The example I gave, Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, had a fairly traditional narrative structure. While it wasn’t clear how the two storylines would interact, at first, it was an easy-to-read story.
I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).
(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez”
Today’s writing prompt is inspired by a story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, featured in The Best American Short Stories 2016 (http://amzn.to/2elDfUo)
You can read more of my thoughts on this story here: [Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
You can leave comments about your experiences with this prompt here: [Writing Prompt] Regrets, I’ve Had A Few
Podcast length: 11:15mins. Music by Alan McPike (www.standardstrax.com)
Supposedly the story of a technological development, as told by one of the inventors, this is not an easy read. It doesn’t sweep you up in character and stakes and plot points. It does, however, do all the things I love about short fiction: confuse, confound, sweep you along on a torrent of language, and spit you out at the other end, shaking yourself and going ‘whoa!
(For the record, I also like nice narrative stories with heroes and adventure and all the traditional elements of story, but short stories have a unique ability to skirt all that and still give you a good time)
Just throw out whatever anyone’s ever told you about short story structure and read this. The story is not where you think it should be.
Since I’m no computer scientist (and perhaps even if I was) I found myself having to let the words pour over me, for the most part, and search for the story where the author had cleverly hidden it. (Take a look. You’ll see what I mean).
Clever and artistic and unlike anything else I’ve read. I’m not saying I’d like EVERY short story to be like this, but it certainly was refreshing and kind of exciting to remember that short fiction can be … this!
The Reading Room is a series of short story reviews that are posted (usually on Tuesdays) in order to inspire you to read more short fiction in order to become better at writing it
Every word of that title is important, so go back and read it again.
Doesn’t that sound appealing?
The first time I came across Stuart Horwitz, I was struck by the way his writing instruction bridges the gap between Pantsers and Plotters, and how he provides actual processes and methods for getting from ‘wannabe writer’ to ‘someone who can polish and finish their work’.
His latest book comes out today and provides a powerful, user-friendly guide to getting work done, while LOVING what you do.
It takes you through the process of writing a book in three drafts and includes extras like PDFs and stop-motion animated videos that illustrate the lessons in the book. It’s really delightful and powerful stuff.
I had a chance to interview Stuart Horwitz about his books, his editing work and his own writing this week, and he had some great advice for us, as we work on short stories and perhaps move on to our longer, book-length projects.
Finish Your Novel In Three Drafts. Really?
JD: Why did you want to write this particular book? What problem are you trying to help writers solve?
SH: We only have a limited number of books in us — mostly because our time here is limited — and so it becomes a matter of figuring out what are the best books for us to work on, and how we can bring the most excitement to that work and then, how we can get through it, while we still have that energy and affection for it. (Like I say in the subtitle “while you still love it”.) And then move on to the next thing.
And I know this very well because, little-known fact: I trained as a mortician. I walked out of there knowing for a fact that I was going to die. We all are.
Before that time comes, how about we accomplish some shit, you know? That’s all I’m saying.
JD: So how do we do that?
SH: Having a ritual while you write is crucial. There are times when it’s not possible [to fit in everything from your ritual]. We have to recognize that its value doesn’t lie within the ritual itself, it lies in its ability to bring you to a joyful state. It helps us penetrate beyond appearances and figure out why we’re doing this…what we’re doing.
And every writer has to have a process. It doesn’t have to be my process. You can get some from me, four from this other person, and make up 2 of your own and there’s your process. But if you stick to it, it will help you on the less-excited days.
PANTSER OR PLOTTER?
JD: You take a very moderate approach to the whole ‘Write by the seat of your pants’ vs ‘Outline everything’ debate. You sound terribly reasonable.
SH: We like to call it The Middle Way in Buddhism.
There’s always a reason to bend the rule and there’s always a reason to practice discipline.
KNOW WHAT DRAFT YOU’RE IN
JD: The thing that helped me immensely, every time I read your books, is the concept of “Knowing What Draft You’re In”. Can you explain that a bit?
SH: The first draft is just getting it down – The Messy Draft. The second draft is the Method Draft which is about making it make sense. The Third Draft is the Polish Draft which is about making it good.
So, when you sit down to start, it’s all First Draft.
And when you do action steps to figure out what you’re actually working with and then take the best parts up a level, it becomes the Second Draft.
And then you go through your beta-reading process, bring in outside input, and use that to get to your third draft, which is your polish draft.
And I’m talking about a real draft. I’m not talking about tweaking. Like: these five scenes are all going in trash. And: I need scenes that aren’t here yet. Adding three commas? That’s not a draft. That’s just ornamentation. That’s chasing perfection.
