[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] Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

I have a subscription to Storyville, on my iPhone, because I’m a sucker for new business models and digital publishing, and I’m enjoying being exposed to a wide array of stories (old and new) every week.

This week’s story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li, slowly unfolds the story of a couple, past the first flush of youth, meeting and deciding whether or not to marry. The story is set in modern-day Beijing. The woman in the story has lived there all her life, hardly noticing that she is aging and becoming a spinster, while the bachelor son of her old college professor has been off living in America.

It is anything but a cliched romance, though I will say that it has a satisfying ending. The author is quite skilled at making the characters and their culture seem complete and real without losing their interesting edge.

I liked the indirect way we learn about the characters and their backstories, as in this remark about the professor,

“Professor Dai must miss her students these days,” Siuy said after she and Hanfeng had exchanged greetings, although she knew it was not the students that his mother missed but the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals.

All the revelations about the characters are measured and careful, just like the characters. The whole story is a skilled blend of what we are told and how it is told, leading us to accept the ending and even agree with the choices the characters make.

It’s worth remembering that how a story is told can contribute as much to the reader’s experience as the things we write.

[Markets for Writers] Postcard Shorts

Inspired by a postcard-length short story by science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, Postcard Shorts accepts stories that are, well, postcard length.
PostcardShorts.com screenshot

(That translates to about 250 words)

Pretty much anything goes, as long as it’s not completely devoid of merit (in the Editor’s opinion). The Editor’s decision is final.

The copyright for anything you submit is wholly yours. You own it. This site just displays your work.
– from Postcardshorts.com

This is not a paying market but it is bite-sized and very tempting.

Write-On-Wednesdays – Embrace Your Inner Sadist

If you saw the comments on last week’s post 6 Reasons You’ll Never Be A Writer, you’ll know that one reasons touched a nerve with a lot of people:

#6: You’re Too Nice

Commenter Michelle Kobayashi captured the mood when she said:

“My first 17 chapters were very nice. There was little conflict and the characters worked out their issues reasonably.

“It sucked.

“Then I learned about inciting incidents and the need for conflict. That’s when the fun began. One character in particular is so rude I cringe when I reread her scenes. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Embrace your inner sadist indeed!”

(Thanks to Donald Maass for the catchy slogan at the end there!)

Seems like this is something ia lot of us need practise with. So,

The Prompt

Shout ! ! !
Photo by lempicki.maciek

Write a scene featuring a truly loathsome (but believable) character. They don’t have to be a Disney Villain. It could be that really annoying person at work who has no redeeming qualities that you can find, no matter how hard you try.

Dig deep. Remember how annoying, frustrating, irritating your least favorite person in the world is. Pair them up with your favorite hero-type and give them a scene.

Then let your hero say all the things you’ve rehearsed in your head but would never say, because you’re just, well, too nice.

Let it all out. Make us (and yourself) cringe.

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in some way in your story (however tenuous the connection)
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post your scene in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Embracing My Inner Sadist: http://bit.ly/ehx03t #WriteOnWed #storyaday

I never knew I could be so mean! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://bit.ly/ehx03t

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “Embrace Your Inner Sadist″: http://bit.ly/ehx03t

Come and write with us today: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday

See my story – and write your own: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

With thanks to my friends at Creative Copy Challenge for inspiration and support. Go to Creative Copy Challenge every day for a new writing prompt and supportive community of writers.


Write-On-Wednesdays – 2001: A Short Odyssey

Introducing Write On Wednesdays: a weekly warm-up for all endurance writers.  Wednesday is the day we limber up for the challenge of writing a story a month; or keep the muscles warm after the challenge is over. No point getting all those creative muscles in shape only to let them atrophy!

The Prompt

What might you – or a character very like you – have been doing on this afternoon ten years ago? Write a short story that springs from a circumstance or character from your life in February 2001.

OK, so we weren’t traveling to moon bases and stopping off on rotating space stations, but there was a lot of other stuff going on. Remember, this was post-Millennium Bug, pre-9/11 (but only by 7 months), after the first dotcom bubble had burst but before the banking/mortgage collapse. Friends and Seinfeld were still on the air but American Idol was not. “Reality” TV was just about to take over from quiz shows as the new money spinner for networks and no-one was watching video online yet.

What was life like all those years ago? Take us back.

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in some way in your story (however tenuous the connection)
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post the story in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Travel back in time to Feb 2001: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

What were you doing 10 years ago? Is there a story there? #WriteOnWed http://t.co/OpHsJ04

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “2001”: hhttp://t.co/OpHsJ04

Come and write with us: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

See my story – and write your own: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

With thanks to my friends at Creative Copy Challenge for inspiration and support. Go to Creative Copy Challenge every day for a new writing prompt and supportive community of writers.

Don’t Try To Do Too Much in One Short Story

The best short stories can say a lot, but they don’t try to do too much.
A short story is not a novel…

one candle
The best short stories can say a lot, but they don’t try to do too much.

