[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

[Reading Room] The Knife by Richard Adams

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

[Reading Room] A Mother’s Love by Lottie Lynn

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: wires?!

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 year’s deadline for entries is Feb 13, 2015.

[Reading Room] Strike and Fade by Henry Dumas

Whoa.

Henri Dumas’s story, Strike and Fade, about a ‘cat’ during the Harlem Riots of the 1960s is raw, unapologetic, and rises to a spine-tingling finale. (I actually said ‘wow’ out loud, when it ended.)

This must have been like a literary ice bucket challenge when it was first published. What a voice. And all the more poignant when you consider the author was, himself, killed by police at a relatively young age.

And in this season of unrest, it is a worthwhile reminder than we can’t know what other people are going through until we listen to their stories. And that every one should strive to tell the stories that only they can tell, no matter what reality they reflect.

Essential Guide To the Best Short Stories of 2014

If one of your resolutions for next year is to read more short stories (and it should be!), it can be hard to know where to start.
You want to cultivate a modern style, the kind of thing that reflects your voice AND the kind of stories people want to read.
The problem with a do-it-yourself reading masterclass, is that anthologies tend to contain a vast range of stories, chronologically arranged from the late 1800s to the mid 1960s. These stories have stood the test of time and are therefore considered classics, but their style can seem pretty dated.
On the other hand, you could grow old reading a random selection of the multitudinous modern short stories available online. So what’s a serious writer to do?

Let other people recommend stories to you.

I’ve trawled the end-of-year roundups and found a number of recommendations for your further reading. Most of these are stories from this century, with a few must-read classics sprinkled in here and there. Names that kept cropping up on list after list: B. J. Novak, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth McCracken, Phil Klay, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro.
Treat yourself to a volume or two, or trot off down to your local library to look for some of these titles.

Powell’s Short List 2014

Powell’s audaciously posted a “best of” list in time for Short Story Month in May this year (N.B. Did we make May the month for short stories? I don’t remember anyone calling it that before we started this crazy thing in 2010. Pat yourselves on the backs, StoryADay-nauts! I think we created a Thing!)
NOT a list of the best short story collections this year, it is however a list of excellent short story collections from the century so far:

The Guardian’s Ill-Defined “Best” List

Not sure what the category here is —  I suspect it’s the editors’ favorites list, rather than a true ‘best of’ — but I’m betting there are some collections (and authors) you might have missed in this British-based list.

Paris Review’s Prize Winning Stories of The Year

Two stories are in the Best American Short Story Anthology this year and nine were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Read some at the Paris Review site.

The Independent’s Best Stories of the Year

Another list from a British newspaper. Includes Hilary Mantel’s controversial “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, some Margaret Atwood and a collection by Tom Barbash, a fave of mine.

The Huffington Post’s 10 Best Short Stories You’ve Never Read

Take the HuffPo challenge. Have you read them? I felt quite smug when I discovered I had read the first one on their list…then I looked at the rest of them. Ahem…

Electric Literature’s Best Short Story Collections of 2014

25 recommended story collections from Donald Antrim to Lorrie Moore with some names that didn’t hit any other lists I saw.

Readers’ Digest 8 of the Best

RD recommended these eight collections in the spring (another shout out for May as Short Story Month!). Some familiar names on this one…

BookTrust Recommendations From Short Story Authors

BookTrust asked prize-winning writers to pick THEIR favorite collections. Seems sensible…
Also, check out BookTrust’s online library of short stories here:

Longreads Best of the Year

A subjective list of the best short stories of the year. As good a place as any to start 😉

The Quivering Pen Great Big Roundup

A fine list of short story collections from David Abrams. Compiled in June, it contains some interesting titles.

Hugo Award Nominees 2014

If all that up there is wa-ay too much literary fiction for you, how about taking a look at the Hugo Award nominees of the year for some speculative fiction-y goodness?

Stacked’s Young Adult Short Story Recommendations

Doesn’t it seem like YA would be a great category for short fiction? Well, Stacked has a list of some YA short story collections from the past few years.

Fantastic Stories of the Imagination’s Short Genre Fiction Recommendations for 2014

Finally! A collection that includes Speculative and horror short stories. Only four stories in this list, but they are different enough to be worth checking out.

