Posted tagged ‘short stories’

12 Short Stories and Their Making

May 7, 2009

I’ll confess at the start of this post that I don’t have a high respect for most how-to writing guides. I’m not sure that fiction writing can be taught. Having said that, though, I do think it can be learned. In my experience this is done in two ways: extensive reading and exhaustive writing. We’re on our own for the second part, but occasionally we can find a little help with the first part.

I recently finished reading 12 Short Stories and Their Making, an anthology collected by Paul Mandelbaum and published in 2005 by Persea Books. Within are twelve richly textured short stories followed by interviews with their authors. Among the writers included are familiar names like Sandra Cisneros, Ellen Gilchrist, Gail Godwin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tobias Wolff. Each author’s story is presented first, and it is followed by a conversation between Mandelbaum and the author. The conversations provide insight into the varying creative processes of these diverse writers.

This isn’t a book telling you how to write your short story. Rather, it is a book telling you how these authors wrote their short stories. The conversations describe how the stories came to be written the way they were as well as how they couldn’t have been written in any other way. We see what their motivations and intentions were. Sometimes we see what other writing has influenced them or what incidents in their lives found their way into the stories and why. Mandelbaum also manages to tease some technical discussion from each writer. By offering these insights, this book lets all of us see how it might be done and so perhaps plumb our murky depths to find our own motivations. It gives us a sort of permission to venture down new creative roads.

The anthology does not try to be all things to all writers. Rather, it takes a more measured approach, offering two selections for each of the categories: character, plot, point of view/voice, setting, structure, and theme. The stories are arranged by which category they best illustrate. With a breakdown like this, and with the in-depth interviews that follow each story, this book might deserve a place on your reference shelf.

For my part, I always like to read anthologies because I get introduced to writers I have not tried before. Often I find a new favorite among them. Persea Books has several other writer-focused anthologies that might merit your attention as well.

Rumpole Rests His Case

April 6, 2008

Another weekend and another audio book. This time around I listened to several short stories in the Rumpole Rests His Case collection by John Mortimer. If you’re not familiar with the Rumpole series, it’s sufficient to know that Horace Rumpole is a bemused yet skilled barrister in the British courts. Though the series is contemporary, you can’t help but feel that old-tyme English sense to it. (Many of these stories were produced into a delightful television series some years back starring Leo McKern, who was certainly the perfect actor for the part since Mortimer wrote the character specifically for him.)

Rumpole is surrounded by dozens of colorful characters, and though he does manage to solve crimes or at least see that justice is done, these stories aren’t so much about the mysteries involved as the delightful character interplay. The story “Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf” is a good example. Given the clues that are presented, it’s easy to know whodunit by the halfway point in the story. But the fun is seeing how Rumpole manages to pull off the resolution given that the entire British justice system is resisting him. In fact, several points of “evidence” that the reader would need to know to solve the mystery aren’t given until Rumpole uses them, so the (tired) old adage that the reader must have all of the facts isn’t observed. But the mysteries aren’t the point of these stories. The characters are.

I’ve often thought that the British can do mysteries better than the Yanks. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it has to do in part with the more rigid social structure of their society. If (fictional) people can be sorted by fairly reliable categories then the structure of mystery plotting can be more solidly built. Bounders can then be readily used as the culprits. Also, the British have such a profound pedigree in the mystery genre that I think it is in their blood. Americans seem to do better with gritty police procedurals, so each to its strength.

He carries on

January 18, 2008

I received a couple of rejections this week. (I hate it when they travel in packs!)

One was for a short story of mine, “Night train to Kisumu,” that I had submitted to an ezine interested in stories that deal with travel, both mental and physical. My story is based on a trip I made to Kenya a little over a year ago, and given the current tensions there, I hoped the story’s timeliness would help it find a home. That didn’t happen. I had corresponded briefly with the editor during the couple of months my story was under consideration, and I know it wasn’t rejected out of hand. It was given fair consideration.

Now, of course, the task before me is to send it around to another magazine to consider it for publication. This is my weakest area. I just don’t know the markets well. When I was writing nonfiction, I knew the magazines, knew what they wanted, and knew what I could suggests. Fiction is a different matter. Just what are the markets for a sort of travel article about some Ugly Americans that suggests revolution is in the air? No doubt there are many magazines that might be interested, but I have to find them.

I wallowed in despair and self pity for a few days, then I turned to my ever-reliable resource, Duotrope’s Digest, to see what it might tell me. (If you have a short story to sell, do yourself a favor and visit that site.) A few minutes of casual searching turned up more than a dozen possible magazines, and a bit more in depth research showed me two that will get submissions today.

