Cliches become cliches because they are good desciptions that we identify with.

Kewin deals with one of these in a way I really liked: he jumps on the cliche and expands it until it is no longer a cliche but an image that is all his own. He uses words that work exquisitely well to do this. When talking about an explosion Kewin takes the cliche “the blossom” of an explosion and expands it:

… vast, obscene flower billowing forth at demonic speed, black stigma deep inside red and yellow petals.

(By the way, use of ‘stigma’? In this context? Love it!)

He also takes the the idea of someone being inside a bubble and ‘owns’ it: making it the universal name for a phenomenon, not just a literary device. People all over the world begin calling the phenomenon ‘The Bubble’, as naturally as if someone had officially named it.

Short Story or Novel?

The other danger of the big idea is that you must devote so much space in your story to the ideas that the action and character development happen too quickly and the reader is left wishing the story had been a novel instead.

I think this story suffered a touch from this — which is not the worst thing anyone could say about a story 😉


Writer’s Lessons

  • If you can’t see a way around using a familiar image, try using one of Kewin’s techniques: expand the cliche with a clever twist, or weave it through the story so that it becomes natural.
  • If you ever feel that you have no ideas that are big enough to merit writing down, remember this. For the short story, tiny truths are even often just as valid, if not more,  than big ideas.

Have you written stories with Big Ideas behind them? Are they easier/harder to write? Do you feel they worked as well as stories based on smaller moments?

[Tuesday Reading Room] Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

I have a subscription to Storyville, on my iPhone, because I’m a sucker for new business models and digital publishing, and I’m enjoying being exposed to a wide array of stories (old and new) every week.

This week’s story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li, slowly unfolds the story of a couple, past the first flush of youth, meeting and deciding whether or not to marry. The story is set in modern-day Beijing. The woman in the story has lived there all her life, hardly noticing that she is aging and becoming a spinster, while the bachelor son of her old college professor has been off living in America.

It is anything but a cliched romance, though I will say that it has a satisfying ending. The author is quite skilled at making the characters and their culture seem complete and real without losing their interesting edge.

I liked the indirect way we learn about the characters and their backstories, as in this remark about the professor,

“Professor Dai must miss her students these days,” Siuy said after she and Hanfeng had exchanged greetings, although she knew it was not the students that his mother missed but the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals.

All the revelations about the characters are measured and careful, just like the characters. The whole story is a skilled blend of what we are told and how it is told, leading us to accept the ending and even agree with the choices the characters make.

It’s worth remembering that how a story is told can contribute as much to the reader’s experience as the things we write.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Man of The House by Frank O’Connor

from Fifty Great Short Stories(Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

This story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1949, is a wonderful example of how every line in a short story should contribute to the story, the plot or the characterization. That’s tough to do, so don’t be discouraged if your first draft isn’t as good as Mr O’Connor’s New-Yorker-ready version! It is, however, a goal worth keeping in mind.

Man Of The House

The story’s opening is crammed with short, efficient sentences that do an amazing job of setting the scene,

“When I woke, I heard my mother coughing, below in the kitchen.”

We don’t know yet, when the story is set, but we have a setting – a home, where the main character still lives with his/her mother. The mother is up early, in the kitchen, probably fixing breakfast.

“She had been coughing for days, but I had paid no attention.”

That sounds callous, but consistent with what we discover about the narrator: that his is a ten year old boy. It also sets up a tension that carries right through to the end: what is wrong with the mother. Will she survive? Will he be paid back for his callous disregard of her? When a line like “I had paid no attention’ is offered up right a the start of the story, it makes me nervous!

The third sentence (we’re still only 24 words into the story here) is completely natural and conversational, easily rooting the story in its geographical place, painting a picture of it and, at the same time, letting us know that this was happening some time ago,

“We were living on the Old Youghal road at the time, the old hilly coaching road into East Cork.”

All that from 19 words. I love it!

The rest of this paragraph paints a picture of both the mother and the narrator that puts us firmly on their side and rooting for them both,

“The coughing sounded terrible. I dressed and went downstairs in my stocking feet, and in the clear morning light I saw her, unaware that she was being watched, collapsed into a little wickerwork armchair, hoding her side. She had made an attempt to light the fire, but it had gone against her. She looked so tired and helpless that my heart turned over with compassion. I ran to her.”

Isn’t that a great opening?

Voice

The story is mostly told in one voice — that of the 10 yr old boy — but from time to time the voice of the older version of the boy creeps in, now grown up and telling us the story, judging, explaining. In one glaring example the narrator voices an opinion that will enrage most of the women (and some of the men) reading it, when he casually opines,

“It’s a funny thing about women, how they’ll take orders from anything in trousers, even if it’s only ten.”

Not a very modern, politically-correct attitude and it is the one line that makes the story seem old-fashioned. The rest of it seems fixed in a particular time, but also pretty timeless: a small boy is struggling between childhood and responsibility; sometimes he’s good; sometimes he fails; how he feels about it all. We’ve all been 10 [1. with apologies to any younger readers out there. You’re even better placed to understand this character!]. We’ve all struggled with the passage from childhood to adulthood, whether in rural Ireland or a suburb or a city.

But even that one jarring line serves an important purpose in the story. It’s not just in there because the writer wants to tell us something about his character’s attitude towards women. It tells us the age of the boy in the story, and that there is no way he should be the titular man of the house. It also tells us a thing or two about his mother in particular, (and you could argue that it talks about her only, rather than women as a whole, if the line makes you uncomfortable).

Most of the time, though, the world is presented to us through the voice of the ten year old from a particular time and place.

“In the afternoon, my mother wanted me to run out and play, but I didn’t go far. I knew if once I went a certain distance from the house, I was liable to stray into temptation. Below our house, there was a glen, the drill field of the barracks perched high above it on a chalky cliff, and below, in a deep hollow, the millpond and millstream running between wooded hills — the Rockies, the Himalayas, or the HIghlands, according to your mood. Once down there, I tended to forget the real world…”

He notices the things a ten year old boy would notice: the barracks where the soldiers live, the millpond where you could find creepy crawly things, and the hills, a setting for imagined adventures.

Plot & Suspense

The story continues to take our likable little hero away from home and into temptation. Whether he resists and whether he has to pay for his sins are the questions that kept me turning the pages faster and faster until I reached the end.


Is your writing economical or more wordy? Which point-of-view do you use most often in short stories? Are your ‘voices’ distinctive?
Tell us in the comments: