[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris

The Reading Room is a series of posts analyzing short stories I have read, with a writer’s eye.

This Christmas story was first published in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2007.

Opening Line

It’s six in the morning, and Santa’s on the blink.

This certainly fulfills my need for an opening line to be intriguing. (The phrase ‘on the blink’, means ‘malfunctioning’ for those not raised in the UK!)

Of course, the story very quickly delivers on the line. The Santa in question is a light-up decoration (hooray, for a double-meaning for the phrase ‘on the blink’! I’m seeing blinking lights now). Continue reading “[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris”

[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer

I keep a spreadsheet of short stories I’ve read.  I make a note of titles, authors, where I found the story and a short comment about the story, to make these posts easier.

My notes, on reading this story, simply say: “Wow”.

A List of Forty-Nine Lies is a pretty intriguing title, and the story delivers immediately.

My name is not Levi. I am not afraid. The machines that hover in swarms over the streets cannot read the thoughts inside my head.

I am not running from them. I have nothing to hide.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer”

[Reading Room] Needle In A Timestack by Robert Silverberg

Cute and slightly terrifying story of two men competing for the same woman, but this time they have the power to go back and change the past.

(Compare this to Geoffrey A Landis’s story where nothing the time-traveler did in the past could affect the future in any way.)

Silverberg does a great job of creating signposts for readers that make the effects of time travel seem almost mundane (one character tastes cotton in his mouth when the past has been changed, another gets a persistent twitch under the left eye…).

As writers today, we wouldn’t have a character stop to explain why the gadget in their pocket was buzzing (We wouldn’t write, “My phone buzzed again. It did that every time a friend send what we called a ‘text message’ from a similar device, over the wireless cell network…” No, we’d just say, “My phone buzzed. Alan again.”)

Similarly, these characters simply mention the significance of the sensation the first time and then use it in the story to signal to the reader that someone’s been time-traveling again.

It was nice to read a story with potentially disastrous technology that wasn’t completely dystopian. It did seem a little shallow at times, though, because I’m so used to ‘realistic’ takes on doomsday technologies in current stories. Not sure how I feel about that, being an upbeat and optimistic person who likes a laugh, but felt a little cheated by this story.

How Stories Age

It’s funny how stories age. I guess we can’t worry too much about that. We just have to write the best stories we can, and keep writing them as we change and age. Some of our work will survive. Some will become embarrassing. And that’s OK.

As something of a side note, it’s interesting to go back and read older short stories and find things I wasn’t expecting.

For example, I’ve never worried too much about the sex (or gender) of the person who wrote a story or of the main character. I’ve never worried too much about older social attitudes that we have, thankfully, left behind, showing up in stories where we couldn’t expect the author to have a more modern outlook.

But in spite of not going around looking for these nits to pick, I am increasingly impatient with stories in which the women are cardboard cut outs. I don’t know if I should curse Alison Bechdel for bringing it to my attention, or simply shrug and accept that there’s so much good writing out there no that DOESN’T fail the Bechdel test, that it’s OK for me to be more picky.

I’m not willing to cut myself off from a world of literary history, just because the writers weren’t inclusive (or not-horribly-racist), but I can’t seem to help having a niggling, deep down dissatisfaction when a good writer excludes half the population or is clueless about basic human dignity.

Again, I’m glad these stories were written, and I won’t not read them because they aren’t inclusive. The writers were working with what they had. Some were better than others. But me? I’m certainly becoming less likely to read and praise them just because somebody tells me I should.

Read this story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

Do you worry about reader or posterity when you write? How do you feel about stores that have aged badly in one respect, while still having other features to recommend them? Join the discussion in the comments.

[Reading Room] Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis

I found this story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac, (Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, Ed).

This is one of the best time travel stories I’ve ever read, and I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Although this story was first published in 1988, I haven’t seen anyone else treat time travel and it’s consequences like this. In fact I’m amazed no ones turned this into a script [1. Assuming they haven’t] (it’d be perfect for Black Mirror). Continue reading “[Reading Room] Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis”

[Reading Room] The Death Ship by Richard Matheson

It’s tough to read Matheson’s stories now because his are the quintessential Twilight Zone type story (they were turned into several of the best TZ episodes) and have been ripped off, parodied and lovingly copied so many times that they feel cliched.

