This collection is a great example of what modern speculative fiction can be: fascinating, compelling, peopled by sympathetic (and not-so sympathetic) characters; surprising and familiar, inspiring, filled with mystery and a sense of discovery for the reader…and I love it when stories are connected, so I enjoyed piecing together the connections between some of the stories in the collection.Continue reading “[Reading Room] Cosmogramma by Courttia Newland”
I’m planning to read a story for every day of this year. In this new series, I share my favorite short stories from the month. I hope it’ll help you find some new inspiration, some new authors to follow, and some new places to share your work.
January 2020’s Faves
Remedies – Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Accident – Agatha Christie
Meat and Salt and Sparks – Rich Larsen – The Hugo Longlist Anthology 2019
Leak – Sam Ruddick
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis – Annalee Newitz
More Tomorrow – Premee Mohamed
Always Let Your Dragon Fly First Class – Wendy Nikel
If you’d like more analysis of short stories, check out the Reading Room series.
What have you read this month? Why not share a story in the comments?
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.
“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”
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.
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 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.
Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:
Writing exercise: (20 minutes)
Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)
What difference did you note?
Writing exercise: (30 minutes)
What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).
What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?
The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.
About Josh Barkan
Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.
From Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang
This is the (long) short story that was the basis for the movie Arrival, a movie I loved. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang”
The example I gave, Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, had a fairly traditional narrative structure. While it wasn’t clear how the two storylines would interact, at first, it was an easy-to-read story.
Shaking Things Up
I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).
(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez”
To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.
So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.
Photo: Stuart Dootson
Of course, being me, I’m going to recommend you incorporate short stories into your writing practice, but you can use these ideas even when you’re working on a scene in a longer work.
I’m going to show you how you can stay excited about your writing practice by:
- Understanding the purpose of your story and how it affects the final form,
- Experimenting with new formats and new ideas,
- Focusing on your audience (but not too much)
I’m also going to give you one foolproof way to make sure you finish your stories, every time.
And then I’m going to invite you to make a very specific commitment to your writing this year—if it seems right for you—one with built-in accountability and support.
Take A Break
If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.
(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)
Just look at this opening: Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell”
Described as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett is definitely both of those things.
I listened to this story as part of a Selected Shorts podcast. It was read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who I knew as Captain Montgomery from Castle . He turns out to be a wonderful storyteller who gets out of the way of the story and is blessed with a voice I could listen to for days).
It’s described in the show notes as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story and it is definitely both of those things.
The story starts with an affluent college graduate who seems like a bit of a wastrel, spending his time living off inherited money, reading and playing jazz with ‘the old guys’ at some dive bar.
The story’s trucking along just fine until one night Daniel is playing at the bar and some college frat boys come in and request that the band “Play Dixie for us”. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett”
I approached this story with some trepidation, as I’m always wary of writers writing stories about writers. Or, in this case about aspiring writers.
But this was salted with enough wry humor to draw me in. Take the first lines:
First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age…
The author saves the character from an annoyingly sardonic tone by baldly relating what the teenaged writer can expect after slaving over her first story.
Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son Continue reading “[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore”
Detours Sometimes Lead to Conflict
How often do our travels – or our lives, for that matter – go exactly as planned? The detours often lead to conflict, and conflict drives drama. Conflict provides the impetus for action and the catalyst for your characters to change. Conflict keeps things interesting – if it doesn’t get everyone killed! Don’t leave your reader wondering, “Are we there, yet? When are we gonna get there?” Road trips are meant to be fun, interesting, enlightening experiences for the whole family. All too often, we get lulled into complacency, boredom, and “white line fever.” Roadside attractions provide opportunities to stray from the planned path – and opportunities for it all to go terribly, shockingly, or hilariously wrong.
Your character is taking a road trip cross country with two people who are not family or close friends. Something goes horribly wrong at the World’s Largest Cockroach and Frozen Custard Stand (or other odd or humorously cheesy roadside attraction) located in the middle of nowhere.
Ideas to Explore:
- Who are these characters and why are they traveling across the country together? Was it by choice? Will they be closer by the end of the trip – friends for life, perhaps – or will one or more of them (barely) live to regret it?
- Now’s your chance to camp it up – you can use an actual roadside attraction (the more ridiculous, the better!) or invent one. Don’t just describe it, though – make us feel like we’re there.
- What could possibly go wrong? Here’s your opportunity to add over-the-top drama, nail-biting action, or hilarious comic relief. Can you work in all three?
