Author James Scott Bell, as well as being a successful lawyer, novelist and writing coach, has been a good friend to StoryADay (giving us both an interview and a writing prompt for last year’s StoryADay May).
So of course, I wanted to like his new story, which veers from his usual style. No mysteries here, no fast-paced action, just the story of a guy dealing with the legacy of something in his past that he’s not proud of.
Writing (and publishing) this story was a big leap for Bell (as he explained when he announced it). he was nervous. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever written before and he was worried that he might fall flat on his face.
Don’t you feel like that, a lot of the time when you sit down to write? I know I do.
So I went into this story wanting to like it. but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what do I care about a middle-aged, middle-class divorced father on a playdate with his son?
Well, Bell quickly made me care. He does it by using all the craft available to him. Within the first paragraph I’ve learned a lot about the guy, his divorce, the ex-wife. Look how much information he packs into sentences 3 & $ of the story — and not just information, but attitude, character background, exposition, the whole shebang:
“Judy and I reached an amicable settlement on custody, mainly because I didn’t want to fight her anymore. Her family is well off and were not shy about retaining the biggest shark tank in L. A.”
The story is about more than just a bitter divorcé, though. Rather it is about a father reliving something that happened when he was a kid, a little older than his son.
One of the things I noticed about this story (and all of Bell’s writing) is the strength of the narrator’s voice when he’s writing in first person. It is always dipping with character, attitude and is firmly rooted in wherever the character is from (usually L. A.). In this story, even when he takes the character back in time to his teenage years, the voice is distinctive and unmistakably the voice of a teen,
“That’s what got him in bad with Robbie Winkleblack…”
“I ran away, too, but I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking it was all over for me now. I’d be kicked out of school, maybe thrown into juvie.”
How can you make readers care about your characters whether or not they think they are going to?
This is an extraordinary story, and the one that sky-rocketed Guy de Maupassant to literary stardom. I can see why.
Unlike many stories written in the later 19th Century I found this one immensely accessible. The language was vivid yet not convoluted (perhaps because it has been tranlated from the original French?) and the characters intense and vivid.
It is set during the Franco-Prussian war (and if you don’t know much European history, the lively description of the occupation of French towns by the German armies in the 1800s does a lot to set the stage for what happened during the two world wars at the start of the 20th century).
The story has a longer set-up than modern stories tend to. The author spends a lot of time setting the scene before what we would call ‘the inciting incident’ that gets the story underway, but somehow it doesn’t drag. It is fascinating and descriptive and energetic and I couldn’t stop reading, even though I had no idea yet who the main characters were going to be or what the story was ‘about’.
When things do get rolling (literally) we embark on a long carriage ride with an unlikely group of companions who are thrown together by their desire to escape their occupied town and their wealth, which gives them the means to do so. Wealth, of course, is no indicator of social class and de Maupassant populates the carriage with a fascinating bunch of characters. Yes, they are largely stereotypes (much as the characters in Dickens often are) but they each have enough color to make it seem possible they might actually be real.
The story crests along with false starts and it teases us that things are going to turn out one way until we reach a point of no return. Now all that scene-setting and character-building de Mauppassant has been doing finally pays off as the story slides to its inevitable conclusion. The masterful part is that, like someone watching a mudslide or avalanche engulf a pretty mountain village, the reader can’t help but root for a miraculous change of course.
This is a story that, as well as being enjoyable and stuffed with great language, is firmly rooted in short story history.
Dr. Heidegger invites five old reprobates to his study for an experiment (as apparently all men of learning did from time to time if Hawthorne and H. G. Wells and all the rest are to be believed). Of course, it turns out that the guests are the subjects of the experiment and, of course, it doesn’t go well.
As I was reading it I was aware that the style is so far from our modern style of writing and talking as to be almost as foreign as Shakespeare (in fact, it probably will be in a couple of generations). It’s not quite as dense as Dickens, not quite as antiquated as Washington Irving, but has that strong third-person narrator that not so many writers use any more (with apologies to Terry Pratchett, who lets the narrator visit from time to time).
