Day 11 – Other People’s Middles

Today we study how other authors manage to write the middle of their stories successfully.


With an idea in mind for how your middle might begin, I’m inviting you again, today, to take a moment to read how some other people manage this.

Again, because fiction is an art as well as a craft the examples you read will differ from yours (some might not fit into the framework obviously, at all, especially if they are experimental in form).

But the idea is to read some stories like a writer (not a just a reader) and see if you can figure out why the author chose to have their character do what they do, in the order they do.

  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it tell you something about the character (without explicitly telling you something about the character)?
  • Does each progression grow out of the actions the character took, or do they seem random? Which is most satisfying?

Here are some suggestions of stories you might want to read

10 modern short stories
10 classic short stories printable iamge

Leave a comment telling us how today’s task went

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Day 6 – Other People’s Openings

Today’s task is to read at least the opening of a few of these stories and see if you could fill in the first part of the Short Story Framework for those stories.

When You Get Back From Nashville by Patricia Q. Bidar

Character: Empty-nesting mom, Desire: to maintain a meaningful connection with her grown child

My Dear You by Rachel Khong

Character: a newly-deceased bride, Desire: to adjust to her new circumstances

Abernathy Resume by KB Carle

Character: Underappreciated teacher, Desire: to get a better job (be appreciated and better paid)

The Day The Birds Came – Kyra Kondis

Character: A school child (complicated by the ‘we’, but essentially…), Desire: to be cool/important

Shit Cassandra Saw  That She Didn’t Tell The Trojans Because At That Point Fuck Them Anyway – Gwen Kirby

Character: a disillusioned seer, Desire: wants to be believed

(the answer to ‘how soon do you know the character’ is ‘immediately, because it’s all in the title!!”)

Who is the character?

What is their adjective?

What is their desire?

You can read other short stories, if you want, but pay attention to how soon in each story you are able to identify these things. How many lines/words (or what percentage) into the story are you, when you know who the character is and what they want?

(Hint: it’s usually not very far.)

Note: their desire/need may not be the same thing, and may change over the course of the story. Today, we’re just focused on the opening.

Bingo!

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Here’s your next Bingo Piece. Download the pic, print it out and paste it onto your bingo sheet. Then share a picture of it on social media with #storyadaybingo

Join The Discussion: How would YOU fill in the Short Story Framework for one of these stories? Post it below!

(If you want to see my answers, highlight the lines under each story link,  above. You’ll see my answers appear)

Day 4 – Read A Fave

Today’s task is a real hardship:

Read something written by your favorite author

This doesn’t have to be something that will ‘impress’ me.

You can say you’re reading Alice Munroe and I’ll believe you.

But if you tell me you’re reading Danielle Steele because of the way her books sweep you away and make time disappear and leave you breathless when you finally put them down…I’ll be just as happy (and possibly more convinced you’re telling the truth).

I’m not asking you to read something by an author you admire. I’m asking you to read your favorite “makes me embarrassingly emotional” author.

You might want to go back to a book you’re re-read over and over since you were a kid.

Bonus task: 

Write in your private workspace exactly how you felt while reading your favorite author’s work.

  • Did you get excited? Did they make you laugh? Cry? Swoon? Want to move to a small coastal island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Eastern Shore of Virginia? 
  • Don’t worry about how they did it. Just capture how you felt. 
  • If you’ve been reading this book since you were a kid, what did it do for you, back then? How did it change the way you saw the world? Yourself.

How would it feel if you could do the same thing for a reader, that your favorite author did for you?

Seriously. How?

And would it be OK with you if you never knew about it?

Is even the possibility of having that kind of connection through time and space with another soul, at all exciting to you?

Imagine that kid, that woman, that person having a terrible day/life, who your stories gave a moment of respite to. Imagine showing them a world where they could be happy, accepted, celebrated. 

How is their day going to go, after reading your story?

Will they be a better partner, parent and friend, after your story improved their mood and their sense of themselves?

Will those partners, children, and friends, have better lives, because the person they love treated them better?

Take a moment to close your eyes and picture how your words could ripple out into these other lives. 

I’m not being overly dramatic..

 John Donne said it back in 1623,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

(Smart man. Didn’t know about gender-inclusive language, but still. Smart.)

Bingo!

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Here’s your next Bingo Piece. Download the pic, print it out and paste it onto your bingo sheet. Then share a picture of it on social media with #storyadaybingo

You don’t have to do all the tasks in order, so paste your tokens on the gameboard on whatever day you get to it!

Join The Discussion: After thinking about your favorite author and the ripples your words could cause, post one word that encapsulates how you’re feeling about starting work on your story, tomorrow.

(You can also tell us about who you read and how it made you feel as you were reading, if you want to.)