The secret to the three drafts is that when, during the second draft, you uncover holes and start writing that scene, remember that new scene is in its first draft. If you stare at that new piece and say, “Why aren’t you as good as everything else already?” it’s going to be madness.
Keep in mind, every time you encounter new material it’s first draft.
JD: How do you know what to work on next, in revisions?
SH: There are action steps [in his books – JD] that you can take between drafts which will reveal to you what you are working on, more clearly.
Mapping the journey we’re on at the same time that we’re on it, gets kind of dizzying/confusing.
We need a separation between the viewer and the subject matter.
I’m a big fan of grids [Here, I refer you to Stuart’s books and his website because this is a big, meaty and really useful subject – JD]
JD: How can a short story writer avoid overwhelm at the thought of writing a novel?
SH: I like to break it down in to writing sessions. The question is “how many writing sessions does it take”? From my own experience: I have a short story that is probably one session away from nailed and that is Number 5.
So it’s the same concept. My second book, Book Architecture Method, took 60 writing sessions.
You show up to one of those 60 sessions, you necessarily have to reduce the scope of your expectations. What am I doing today? I’m not writing a novel today. I’m writing a part of a chapter in a draft today.
I’m going to take the rest of that junk out of my mind and I’m going to sit down and write, and I’m gonna write what I was thought I was writing, and I’m going to discover new stuff, and I’m going t write stuff that isn’t good, and I’m going write stuff that is good, and I’m going to keep going, and I’m going to get to the end of this session.
When I get to the end of the session, if I’ve made progress, that’s a win.
ON WRITING WITH CONFIDENCE
JD: It’s easy as writers to judge ourselves as having failed. You idea of grids and process and ritual take the emotion out of the revision process.
SH: Self judgement is a very complex phenomenon and has many many faces. There may be a reason why that never really goes away: a tension exists where our need to constantly slay that dragon helps us bring forth our best work, or brings us to our edge. But the nagging, griping voices in our heads are, for the most part, not contributing to the forward motion.
You have to believe in yourself first. That is probably the hardest thing about writing. It’s probably one of the harder things about living, so practice in one helps with the other.
JD: I stress finishing stories during StoryADay. Your books are all about helping writers finish books. Why do you think so many writers never finish their projects?
SH: There are a lot of reasons why people don’t finish. [Sometimes] there’s some pretty deep psychological stuff going on. Somewhere there was a message that was encoded that ‘you are not good enough’.
Then the people who didn’t get that message, and who actually suck a lot worse with you, are filling up the airwaves with what they did. And now we’re having to read ten books by them before we get one book by you.
The fact is if you have 10 people who are reading what you have to say you can write something great. you can even write something great if one person is listening to you.
This book is a fabulous introduction to Stuart Horwitz’s method for writing and revising works of any length, and I can’t recommend it enough. Pick up a copy today.
I approached this story with some trepidation, as I’m always wary of writers writing stories about writers. Or, in this case about aspiring writers.
But this was salted with enough wry humor to draw me in. Take the first lines:
First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age…
The author saves the character from an annoyingly sardonic tone by baldly relating what the teenaged writer can expect after slaving over her first story.
Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son Continue reading “[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore”
This week’s Reading Room is a little different: 10 (+1) books to add to your wish list. Enjoy!
Short Stories & Essays (To Learn The Craft)
I buy this every year and it has yet to disappoint. Curated by high school students and founded by Dave Eggars, this is a collection that is both quirky and keeps me feeling young!
Yes, everyone but British writers (someone idiosyncratically defined, if the reviews are to believed) are excluded from this 2-Volume collection. But I like a little focus in my anthologies, don’t you? (Side note: you might want to complement this with something from the Best American series. I couldn’t, in good conscience, link to their “Best Short Stories” edition because it is so resolutely ‘literary’ and I usually end up hating it, but YMMV. Their Mystery one looks interesting, and I wish they had more fiction genres to choose from.)
ENCOURAGEMENT TO EMBRACE CREATIVITY
This wonderful call to artistic arms was hugely influential in my decision to start StoryADay. Gentle and encouraging it definitely helps you if you’re struggling with the whole permission to write thing. If you think you NEED to be doing stuff for other people before REWARDING yourself with time to write, Ms. Ueland will set you straight….
I haven’t read this one yet, but … Elizabeth Gilbert! Have you seen her TED talk? And she’s fabulous fictioneer in her own right, so sign me up for a copy!
I really bought this to use with my kids, but it turns out it’s a Rescue Pack for adults who have forgotten how to play. There is nothing a writer needs more than to be an Explorer of the World and Keri Smith shows you tons of ways you can have fun out in the real world again, noticing all the little details that fiction requires.
Chuck Wendig at his trademark profane, hilarious, no-nonsense, encouraging best. Not to be missed.