Writing a story a day is going to be a huge challenge. Inventing characters and settings and inhabiting them for just one day? Huge.

Don’t try to do too much.

We don’t have the time or space to tell wandering epics.

We have time for one incident or one central character or theme [1. by the way all of this is also not true. In writing rules are made to be broken. Except that one about the apostrophe. I will hunt you down and smack your palm with a ruler if you put an apostrophe before the “s” in a plural!]

If your story starts to wander towards an interesting side character, slap that character’s hand and promise him he can be the hero of tomorrow’s story. If you find yourself backtracking to show too much of what happened before the ‘now’ of your story, file the idea and write a prequel tomorrow.

The beauty of writing aevery day is that you don’t have to do it all today. You can write tomorrow. In fact, you have to!

Finish Today, Plan For Tomorrow

So finish the story you started (even if you’ve fallen out of love with it) and make note of all the other ideas that were so good they butted in today.


Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.
-Ezra Pound


Ideas! Ideas! Finding Writing Ideas For Your Short Story

Some days finding ideas is easier than others.

On the days where the story ideas are flowing, stick a bucket under the spigot and catch them all. You’ll need them later. Here are some prompts to get that idea spigot to open. Get ready with your notebook…

Some days finding ideas is easier than others.

On the days where the story ideas are flowing, stick a bucket under the spigot and catch them all. You’ll need them later.

(And when you come back to them, give them your full attention. “Cell-phone trouser call” might not mean much at first glance, but on a second glance you’ll remember the idea you had for a girlfriend whose boyfriend had an amusing habit of putting his bluetooth headset in his pocket and redialing her by accident. If you give it few moments of serious thought you’ll remember how you thought that might go bad and what tone of story it was going to be. If today’s the day for that story, go for it.)

Here are some prompts to get that idea spigot to open. Get ready with your notebook…

Your past

Think of incidents in your life that have stayed with you: the playground fight when you were 10; the day everyone gathered to watch you complete the Rubik’s cube; your wedding day; that time you embarrassed yourself so horribly that you blushed to think about for five years straight. Can you go back and put a fictional character in that situation? Can she go somewhere with it? Why is she there? Does it happen the same way or does she handle it the way you wish you had? play!

Your Family’s Past

What about all those stories that you heard, growing up? Yu heard them over and over again until you groaned. You might not know exactly what Poughkeepsie looked lik in 1956, but you know the emotional core of the story and you know one or two details that will give your short story authenticity(didn’t your mother always interrupt your dad’s story to rib him about his finely coiffed ‘DA’ hair? And didn’t your dad get her back by reminding her of the gold necklace she was so snooty about, but that turned her neck green?). Re-purpose these stories, with different people and a different setting if you need to. But stay true to the point of the story, to the point the teller was trying to make.

Your future

You know how interviewers ask you where you see yourself in five years? Well, why not turn that into a story? Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s a character you’ve had rattling around in your head. Maybe it’s a ‘real’ fictional character. Where is Moriarty five years after Holmes’s death? What about Harry Potter? (Now, these would count as ‘fan fiction’ and might represent a breach of trademark or copyright, but if you’re just writing them as a creativity exercise for yourself, you probably shouldn’t worry too much. But you might not want to try to publish these ones. [3. there’s a recent book by Melanie Benjamin called Alice I Have Been which imagines the life of the real girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland)

Obituaries

Obituaries of ordinary people contain wonderful character sketches: the whole family, the era they lived in, their interests, their careers. Sometimes you can imagine the person, their hopes and dreams, from the activities they pursued and the comments of those left behind. Online obituary listings often have ‘guest books’ where loved ones add more detail. OK, maybe you think I’m being ghoulish. I prefer to see this ideas as a tribute to the departed person.

Your world

Look around. What do you see that is out of place? What could it mean? Elizabeth Peters saw a trash bag lying lumpily at the side of the road and thought,

‘Oo, what if that was a dead body?’

Then she wrote a novel – a whole novel! – from that kernel of an idea.

What can you see

A man, talking quietly into a cell phone at the coffee shop? Why quietly? Might we say ‘furtively’? Why is he here and not at work or at home with his wife? Is he meeting his girlfriend? Oh look, a beautiful woman just walked in and sat with him. He smiles too much, is way too chatty for that to be his wife. Is he having an affair? What if his wife arrives? What if he is meeting with an event planner to plan a lavish 40th birthday party for the wife?

Is there a traffic cone on top of a statue in town? We all know students put it there, but who were they? How did they feel? Would they do it again?
There’s a kite stuck in a tree? How did it get there?

An old man sits on a bench, staring at his shoes. Who is he? What is he thinking? What has he seen in his life?


Ideas are everywhere. Keep your eyes open and your notebook handy.

Need more help? Get the ebook that grew out of this article: Breaking Writers’ Block, A StoryADay Guide