Why Not Try a Short Story

Why Not Try a Short Story

Writing fiction has been my passion for decades and took hold when I was home raising my children. It was a time when women’s magazines, Redbook, McCalls, were printing short stories written by women. I could do this! So I set my desk in a corner of the den, bought a decent electric typewriter and before my children awoke each morning, I squirreled away an hour to craft some stories.

Not surprisingly, the strength of my stories increased when I rooted them in the emotions and conflicts of my own life.  I published some in little magazines, later moving on to novel writing.

Retirement has allowed me to make writing my focus and to polish everything in my writer’s toolbox. Short stories stem from a reader’s desire to experience the rise and fall of the story arc in one sitting. Nathaniel Hawthorne published his collection of Twice Told Tales in 1837, probably the first known book of short stories—though not all of them were short!

Prior to this, in 1836, Charles Dickens found great success when he serialized in magazines and newspapers his novel The Pickwick Papers. Critics have said that at that time there was no insinuation that the work would lose quality when presented in so commercial a fashion—that came later. Dickens’ work was popular and thus must have affected the rise of shorter pieces of fiction.

Then and today it can be very satisfying to experience a character’s struggle right through to the denouement in a short period of time. Our life styles—working men and women, tired at the end of the day, a list of to-dos drumming in one’s head—has added more credence to the experience of completing a story in one sitting—or rather, propped up on pillows in bed. Short work fills a need. When creating a short story, the writer works with the same elements that make up a novel—but there is some tweaking.

The story will most often have one main character who is also the POV character—you experience the story through the eyes of this character. In my story collection, A Mother’s Time Capsulethe average number of characters in each story is three—most interactions occurring between two of the three. My longer stories have four or five characters, the POV character encountering the others briefly. The longest story, Angel Hair, based on the old tale in Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper, has as many as eight characters. A writer could create a short story simply using one character. Length: that is up for debate, ranging from . 30,000 words to 10,000. There is also flash fiction and other newly created forms that can be as short as 500 words. The shorter the more difficult.

Short stories are not only limited to characters but also to passage of time, while novels often span years, even decades. My stories Pumpkins, Thaw, Windows and Making Change take place on the same day—though to enrich content, there are references to the past. When Did My Mother Die? takes place over a year’s time—but the trajectory of the story moves in a straight line.

Plot is essential even in short fiction, and focus must be endemic. Get in and get out. But regardless of its short length, writing the short story is not simple. I can speak directly to this dilemma as some of my stories were taken from novels in progress. Someday It Will Be December required lots of editing and rethinking of the material to create the emotional arc the story demands. The first sentence has to grab the reader: In the depths of July, Claire Emmerling began to think about sex. Constantly.

Or from Angel Hair: The coffee gathering at Liz Grimm’s house was the first time anyone had been out in the small New England town of Hamilton since Pia Piper was fired from the local preschool, accused of fondling a boy-child in her classroom.

In Thaw, I use a quieter beginning that will build to the heartfelt emotions of the story:Her landlord said maybe she’d imagined it. She doesn’t think so. They argued about the age of the townhouse, the condition of the roof. She was late for her shift and had to hang up. “You’re the one with squirrels in your attic,” he had yelled at her.

Endings? They tantalize, inspire or make you weep. Endings are part of the reason I fell in love with the short story form. In high school, I read J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. After college, it was Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver—they all published in The New Yorker Magazine.

In a novel, lots of things happen—often because of a complicated plot structure with twists and turns the reader does not expect. In the short story, something has to happen, or at the very least you have to feel that something has happened, though often it’s a small movement, a brief change, a symbolic gesture. But the brevity of the text reflects a smallness that in actual living is truly gigantic, monumental. Ann Beattie in Running Dreams, leads you into a world with few words—but at the end—wow! The soccer-punch. The narrator reflects on losing her father to cancer when she was only five. This is the last paragraph—the father is bending over in pain, to help put on his daughter’s gloves.

I remember standing with him in a room that seemed immense to me at the time, in sunlight as intense as the explosion from a flashbulb. If someone had taken that photograph, it would have been a picture of a little girl and her father about to go on a walk. I held my hands out to him, and he pushed the fingers of the gloves tightly down each of my fingers, patiently, pretending to have all the time in the world, saying, “This is the way we get ready for winter.”

This is so lovely, the main character finding closure in this simple remembrance of her father’s love. I surveyed the endings in A Mother’s Time Capsule and discovered that I  often use a symbolic action to pull the story to its closure. In Someday It Will Be December, Claire is uncertain about being a single mother. The ending finds her lost in a place she is familiar with: But she raised her head and walked on. She would reorient herself. She would find her way.In Fragile, Tess is a fearful mother. The ending: Tess stops. She listens, the words of her children falling on her with their weight of wonder. And welcoming all of it, she holds them, keeps them like a charm her two have hung gently around her neck.

Though novel endings are often muscular and dramatic, short stories present the conclusion using a quieter voice, though you know and feel that something profound has truly happened. Happy Reading.

