Tag Archives: short story

How Not to Respond to Success

Dame Sally Markham from Little BritainEmerging writers are tired people. We’re working on building our networks, improving our storytelling and writing, marketing ourselves as writers, and fretting over query letters to entice agents to represent us. The idea that novelists sit around eating bon bons and dictating prose into a recorder is a non-author’s fantasy. Real writers wear out their keyboards and keep going.

It’s impossible, quite frankly, to do all of this and keep every vestige of reasonableness in one’s body. Some of our patience wears thin; or we misplace a bit of perspective here or there. I think I have some alertness stuck under the dryer in my laundry room, for example. Or maybe it’s acuity; I can’t tell, because I’ve dribbled out some of my ability to ascertain my own aspects of intelligence. Read More…

Flash Fiction: After the Fall

It’s not as short as Hemingway’s shortest story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn.) but seeing as I don’t compare myself to him, it doesn’t matter. It is, however, my shortest story, barely scratching 450 words.

She feels the pressure at her knees, because this roof is on more of a slant than the hill behind her house, and she’s only used to running down dirt and grass. Something about this hard tile surface hurts.

Looking toward the sunset she’s excited by how far her vision extends. She’s only ever seen the curve of the earth when she visits the coast with her parents, and somehow, it never seemed as powerful a view as this does now. She wishes, for a snatch of time, that she could just extend this sunset into tomorrow. Read More…

Friday Flash No. 7: Mummy

My heart was on fire, or at least, it felt like it was on fire. I kept one hand over the middle of my chest to double check. A nurse noticed and came over to me.

“Inez, are you in pain again?”

I nodded. I still wasn’t any good at talking. Not on a consistent basis.

The nurse leaned in and squinted at the monitor behind me. “I can only give you one more increase,” she said, twisting something on my IV line. “The pain should start to subside soon.” She patted me gently on my shoulder and I resisted jerking away. I smiled at her in as small a fashion as possible, so I wouldn’t tear the corners of my mouth. Read More…

Conception

He handed the jar to me, a small glass container with a fluttery light inside it, some kind of hybrid between electricity, butterflies, and lightning bugs. The glass lid clattered a little as there was nothing sealing it to the jar itself.

For all of its importance Jayman pressed it into my hands without much care, not waiting to see if I had a firm grip on the thing before he headed back off toward his cubicle. I almost dropped it, and that would have been a disaster.

Read More…

I’m a big boy now

A couple of weeks ago, Johanna Harness on her blog talked about literary rejection as not unlike the experience of learning to walk. We humans, we learn to stand, then take small steps while holding onto something sturdier than ourselves, and we fall down, a whole hell of a lot. Somehow when we’re toddlers, without all of this cumbersome self-reflection and analysis, we don’t really mind the hiccups that are part and parcel with the learning process. But sheesh, get a couple of “I’m just not the right agent” letters, decades later, and it can be an unraveling worse than seeing your favorite baby blanket in tatters.

Something happened in the meanwhile, Johanna posits, that changed how we feel regarding the negative side of the learning process. And it behooves people trying to write for a living to retain the totality of experiences related to getting work published. Read More…

Short story: 8 Ball

This story is old. Old, old, old, like nearly two decades worth of mold growth old. But as I’m otherwise occupied today, with writing something new and inventive and much better than this, I thought I’d share. The story here today is not entirely based on a new story, but it certainly has elements of early 1990s Syracuse. Enjoy!

It’s about the size of a typical urban efficiency apartment, with a faded certificate of occupancy stuck on the wall by the front door, probably with some bouncer’s chewing gum, announcing it is fit to house 35 people legally. Thirty-five dyke pygmies, maybe, but not 35 wide-assed people. Smoke hangs next to the low ceiling, hovering around the light over the small and slanted pool table, a cheap but efficient way of adding a dramatic atmosphere to both the serious and poseur sharks who swim underneath it. Most of the patrons use pool-playing as a tried and true method of picking up dates, but this usually leads to them slamming the stick into the cue ball too hard, ricocheting the shot out of the hole and ending in a staccato set of swears as they express their “disappointment.”

My friends and I have just entered the place for the third time in five days because one of them has a new crush on a townie who usually hangs out here. Usually, however, being the relative term that it is, has not included any of these three nights, and has led directly to my frustration at winding up in this dump once again, cheap beer or no cheap beer. Read More…

Friday Flash No. 5: Lost Boy

He watched the activity around him: fruit salesman, old woman selling goat cheese, some loud man pulling people aside to show them silk scarves. Teddy was a little afraid of the scarves man.

Walking around seemed better than standing here waiting for Sophie to come back. The last he had noticed her, she’d been counting out change to give the woman from the dairy, two rows over.