More Genre Fiction from Jonathan Strahan

This list is way out of date, but worth looking at just because genre gets so little respect in the other lists. All titles are from the first decade of the 21st century. Good additional recommendations in the comments section.

Jason Sanford’s Sci-Fi Picks for 2014

An author and reader picks his best bets for next year’s awards lists.
Then of course, there is always the Best American Short Stories annual anthology, The Best British Short Stories 2014, and I highly recommend the Selected Shorts podcast as a way to have new and notable short stories read to you by great actors, wherever you are.
Side note: apparently Brits take the short story much more seriously than folks anywhere else in the English-speaking parts of the planet. Prizes, end-of-year round ups, they dominate them!
Lets all don fake-British accents (except for me, of course who still has a semi-authentic one) and cheer the patron saints of the short story: the good folk of the UK!
So, what short stories have you read this year that you’d recommend? Share in the comments!

[Reading Room] This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction by Rebecca Scherm

This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction by Rebecca Scherm via McSweeneys

I approached this humorous piece with a doubtful look. Satire is so hard to pull off and I often find stories published in McSweeneys miss the mark for me.

Not this one though.

In This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction, Rebecca Sherm takes on two of the biggest genres to storm the internet: erotica and fan fiction. And she blends it with This Old House! Talk about your Fifty Shades of Grey!

Sherm uses the language of erotic fan fiction and ladles on the innuendo, but never crosses the line into crudity (or, actually, erotica). That tension is what makes the piece so entertaining.

Recommended!

[Reading Room] The Zero Meter Diving Team by Jim Shepard


Jim Shepard turned up in my RSS feeds this week because blog were reporting on Joshua Ferris hailing him as the Best Writing Teacher Ev-ah.

The name rang a bell in the back of my head and I strongly suspected he was the author of a story I’d heard on Selected Shorts. A story I had been really impressed by. Sure enough it was I’d also heard the author interviewed and been impressed by him. (I thought of trying to get him to come and do an interview here. Now I know he’s a Big Deal, but I’ll still try).

Anyhoo, I bought a collection of his stories, Like You’d Understand, Anyway.

This first story in the collection is an absolutely haunting account of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Told from the perspective of a bureaucrat, it gives insights into the workings of a Soviet family and the Soviet governmental style, all while taking an unflinching look at what exposure to that kind of radiation does to a body.

And yet, there is a lightness and humanity in the story that is really hard to explain.

All I know is that I couldn’t get this story out of my head for days.

[Reading Room] The Day We Were Fish by Stephen Koster

Feathertale.com

It’s just an ordinary a day in the office, when suddenly the boss notices his staff are turning into fish…

This engagingly bizarre and whimsical short story by Stephen Koster reminds me why I love the short story. Short stories let you break all the rules. They are amuse-bouche. They are wonderful places for trying out ideas you could never sustain in a novel (or maybe you could, but a short story is certainly a good place to test out the idea).

As with many of the short stories I read, this one wasn’t perfect, but it was amusing and it split my brain open and filled it with all kinds of ideas, and it inspire me to write. Can’t ask for more than that!

[Reading Room] Incognito by Susan M. Lemere

I have a thing for stories written in letter form, so i was well-disposed towards Susan M. Lemere’s charming story Incognito before it even got rolling.

It starts with a teacher interceding on behalf of one of her students who has lost a tooth — literally lost it in the playground grass — and is inconsolable until the teacher promises to write a note to the Tooth Fairy. That would be the end of it, except that the tooth fairy responds. By email. And she has some advice for the teacher, herself.

As the story unfolds we learn more about Katherine, the teacher, and her life, and the changes she needs to make. Will she? Won’t she?

It is a subject that could be dreary or pedestrian, but Susan M. Lemere’s use of language, whimsy and humor keep it from being either of those things. I was, in no time at all, rooting for Katherine and enjoying listening to her voice portraying her various moods.

Short Story Reading Challenge

You know I love a challenge.

It’s going to be harder to write during the summer months, with boys underfoot and trips to here there and everywhere (bonjour, Bretagne!), so I’m going to spend my summer months feeding the creative monster.