- Create 5-10 brief character sketches on scraps of paper. Fold them up, drop them into a Mason jar, and pull out three of them. Throw them into the car together and see where it leads.
- Build your own roadside attraction. Make us feel like we’re there. If it really existed, would we want to visit it – or would we pray we didn’t have a flat tire within 30 miles of it?
- Use descriptive language that appeals to all five of the reader’s senses.
- Add additional characters who are not in the car with your main characters. Throw in an animal, maybe a pet. Maybe it’s part of the attraction.
- How do your characters solve their problems? What does that reveal about them that we didn’t know before?
Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.
I’m often wary of modern Irish and British stories because they tend to be grim. It’s not a style I enjoy and it’s not one I have much time for. So I tend to shy away from modern British and Irish stories altogether.
But it’s always good to read outside your comfort zone, so occasionally I give a new story in a genre I don’t love, a shot.
On Cosmology, by Roísín O’Donnell won the Hennesy/Irish Times prize for August 2015. In the story, a lecturer in astrophysics wonders about the ‘gooey, alien-like creature’ which may be growing inside her.
So yes, it does deal with sex and issues of pregnancy — and in less-than-ideal-circumstance. In Ireland, no less. Certainly sounds like the recipe for a grim, modern moan, doesn’t it?
This story, however escapes being grim.
I had to think hard about what O’Donnell had done right that kept me from hating her story. And I think it came down to this: I liked the main character. She was not thrilled about her situation but she was curious. That curiosity, which totally fitted with her profession as a scientist, trumped everything else. It felt real, as if she was a real character. It gave her an optimism that transcended her circumstance.
I like the narrator and the picture of her world that she paints. We, as writers, would be wise to give our characters a strong character trait that carries them through any situation they face. It can waver, it can bend, but in the end, they’ll be realistic characters if they are ultimately consistent.
So yes, I recommend it.This is a good one!
The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to contribute a review of a short story, read the guidelines here.
What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story just like this…
The Goat Variations, by Jeff Vandermeer, plays with reality and alternate realities, in the best traditions of ‘what if’ speculative fiction.
It starts with a scene that most people who were sentient in Sept 2011 (or shortly thereafter) will recognize, but then things get weird.
Slowly you start to realize that things are not as they should be and your brain starts running quickly to catch up. Then things get REALLY weird…
This was not an easy read. It was mind-bending in a deliciously difficult way.
What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story like this. Perhaps it’s more that we should be willing to be idiosyncratic, like VanderMeer. Or perhaps it’s that a good idea is worth working, and reworking until we’re telling it in the way that it needs to be told.
Perhaps it’s that you can’t worry about taking a topic as fraught with baggage as 9/11 and telling our own story in our own way, about difficult topics.
Most of all, we can’t be afraid of other people disapproving of the things we write — or the way we write them.
(Small nit-pick: the website that I’m linking to here inaccurately casts the main character as “George Herbert Walker Bush” when in fact it is George W. Bush.)
But the story? The story is great!
The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to submit a review for the Reading Room, see the guidelines here.
Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything!
Charlotte Rains Dixon is a writer who has made the jump from non-fiction to fiction with her new series of mysteries, the Emma Jean books (the first is available now). Her short stories have been published in The Trunk, Santa Fe Writer’s Project, Nameless Grace, and Somerset Studios. Check out her blog for writing tips and inspiration that are very much in tune with the ethos here at StoryADay.
Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything! Doesn’t matter if it is illegal, immoral, or illicit. Explore what that thing is, why she wants it, and perhaps most importantly, what the consequences of getting that thing might be.
(Remember, all prompts are optional and you certainly don’t have to do two stories, or combine the prompts, on days when there’s a celebrity guest.)
This is a charming story about good little rich girls being nice to a poor little (good) poverty-stricken boy. The message of the piece is hopelessly outdated (the privileged should be charitable to the deserving poor, who will appreciate it, no strings), but it’s a nice story.
(N.B. I’m by no means opposed to the well-off helping those who’re struggling. I’m just not sure it ever goes as smoothly as it does in this story, and I think…no, never mind. The point is, the way this story unfolds feels very dated. And it is. So, not a crippling criticism).
Anyhoo, the thing that really struck me while reading this, was
how often LM Montgomery did things that my critique group would NEVER let her away with, if she ran the story by them before submitting it to her publisher. And none of them killed the story for me. I still enjoyed it.
So: lesson learned. Write your own story. Listen to critique partners, but don’t worry too much> Opinions are like…well, you know how that goes, right?
