[Write On Wednesday] Multiple Choice

In honor of all the kids I know who will be spending this morning filling in bubbles on test papers, let’s use the weirdness of the short story form to try something a little different today.

Standardized Test Close-Up

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a multiple-choice test

Tips

  • It seems to me this would be perfect for a break-up letter. One person could provide questions about the relationship or the break-up, with multiple answers for the recipient (and the reader) to choose from.
  • I’m thinking about writing a murder mystery in this format.
  • A horror story could also be fun
  • You could parody the form. You remember? One answer is always ridiculously wrong, one is right, one could be right and the other one is wrong, but not-as-obviously.
  • Or you could ignore that, and just write amusing/terrifying answers.

I’m not going to write any more tips because I just came up with this prompt and I’m really, really curious to see what you you do with it!

If you share you story somewhere (and here’s why you might not want to) post a link here so we can come and read it.

Leave a comment to let us know what you wrote about today, and how it went!

[Reading Room] Natural Light by Kathleen Alcott

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is BASS2019tn.png

This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

This story was dense and literary with a slow-build to a quiet conclusion. It was not to my usual taste at all. I didn’t much care for the protagonist. It had several elements that usually make me roll my eyes. And yet when I got to the end of this story, I immediately wanted to read it again. 

The language slowed me down, but not in a way that annoyed me. The exact meaning was often opaque, but through repetition, the author showed me how to read it and understand it. It was an odd experience, and I really liked it.

The Opening

I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph—or rather, what was being done to her—just that when I saw it for the first time, in a museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead for five years.

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

Well. Isn’t that intriguing? We don’t know anything about the characters before this opening line, but all of a sudden we know quite a lot. 

  • We have the voice of the narrator, clear in our heads. 
  • We know their mother has been dead for a while.
  • We know the mother had some kind of secret life.

In a story that keeps coming back to questions of truth and trust, this is a great opening on that level alone.

But this opening also creates suspense and tension, and raises questions to keep us from flicking on to the next story in the collection, or pulling out our phones and browsing social media.

  • Why didn’t the narrator know about this picture?
  • What was the mother doing (or having done to her)? (We will find out, if we read the story carefully)
  • Why is this unknown picture hanging in a museum.
  • What kind of relationship did the protagonist have with her mother (and how will it mirror or differ from our own)?

Was it enough to keep me reading? Absolutely!

Before the end of the first page the author mentions email, to ground us in a time and place (here and now), and we know what kind of work the protagonist does (“when an acquaintance or the administrator at the college where I teach saw my eyes on my phone…”) so we can make some assumptions about her and where she fits in her society. 

I’m grounded in the story and intrigued enough to turn the page.

The Plot Thickens

The story begins with to the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, and explores that for a while, before broadening out and reviewing her relationships with other significant people in her life (mostly her husband and her father), as well as the events leading up to and surrounding her discovery of her mother’s picture in the museum. 

This discovery is what I call the fulcrum of the story, the moment around which everything in this character’s life revolves (for the duration of the story, at least). It allows us to explore her past and present, and speculate on her future, but none of this would have happened without the discovery of the picture. 

The early parts of the story also explore her relationship with the world—and her recurring thoughts about how she might leave it.

The author also begins to seed the story with the narrator’s thoughts on suicide, in a really interesting way. It’s undramatic. The potential methods simply pop up, the way they might in her mind, triggered by something she’s telling us about. At first I didn’t know what these sentences mean but, with repetition, I began to understand what she was really saying.

The End

The story keeps circling back the to the question of the photograph of her mother. 

When the writer doesn’t get the answers she needs from other sources, she goes to the one person who might be able to help: her father. It’s already been established that her parents weren’t big on transparency, so of course, her father’s first reaction is one of obfuscation.

But, suddenly, there is a moment when her father acts uncharacteristically. The reader can feel something coming: 

  • Will it be a moment of honesty? 
  • Will it have an impact on our narrator and the trajectory of her life? 
  • Will it be life-changing?