But concentrating on that takes away from the exquisite, concise, clear writing, characterization and big ideas of the original material. He really is a tremendously good writer.

His stories contain big ideas, thoughtfully dealt with in crisp prose that I could read until the end of time.

The Death Ship

This story was adapted into an early Twilight Zone episode. It comes from the early days of space exploration, when ideas were big and facts in short supply. Some of the assumptions in the story are suspect by today’s scientific standards, but that was never what these early sci-fi stories were about. (You know, unless they were written by Arthur C. Clarke, who also had a hand in inventing Radar, so he’s a bit of a special case.)

In this story three men in a space ship survey new planets, looking for new homes for the humans from the chronically overcrowded Earth. When they go down to investigate a particular planet, things start to get weird.

From that point on, the story is a purely about human nature and drama, with the space-faring backdrop becoming fairly unimportant.

That’s one of the things I find irresistible about science fiction. The writers hook you with the setting, with the gadgets and the ‘what ifs’, but then all the best stories end up being about the human condition.

They do what art is supposed to do: make life look a little bit strange, so that we can reassess our own position towards it. No matter which side of the political shouting match you’re on, it seems like that’s something our civilization could us at the moment, don’t you think?

What setting or story type could you use to reel in a reader who needs to see part of their own life with fresh eyes?

Read the story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

[Reading Room] Paradox by Naomi Kritzer

I was blogging and podcasting a lot, last month, about short story forms, and how short stories do not have to read like mini novels.

And the month before that was all about Flash Fiction.

Today, I’m recommending that you take a look at this story Paradox, by Naomi Kritzer.

It is both flash fiction and a non-narrative story. And it’s great.

It starts,

This is the original timeline.

This is a great example of how you can make every word count, and how short fiction is a wonderful place to practice that.

That single word, “original” does all the heavy lifting. It tells you a lot about what kind of story this is going to be: confusing, time-travel-y, chatty. It conveys genre, style, and tone.

Five words. That’s all it took her to set the reader’s expectations.

(Note to self: write to the author and ask her what the original first line looked like. I’m betting it wasn’t this. Second note to self: rewriting is key!)

It is written in the first person (sometimes first person, plural) and we never find out the character’s name or gender. It plays deliciously, hilariously, with all the time travel tropes and questions out there, and talks, knowingly, to the reader.

This is no mini-novel.

And it leaves us with a flippant question at the end, the deeper question it asks is not about time-travel at all.

Recommended!

Read it online or listen here.

[Reading Room] The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act of Her Own Making by Julie Duffy

Read The Story Online Here

I’ve never done this before: today, I’m writing about one of my own stories.

JulieDuffy.com blog screenshot

This is a story that I wrote during StoryADay May 2017.

I’m sharing it in today’s Reading Room post to demonstrate what you can do with a writing prompt that seems to suggest you must write a particular type of story. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act of Her Own Making by Julie Duffy”

[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim

From A Taste of Honey – Stories by Jabari Asim, Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-767679-1978-4

I knew a man who only read non-fiction because he “didn’t see the point” of fiction. Would it surprise you to know that this man was one of the least empathetic I never knew?

I firmly believe that fiction is more powerful than non-fiction, as a way to help us understand each other’s truths. So I used Black History Month as an excuse to seek out short fiction by writers of color. I  picked up this collection at my local library, and the first story in the collection has already confirmed my belief.

Opening Lines

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is the story of a moment in a pre-teen boy’s life during the ‘hot and forbidding’ summer of ’67.  In fact, that’s the opening line, Continue reading “[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim”

[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It reads like a simple story, but is, in fact, a skillfully crafted tale that hides its author’s hard work well.

This is an excellent example of how to build a story world that feels real, while still telling a story about characters we care about.

(Read it online, here)

Uncanny Magazine screenshot featuring Mary Robinette Kowal's story The Worshipful Society of Glovers

It also comes with the fabulous gift of a blog post unpacking how the author went about writing it. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opening Line

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

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

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

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

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

The Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Structure

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

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

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

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the story here

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