I’ve been finding it hard to write recently, partly because my brain is begin pulled in fifteen different directions. I’m feeding it with information — about education, about fitness, about nutrition, about cognitive behavioural therapies, about music, about all kinds of practical stuff — but I’m not feeding it with the kinds of stories it needs to lift itself out of the everyday world and into the world of stories.

JulieReadingSo I’m going back to the Bradbury Method of creativity-boosting. I did this last summer and it worked like a charm: I read a new story every day (and an essay and a poem as often as I could manage that) and found myself drowning in ideas. I had a burning urge to write; I sketched out ideas for stories; I wrote some of them over the next six months and released them as Kindle ebooks that have sold actual copies and generated actual profits. I have others that are still in various stages of drafting. But more than all that I was happy.

Follow Along?

So that’s what I’m going to do: Read a short story a day during June, July, August. I’m logging my activity at my personal writing blog and you can follow along. (I use Feedly on my iPad, phone and computer to keep up with the feeds of blogs I love. I highly recommend it. remember the old Livejournal friends view? It’s like that. Or the Facebook status update view without, you know, Facebook). Or you can Subscribe to Julie Duffy Reading (& stuff) by Emailand get a daily update of all my reading-related posts (some days it’ll just be the title of the story. Some days it’ll be a potted review, and frankly it might get kind of annoying, so use this method with caution).  (Update: 2021, I mostly don’t do this anymore. Maybe I should get back to it!)

And feel free to join me. Leave comments, link to what you’re reading, start your own Reading challenge and blog…

2014SummerRead500x230

[OK, I realize this badge is hopelessly Northern-Hemisphere elitist, and I apologize. I’ll make a change when I have a chance. Or you can use your Photoshop-Fu to put a white box over the ‘summer’ part…]

Your Own Reading Log

I’m using Google Docs to log my reading.

Here’s a copy of the form that you can use yourself if you want to join in and you like Google Docs. Save a copy of this form to your own Google Drive and rename it.

If you click on “Form / Go To Live Form” you’ll see a nice clean interface for entering your info. It’ll update the spreadsheet automatically (no silly little cells to click on).

If you’re an iPhone user, you can follow these steps to get a nice app-like link on your phone, to make logging your reading easier (I’m a big fan of ‘easy’)
Step 1:

Go to your form on in your browser (drive.google.com/)

Then:

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Then

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Then

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Voilà!

Just make sure you save a copy of this document to your own Google Drive and don’t work on my copy, OK?

[Reading Room] Heat by Joyce Carol Oates

I hated this story.

Not that there was anything really wrong with it.

It painted vivid pictures of the setting that are seared into my brain.

It created realistic portraits of the twin girls around whom the story turns — fun, selfish, nice-nasty, typical preteen girls — and of the protagonist who is both a girl with the twins and an older woman looking back on things.

It wove the story really well through non-linear story-telling. It has suspense, and emotion and is terribly well written.

But.

It’s part of that school of literary stories from the second half of the twentieth century that are unrelentingly grim. Everyone’s a pervert or being hurt by someone or cheating on their spouse or living a life without hope. People are murdered, raped, declared bankrupt, abused, tortured, depressed… It’s fine, I suppose, and good that people can write about these things. I don’t want people to pretend these things don’t happen or isolate victims by not allowing them to share their experiences. But there seems to have been a sense that you couldn’t be a literary (for ‘literary’ read: good) writer unless your world was devoid of hope, humor or heroes.

And I hate that. It’s why I fly to cozy mysteries and space opera and anything where I can find a hero and a bit of relief. [updated: And I totally respect that you might find this kind of writing challenging, rewarding, comforting, or sublimely moving, and may hate my kind of humor-laced frippery-faves. I think I mostly get annoyed by the seeming ubiquity of grimness in “literary” fiction.]

So, I’m glad I read this story because I will come back to it to see just how Ms Oates created that indelible sense of place; and how she made her characters so realistic; and how she wove that story so well. But I’ll never like it. And I never want to write this kind of thing.

What about you? Do you rage against a particular style of writing? Harlequin Romances? Happy endings? What gets you so angry that you feel moved to write something just to prove that stories can be better than that? Let me know in the comments:

[Reading Room] Sticks by George Saunders


I’m on a George Saunders kick.

I mean, when someone can write a story with fewer than 500 words that makes you actually say “oof” out loud at the end? You’re going to want to go on a kick, reading their work.