The author doesn’t, in my opinion, tie this up in a bow for us, but she does give us more than enough information for us to reach our own conclusions. 

It’s a very satisfying ending.

Writer’s Notes

The prose is dense and literary, in a way that often annoys me, but in this story it manages not to. Perhaps it’s because the author intersperses dense, literary rumination with straightforward, stark lines.

Look at how different the first sentence is from the second.

It is true that there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup, really be capable of suicide?

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

I came to see that the dense, convoluted language was a necessary part of the story, with all it’s tricky examination of truth and trust. Can we really trust a narrator who says that her husband:

…began not to trust me on issues I saw as unrelated: what a neighbor had said about a vine that grew up our shared fence, a letter from the electric company that I claimed to have left on his desk.”

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

That “claimed” makes me question everything she’s just said, too.

On Training The Reader

Novelists often say they approach the middle of each new novel with dread because, although they’ve written novels before, they’ve never written this novel before, and every book teaches you how to write it.

I suspect that short stories, being the weird and varied form that hey are, have a similar opportunity. But in this case, you get to teach the reader how to read the story. 

Short story readers enjoy this challenge, this puzzle. After all, unless you pick up a short story collection that promises to be a collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies, the reader never really knows what they’re getting. Even a collection of ‘mystery stories’ or ‘science fiction stories’ can contain everything from a story composed entirely of tweets, to a traditional narrative story, to a story told in reverse; the tones and subject-matters will be all over the place, along with the style of telling.

In this story, Kathleen Alcott trains us to understand what’s going on when her paragraph suddenly end with a location, an object and a person who needs to be warned what they are about to encounter. It’s subtle. She doesn’t explain it. But the repetition invites the reader to puzzle out the connections. 

(It’s not a happy topic or one I recommend writing about, but it was very well done, in this story!)

She also trains us to start looking for examples of truth and mistrust, so that when the moment approaches that her father is going to tell her something true, we can feel it coming, in the way his behavior changes. 

Discussion

Are you using things like ‘email’ and the reactions of other people in the narrator’s life, to ground the reader in the story in the first few lines?

What elements are you worried your reader might miss? How might you train them to see what you want them to see?

Leave a comment!

The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

[Reading Room] The Era by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

The Opening

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know sh*t.”


I’m used to not knowing what’s going on at the start of a story. I expect it.

But this story slid under my skin with that weird ‘mostly true’, quickly followed by the kid unexpectedly explaining himself to the victim of his insult.

Something about it seemed off, but it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to figure it out. It hinted to me that we were in the ‘not-now’.

It’s important to orient the reader in the first few lines (something I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal), with the ‘who’, the ‘where’ and the ‘genre’. I’m fairly sure this is goign to be a story featuring kids, and it’s not going to be realistic contemporary fiction.

For the first story in a collection of literary short stories (which can be, for my taste, a little relentlessly contemporary and realistic) this was a very promising start.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Era by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah”

Now What?


Revision Mess

StoryADay September is over, and now, a week into October, you might be missing the thrill of high-velocity creativity. 

But this is the perfect time to look through your stories and figure out:

  • which ones are perfect (ha!),
  • which were useful exercises that will forever be consigned to a dark corner of your hard drive, and
  • which might be worth revising.

Don’t Love Revision?

I know, I know! 

  • Turning out new stories, racking up the word count, feels productive. Revisions can feel like, ugh…spinning your wheels.
  • Writing first drafts is kind of exhausting, and revision feels like preparing to climb the same mountain twice.
  • Writing new words, when you’re in the flow, feels like flying. Revision can feel like staring at a report of ‘why my writing sucks!’

If any of these treacherous thoughts are keeping you from making your stories the best they can be, delighting and impressing readers, and learning to be more productive in your writing practice, you’ll want to grab the  free StoryADay workbook: 

seven, concise pages of tips and mindset tricks to help you learn to, well, love revision. And it’s yours free, right now!

