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”
To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.
So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.
Of course, being me, I’m going to recommend you incorporate short stories into your writing practice, but you can use these ideas even when you’re working on a scene in a longer work.
I’m going to show you how you can stay excited about your writing practice by:
- Understanding the purpose of your story and how it affects the final form,
- Experimenting with new formats and new ideas,
- Focusing on your audience (but not too much)
I’m also going to give you one foolproof way to make sure you finish your stories, every time.
And then I’m going to invite you to make a very specific commitment to your writing this year—if it seems right for you—one with built-in accountability and support.
Take A Break
If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.
(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)
Just look at this opening:
Li Hao-Chang, standing in front of a colorful array of fresh-caught fish, bargains with a Cantonese peasant over the price of yellow-tailed snapper. Where the Wharf tapers out, and the harbor is too shallow for the larger trawlers, the fish market thrives over a patch of old concrete and dirt.
The peasant finally offers enough yuan to satisfy Li.
“Xie xie,” Li thanks the peasant, wrapping the fish up in old newspaper. The edge of the newspaper catches Li’s eye.
“Signals From Outer Space,” it reads.
Li doesn’t much care. All men can be awed by discovery, for Li there is selling fish. He has to make enough to pay rent, to eat, and to save. If he doesn’t sell enough fish for rent, the local thugs come over to beat him up. If he doesn’t make enough to eat, his wife goes hungry, and if he can’t save, he’ll never be able to leave Macau and the smell of fish that seems to taint his life.
In a few paragraphs we know SO much:
- “Li Hao-Chang” – we’re probably in an Asian culture
- “fresh-caught fish” – we’re not in an age of scarcity
- “bargains” – Li is poor? Maybe he just knows the value of a bargain. He’s likely not carelessly wealthy – or at least hasn’t been throughout his life
- “Cantonese” – Li is likely of a different ethnicity, otherwise why mention it?
- “peasant” – economic difference, agrarian strata exists. Li is probably city-based since he doesn’t count himself as a ‘peasant’
- “yellow-tailed snapper” – nice detail, makes it seem more real. They are haggling over a particular fish. They know their fish. This is not a casual interaction.
- “Where the wharf…dirt” – this doesn’t TELL me where the story is set. It paints a vivid picture of the setting in my mind, after we’ve met the main character
- “yuan” – OK, we’re definitely in a China close enough to modern times that they still use the same money we do (in a Science Fiction magazine, this kind of signpost is important)
- “satisfy Li” – A hint that the character has wants/needs/desires. He needs money/wants respect
- “Signals from Outer Space” – Aha! So this is why this story is in a Sci Fi mag!
- “Li doesn’t care much” – getting into character development. Five short paragraphs in, and we already know a lot about him.
- “All men…for Li…” – hints about what makes Li unique (worthy of reading a story about him)
- “He has to make enough…” – what he MUST do
- “and save” – what he WANTS to do
- “If he doesn’t sell … taint his life.” – Brilliant! He SEEMS immune to the wonder of the signals from outer space because he apparently only cares about fish. Now we discover he hates the fish and what he does. Also we learn exactly where he lives.
And the rest of the story delivers on these promises and much more.
I highly recommend doing a close-analysis reading of this story. It’s a master work. Don’t let the ‘sci-fi’ genre tag put you off, even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘sci-fi’ reader. This story has more than enough character, heart and skill to satisfy anyone.
Described as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett is definitely both of those things.
I listened to this story as part of a Selected Shorts podcast. It was read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who I knew as Captain Montgomery from Castle . He turns out to be a wonderful storyteller who gets out of the way of the story and is blessed with a voice I could listen to for days).
It’s described in the show notes as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story and it is definitely both of those things.
The story starts with an affluent college graduate who seems like a bit of a wastrel, spending his time living off inherited money, reading and playing jazz with ‘the old guys’ at some dive bar.