The second rejection I received was from an agent who asked to see a partial of Finnegans Festive. She had asked for it back in September, and I sent it to her the first moment I could. Then I waited. And waited. I sent queries to several more agents. (One has since asked for a partial.) I kept writing. I sent a few short stories around. I checked my email inbox every day (several times every day).

Her response came this week. I don’t suppose three months is a long response time for a fiction query. Her words were kind, and I know that at least the first paragraph of her email was written specifically to me (rather than a stock rejection text). She complimented me on the quality of the writing. (I get that a lot, and you’d think I’d be flattered by it, but I it’s a lot like always being a bride’s maid and never a bride.) Even so, I gain confidence that my story telling skills are up to the challenge.

So I carry on. There are dozens of agents out there I haven’t queried yet, and at least one of them is going to be delighted to get my email!

The Sleep of Reason

January 5, 2008

I’ve finally admitted to myself that the short story/novella I’ve been working on called “The Sleep of Reason” is actually a novel. I spent a couple of hours yesterday writing a simple passage that gets the protagonist down to breakfast, and as brutally trimmed as it was, it came out to more than 800 words. That’s fine for its purpose, which is to show that the protagonist is essentially alone and not in the companionable relationship with his old friend that he thought he was, but it shows how long the tale will become, and that presents a problem.

I am supposed to be working on another novel right now: Finnegans Afoot. I’d say I’m about two thirds of the way completed with the first draft of that novel. It’s time to build to the climax, and that deserves my attention. Yet I keep finding myself pulled toward the other story, and now that I recognize it as a novel, I need to give it better attention. (Yes, I had been giving it appropriate attention as a short story — I think that’s why it blossomed into the novel-in-waiting that it now is.)

What to do? I guess to begin with, I can start citing The Sleep of Reason in italics rather than quotation marks. Can I do justice to either story, though, if I’m working on two at once? Fortunately, they are quite different in tone and voice, and I know that many writers have more than one project in the works at the same time. I guess I’ll just find out how well I can do that.

On shorter matters

January 1, 2008

Along with the Finnegans cozy mystery novels I am writing, I also have about a half dozen short stories in the stable that I bring out periodically for a ride through the marketplace. I have one “literary” short story already published in a university journal, and a sort of fantasy story I wrote (and rewrote, and rewrote) will appear in the Beacons of Tomorrow speculative fiction anthology this year.

I currently have two short stories in submission with different magazines. One is a type of crime confessional that I submitted to a moderately well known print magazine. I had read some of the stories it has published in the past, and I thought mine was similar to a few of those (which all editors implore submitters to do), so in it went a couple of months ago. The stated response time has passed with no word reaching me. I don’t know if that means it’s still at the bottom of the slush pile or if it is under serious consideration or what. The best medication for this kind of submission anxiety, I have found, is simply to get other works in the submission pipeline to take my mind off the one. (Or to spread the anxiety across more than one?)

So to calm my worries I have another story out with an editor of an ezine. This is a serious story with a not-very-hopeful ending. I have called it “Night Train to Kisumu.” It is based on a trip I made to Kenya two years ago, and the current situation there exactly manifests what my story (and experience) had suggested. As horrible as the situation is there right now, I’m hoping that it will at least give some credibility to my story with the editor who is considering it.

There are a few “first-draft” short stories I have written that deserve a little more attention. I think I could pretty quickly polish them into submittable form. Then I could get them out there in the marketplace. I know that agents and editors say that a queried novel will stand or fall on its own merits, but I suspect that having proven fiction credentials by getting short stories published will make a difference.

I’ve mentioned here before that I am currently struggling with a story I’ve titled “The Sleep of Reason.” It’s not going to be a short story, but I don’t think it will be a novel either. It will probably fall into the novella category, which means that unless I can find some anthology somewhere that wants it, the piece probably won’t find a home in print.

If I am optimistic, I can say that the story is a third of the way completed (though I suspect it’s more like a fourth). What I’ve written so far comes to more than 7,000 words. Even I can do the math.

This story has been a real beast. I anguish over every word, trying to find exactly the right words to express the tone or the character’s insights (revulsion at this point in the story). I write a sentence. Then I turn it around. Then I chop it into pieces and slip the pieces in here and there to see if they fit. Then I decide it’s all wrong and shove it to the bottom of the page to use later if I find a place for it. I worked for more than four hours on one passage the other day, accumulating about 500 words, and most of those I’m not satisfied with.

I’m struggling with it not because I have a bad story to tell but because I have a good one, and it must be told right. Though this story probably has less likelihood of getting published than my short stories or even my novels, I feel a compulsion to write it to its very end.