PRODUCTIVITY AND THE WRITER
If you HAVE read “The War of Art” (above) and are sick of bloody Resistance and want to know WHY it’s kicking in and what to do about it…this is the book for you. I received a review copy from the author Mark McGuinness but liked it so much that I’ve bought it again three times to give away (you can enter for a chance to win a copy here). Seriously. Read it.
If I might be allowed a little self-promotion, this book has 60+ ways to break writers’ block and some REALLY nice reviews on Amazon (thanks, guys!)
What would you add to this list? Comment below!
I’m often wary of modern Irish and British stories because they tend to be grim. It’s not a style I enjoy and it’s not one I have much time for. So I tend to shy away from modern British and Irish stories altogether.
But it’s always good to read outside your comfort zone, so occasionally I give a new story in a genre I don’t love, a shot.
On Cosmology, by Roísín O’Donnell won the Hennesy/Irish Times prize for August 2015. In the story, a lecturer in astrophysics wonders about the ‘gooey, alien-like creature’ which may be growing inside her.
So yes, it does deal with sex and issues of pregnancy — and in less-than-ideal-circumstance. In Ireland, no less. Certainly sounds like the recipe for a grim, modern moan, doesn’t it?
This story, however escapes being grim.
I had to think hard about what O’Donnell had done right that kept me from hating her story. And I think it came down to this: I liked the main character. She was not thrilled about her situation but she was curious. That curiosity, which totally fitted with her profession as a scientist, trumped everything else. It felt real, as if she was a real character. It gave her an optimism that transcended her circumstance.
I like the narrator and the picture of her world that she paints. We, as writers, would be wise to give our characters a strong character trait that carries them through any situation they face. It can waver, it can bend, but in the end, they’ll be realistic characters if they are ultimately consistent.
So yes, I recommend it.This is a good one!
The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to contribute a review of a short story, read the guidelines here.
This is a charming story about good little rich girls being nice to a poor little (good) poverty-stricken boy. The message of the piece is hopelessly outdated (the privileged should be charitable to the deserving poor, who will appreciate it, no strings), but it’s a nice story.
(N.B. I’m by no means opposed to the well-off helping those who’re struggling. I’m just not sure it ever goes as smoothly as it does in this story, and I think…no, never mind. The point is, the way this story unfolds feels very dated. And it is. So, not a crippling criticism).
Anyhoo, the thing that really struck me while reading this, was
how often LM Montgomery did things that my critique group would NEVER let her away with, if she ran the story by them before submitting it to her publisher. And none of them killed the story for me. I still enjoyed it.
So: lesson learned. Write your own story. Listen to critique partners, but don’t worry too much> Opinions are like…well, you know how that goes, right?
Story found via: Short Story Thursdays. You should subscribe, if you don’t already.
This is a sad story, dealing with two parents’ grief over losing their child: it’s a dangerous read for any parent. Do not attempt if you are feeling fragile.
That said, it is a very well written tale that totally lives up to the remit of the anthology it is published in: stories that keep you saying “…and then what happened?”
This story is contemporary, realistic fiction that veers into magical realism in a way I thought really fitted with the enormity of the subject. There is also a lovely helping of arcane knowledge (in this case about weights and measures) that made me happy.
My only complaint is that, while I liked the ending, I felt it swooped in a little too quickly.
Found in – Stories: All-New TalesNeil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio
On first coming to the end of this taut little tale I was a bit disappointed: is that it? But then I realized that the last line was perfect and the story really was done and that was all there was to it.
This is an atmospheric and well-drawn tale of a boy in a 1938 English boarding school, being bullied and wondering if he’s found a way out. It will feel familiar to anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’s memoirs about growing up and attending a school like this…or any fiction set in English public schools (what they call fee-paying schools). Heck, it’ll feel familiar to anyone who has watched the Human Nature/Family Of Blood episodes of Doctor Who.
Nevertheless, it is a unique and engrossing short tale with a chill in its bones and an absolutely delicious last line.
Found in Stories: All-New Tales – Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio
A Mother’s Love is a chilling science fiction story that was selected for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines series in 2014.
The stories are supposed to “”have a strong emphasis on narrative”” and this one does. Here’s the opening:
“Child wanted something to do. Mother had left him in their room, because she had to fix a pipe. He had wanted to help; but she said no, she didn’t want him to get hurt. Child thought it was because he lacked sadness whenever she left…”
I love stories like this, where no-one really explains much and you have to figure it out from the clues in the story. And I had to keep reading when, in the second paragraph, I came across this line,
“Pulling at his wires, he began to move towards the jumbled mass of objects Mother had given him to play with.”
What had started out like a twisted domestic scene had taken a turn for the strange and intriguing. Note to self: breadcrumbs in stories are essential for turning it from ‘good’ to ‘un-put-down-able’.