The story’s trucking along just fine until one night Daniel is playing at the bar and some college frat boys come in and request that the band “Play Dixie for us”. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett”
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”
Detours Sometimes Lead to Conflict
How often do our travels – or our lives, for that matter – go exactly as planned? The detours often lead to conflict, and conflict drives drama. Conflict provides the impetus for action and the catalyst for your characters to change. Conflict keeps things interesting – if it doesn’t get everyone killed! Don’t leave your reader wondering, “Are we there, yet? When are we gonna get there?” Road trips are meant to be fun, interesting, enlightening experiences for the whole family. All too often, we get lulled into complacency, boredom, and “white line fever.” Roadside attractions provide opportunities to stray from the planned path – and opportunities for it all to go terribly, shockingly, or hilariously wrong.
Your character is taking a road trip cross country with two people who are not family or close friends. Something goes horribly wrong at the World’s Largest Cockroach and Frozen Custard Stand (or other odd or humorously cheesy roadside attraction) located in the middle of nowhere.
Ideas to Explore:
- Who are these characters and why are they traveling across the country together? Was it by choice? Will they be closer by the end of the trip – friends for life, perhaps – or will one or more of them (barely) live to regret it?
- Now’s your chance to camp it up – you can use an actual roadside attraction (the more ridiculous, the better!) or invent one. Don’t just describe it, though – make us feel like we’re there.
- What could possibly go wrong? Here’s your opportunity to add over-the-top drama, nail-biting action, or hilarious comic relief. Can you work in all three?
- Create 5-10 brief character sketches on scraps of paper. Fold them up, drop them into a Mason jar, and pull out three of them. Throw them into the car together and see where it leads.
- Build your own roadside attraction. Make us feel like we’re there. If it really existed, would we want to visit it – or would we pray we didn’t have a flat tire within 30 miles of it?
- Use descriptive language that appeals to all five of the reader’s senses.
- Add additional characters who are not in the car with your main characters. Throw in an animal, maybe a pet. Maybe it’s part of the attraction.
- How do your characters solve their problems? What does that reveal about them that we didn’t know before?
Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.
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.
What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story just like this…
The Goat Variations, by Jeff Vandermeer, plays with reality and alternate realities, in the best traditions of ‘what if’ speculative fiction.
It starts with a scene that most people who were sentient in Sept 2011 (or shortly thereafter) will recognize, but then things get weird.
Slowly you start to realize that things are not as they should be and your brain starts running quickly to catch up. Then things get REALLY weird…
This was not an easy read. It was mind-bending in a deliciously difficult way.
What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story like this. Perhaps it’s more that we should be willing to be idiosyncratic, like VanderMeer. Or perhaps it’s that a good idea is worth working, and reworking until we’re telling it in the way that it needs to be told.
Perhaps it’s that you can’t worry about taking a topic as fraught with baggage as 9/11 and telling our own story in our own way, about difficult topics.
Most of all, we can’t be afraid of other people disapproving of the things we write — or the way we write them.
(Small nit-pick: the website that I’m linking to here inaccurately casts the main character as “George Herbert Walker Bush” when in fact it is George W. Bush.)
But the story? The story is great!
The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to submit a review for the Reading Room, see the guidelines here.
Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything!
Charlotte Rains Dixon is a writer who has made the jump from non-fiction to fiction with her new series of mysteries, the Emma Jean books (the first is available now). Her short stories have been published in The Trunk, Santa Fe Writer’s Project, Nameless Grace, and Somerset Studios. Check out her blog for writing tips and inspiration that are very much in tune with the ethos here at StoryADay.
Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything! Doesn’t matter if it is illegal, immoral, or illicit. Explore what that thing is, why she wants it, and perhaps most importantly, what the consequences of getting that thing might be.
(Remember, all prompts are optional and you certainly don’t have to do two stories, or combine the prompts, on days when there’s a celebrity guest.)
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’.