It wasn’t just influenced by the past, though. I could clearly see how this story (and others like it) had influenced another generation of writers: the early science fiction and fantasy writers; the people who wrote for The Twilight Zone and other early TV shows. There’s a strong dose of the mysterious, the tricksy, the twisty ending (though this one doesn’t twist so much). I could clearly imagine this, updated and dusted off, in a Twilight Zone episode.
In fact, it occurred to me that this would make a perfect story to use in the CopyCat Workshop component of the StoryADay Warm Up Writing course. If you already have your copy, why not dig out that workshop and give it a try today?
“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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
…Reading these short stories has made me realize that it’s a place I can go, a place I should go in my own fiction. …
Today I’m posting an interview with Jami, who blogs about her adventures reading a story a day in 2012 at Worth The Effort.
You’ll be seeing some of her posts here over the next few months, in the regular Tuesday Reading Room series. I highly recommend you visit/bookmark/subscribe to her blog. It’s a great resource and a fascinating look at the benefits of immersing yourself in the literature while continuing to write.
1. Why did you decide to read a story a day?
I wanted a goal, a realistic goal. Last year I committed myself to reading a novel a week but by year’s end I’d only read 41 novels [“only”?! – Ed.]. So, I wanted to do something different and my brother, who is a fantastic writer of short stories actually, encouraged me to read more short stories. Then it occurred to me that I really hadn’t balanced my reading and that shorter fiction would be a good change for me. That’s how it happened. I decided to set a goal, a short story a day for the entire year, blogging short reviews along the way.
2. How many have you read so far?
I’ve read 102 stories at this point as I’ve managed to keep up with my goal. I’ve read a short story a day for the entire year thus far.
3. Are you discovering a style you love?
Not really, or at least not as it relates to style. I do find that stories rich in tiny and interesting details keep my attention and make me want to read more. Other than that, I’m reading almost exclusively what might be categorized as literary fiction. Though I have a science fiction week planned for the month of June so we’ll see how my answer might change after that.
4. Are you trying to read outside that style anyway?
Yes, I’m always looking for new styles. Sometimes, the story I’m reading is heavy in dialogue. Other times, there is little to no dialogue but plenty of voice in the first person narrative. I like them all so long as the story itself is worth the read.
5. What patterns are emerging, as you read?
I’ve come across a lot of stories that deal with family and I find that interesting, particularly because in my own writing I’ve always shied away from those types of stories. Reading these short stories has made me realize that it’s a place I can go, a place I should go in my own fiction. And, it helps that the authors I’m reading do this very well. Judy Troy is a good example of this type of writer. I could read her stories as long as she writes them. She doesn’t bore me and I never find her writing flat. There are some though in this first 100 days that I was disappointed in and those stories consistently failed to draw me in from the start. A beginning is crucial.
6. Would you recommend other people try this? Why?
Absolutely. Reading a short story by a particular author is like getting to taste test a dish at a fine dining restaurant. Why spend the money on a pricey entree if the appetizer isn’t worth the cash you drop on it. A short story is a good foray into any writer’s longer fiction. Besides, short stories are easy to digest in quick bursts. A reader can make decisions for future reading based on these short stories. For me, that is a huge bonus.
7. What are your plans for the future?
I plan on continuing with reading a short story a day for the year 2012. I also plan to continue writing fiction daily, focusing my attention on developing and staying true to my own voice even if I am reading a different one every day. There’s also novel length fiction and I’m still reading my fair share of that as well. That won’t stop. I still plan on hitting around 25 novels this year. That’s the plan at least.
Check back in next Tuesday to read her first guest-post in the Reading Room.
Are you reading enough? Do you read short stories? Are you reading them more as you prepare for StoryADay May?
This story comes from the June 2012 edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. It features an unnamed protagnoist who is also the hero of a forthcoming book by the same author, Mike Cooper.
This story starts strong, with a clear sense of place and time, not to mention a few hints as to the type of story (and protagonist) we’re dealing with.