“…Twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five cents,” she’d said, standing up straight and running her hands down her skirt. She didn’t like touching money, she’d told Teddy. It was very dirty, probably the dirtiest thing a person would touch all day, except for live chickens. Read More…

Not really an excerpt

There are two kinds of writers in the world, those who overwrite and those who work for test laboratories.

I often write more than will end up in a story or piece of nonfiction, and I see this as a blessing rather than a curse, since trying to pack things on a skeleton of prose is for me, difficult and prone to introducing everything from a non sequitur to a blatant inconsistency—I’m much more orderly when I stick to my process, which is:

Write down initial idea—this can be anything from a character I keep thinking about to a rare astrophysical condition to some circumstance that would explain a mystery

Expand on initial idea—Aliens on Parade grew out of a question I had about how traveling by wormhole could go wrong once in the hands of a lazy or in-over-their-heads government. I started thinking about technology: if we “discovered” how to open wormholes in space, would we also inadvertently be inviting people in? If answer = yes, then what happens?

Identify the actors—my bio sketches start out very simple and I grow them from there. Age, race/ethnicity, gender, orientation all help me figure out their positions, power, and privilege in society, whether it’s a society I’m trying to reflect or invent. Because I see these things at play in the actual world, I feel responsible to bringing them to bear in my writing. But their back stories are more complex. I’ll put in things like “was mugged two weeks ago,” “has unmanaged bipolar disorder and self-medicates with alcohol,” “won’t let anyone meet her mom because she’s on welfare.” I don’t feel the need to write out absolutely everything about them if I’m writing a shorter story, and I try to come up with circumstances for them that let me see greater depth of character when I need to.

Visualize the scenes—this gets harder for longer work, so I keep it flexible, and I will add and subtract to this list over time. I think of this like one would map out a scene shoot for a film. What do we have, where do we have it? I deeply appreciate any writer who can create scene description and keep it interesting, and not just because it’s a magical street in a magical city, which is supposed to be magically interesting all on its own. Once I’ve got a sense of my characters, I try to come up with places where they will be best expressed and then make sure it will work with the plot. If I can find a perfect setting to enhance the tone, then great. In my short story, Underwater, I tried to paint a minimal picture to ask the user to fill in with their starkest memories, while keeping the places in the story bereft of emotion other than tired and empty. I think it works for a story that’s under 2,000 words like this one. My novel-length sci fi piece, Superqueers, spends a lot more time showing different neighborhoods in Washington, DC, because I wanted to work against the every-city feel of other comic book hero stories. Incidentally that story grew out of an image I knew I needed to write 20 years ago, of a small greasy spoon diner and a very large man who drinks coffee there, spilling a lot of it and using many, many packets of sugar in the process.

Do the first draft and don’t stop—At this point, I can’t not write any longer; I have to type words out through my fingers now now now. I will take a few pages to get up to speed, although I don’t like seeing it this way. I’d love to think my work was perfect out of the gate, but in reality I’m in last place until the final turn, to drag the metaphor through the mud, mix it and beat it like a dead horse. I and most everyone I know need to do an awful lot of rewriting before I will say the words have been crafted. No blacksmith made a nail with the first strike. But this rewriting process will come later. I don’t worry about it because I’m writing, I’m progressing, I’m telling the story. I may not use the section or piece of dialogue later, but I will save whatever I write in the first draft. Everything lives in the first draft. If I sit down at the computer on Day 2 and I hate everything I wrote, I can start anew if I can’t write anything else, but I will not delete the crap from Day 1. Draft Number 1 holds onto everything. While I’m getting through this first draft I will return to the character bios and the scene list and the original idea, and update them. Matilda is allergic to strawberries. I need the boat out at sea, not at the dock. Those two characters are too similar so I’ll merge them into one and make a note to rewrite the dialogue in chapters 1–3.

Rewrite until it doesn’t suck—other people may have higher expectations for their writing, but I’m shooting for not laughable. Perhaps I’m being too modest; I think I’m a good writer, but I don’t want to get stuck on myself, and I know by now that things can always be improved. I have no love for self-absorbed writers, no matter their level of talent, so I strive not to become one myself. I can’t say when I think a story is done, but when I go through on say, the 20th pass and only have tiny changes to my language, it starts to occur to me to work on something else. I’m either blind to the quality of prose or I’m deadened to making changes and now’s the time to go revise something else or start something new. All the while pitching my best stuff to agents and journals. But that’s another post for another day. This rewriting phase starts out intense and mellows out, kind of like March. I’ll cut whole scenes, chapters, characters, change the ending, put in or take out subplots. Thank goodness I’m writing and not building houses, because I’d destroy every budget I saw.