[Reading Room] How The Trick Is Done by A. C. Wise

I liked this a lot.

It managed to be about magic and death and unrequited love and #metoo and revenge and yet have a lightness and beauty that I often find missing in modern stories, and which is hard to pull off with those themes.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] How The Trick Is Done by A. C. Wise”

20 Short Stories That Will Make You A Better Writer

Don’t try to write short stories without reading some. Here are 10 modern and 10 classic stories to get you started.

Reading in front of the fire

Chosen by members of the StoryADay Superstars community

  • Perhaps you want to write short stories because novels seem overwhelming.
  • Perhaps you’ve been told that you ought to start with short stories.
  • Perhaps you read a short story you loved and thought “I want to do that!”

The rules for novels and movies don’t apply to short stories. Part of the fun of short story writing is that the form is so flexible.But how would you know that if you’re not reading them?.

Here are 20 great short stories you should read, suggestesd by the StoryADay community.

Each story is either a classic or one that stuck in the reader’s head for years.

storyaday divider

[Write On Wednesday] Got the Patter?

Last night my local writing group held a Reading Night. It was a wonderful thing.

For one thing the participants got to read their stories to an appreciative audience who simply wanted to have fun (as opposed to sending their story to an editor or a critique partner who is looking for things to reject).

And for another, there were some experienced performers in the group, who gave feedback and tips on the actual performance part of the reading. Invaluable stuff.

Reading your work is something you’ll be called upon to do as published author, so practice the skill (very different from writing!) as often as you can!

Last night’s reading prompted this, er prompt, because so many of the characters came alive when they had a distinctive voice, a distinctive patois. One story featured a rising politician, who used all the kinds of phrases you might expect of a rising sleazebag politician.

Another story featured a 1968 California Happening dude, who talked just like you would expect (expertly performed by a man who looked the right age to have been there.)

These stories, more than all the others, stuck with me because of the authenticity of the character’s voice. And that’s what I want you to practice this week.

MISO

The Prompt

Give Your Character A Distinctive Voice

Tips

  • Make your character have a job or a background with a specific set of jargon (for example: a stock broker would sound very different from a tuned-in, turned-on dude from 1968 Haight-Ashbury)
  • Get them into conversation with another character as soon as possible and see if you can keep their voices so distinct that you rarely have to write ‘he said’.
  • Concentrate on the rhythms of speech and the special phrases or jargon your character might use.
  • How would your character deliver their lines? Tentatively? With lots of preamble? Stridently? Rather than using these adverbs, let your characters use words that capture the content of their character
  • If you need more inspiration watch a supercut of Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin and try to capture that kind of vigor in the words you put in the characters’ mouths! (But set a timer, so you don’t end up disappearing down a YouTube rabbit hole…)

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!

The Power of Being Vulnerable

Critique Week LogoRecently I was an invited speaker at a reading featuring local authors.

I got some laughs (phew!) and sold some books. It took nerve to do it, but I’m so glad I did.

In the breaks, I talked to other writers whose stories I had enjoyed immensely. And guess what? They knew who I was and told me they’d enjoyed my story. Some of them even asked questions about the status of the novel I’d read from at a similar event five months ago.

Can you imagine how that felt?

These great writers and performers remembered my work?!

Some of these writers have connections with a wider circle of writers in the area, some of whom are pretty big deals in their genres.

And now I have a connection to that wider world.

I want to talk to you today about how you can build and expand on YOUR network of writers

I got my opportunity because of a tiny decision I made about 8 years ago, to turn up at a local writers’ group’s critique night.

That group has been one of the best ways for me to get embedded in the local writing scene, and a wider writing scene. We share tips about conferences, contests, scholarships, events, blogs we’ve liked, podcasts we’ve discovered, basically anything to do with improving our craft. Sometimes we become friends

But Julie, I hear you say, I thought you said it was a critique group.

It is!

There’s a vulnerability and trust in the act of sharing your work, that encourages deep connections to grow.

I know I’m lucky. I live in a densely-populated area with lots of over-educated people, many of whom want to write.

You may not be so lucky.

Except that you are, because we live in the future, and we can do almost anything online that my group does in the physical world.

And this is the bit where I finally get to the point.

This time last year I offered a ten-day online critique group. A dozen writers showed up, critiqued each other’s work and received a full critique of a story (or 3000 words of a longer piece) from me and at least three other members of the group.

And I’m doing it again this year.

Get on the waitlist now

and I’ll send you my Critique Group Primer so you can always have the best experiences no matter where you get your critiques.

[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:

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] 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] 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.

Feeling Inspired?
Why not try writing a short story that focuses on character?
Use one of these writing prompts

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.

What Are The Last Three Books You Opened?

