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:


Tuesday Reading Room – Brooksmith by Henry James

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

I don’t know much about Henry James, though I have struggled through more of his short stories than I have novels. I’ve never formally studied his writing, so don’t know what the prevailing literary criticism theories are…but I can tell you this: I dislike his characters and I dislike his outlook and I always end up, as I did at the end of this story, wanting to punch at least one of the characters in the nose.

Which is, I suppose a kind of a compliment to the writer.

Brooksmith by Henry James

As much as I say I don’t ‘like’ Henry James’s stories, I do recognise the work of a master craftsman. (I wonder if I would have liked him any better if he had been writing today [1. Probably not.])

The first thing I admired about this story was the way he pulled me in right from the first sentence. You might not think of the slow-paced Henry James novels as belonging on the same shelf as Ian Fleming or James Patterson, but there is, nonetheless, plenty of suspense to keep the reader hooked:

We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver Offord, but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other.

Who was the late Mr. Oliver Offord and why do his friends only ‘chance to meet’ and share a ‘certain esoteric respect’ – and what does that really mean?

James continues to ratchet up the suspense in the very next sentence,

“Yes, you too have been in Arcadia,” we seem not too grumpily to allow.

Why was it “Arcadia” (and why would they ordinarily be grumpy with each other)?

The story turns out not to be about Mr Offord at all, but about his butler, Brooksmith and the perils of allowing the servant class to rise above their station.

I’m not sure which side Henry James would really have taken on the issue of class and station, but his narrator has a very fixed, extremely anti-egalitarian viewpoint that makes him supremely unsympathetic to the modern reader.

He is, however, so unrelentingly shaped by his societal norms that he is absolutely believable and ‘true’ – and loathsome, I might add.

It really struck me — after putting down this book with a sneer on my face and a punchy urge in my fist — that my writing could benefit from a bit more loathesomeness. I’m really a very nice person, trained in life to be fair and tolerant and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But being well-brought-up can create a tendency to be too nice to my characters, too forgiving.

If I want to create characters as ‘true’ and real as Brooksmith‘s unworthy narrator, I have to risk creating characters that someone 111 years from now might want to punch.


What do you do to make your characters ‘real’? Please do leave a comment!


Tuesday Reading Room – The Standard Of Living by Dorothy Parker

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

I’m working my way through this short story collection which was first published in 1952 and starts with a lot of what would have been quite ‘modern’ writers’ stories: Dorothy Parker, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, V. S. Pritchett.

Only one story so far has featured a moment that seems as if it might change the main character for life. The rest are moments in time, even missed opportunities, made fascinating by the writer’s attention to the tiny details of their worlds. It strikes me that this is something you can do with a short story that you couldn’t do with a novel – at least not without annoying most of your readers. Novel readers expect something transformative to happen. Short story readers? Well, maybe they’re more forgiving because they haven’t invested quite so much time in the thing. But I still get annoyed with a lot of modern ‘literary’ stories where nothing happens and there is no sense of an ending. These stories all seem to pre-date that trend, thank goodness.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker

I’m not usually a fan of descriptive writing, but in these short stories I’m finding it is making all the difference.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker is a fabulous example of how a writer can flesh out a story whose plot is basically a build up to a simple punchline and turn it into something that stays with the reader. Parker creates two ordinary, shallow young women (girls, really), who are creatures of their time and trends and who think they are oh, so very sophisticated. They walk together on Saturday afternoons and play a sort of ‘imagine if you won the lottery’ game. Close to the end, something happens that reveals how far from sophisticated they are. That is the punchline, but the way they handle it is…well, I’ll leave it to you to discover.

What make the story, is the luscious, descriptive writing. It starts with a literal feast of words:

They lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter-fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate, gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beats of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale stiffening sauce…”

And it goes on. Are you starting to get a feel for who ‘they’ are yet, from this description? Who might they be? Parker gives us another big clue.

They ate no other kind of food, nor did they consider it. And their skin was like the petals of wood anemones, and their bellies were as flat and their flanks as lean as those of young Indian braves.

Ah yes, they are those despicable creatures: young women! (Can you guess I’m staring aghast at the rapidly approaching 4-0?)

Only now, half a page in, does Parker give our characters, names, station, a bit of backstory. In one paragraph she tells a lifetime. She says a lot with few words ending with:

Each girl lived at home with her family and paid half her salary to its support.

Aha! These are not high-society misses at all. These are working girls affecting a life of leisure.

(I’ll freely admit I loved that sentence in part because it captures the lives my grandmothers lived before they were married, but how many young women – or men – would do that today?)

Every description of the girls is full and sensual and tactile and fixes them in time and space.

They wore thin, bright dresses, tight over their breasts and high on their legs, and tilted slippers, fancifully strapped.

Even their state of mind is shown viscerally from:

they held their heads higher and set their feet with exquisite precision, as if they stepped over the necks of peasants.

to later, when things are not going so well. Parker never says, “they felt bad”. Instead she writes:

Their shoulders dropped and they dragged their feet; they bumped against each other, without notice of apology, and caromed away again. They were silent and their eyes were cloudy.

It’s not how I write. It’s not my style. But I loved this story and definitely want to try out a story where I try out something more phsyical and real, like this one.


Do you write in a very descriptive way? Is your style similar in most stories? Do you like to read stories in the same style as yours, or do you also enjoy stories in a radically different style? Tell me how you read.