Story found via: Short Story Thursdays. You should subscribe, if you don’t already.
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
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
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 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’.
Let other people recommend stories to you.
Author James Scott Bell, as well as being a successful lawyer, novelist and writing coach, has been a good friend to StoryADay (giving us both an interview and a writing prompt for last year’s StoryADay May).
So of course, I wanted to like his new story, which veers from his usual style. No mysteries here, no fast-paced action, just the story of a guy dealing with the legacy of something in his past that he’s not proud of.
Writing (and publishing) this story was a big leap for Bell (as he explained when he announced it). he was nervous. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever written before and he was worried that he might fall flat on his face.
Don’t you feel like that, a lot of the time when you sit down to write? I know I do.
So I went into this story wanting to like it. but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what do I care about a middle-aged, middle-class divorced father on a playdate with his son?
Well, Bell quickly made me care. He does it by using all the craft available to him. Within the first paragraph I’ve learned a lot about the guy, his divorce, the ex-wife. Look how much information he packs into sentences 3 & $ of the story — and not just information, but attitude, character background, exposition, the whole shebang:
“Judy and I reached an amicable settlement on custody, mainly because I didn’t want to fight her anymore. Her family is well off and were not shy about retaining the biggest shark tank in L. A.”
The story is about more than just a bitter divorcé, though. Rather it is about a father reliving something that happened when he was a kid, a little older than his son.
One of the things I noticed about this story (and all of Bell’s writing) is the strength of the narrator’s voice when he’s writing in first person. It is always dipping with character, attitude and is firmly rooted in wherever the character is from (usually L. A.). In this story, even when he takes the character back in time to his teenage years, the voice is distinctive and unmistakably the voice of a teen,
“That’s what got him in bad with Robbie Winkleblack…”
“I ran away, too, but I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking it was all over for me now. I’d be kicked out of school, maybe thrown into juvie.”
How can you make readers care about your characters whether or not they think they are going to?
This is an extraordinary story, and the one that sky-rocketed Guy de Maupassant to literary stardom. I can see why.
Unlike many stories written in the later 19th Century I found this one immensely accessible. The language was vivid yet not convoluted (perhaps because it has been tranlated from the original French?) and the characters intense and vivid.
It is set during the Franco-Prussian war (and if you don’t know much European history, the lively description of the occupation of French towns by the German armies in the 1800s does a lot to set the stage for what happened during the two world wars at the start of the 20th century).
The story has a longer set-up than modern stories tend to. The author spends a lot of time setting the scene before what we would call ‘the inciting incident’ that gets the story underway, but somehow it doesn’t drag. It is fascinating and descriptive and energetic and I couldn’t stop reading, even though I had no idea yet who the main characters were going to be or what the story was ‘about’.
When things do get rolling (literally) we embark on a long carriage ride with an unlikely group of companions who are thrown together by their desire to escape their occupied town and their wealth, which gives them the means to do so. Wealth, of course, is no indicator of social class and de Maupassant populates the carriage with a fascinating bunch of characters. Yes, they are largely stereotypes (much as the characters in Dickens often are) but they each have enough color to make it seem possible they might actually be real.
The story crests along with false starts and it teases us that things are going to turn out one way until we reach a point of no return. Now all that scene-setting and character-building de Mauppassant has been doing finally pays off as the story slides to its inevitable conclusion. The masterful part is that, like someone watching a mudslide or avalanche engulf a pretty mountain village, the reader can’t help but root for a miraculous change of course.
This is a story that, as well as being enjoyable and stuffed with great language, is firmly rooted in short story history.
Dr. Heidegger invites five old reprobates to his study for an experiment (as apparently all men of learning did from time to time if Hawthorne and H. G. Wells and all the rest are to be believed). Of course, it turns out that the guests are the subjects of the experiment and, of course, it doesn’t go well.
As I was reading it I was aware that the style is so far from our modern style of writing and talking as to be almost as foreign as Shakespeare (in fact, it probably will be in a couple of generations). It’s not quite as dense as Dickens, not quite as antiquated as Washington Irving, but has that strong third-person narrator that not so many writers use any more (with apologies to Terry Pratchett, who lets the narrator visit from time to time).
It wasn’t just influenced by the past, though. I could clearly see how this story (and others like it) had influenced another generation of writers: the early science fiction and fantasy writers; the people who wrote for The Twilight Zone and other early TV shows. There’s a strong dose of the mysterious, the tricksy, the twisty ending (though this one doesn’t twist so much). I could clearly imagine this, updated and dusted off, in a Twilight Zone episode.