With that in mind, here is the very original dream from my memoir that drove me, eventually, to transition. It’s no longer in the memoir itself, but it’s referred to and is the backstory for the main character—uh, namely me—and I revised it something like 10 times before I struck it entirely, so it’s rougher than the rest of the writing at this point.

Trees, everywhere, mostly evergreens. He looked around at them, some clumped up closely, branches looped together with their neighbors, some isolated from the rest, the lot of them with varying heights and apparent ages, climbing up the side of the mountain. Far below the side of the mountain the trees were reflected back almost perfectly from the surface of a very still, large lake. He wondered how he’d gotten here, patting himself down absentmindedly, as if identifying the things in his pockets would reveal a useful memory. Looking down at his clothes, he recognized an icon of sorts. Is that what they’re called? Icons? Stereotypes? He was struck by the idea of lumberjacks. This was probably because he was wearing a red flannel jacket, or shirt, he wasn’t sure. It was something in between, and it would later occur to him that there is in fact, a hybrid jacket-shirt-thingy for sale on the men’s fashion market, if one used a very loose definition of the term, “fashion.” But he did notice, after taking in the color and texture of it, that it wasn’t quite warm enough for the brisk morning air. Wait, was it morning?

He squinted at the sky, a pearly blue with a few wisps of cirrus clouds high, high away. Well, he knew what the hell a cirrus cloud was, that was a start. When had he learned about cirrus clouds? He had a clear memory of Mrs. Warms’ 8th grade science class at that crappy Catholic school on the main drag in Princeton. The one with the scary nuns. And then on graduation day with their caps and robes on, they all looked like nuns and none of their parents were clued in to the trauma that their children were experiencing.

So okay, he’s made it past elementary school. Good to know.

He took a few steps, only then realizing he had on light brown worker’s boots, with his jeans pulled down neatly over the tops. It occurred to him to touch his head, and to his shock he realized he had on a knit cap. He took it off and inspected it. Navy blue, maybe, or black. Size 7. Carhart brand.

Holy shit, he really was a lumberjack. That couldn’t be right, could it? He looked around for an ax and a large blue beast of burden.

Before he could continue on trying to figure out who the hell he was, he heard a voice behind him.

“Daniel! Daniel! What are you doing over here?”

He turned around and saw a woman running up a trail he hadn’t noticed, what with the sky looking gorgeous and the trail looking blah. She was wearing her own knit cap, plaid jacket, jeans, and work boots. There apparently was some kind of outdoorsy uniform going on here. Her cheeks were bright red from the cold and her spontaneous bout of jogging. Brown curly hair stuck out in gravity-defying directions as soon as it cleared the tight hat. She left the impression of looking like a balding Troll doll that had spent some good quality time under a diffuser.

He had no idea why he knew what a diffuser was.

“Hi, Kathryn,” he mumbled. He knew her name. Another surprise. Who was Kathryn?

“Daniel, we need you at the mess. Why are you all the way up here? We’re running out of pancakes and French toast, and Jackie doesn’t know how to make the dishwasher run.” She put her hands on her knees as she bent over, panting.

“Daniel?” He looked at her. He knew her name, but he didn’t know why she was calling him this.

“Yes?”

“Who’s Daniel,” he asked.

“You, silly.” She stopped a moment. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing. I just didn’t think that was my name.”

“Uh, what did you think your name was?”

He started to say and then stopped. It wasn’t right. Under this brightening sky, in the cold air, dressed like an extra from a Monty Python movie, something wasn’t right.

“Nothing, I’m kidding. I just wanted to catch the last of the sunrise.”

“Well, we need you, Dan. Come on, before the President runs out of breakfast.”

“The PRESIDENT is here,” he asked, following her, feeling his footsteps crunch as he made them on the frosty ground.

“The President of the Bucks County PTA. It’s their group that picked the campground for their stupid conference this weekend.” She looked at him like he’d lost all sense. She wasn’t far off the mark.

“Right, right.”

“Jesus, what did you do last night?” Her hair bounced around as she shook her head. He had the distinct impression that her cap was about to shoot off of her head from the pressure of her curls.

They walked into the mess and half a dozen children were upon him, tugging at his shirt/jacket and looking for more flapjakcs as if they might be hidden in his pockets. He hoped he could remember how to make a pancake, if he didn’t even know this name she was calling him.

He passed by a mirror, and got a look at himself just before entering the kitchen. Tallish, with a big, thick beard, hairy wrists and hands, twinkling brown eyes, wrinkles that implied he had smiled more often than frowned in his life. He was a mini Paul Bunyan, in fact. He realized precisely then that he had always wanted to be Paul Bunyan and only Paul Bunyan. He loved who he was now more than ever, and it had taken a long time for him to become the man these people needed and cheered. And that was really odd, for some reason.

And then I woke up.

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