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to write in the summer. My kids are off school, my friends are calling, people come to visit…

I still write, but I scale back my ambitions. And I use the snatches of time I do have, to read.

But not just anything. I’m cutting back on reading ABOUT writing, and focussing more on readiung some great writing by the masters.

So, what are the last three books I opened?


Poems by Robert Frost

I’m trying to read a poem a day, so I picked up this volume of Frost poems and it fell open to After Apple Picking. I didn’t love it at first but I read it (slowly) a couple of times more and wrote it out once. I still didn’t love it, but I did find it a useful exercise and got much more out of it that way.

The Great English Short-Story Writers, Volume 1
I read Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement, which left me with a strong sense of the history of the short story and what a robust form it really is.


Cooked by Michael Pollan

I’ve always enjoyed Michael Pollan’s writing style. It really proves that anything can be interesting if the writer has a passion for it and that all good writing is storytelling.

Bonus Fourth Book:


The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) by Rick Riordan

My eight year old and I are reading it together at bedtime. Mostly I read it but sometimes he reads it. We love reading out loud. Do/did you still read to children once they can read for themselves?

How about you? Leave a comment telling us what were the last three books you opened.

[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] Orange by Neil Gaiman


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.

[Tuesday Reading Room] “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker

A guest post by regular contributor Jami who is reading a story a day throughout 2012.. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

This week’s post is a guest post by regular contributor Jami
who is reading a story a day throughout 2012 over at Worth The Effort. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

Suffering.

A woman questions God about why a lover hasn’t called her at the time he said he’d call. The pleading and negotiating she does which is clearly inner dialogue is painfully realistic and honest and it exposes the vulnerable side of every woman when she is in the first phase of a relationship.

Will he call?
Should I call him?
What will he think if I call him?
Will he hate me if I call?
How long should I wait for his call?
What happens if he doesn’t call?
Why didn’t he call?

WOW, Dorothy Parker really blew me away with this story. It was made more potent with its brevity and with an ending that leaves the reader counting down the seconds until the woman makes a decision and answers her own questions.

My guess about the ultimate resolution?

She calls.
He doesn’t answer.

Here is a link:
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/teleycal.html

(c)2012 Jami Balkom

Reading A Story A Day…For A Year – An Interview

…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.

 

Thanks, Jami!

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?

[Tuesday Reading Room] – The Sellout by Mike Cooper

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.

Wrong.

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.

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[Tuesday Reading Room] The Door by E. B. White

E. B. White's image

After reading the first few lines of “The Door” by E. B. White [1. found in Fifty Great Short Stories, Milton Crane (Ed.)] my immediate feeling was one of outrage: here I am reading a story by the author of a book that has generations of writers in terror of writing something the ‘wrong’ way (The Elements of Style by Strunk & White), and it’s all over the place! White is breaking his own rules with flagrant , jaw-dropping abandon!

Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid, or they were duroid (sani) or flexan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn’t quite rubber and you didn’t quite touch it but almost.

OK, so there aren’t actually many disregarded rules there, apart from possibly some missing quotation marks – but still! What an odd and unbalancing opening that is.

And I loved it. Because the words are doing exactly what the writer intends to convey: they are confusing and disjointed and all out of kilter. They are slightly beyond comprehension. Just likethat we are in the same emotional space as the main character.

You couldn’t do this without a good command of the norms of writing, so perhaps E. B. White is exactly the right person to be writing this story!

Why The Story Works

This was a trying story on a first reading. I was never really sure what was going on, although I have my own ideas. It was like reading a stream-of-consciousness Beat poem.

But it hung together. It worked even though little in the story is explicit.

Some reasons it worked:

  • It was visceral. The writer takes us right inside the head of someone who is disorientated and out of step with the world. He keeps us off-kilter with his language. We are never explicitly told what is up with the main character (they way we may not know what’s up with ourselves when we are ‘out of sorts’). We do, however, feel what the character is feeling, through this helter-skelter narrative.
  • We are inside his head, though it is not all first-person. The story switches point of view without fanfare, so sometimes we are in first person and sometimes not (“Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the name of things”).
  • The author sets up a metaphor at the beginning, that of rats in a scientific experiment, “…trained to jump at a square card with the circle in the middle of it…”. It is a clear and coherent part of the story. He then takes this metaphor and alludes to it throughout the story, using the phrase ‘the one with the circle on it’ in various places to let us know he’s talking about frustrated expectations or unexpected changes — about life changing the rules, just when we’ve got the hang of them — whether or not we know what’s going on in the particular moment (and on a second reading, these moments become more clear).
  • The story (and the protagonist) travel somewhere. At the end, I’m still not exactly sure what is going on, but I know more than I did at the beginning. The protagonist is moving on.
  • The ending has a finality to it, a sense of actually being an ending. The author ties everything up in a bow by bringing back some metaphors from earlier in the story, the way a modern stand up comics will bring us back around to a joke from the start of their routine, before taking their bow.