“Now, the subway station that was sharp thinking. A decade after 9/11 the MTA still hadn’t installed its fancy new cameras. So unlike any other crowded public space in Manhattan, the Fulton Street C Line platform was free of electronic surveillance. It was a nice solution for a total-deniability-type meet-up.”
Just a few lines in and we know this is set in the modern day, that the protagonist doesn’t have a lot of respect for bureaucrats, and that his dealings are likely quite shady.
I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking: hit-man. Right?
A few sentences later when our hero’s client says, “I need an audit done,” the reader is (a-hem) arrested by the unusual choice of word but assumes the client is just being colorful.
It turns out (slight spoiler alert) that our hero is a kind of tough-guy forensic CPA-for-hire, It is, as the hero notes, “a small niche, though a necessary one.” And I can totally see why some publisher looked at this idea, blinked twice and read on. It’s not an idea you hear too often and you almost have to read on to see how he’s going to make this work.
And Cooper makes it work by sticking with the traditional hardboiled detective style. He sets his hero up as a tough-guy with a dangerous past, not afraid to use his fists (in accountancy? Oh yeah!) and repeatedly uses military imagery to back up his protagonist’s view of himself:
“Sometimes you need someone packing a P226, not an HP12c, if you know what I mean” (which of course, most of us don’t.)
“If you capture a terrorist…you don’t read him his rights and call Legal Aid.”
“Okay, Waterboard Spin Metal’s CFO. Got it.”
“If I had a logo it might be a green eyeshade crossed by a nine mil. But I don’t.”
“A little recon first seemed like a good idea.”
The way the character talks to himself, sees himself, reinforces everything we’ve been shown about him. This is one hard man and he never lapses into soft metaphors or overt sympathy for anyone. He is cynical, even when the author is inviting us to be sympathetic to the other characters. The protagonist shows us people and events through his own skeptical filter, the author manipulates us to see them through our own.
It’s skillfully done.
I didn’t love this story because it’s not really my style. But I do bow the the author’s ability to make me even sort of care about the inner financial dealings of a corporate take over. Sort of.
And I do think this was an excellent piece of characterization.
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.
(That translates to about 250 words)
Pretty much anything goes, as long as it’s not completely devoid of merit (in the Editor’s opinion). The Editor’s decision is final.
The copyright for anything you submit is wholly yours. You own it. This site just displays your work.
– from Postcardshorts.com
This is not a paying market but it is bite-sized and very tempting.
If you saw the comments on last week’s post 6 Reasons You’ll Never Be A Writer, you’ll know that one reasons touched a nerve with a lot of people:
#6: You’re Too Nice
Commenter Michelle Kobayashi captured the mood when she said:
“My first 17 chapters were very nice. There was little conflict and the characters worked out their issues reasonably.
“Then I learned about inciting incidents and the need for conflict. That’s when the fun began. One character in particular is so rude I cringe when I reread her scenes. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Embrace your inner sadist indeed!”
(Thanks to Donald Maass for the catchy slogan at the end there!)
Seems like this is something ia lot of us need practise with. So,
Write a scene featuring a truly loathsome (but believable) character. They don’t have to be a Disney Villain. It could be that really annoying person at work who has no redeeming qualities that you can find, no matter how hard you try.
Dig deep. Remember how annoying, frustrating, irritating your least favorite person in the world is. Pair them up with your favorite hero-type and give them a scene.
Then let your hero say all the things you’ve rehearsed in your head but would never say, because you’re just, well, too nice.
Let it all out. Make us (and yourself) cringe.
- You should use the prompt in some way in your story (however tenuous the connection)
- You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
- Post your scene in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
- Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!
Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook
Some tweets/updates you might use:
Embracing My Inner Sadist: http://bit.ly/ehx03t #WriteOnWed #storyaday
I never knew I could be so mean! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://bit.ly/ehx03t
This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “Embrace Your Inner Sadist″: http://bit.ly/ehx03t
Come and write with us today: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday
See my story – and write your own: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday
If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.