“Sticks” is a grown man’s reminiscence about his father. It begins,

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of a metal pole in the yard.

That use of the word ‘crucifix’ is key. Doesn’t that make you want to keep reading? You know there’s more to this than just a funny story about fatherly quirks.

The story is extremely well crafted. You get the sense that there must have many revisions, re-revisions, reversions and more revisions to make it this tight.

That’s only depressing if we think our job as writers is to get as many words out into the world as quickly as possible. If we believe that our job is to craft stories, and that rewriting is a crucial (and enjoyable) part of writing, then George Saunders is our new mentor.

Write the crappy first draft. Then spend as much time as you need to, reworking it until it is art.

How Do You Feel About Revisions?

[Reading Room] Victory Lap by George Saunders


OK, so everyone’s been raving about this collection, The Tenth of December by George Saunders.

I’m such a skeptic about hype that it was with some trepidation that I plunked down my money and opened the book.

But: wow. If the first story is anything to go on, this is going to be one fabulous collection.

Victory Lap is a supreme example of ‘show, don’t tell’. If you’ve ever wondered what that piece of well-worn advice means, run to your bookshelf and grab this (you probably bought it when people were first raving about it instead of,  like me, pretending to be too cool).

The story starts in the voice of a fourteen year old girl who is coming down the stairs in her house, consumed with her own, fourteen-year-old fantasies of herself: still childlike but on the verge of adult-issues. It so thoroughly captures the inner voice of a teenage girl that it is disorienting, but you adjust quite quickly.

Just as you’re getting comfortable with this voice, it switches into the head of the boy next door, who our hero has spotted through the window, just before the inciting incident of the story.

The boy next door is equally well-realized, equally complex and oh, so painfully awkward. Told only in his inner thoughts, the author builds up a picture of his home-life: the only child of extremely protective, ambitious and unbearable parents; a good boy whose parents are (perhaps unwittingly) perverting that goodness.

I defy you to read this story and not root for the two kids; not have your blood run cold at the thought of what might happen if things don’t go the way you fervently hope they will. Aargh!

 

Not only does Saunders get right inside the heads of these kids, he brings you along, shows so much without once ‘telling’, and makes you empathize to the point that you’re thinking dark thoughts about what you’ll do to the author if things don’t turn out ‘right’ (or was that just me?).

 

And that, my friends, is the mark of an excellent story: suck the reader in, make them care, don’t spoon feed them the details, make something happen; make it matter; raise the stakes; write an ending that forces the reader to go on thinking about the ramifications of the events in the story for your characters, long after they’ve finished the story.

Oh, and go and buy a copy of this collection if you haven’t already!

 

[Reading Room] Golden by James Scott Bell


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?

Read James Scott Bell’s article on why he wrote this and why short stories are so awesome

[Reading Room] There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

A house stands alone in a post-nuclear-strike landscape. It is one of those Tomorrowland kind of houses that people dreamed of in the 1950s: the stove is cooking eggs and bacon, the mice-robots are scurrying out to clean, the automatic systems are trying to entertain the absent occupants. Absent? Yes, and we find out what happened to those occupants in a shocking moment that is less shocking nowadays, because we’ve seen it before. But Bradbury was writing when these ideas and fears were new.

The story continues without a single human in it and yet it we come to know the former occupants of the house, their culture and also the character of the house.

Dig Deep And Find Your Unique Voice

Ray Bradbury’s writing is deeply poetic and thoroughly unique. It is a wonderful example of how you can find your voice only be being unapologetically yourself. Written by anyone else, this kind of lyrical writing would be overblown and possibly embarrassing. In Bradbury’s handling, it is just….well, Bradbury.

How To Write A Story Without A Human Protagonist

It’s also a wonderful example of how you can write a story without a traditional protagonist and yet still have a character.

In this story the house is definitely the protagonist, if a protagonist’s job is to guide us through a story and show us a new world in a new way. The house in this story is very much that protagonist. It tells us about the world that humanity has created for itself. It tells us what we have done to ourselves and points out the folly of the story’s human race: concentrating all its creative energies on making gadgets to make life comfortable instead of on solving the looming nuclear threat.