This was an oddly satisfying story.

I think it is made more difficult by reading it at a time (and as part of a culture) very different from the the one in which it was written. Life was changing for the protagonist in ways that reflected the times. Now, 70+ years later, it’s hard to catch all the cultural allusions (without studying more deeply).

The style feels very modern (or possibly “Modern”) in its form and ambition. In fact, I was stunned to find it was originally published in 1939. I think it would still prove a bit too avant garde for many readers.

But it was anything but boring.

 

Writer’s Tips

If you are uninspired by a story that you are writing, maybe it’s because you are sticking too closely to the rules, to a formula.

Try taking a leaf out of E. B. White’s book and mess with your readers a bit.

  • Try a different style.
  • Say less — or more.
  • Drop the dialogue attributions.
  • Throw out the quotation marks.
  • Write run-on sentences — or write in fragments.
  • Tell the story out of order.
  • Try to make your language sound less like you and more like the inside of your character’s head. Let the words race, if your character is running; or make them lugubrious if she is weary.
  • Allow yourself to take some chances.

After all, words are just squiggles on a page, and even the most experimental squiggles can be erased and re-written.

Take some chances in your writing today.

Read it online here


Did you try any new techniques after reading this? Leave a comment (and a link, if you’re daring) and let us know what worked – or didn’t.

Tuesday Reading Room – The Standard Of Living by Dorothy Parker

from Fifty Great Short Stories(Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

I’m working my way through this short story collection which was first published in 1952 and starts with a lot of what would have been quite ‘modern’ writers’ stories: Dorothy Parker, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, V. S. Pritchett.

Only one story so far has featured a moment that seems as if it might change the main character for life. The rest are moments in time, even missed opportunities, made fascinating by the writer’s attention to the tiny details of their worlds. It strikes me that this is something you can do with a short story that you couldn’t do with a novel – at least not without annoying most of your readers. Novel readers expect something transformative to happen. Short story readers? Well, maybe they’re more forgiving because they haven’t invested quite so much time in the thing. But I still get annoyed with a lot of modern ‘literary’ stories where nothing happens and there is no sense of an ending. These stories all seem to pre-date that trend, thank goodness.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker

I’m not usually a fan of descriptive writing, but in these short stories I’m finding it is making all the difference.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker is a fabulous example of how a writer can flesh out a story whose plot is basically a build up to a simple punchline and turn it into something that stays with the reader. Parker creates two ordinary, shallow young women (girls, really), who are creatures of their time and trends and who think they are oh, so very sophisticated. They walk together on Saturday afternoons and play a sort of ‘imagine if you won the lottery’ game. Close to the end, something happens that reveals how far from sophisticated they are. That is the punchline, but the way they handle it is…well, I’ll leave it to you to discover.

What make the story, is the luscious, descriptive writing. It starts with a literal feast of words:

They lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter-fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate, gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beats of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale stiffening sauce…”

And it goes on. Are you starting to get a feel for who ‘they’ are yet, from this description? Who might they be? Parker gives us another big clue.

They ate no other kind of food, nor did they consider it. And their skin was like the petals of wood anemones, and their bellies were as flat and their flanks as lean as those of young Indian braves.

Ah yes, they are those despicable creatures: young women! (Can you guess I’m staring aghast at the rapidly approaching 4-0?)

Only now, half a page in, does Parker give our characters, names, station, a bit of backstory. In one paragraph she tells a lifetime. She says a lot with few words ending with:

Each girl lived at home with her family and paid half her salary to its support.

Aha! These are not high-society misses at all. These are working girls affecting a life of leisure.

(I’ll freely admit I loved that sentence in part because it captures the lives my grandmothers lived before they were married, but how many young women – or men – would do that today?)

Every description of the girls is full and sensual and tactile and fixes them in time and space.

They wore thin, bright dresses, tight over their breasts and high on their legs, and tilted slippers, fancifully strapped.

Even their state of mind is shown viscerally from:

they held their heads higher and set their feet with exquisite precision, as if they stepped over the necks of peasants.

to later, when things are not going so well. Parker never says, “they felt bad”. Instead she writes:

Their shoulders dropped and they dragged their feet; they bumped against each other, without notice of apology, and caromed away again. They were silent and their eyes were cloudy.

It’s not how I write. It’s not my style. But I loved this story and definitely want to try out a story where I try out something more phsyical and real, like this one.


Do you write in a very descriptive way? Is your style similar in most stories? Do you like to read stories in the same style as yours, or do you also enjoy stories in a radically different style? Tell me how you read.