This story is a lovely illustration of how to take one of those factual tidbits we often run across and turn them into a compelling and short story. It’s also written in the second person.
The author starts by writing about the Santorini eruption that wiped out the Minoan civilization 1600 years ago. He starts with an almost clinical, scientific description of what you would have seen if you had been standing on a beach on Crete at the time of the eruption. He quickly begins to introduce descriptive and poetic elements, along with people and relationships. Before long, the ‘you’ of the story has a family, and an urgent desire to fulfill.
What started out as a remote, impersonal “Imagine if” story has quickly become a heart-wrenching race to the finish that has the reader rooting for the unnamed protagonist and ends with a huge compelling message for us all.
Shivers up the spine!
This Selected Shorts episode features a great short interview with Jim Shepard who explains how his obsession with the Santorini eruption turned into this beautiful, moving story (and how it helped him in his everyday life!)
This story was an absolute delight: an agricultural historian is putting off getting-down-to-work on his publication with one last research trip. Feeling restless with his usual accommodations, he tries a recommended ‘bed & breakfast’ for a change….and he gets it!
I like humor and I like twists (and I love The Twilight Zone), so I loved this story. It starts with a slow burn, but the details are so delightful that you can’t resist reading on to find out what this pompous little man and his odd new hosts get up to. I get the impression the author had some fun researching obscure agricultural equipment and skewering the academic propensity to obsess over minutiae, but he does both with a relatively light hand. It’s funny but not labored, and beneath it all the mystery ticks on.
The climax is surprising and then, once you’re in on the secret, the author lets you see the ending coming; lets you unwrap it along with him as it happens. Really, really satisfying. And a little bit evil. 🙂
1, I’ve never read any Hemingway before.
2, I was kind of surprised to find this in collection of short stories. I had always assumed it was a novel.
Having found it however, and having been told by someone I respect that it was the worst thing he’d ever read, I HAD to give it a try.
My first impressions were that I was going to hate this. It was boring. Nothing happened. The dialogue was silted and the relationship between the old man and the boy was faintly disturbing (probably because of everything that’s been in the news recently). I didn’t care about either of them.
I Almost Gave Up
But then the old man got out on the sea and I thought, well, this is faintly interesting; I know nothing about fishing so I’ll just keep reading for a while and see what I learn.
And then, by the time the old man has chased the first school of fish (and failed) and then he sees a second school, I realized that I was rooting for him: I wanted him to succeed and I would have to keep reading to find out whether or not he did.
Reader-Hat, Writer Hat
And that, I realized, was because I had finally I started to learn some things about the old man himself. I learned them when Hemingway shared the old man’s thoughts and perceptions of himself.
From a reader’s perspective I had started to see this old man as wiry and humble and driven and, as such, intriguing.
From a writer’s perspective, I noticed that when the character had thoughts or analysed himself, or talked to himself, I learned as much from the subtext as I did from his thoughts. This is one of those “let the character say one thing and demonstrate another” lessons. It was enough to intrigue me.
Why not try writing a short story that focuses on character?
Use one of these writing prompts
And then I saw what Hemingway had done with that ‘boring’ introduction: before the old man even sets out I know that the old man is hanging on to life by a thread, that he hasn’t caught a fish for 84 days, that anyone else would have give up by now, that he is determined to succeed (will he?) and that both he and the boy want to work together again. So I had a hint about his character and I understood what was at stake. B the time he starts to fish in earnest, because I’ve come to admire the old man, I care.
(But it strikes me that readers in the 1950s must have been more patient than we are today. Or maybe he was just writing for a more literary audience and you could still get away with this if you are writing for the same audience. But most of the writing advice I read stresses the importance of making the reader care about the character straight away, like in the first paragraph. Article upon article says it’s ‘wrong’ to start with dialogue because “Who cares?”; that we mustn’t start with the weather or the landscape, because “who cares?” Maybe that’s one of those ‘writing rules’ that we can stop worrying about so much. It depends on what genre you’re writing in of course, but if it’s holding you up from writing the rest of your story, just remember the opening doesn’t have to be perfect…ever, apparently, as long as the rest of your story works.)
On, On Through The Night
So, just as the old man fishes through the night, I read on. And I started to really care. And, then I started to despair with him. And then came the ending, which wasn’t pat or tied up with a ribbon but still managed to satisfy. I have read so many modern stories that try to ape this ‘no neat endings’ thing, but instead leave the reader unsatisfied. “The Old Man And The Sea” does not peter out. It does not end neatly. It feels like real life and we don’t know what happens next, but it does have a satisfying ending.
And I can see why this story is a bit of a masterpiece.
What a pleasant surprise.