In fact, it occurred to me that this would make a perfect story to use in the CopyCat Workshop component of the I, WRITER course. If you already have your copy, why not dig out that workshop and give it a try today?
“Heart of a Champion” takes the reader from the opening credits to the close of an old (fictional) Lassie serial.
It is fascinating tutorial for those of us who have absorbed most of our ‘short stories’ in the form of TV shows or webisodes or through other visual media. It demonstrates quite nimbly, how to move from a visual image to the written word. It’d be worth reading for that alone, even if it wasn’t beautifully written and laugh-out-loud funny, too.
Another great feature of this story is that it parodies a much-loved show but goes beyond simple goofing around with the predictability of the TV show. The author thinks hard about the question of ‘what if it didn’t have to end the way it always had to end?’. He comments, subtly on what the show said about the characters who sleep-walked their way through it and the society that it was created by and that it reflected.
If you are heavily influenced by movies or TV shows, read this story, then write a story that contains similarly cinematic images.
If you are attempting a parody, take a close look at what this story does to do more than simply turn into a ‘skit’ and instead become a whole, novel piece of art.
I found this story in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and I loved it.
It’s a sci-fi story set on Earth, on the RMS Titanic, to be precise. How can that be a sci-fi/fantasy story? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.
The story takes place exclusively around a card table on the luxury liner. Four men are playing Bridge and talking in a wide-ranging conversation as people do: they talk about where they’re from, what they’re thinking about, each one interjecting something that a man of his time, class and geographical identity might know something about.
The whole piece is beautifully crafted. Each character has a distinct voice and a careful use of dialogue tags keeps us straight in case there was any confusion.
Since we were talking about openings in last week’s Writing Prompt, I thought I’d quote from the opening of this story. It is very clever and repays the reader for a second reading. It promises one thing, delivers something different and then comes back and plays with us again, so we’re not quite sure where the writer is going.
“Is dangerous, this ice,” said the Russian.
The great frozen mass approached slowly, the steward struggling to push the cart across the threshold of the card room.
“I agree,” said the New Yorker. He shuffled a deck of cards, rather listlessly. “Looks like it’s about to give our steward here a hernia.”
“I only wanted enough to put in my brandy,” said the Texan. “Why’d he bring the whole block?”
“White Star line is very prideful of her service,” said the steward.
“They don’t do anything small on the Titanic,” the New Yorker said. “Not in first class, anyway.”
And then the story moves away from the ice and the Titanic and follows the mens’ conversation as they range all over history, philosophy, linguistics and fantasy. It’s a great discussion in itself, which keeps you reading. (I like stories where I feel like I’m learning something, or remembering something I once knew. I like stories that make me feel clever, don’t you?)
As the discussion continues, it subtly, subtly becomes clear that they are closing in on one topic, that is going to be the point of this story. The author uses repetition and comic relief in a really skillful way, to set up the eventual conclusion.
At the end of this story I sat back and said “Ha!” out loud, in an empty room.
I love it when that happens.
One of the things I love about short stories is the way they can play with form. They are, at their best, unpredictable. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman (which I found in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 anthology) is a perfect illustration.
Written in the form of answers to a police interrogation, the story never actually tells you what those questions were, leaving you to both speculate and laugh out loud at times. It unfolds gradually from the shallow answers given by a teenaged girl about her less-than-perfect homelife, to something much more complex and true. And funny and touching and hopeful and sad.
That the protagonist is answering a interrogation tells you immediately that something has gone wrong and you read in part to find out what. But after a while, as I often find with Neil Gaiman’s writing, you are reading just for the sheer joy of it. His use of language and character are masterful, engaging and accessible.
After reading this story, I immediately called over my precocious nine-year old son and read it again, over his shoulder. Upon finishing, he flipped back to the start to read it again too. It’s like that.
Highly recommended if you feel you’re getting into a rut with your short story writing and need some inspiration for a shake up. Or if you just want to read a fine, well-written short story.
I came a little late to the stories of Ray Bradbury and that’s probably a good thing. I was much too literal as a teenager and probably wouldn’t have known what to make of his fantastic, thought-provoking, stories with their lyrical language.
When I did discover his writing, of course, I had my mind blown in little controlled explosions by stories like “A Sound of Thunder”, “The Rocket Man” and “The Fog Horn”.