The story has secondary characters too: the family that lived in the house and the former household pet (who play the classic ‘secondary character role’ by being referenced in the story only when they contribute something to our understanding of the protagonist — in this case, the house).

Read the story here.

[Reading Room] Hint Fiction

UPDATE: Hint Fiction is launching a second anthology: deadline April 30, 2014 (thanks to Flash Fiction Chronicles for the update)

This week I bring you not a story but a collection of stories.

However, each story is only 25 words long.

In the introduction, editor Robert Swartwood says that short fiction,

“…should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world”

Here’s one of my favorite stories in the collection:

“Jermaine’s Postscript to His Seventh-Grade Poem Assignment,” by Christoffer Molnar.

 

“Ms. Tyler, the girl part was about Shantell. Please don’t tell anyone.”

Writing a 25 word story seems like it would be easy, but reading through the more-and-less successful stories in this collection three things stood out

  1. A lot of thinking goes into a short story
  2. Creating a compelling main character is essential if you’re not going for the quick, humorous, punch-line story.
  3. Finding ways to do that in so few words is a fascinating challenge.

To distill the essence of a moment, a person, an interaction, down to 25 words takes a lot of effort and these writers have done an amazing job!

Kind of makes you want to try it, doesn’t it?

[Reading Room] Flax-Golden Tales by Erin Morgenstern

Flax-Golden Morgenstern
Every Friday Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus) posts a Flax-Golden Tale: a ten-sentence story inspired by a photograph by Colin Farrell.

The stories themselves range from quirky to thought-provoking to funny and back again. Often the story gives a character to an inanimate object. The narrator’s voice is always strong. The writing is poetic, concise, efficient and a great model for how you might approach a short-short story, yourself.

 Steal From Erin Morgenstern!

Not the words. (That would be plagiarism and that would be bad.) But we can learn from her practice.

  1. She is doing it week after week after week, which is both challenging and freeing. Knowing she doesn’t have to get it right this week (because there is always next week) must be freeing, even as having a weekly deadline is challenging.
  2. The ten-sentence format is wonderful. Knowing that she has to write ten sentences every time removes one of the many, many decisions a writer must face when sitting down to create something out of nothing (and decisions are often barriers to ‘getting stuff done’). Ten sentences is just enough space to tell a tale, but not so much that you get bogged down or lost. It is not intimidating. Setting small goals (except for during May, of course!) is a valid path towards success and fulfillment.
  3. She is doing this for fun and for practice. She seems to have no desire to write these for publication, other than to post them, free, on her site (and I suspect that’s more about commitment and accountability than anything else). Writing for the love of it is something easily lost once you start practicing (and reading websites that urge to to publish, Publish, PUBLISH!)
  4. This is a collaboration. Every week the photographer in the partnership has committed to providing a picture. Every week the writer writes a story. If one of them is having a bad week, their commitment to the other artist is a wonderful incentive to work, instead of waiting for inspiration (or putting off the act until ‘someday’).

What about you? Could you commit to a writing exercise like this? What would yours look like? Would you work with a collaborator? Leave a comment->

[Reading Room] Cretan Love Song by Jim Shepard

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!)

[Reading Room] Subsoil by Nicholson Baker

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. 🙂

[Reading Room] The Dome by Steven Millhauser

I’m not sure when this story was written so I’m not sure if it predates or post-dates other stories about cities within domes, but when a story is this well-written it hardly matters.

This story is fascinating in several ways. Firstly, the writing is just great. If you like language, and like a little humor in your stories, get a copy of this (you can find it at Selected Shorts, read by Alec Baldwin, who does a great job).

Second, it breaks rules — or at least bends them. I’m always reading that stories have to have a character and the character has to want something. This story does not seem (at first) to have a character. And it’s not at all clear who wants what. But it turns out that the ‘character’ could be said to be ‘humanity’. Later in the story it becomes clear that if there is a protagonist, it is the contemporary group of dome-dwelling humans of which the narrator is one.

But it’s refreshing to read something so engaging that breaks from expected patterns and still manages to hold the reader’s attention all the way through.

Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler, which prompted publishers to bring some of his older story collections back into print. I’m off to see if I can get hold of some of them…

[Reading Room] The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Heminway


Two confessions:

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.

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The Stakes

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.

[Reading Room] Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant

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.

