[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris

Normally my Tuesday Reading Room posts review a short story I’ve read, but I’m breaking with tradition this week to tell you about a fabulous — and much needed — new book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, by Windy Lynn Harris, a writer and the founder of Marketing Coach for Creative Writers.

A Handbook For Today’s Writer

Windy Lynn Harris knows the industry and she knows the craft of short fiction and essay-writing. She breaks it all down for you, and this book gives you confidence to enter today’s writing market. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris”

[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain

I failed utterly to see the ending coming…

Oh, this one made me laugh.

Not just for the unexpected ending, but for the constant, very modern thoughts that crowded my head as I was reading it.

Basically, this is the story of a ruthless old king who, not having any sons, has his daughter raised as a boy, then sends her to assume his brother’s throne (after the ruthless old king has ruined the good name of his brother’s only heir).

It’s a knotty, Shakespearean set up and I was so consumed with thoughts of the delightful ways a modern writer could treat the topic, that I failed utterly to see the ending coming. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain”

[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

This story is definitely not bound by the rules of “rising action”, or “character arcs”…

Often, when I talk about how to write a short story, I get caught up in talking about traditional, narrative tales that might be structured in a similar way to a novel.

But one of the things I love about short fiction is its ability to transcend that and be so much more (or less-but-more, perhaps).

This story, A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf, is a lovely example of that. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf”

[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Last week I talked about reading and writing stories with divided storylines that come together at the end.

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.

Shaking Things Up

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez

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”

043 – Regretful Writing Prompt plus a review of “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

And here are some articles to help you as you think about revising your first draft.

 

Podcast length: 11:15mins. Music by Alan McPike (www.standardstrax.com)

Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”

[Reading Room] The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale by John Chu

Oh, this was fantastic: experimental science fiction by John Chu

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!

Read it here
Have it read to you

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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

Finish Your Book In Three Drafts — An Interview With Stuart Horwitz

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Finish Your Novel In Three Drafts: How To Write A Book, Revise A Book, and Complete A Book While You Still Love 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?

Stuart Horwitz HeadshotSH: 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.

Time’s ticking.

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]

AVOIDING OVERWHELM

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.

ON FINISHING

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.

———————————————————

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Finish Your Novel In Three Drafts: How To Write A Book, Revise A Book, and Complete A Book While You Still Love It

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.

[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore

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”

10 Books Short Story Writers Should Have On Their Wish Lists

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.)


There’s nothing quite like reading the well-crafted words of Smart People on Important Issues to inspire you to get back to writing. Lots of essays in here from diverse voices.

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 haven’t discovered this book yet, it’s well worth a read. It talks about resistance and why we need to break through it.


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!

[Reading Room] On Cosmology by Roísín O’Donnell

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!

Read the story online here.

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.

[Reading Room] Bertie’s New Year by L. M. Montgomery

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.

 

Read the story online here.

[Reading Room] Weights & Measures by Jodi Picoult

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