[Writing Prompt] Epistolary Stories

This is one of my favorite forms of writing and I don’t know why I don’t do it more:

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of letters, journal entries, blog posts, tweets or other epistle.

Tips

  • This used to seem like a bit of an old-fashioned story form now that we no longer have five-times-a-day letter delivery (as in Jane Austen’s day) but with all of our new ways of communicating in the written word it is ripe for a reboot.
  • You should feel free to use old-fashioned letters, but consider using other communication vehicles.
  • Remember that all the information must come in the form of communications from one person at a time. No dialogue attribution, no speculation by a narrator. This is essentially a First-Person format, but you can have more than one person talking, in turn.

Go!

[Reading Room] The Distance of The Moon by Italo Calvino

This wonderful sci-fi fairy tale will certainly feel familiar to anyone who saw one of the more recent Pixar shorts, La Luna (in fact the director freely credits Calvino with inspiring elements of the film).

It is funny, and wildly imaginative and, perhaps necessarily, told in a very prosaic, almost pedestrian way. You probably have to write in an almost documentary style when you are writing a story as fantastic as this: the premise being that, years and years ago, the moon was so close to the earth that you could climb up to it at certain times of the month.

It is a wonderful example of how to let your creativity fly free, and still end up with a story that talks about essential truths everyone can relate to.

Listen to it here

[Reading Room] Vanilla Bright Like Eminem by Michel Faber

In “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem” by Michel Faber, a father sits with his family on a train, traveling through Scotland. A passing mention of the inadequate overhead luggage racks drew me into a story that ended with me blinking furiously and which I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

Faber didn’t describe the gorgeous scenery whisking past the window. He didn’t spend any time at all describing the train (only that their bags were on a seat because they were too big for the overhead rack), but just that detail made the setting seem real for me (I’ve traveled on a lot of Scottish trains).

This story also featured an interesting trick I haven’t come across too often: the flash forward. Rather than tell the story in flash back, the story just unfolds and then gives us a glimpse of the future. It’s more than a gimmick though. It really works.

You can listen to the story here”

[Reading Room] Lamentations of the Father by Ian Frazier

This is a wonderful, funny piece, written in high biblical style, but in fact spoken by a modern, harried father.

It is a great example of how to write humor, subvert expectations and trade on the language in which your life has been (perhaps unknowingly) steeped.

If you can, get hold of the Selected Shorts version read by the late, lamented Isaiah Sheffer.

(The full title of the piece is: “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father”)

[Reading Room] – Heart of a Champion by T. C. Boyle

“Heart of a Champion” takes the reader from the opening credits to the close of an old (fictional) Lassie serial.

It is fascinating tutorial for those of us who have absorbed most of our ‘short stories’ in the form of TV shows or webisodes or through other visual media. It demonstrates quite nimbly, how to move from a visual image to the written word. It’d be worth reading for that alone, even if it wasn’t beautifully written and laugh-out-loud funny, too.

Another great feature of this story is that it parodies a much-loved show but goes beyond simple goofing around with the predictability of the TV show. The author thinks hard about the question of ‘what if it didn’t have to end the way it always had to end?’. He comments, subtly on what the show said about the characters who sleep-walked their way through it and the society that it was created by and that it reflected.

If you are heavily influenced by movies or TV shows, read this story, then write a story that contains similarly cinematic images.

If you are attempting a parody, take a close look at what this story does to do more than simply turn into a ‘skit’ and instead become a whole, novel piece of art.

[Tuesday Reading Room] After The Reign of Jimmy Carter by James Thrasher

For New Year over at Six Sentences they’ve posted a New Year themed story.

It doesn’t tackle a particularly novel topic (a New Year’s story about resolutions? Shock!), and it’s not very long (six sentences!) and yet it manages to say a lot and stay fresh.

It’s a great example of how restrictions in length, topic or form, can help transform your writing.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Durak By Anatoly Belilovsky

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine LogoI found this story in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and I loved it.

It’s a sci-fi story set on Earth, on the RMS Titanic, to be precise. How can that be a sci-fi/fantasy story? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.

The story takes place exclusively around a card table on the luxury liner. Four men are playing Bridge and talking in a wide-ranging conversation as people do: they talk about where they’re from, what they’re thinking about, each one interjecting something that a man of his time, class and geographical identity might know something about.

The whole piece is beautifully crafted. Each character has a distinct voice and a careful use of dialogue tags keeps us straight in case there was any confusion.

Since we were talking about openings in last week’s Writing Prompt, I thought I’d quote from the opening of this story. It is very clever and repays the reader for a second reading. It promises one thing, delivers something different and then comes back and plays with us again, so we’re not quite sure where the writer is going.

“Is dangerous, this ice,” said the Russian.

The great frozen mass approached slowly, the steward struggling to push the cart across the threshold of the card room.

“I agree,” said the New Yorker. He shuffled a deck of cards, rather listlessly. “Looks like it’s about to give our steward here a hernia.”

“I only wanted enough to put in my brandy,” said the Texan. “Why’d he bring the whole block?”

“White Star line is very prideful of her service,” said the steward.

“They don’t do anything small on the Titanic,” the New Yorker said. “Not in first class, anyway.”

And then the story moves away from the ice and the Titanic and follows the mens’ conversation as they range all over history, philosophy, linguistics and fantasy. It’s a great discussion in itself, which keeps you reading. (I like stories where I feel like I’m learning something, or remembering something I once knew. I like stories that make me feel clever, don’t you?)

As the discussion continues, it subtly, subtly becomes clear that they are closing in on one topic, that is going to be the point of this story. The author uses repetition and comic relief in a really skillful way, to set up the eventual conclusion.

At the end of this story I sat back and said “Ha!” out loud, in an empty room.

I love it when that happens.

Durak
by Anatoly Belilovsky
published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine No.54

[Tuesday Reading Room] Zombie Psychology by Sarina Dorie

While this short story isn’t perfect 1, 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.


 

  1. Pet peeve: you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is the bit where the volume is increasing.

[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!