Read Boule de Suif online

[Reading Room] Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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 I, WRITER course. If you already have your copy, why not dig out that workshop and give it a try today?

[Reading Room] The Judge’s Will by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 10.34.42 AMRead this story in The New Yorker

Set in Bombay, this is a skillful story that features four distinct characters: an elderly judge, his wife, his son and his long-time “kept woman”. The author is economical and shares a lot of detail — characters, culture, physical setting — in relatively few words (even though this is not a short-short story). Not a word is wasted and it is worth reading if only to see how that’s done.

I have a couple of problems with this story, and they are matters of personal taste.

Firstly, I don’t like any of the characters. I know there’s a place for this in literature, but I really prefer a story where I like at least one of the characters at least a little bit. I can sympathize to some extent with almost all of the characters in this novel (a testament to the writer’s skill), but I don’t like any of them, which leaves me with a feeling of not having enjoyed the story.

Also, I know there is a kind of resolution in here, if I go looking for it, but I prefer a good, strong ending. This story, like real life, just pauses for a moment and then carries on, anticlimactically. It’s a literary style that is much admired, just not by me.

What do you think? Do you like this kind of story? Do you like storybook endings or are you OK with thinks just petering out?

[Writing Prompt] Epistolary Stories

This is one of my favorite forms of writing and I don’t know why I don’t do it more:

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of letters, journal entries, blog posts, tweets or other epistle.

Tips

  • This used to seem like a bit of an old-fashioned story form now that we no longer have five-times-a-day letter delivery (as in Jane Austen’s day) but with all of our new ways of communicating in the written word it is ripe for a reboot.
  • You should feel free to use old-fashioned letters, but consider using other communication vehicles.
  • Remember that all the information must come in the form of communications from one person at a time. No dialogue attribution, no speculation by a narrator. This is essentially a First-Person format, but you can have more than one person talking, in turn.

Go!

[Reading Room] The Distance of The Moon by Italo Calvino

This wonderful sci-fi fairy tale will certainly feel familiar to anyone who saw one of the more recent Pixar shorts, La Luna (in fact the director freely credits Calvino with inspiring elements of the film).

It is funny, and wildly imaginative and, perhaps necessarily, told in a very prosaic, almost pedestrian way. You probably have to write in an almost documentary style when you are writing a story as fantastic as this: the premise being that, years and years ago, the moon was so close to the earth that you could climb up to it at certain times of the month.

It is a wonderful example of how to let your creativity fly free, and still end up with a story that talks about essential truths everyone can relate to.

Listen to it here

[Reading Room] Vanilla Bright Like Eminem by Michel Faber

In “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem” by Michel Faber, a father sits with his family on a train, traveling through Scotland. A passing mention of the inadequate overhead luggage racks drew me into a story that ended with me blinking furiously and which I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

Faber didn’t describe the gorgeous scenery whisking past the window. He didn’t spend any time at all describing the train (only that their bags were on a seat because they were too big for the overhead rack), but just that detail made the setting seem real for me (I’ve traveled on a lot of Scottish trains).

This story also featured an interesting trick I haven’t come across too often: the flash forward. Rather than tell the story in flash back, the story just unfolds and then gives us a glimpse of the future. It’s more than a gimmick though. It really works.

You can listen to the story here”

[Reading Room] Lamentations of the Father by Ian Frazier

This is a wonderful, funny piece, written in high biblical style, but in fact spoken by a modern, harried father.

It is a great example of how to write humor, subvert expectations and trade on the language in which your life has been (perhaps unknowingly) steeped.

If you can, get hold of the Selected Shorts version read by the late, lamented Isaiah Sheffer.

(The full title of the piece is: “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father”)

[Reading Room] – Heart of a Champion by T. C. Boyle

“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.

[Tuesday Reading Room] After The Reign of Jimmy Carter by James Thrasher

For New Year over at Six Sentences they’ve posted a New Year themed story.

It doesn’t tackle a particularly novel topic (a New Year’s story about resolutions? Shock!), and it’s not very long (six sentences!) and yet it manages to say a lot and stay fresh.

It’s a great example of how restrictions in length, topic or form, can help transform your writing.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Durak By Anatoly Belilovsky

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine LogoI 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.

Durak
by Anatoly Belilovsky
published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine No.54