Photo credit: Pinterest

Why Not Try a Short Story



Writing, Nostalgia and Spring

Writing, Nostalgia and Spring

She listened to the steady pounding of her feet along the roads. And after a while, she could feel it running in her veins, something that turned backward to rituals of spring–Lent, events of her childhood, like painting rain-washed colors on hard boiled eggs. The sky would scuttle from grey to blue to grey, rain spitting just as intermittently. But the air was becoming velvet, enveloping, warming the skin and when she walked now crunching spring detritus, a hollowness opened up inside her, a sweet opening as if she were ready, also, to suffer, to feel pain, to live and embrace. (from The MOON DOCTOR)

Writing about SPRING

I wrote those words years ago. They are part of a novel that sits in a manuscript box under my desk. I love those words and many springs I come back to them. But words of published writers also speak SPRING to me: “It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what.” John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga There is simply something about the season that pulls words from the mind to the page.

Writing and Nostalgia

In a recent piece by author Jonathan Lee, he writes about the disquiet that occurs when a book is written AND published. Finally, it is out of your hands. You can’t mess with it anymore and yet something pulls at you about this fact. WHY? Anxious, Lee went to the library: looking for a book with a title like How To Get Through The Period Between Finishing A Book and Seeing It In A Bookstore Without Losing Your Entire Grip on Reality. But Lee failed to find it. He did find The Book of Disquiet, a collection of opinions of various writers. He decided it was a very sad book, drenched in nostalgia.

NOSTALGIA. Curious about the roots that formed the word, Lee looked them up and discovered: nostos (return home) and algos (pain). Writers, especially fiction writers, almost always deal in nostalgia. They are constantly attempting to return home, to reassemble in words the pain of life–and yes, the joys. But LIFE always seen through the lens of their own experience. The drug for writers is remembering–remembering who we are and where we come from and what we have experienced.

As Lee so beautifully states: We all know by now that the past is as much a work of imagination as the future. We re-form. We invent. We chase after moments that have already fled. We can never quite recapture the passion within the passion, nor the grief within the grief, but we make a version we can live with, shape, touch with color, and we start to exist within its architecture.

Reshaping Our Reality

All of us do this–not just writers. We shape our memories so that we can live with them. Sometimes to a fault, as we struggle to assign to ourselves a minor role in some conflict when truly we needed to accept more guilt. But that “remembering” allows us to move into the future with our recreated selves.

Writing by Committee

I am currently polishing and working toward a final rendering of my first novel–with the goal of publishing. I have rewritten the first chapter over six times. Writing is plastic, yes, but what affects writers today is the chatter about HOW TO WRITE. If the drug for writers is remembering, the antidote for that drug is all the VOICES on the internet imposing their views on what an agent or a publisher wants. It messes up your memory. It’s tougher than tough.

Writing by Committee occurs when a friend or fellow writer or agent who has rejected your query complains about your VOICE, or says the writing is too CLIPPED, or can’t fall in love with the character after one page. I do listen. Thus the changes. And thus I understand even more why some authors self-publish–they don’t want to write by committee–this is the book they have created, the book they love. But again, after it has escaped from the writer’s hands–the characters might still be walking around in one’s head, maybe changing their actions, altering their words. The only cure is for the writer to immediately immerse herself in another story and “forget those people”–or at least decide you did the best for them that you could possibly do.

Thoughts on The Reader 

Writing will always be a form of communication. But the question will also always present itself: do I write to communicate with myself or with future readers? Jonathan Lee concludes his piece:” …writing can be a beautiful and conflicted act—a private process through which we try, even with our most ridiculous lines, to reach an understanding with others.” So I write-on. And I read, always. Wishing for all of you a book that offers a tender rendering of life, an immersion in conflict, a perfect SPRING of a book. Let’s hear it for nostalgia.


Writing, Nostalgia and Spring

This one is in print. I have let go!

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

Mom was there. That’s the biggest likeness to this picture.

It didn’t work out.  I made my children liver sausage sandwiches with mayonnaise, garnished the top with circles of dill pickle, and they squished up their faces and asked that I NEVER serve that again. They did eat these:

Mom’s Raisin Cookies

Raisin Cookies: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground cinnamon. Add the brown sugar, softened butter, egg, milk, and vanilla extract and beat for one minute. Add the raisins and beat until incorporated.

Drop the batter by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing the cookies a couple of inches apart. Bake the cookies for about 8 – 10 minutes, or until the tops of the cookies are just barely touched with color yet the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Raisin Cookies:

2 cups (260 grams) all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup (210 grams) light brown sugar

12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsaltedbutter, softened

1 large egg

1/4 cup (60 ml) milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup (125 grams) dark raisins

Well, okay.  I was in a nostalgic mood.  I was just remembering the lunches my mother prepared for us in our old kitchen.  Then kids came home for lunch.  My brothers and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (and, Mom, please make it with milk!!).  We nibbled warm chocolate chip cookies while my mother read to us right in the middle of the day—JANE EYRE, THE RED PONY.  We’d close our eyes and picture other worlds, strain for the sound of carriages and horses’ hooves or the smells of hot sand and desert flowers.  And then the stomach churning sound—my mother slapping the covers of the book together.  We’d trudge back to school.