But I hadn’t read any of his stories for years. Now, getting ready to introduce them to my own children, I picked up a collection of his early stories and sat down to read.
The very first story in the collection was “The Fog Horn”, one of my very favorites.
As I started to read, I was a little worried that I had over-romanticized Bradbury’s stories in my memory. Here were two lighthouse-keepers oiling the lamp and chatting in a fairly mundane way about their job. Maybe I wasn’t going to be as transported, at this age, as I was a decade or more ago.
Then the older lighthouse keeper tells the younger a theory he has about how the fog horn was invented.
“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, an being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll made me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.'”
The Fog Horn blew.
And that’s just for starters.
The ideas in Bradbury’s stories are wonderful and the worlds are fantastic or sometimes mundane and all of the experiences are deep and human, and the language..ah the language.
You might not love his stories the way I do, but I would recommend reading a few of them if only to see in practice this truth: you should not be afraid to write in your own voice.
Bradbury is often referred to as a science fiction writer because his most famous stories deal with rockets, and Mars and time-travel. Bradbury was writing during the ‘Golden Age’ of speculative fiction and that’s where his stories were being published – in Sci-fi magazines. But he doesn’t try to sound like his peers, nor does he limit himself to descriptions of the cold depths of space, spaceships or alien planets. He writes in an inimitable, poetic style about ideas that fascinate him in words that could only come together in that order, out of his Bradbury brain.
Go you, and do likewise.
I’ll tell you this up-front: I’m an optimist, a romantic. I like my heroes larger than life and my endings to, well, end. I get impatient with stories that are just like life: a little change here and there, but then they just stop and life goes on. I can appreciate stories like that. I can admire them. But I can never love them, or their protagonists.
The title of this Grace Paley story, “Goodbye and Good Luck” was an implicit promise from the author to the reader that this story would have a real change in it, that life wouldn’t just trickle on as before.
This was the first story I’m aware of having read that was written by Grace Paley, so I didn’t know if I could trust her to deliver on that promise, but she did.
Not only does the story have a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end, it has a real character as its protagonist — and I say that not in the literary sense, but in the way your grandmother would have said it: “Oh yeah, that Rosie. She’s a real character!”
Written in the first person though, the character doesn’t seem outsized. That, I thought, was an interesting lesson for writers. Just as your villain never sees himself not as the villain in someone else’s story but the hero of his own, truly remarkable characters don’t see themselves as remarkable. They are just as they are. Telling the story from their perspective is an interesting way of avoiding moralizing or lionizing or any other kind of -izing.
At the start of this story Rose begins to tell her niece Lillie, the story of her life. I was a little adrift at first, trying to figure out who was talking and where and when and why. I didn’t understand the rhythms of her speech or the minutiae of all the things she referred to. But as soon as I relaxed and let the story go, I realized it was useful. My unfamiliarity with the world of the story made it seem more realistically set in its own time and space. The author didn’t need to waste time explaining what “novelty wear” was. It was enough that the character, Rosie, knew. Perhaps even her niece didn’t know but Rose bulldozes on, telling her own story from the past, without stopping to check, and that told me plenty about Rose herself.
Rosie worked for a theater company in the grand era of Yiddish theater and is, herself, a grand storyteller. Soon you forget to wonder why Rose is telling this story to her niece. It pulls you along, capturing the rhythms and sounds, the mores and daily details of another time.
But of course there is a reason for the story. I sensed it coming and hoped I was right and then, there we were at the end of the story, like the end of a satisfying meal.
This story is a great example of how to use character and setting to tell a ‘simple’ story, in which there is little ‘on-screen action’, and how to include details without weighing the story down in acres of description and explanation.
Goodbye and Good Luck, indeed.
This story comes from Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories.
The title of the collection made me a bit nervous, I’ll confess. I’m not Jewish and I wasn’t – until last year – American, and I wasn’t sure where Englander was going with that Anne Frank reference.
I needn’t have worried. All the rave reviews were well earned.
The stories are universal in appeal, dealing with everything from growing up in a small town, feeling different (and who hasn’t?), to navigating the waters of relationships, to the world of the elderly at a summer retreat (don’t call it a ‘camp’!), from the very human costs of founding of an Israeli settlement, to the experience of an all-American boy visiting a peep show (and the ghosts of his past).