And when you’ve read it I’d love to know what questions you still have. Have you been in critique groups before? What worked and what didn’t? Are you terrified by the idea? (You’re not alone!)

Just reply leave a comment below and tell me what you’re thinking.

2019 Day 30 – Roll Call

This it! The end of StoryADay 2019! You are an absolutely rockstar for being here today!

Do me a favor? Leave a comments below, and answer these two questions:

  1. How many stories did you write
  2. Did you meet your goal (or get close enough to feel proud of yourself)?

But don’t forget to write today’s story.

The Prompt

About A Writer

Normally I don’t encourage stories about writers because it seems kind of cheap (and uninteresting for the readers), but today I think you’ve earned it.

  • Use this prompt to write a story about a writer like yourself who has just undergone a big challenge.
  • Or satirize the idea of writing about a writer.
  • Or use it any other way that occurs to you. (And hey, it worked for Stephen King, so who am I to question it?)

Use all the tricks you’ve been practicing this month to show us what a day in the life of a writer can be.

Planning Ahead

You’ve achieved so much this month. I’m so proud of you.

To keep the momentum going, mark your calendars for these StoryADay events throughout the year.

  • Serious Writer’s Accountability Group (SWAGr) – 1st of every month (sign up for reminders here)
  • Critique Week, October 20-17 – A chance to get your story reviewed by your peers and by me (more details coming soon)
  • NaNoWriMo Support Group – for members of the Superstars group only.
  • Critique Week, February 22-29 – A chance to get your story reviewed by your peers and by me (more details coming soon)
  • And much more, including weekly writing prompts on Wednesdays, posts in The Reading Room, podcasts, interviews, and workshops.
  • Use the StoryADay Events calendar to stay up to date

Go!

Don’t forget to leave a comment saying how many stories you wrote this month, and how you feel about it! Then come back tomorrow to record your June goals in the SWAGr post.

2019 Day 29 – The One

How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?

Remember, set your own rules, and stick to them. If you miss a day, don’t try to catch up. Just keep moving forward!

The Prompt

Write The Story You’ve Been Waiting To Write

I’ve been making you jump through hoops all month, but there has to be one story that has been nagging at you, patiently waiting its turn.

Today is that day.

Take everything you’ve learned this month, about

Use your favorite discoveries from this month, to set your story free today.

Go!

What did you write about today? Did you use any of the lessons from this month? Leave a comment.

2019 Day 28 – Closing Line

How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?

Remember, set your own rules, and stick to them. If you miss a day, don’t try to catch up. Just keep moving forward!

The Prompt

ENDING LINE: As the sun went down that night, I knew it would rise, tomorrow, on a very different world.

Think about this line and what kind of mood you would like it to convey. What kind of mood do you want your story to take today?

Sometimes our stories can veer off track: we feel like writing a funny story and suddenly we’re crying over our keyboards; or we want to write Gothic Horror and somehow end up with Clueless.

Starting with the end in mind, can help with that.

(Feel free to change the syntax and pronoun in this, to fit your story.)

Go!

So how’s it going this week? Are you tired or have you caught your second wind?

2019 Day 27 – Opening Line

How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?

Remember, set your own rules, and stick to them. If you miss a day, don’t try to catch up. Just keep moving forward!

The Prompt

OPENING LINE: NEVER TELL ANYONE YOUR REAL NAME

Start your story with that line today.

Go!

So how’s it going this week? Are you tired or have you caught your second wind?

Are you desperate to get back to novel-writing? Or have you discovered a new love for the short form?

What parts of this month’s successes will you take forward into your other writing?

2019 Day 26 – Two Directions

How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?

Remember, set your own rules, and stick to them. If you miss a day, don’t try to catch up. Just keep moving forward!

The Prompt

Two Different Directions

Today’s story should feature two characters or factions who want to go in different directions. Lots of room for character desire and conflict, here!

You can take this as literally or figuratively as you like.

Go!

Check back every day for more prompts, and don’t forget to come back and leave a comment to celebrate your writing successes, every day!