I can still vividly see my mother’s kitchen table, a scarred mahogany library table which she had covered with red gingham oilcloth.  It was perfect for rolling out dough, playing with finger paints, doing homework, or just sitting mesmerized by the red, blue, and yellow roosters strutting the wallpaper above the green plaster dado.  There were way too many moments in my life when I escaped the memory of my math teacher’s face or avoided my mother’s admonishment to read the newspaper, and just sat, lost in the festive feathers of those bantams.  Ah, moments in the old kitchen.

For that’s where we gathered.  It was the kitchen we stumbled into as toddlers clutching a baby bottle; the kitchen we ran into as children eager for Sugar Pops or the face of the hero on the Wheatie’s box.  We ambled there as teenagers bringing our friends and perusing the contents of the refrigerator.  It was the rule to complain about what was found, the rule to combine foods in taboo ways—peanut butter and egg salad—and then shriek with laugher.

There were many moments when my mother stood at the enamel kitchen sink, her back to us, struggling for a stern posture, stifling a laugh.  We knew what would come next—a penalty of sorts, a dictum from on high.  She’d point to the blackboard she had nailed up over the sink where chores were marked off for each of us, the penetrating words—wash, dry, put away.   She’d add something punishing for the child of the moment—clean the hated greasy meat grinder used for making hash or the wooden rolling pin sticky with dough.

But truly, the kitchen was my mother’s room.  She filled the small space with her warm gestures and words, conducted those important talks around the dinner table, and was always there to kiss us goodbye or hug us hello.

But any kitchen worth its salt could also become the center of the storm.

My older brother had fallen asleep over his Greek or Latin translation and now blamed my mother for sending him to a school that worked him to death.

I burned the toast.  Three times.

My younger brother appeared crying—the newly assigned patrol boy was the neighborhood bully.

On those forever mornings chaos blocked out kind words, if any words at all.  We forgot to help one another as we raced around the kitchen, bumping into things with that “mother threat” hanging over us—things would not go well for us if we dropped the half-gallon glass milk bottle on the floor.  Of course one day we did.  Milk, laced with shards of glass, spread its long, white fingers everywhere while we scrambled for dish towels and cloths.  To our collective surprise, my mother kept us; she did not send us to the dogs that fateful day—instead she frantically looked over our hands for cuts from the glass.

Often my mother turned on the static-laden radio to let in the real world.  But we children didn’t hear a thing.  To us sitting sleepily at the kitchen table, life was idyllic.  We heard only the rasp of the milkman’s brakes, the jangle of bottles inside his metal basket as he came up the walk, the eggs chirping in the pan, and the bacon snapping and sizzling—breakfast sounds that broke through the constant braiding of bird song.

My mother was a widow and earned our keep by typing insurance policies in the dining room.  We took for granted her gift of security, as if in a fairy tale an enchanted rose thicket kept us safe.  Magic wasn’t my mother cracking open an egg and finding a double yolk.  Magic was being there in that sheltering kitchen.

I load the dishwasher.  Despite the fact that my family often eats exotic takeout foods with nomenclature that didn’t exist in my childhood, or we prepare meals with blenders and food processors in our gadget heaven—the kitchen is still where we gather.  And it’s there, like in my mother’s time, where I try to make my children’s empty full again, providing encouraging words before a test, comforting advice about a friendship, and those same hugs and kisses—all food for the journey.

I think of the wonderful kitchen afternoons my children and I have had, afternoons when there were no lessons or errands to run, no games—absolutely nothing on the calendar.  The kids would sit around the counter on the stools, attempting homework, tapping pencils, moving papers, producing occasional squeals and arguments as the phone rang, the microwave beeped, and a Game Boy hummed intermittently.  Oh, they weren’t playing jacks or pick-up sticks, they weren’t creating a new world out of Lincoln Logs, but it was wonderful, a wisp of the old kitchen.

The back door bangs.  The kids are back.  They each choose a stool and rattle around, giggling and smiling at me.  The sky is still full of sunlit clouds and we can all hear a basketball thumping in the distance.  I wipe the stove thinking any minute they’ll shriek and run off.  But instead, they stay, asking me questions, laughing, joshing me about my memories.  Yet as I begin to talk, I know they are eager to take in every word.  I smile at each of them and then turn away suddenly, blinking.  I see the bookshelf in the corner of this kitchen, full of cookbooks.  I focus on it—I’m sure there’s space for a copy of the RED PONY, maybe even JANE EYRE.  They’d go well with foods of great comfort—steaming tomato soup made with milk and runny grilled cheese sandwiches.

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

Thanks to Google Images