“How We Avenged The Blums” is the third story in the collection and feels like any one of the ‘it was tough to be the nerd in middle school’ stories you might read written by anyone bookish from any background. The boys in this story are different because they are Jewish and attend the Yeshiva school rather than the public school. When one of their classmates is attacked by bullies, the boys set about planning their revenge. They are almost comically unqualified for the job…until the fortuitous arrival of Boris, a Russian Jew, veteran of both the Russian and Israeli armies. The boys persuade Boris to help train them and spend weeks preparing for a showdown with the bullies.
The story is immersive, dropping the reader into the world of a 1980s suburban Jewish community of boys on the edge of adulthood, of adults preoccupied with the community’s problems in the wider world, of expectations and cultural references that you don’t have to have known to nevertheless ‘grok’.
The writing is utterly engrossing. Englander spoons out cultural details and historical references in perfect portions while driving the story with strong characters. He evokes the panic and hopelessness of the bullied middle-schoolers without ever preaching. And then ends the story perfectly: maintaining the boys’ perspective, allowing the reader to filter it and figure out how the story should affect them.
This is a great example, for writers, of how to lead a reader right up to the point of what you want to say, but not to ram it down their throats — and not to leave them feeling disappointed either. This story definitely ends. It just doesn’t end with the author standing up on a soap box and saying, “now, in case you missed my point…”
I recommend the whole collection.
Have you read this story? What did you think?
How do you feel about stories that evoke a very specific time/place/community? Do you like to learn about others? Do you feel disconnected from it? Do you ever write this way?
Leave a comment and let’s talk!
…Reading these short stories has made me realize that it’s a place I can go, a place I should go in my own fiction. …
Today I’m posting an interview with Jami, who blogs about her adventures reading a story a day in 2012 at Worth The Effort.
You’ll be seeing some of her posts here over the next few months, in the regular Tuesday Reading Room series. I highly recommend you visit/bookmark/subscribe to her blog. It’s a great resource and a fascinating look at the benefits of immersing yourself in the literature while continuing to write.
1. Why did you decide to read a story a day?
I wanted a goal, a realistic goal. Last year I committed myself to reading a novel a week but by year’s end I’d only read 41 novels [“only”?! – Ed.]. So, I wanted to do something different and my brother, who is a fantastic writer of short stories actually, encouraged me to read more short stories. Then it occurred to me that I really hadn’t balanced my reading and that shorter fiction would be a good change for me. That’s how it happened. I decided to set a goal, a short story a day for the entire year, blogging short reviews along the way.
2. How many have you read so far?
I’ve read 102 stories at this point as I’ve managed to keep up with my goal. I’ve read a short story a day for the entire year thus far.
3. Are you discovering a style you love?
Not really, or at least not as it relates to style. I do find that stories rich in tiny and interesting details keep my attention and make me want to read more. Other than that, I’m reading almost exclusively what might be categorized as literary fiction. Though I have a science fiction week planned for the month of June so we’ll see how my answer might change after that.
4. Are you trying to read outside that style anyway?
Yes, I’m always looking for new styles. Sometimes, the story I’m reading is heavy in dialogue. Other times, there is little to no dialogue but plenty of voice in the first person narrative. I like them all so long as the story itself is worth the read.
5. What patterns are emerging, as you read?
I’ve come across a lot of stories that deal with family and I find that interesting, particularly because in my own writing I’ve always shied away from those types of stories. Reading these short stories has made me realize that it’s a place I can go, a place I should go in my own fiction. And, it helps that the authors I’m reading do this very well. Judy Troy is a good example of this type of writer. I could read her stories as long as she writes them. She doesn’t bore me and I never find her writing flat. There are some though in this first 100 days that I was disappointed in and those stories consistently failed to draw me in from the start. A beginning is crucial.
6. Would you recommend other people try this? Why?
Absolutely. Reading a short story by a particular author is like getting to taste test a dish at a fine dining restaurant. Why spend the money on a pricey entree if the appetizer isn’t worth the cash you drop on it. A short story is a good foray into any writer’s longer fiction. Besides, short stories are easy to digest in quick bursts. A reader can make decisions for future reading based on these short stories. For me, that is a huge bonus.
7. What are your plans for the future?
I plan on continuing with reading a short story a day for the year 2012. I also plan to continue writing fiction daily, focusing my attention on developing and staying true to my own voice even if I am reading a different one every day. There’s also novel length fiction and I’m still reading my fair share of that as well. That won’t stop. I still plan on hitting around 25 novels this year. That’s the plan at least.
Check back in next Tuesday to read her first guest-post in the Reading Room.
Are you reading enough? Do you read short stories? Are you reading them more as you prepare for StoryADay May?