The (Tough) Art of Creating a Short Story

For some reason, I expect writing good short stories to be relatively easy. I don’t know why, at 41, I still think that since I’ve struggled with the short story form since I began cranking them out in my early teens. As I’ve said before, the entire process of poetry–the imagining, workshopping, revision–has been simple compared to writing short stories. Ideas pop into my head all the time, and those ideas usually find their way into my poems. Sometimes, though, characters and their voices show up, and I know to do them justice, I need to write prose.

Aside from my tendency to abandon stories after ten or so pages, I also acknowledge that my strength isn’t in description. I’m also not particularly good at pacing, either. I excel at dialogue, and I’ve heard as much from editors back when I was submitting stories for publication. I received personal rejection slips telling me that dialogue was spot on, but the rest of my writing was flabby. I took that as an encouraging sign, and I still do, despite the number of years that have passed between those rejection slips and now.

For help, I decided to buy the Gotham City Writer’s Workshop book on writing fiction. I like it so far, and while the first section seems geared more toward beginning writers, I still find it helpful. The exercises in the book have been useful thus far, too.

I’ve also returned to using Scrivener writing software, but not for a novel writing (though I’m also tempted to use Scrivener in conjunction with the beautiful word processing program Novlr), but for short stories. Scrivener helps me plan a story, much like I used it to plan my last novel. I realized over the weekend that I can’t continue treating short stories like poems. I need more time with stories, and some stories (like the one I’m currently working on) require research. Scrivener has a wonderful built-in feature to store research, and it allows you to visually plan scenes for a novel, story, or screenplay. Novlr is gorgeous and gets my fingers itchy to fill a blank page.

I can knock out at least one quality poem a day during my writing time, but the first draft of a story takes me at least a week if I tackle it every day. I have the time, and though it can be grueling, I’m willing to show up at the page and take the project on, even if I feel discouraged. Discouragment is just a feeling attached to a useless thought; it has nothing to do with my dedication to the craft or my ability as a writer. I think setting writing goals for myself is a good idea, too. One of many things that quitting drinking has taught me is that I’m a hell of a lot stronger and focused than I sometimes give myself credit for.

I’m also going to re-read Stephen King’s masterful On WritingIf you’re a writer and haven’t read it, I highly recommend you check it out. It transformed the way I wrote, and I’m sure I’ll glean more wisdom and encouragement this read-through.

For the curious, the story I’m working on came from a prompt in the Gotham City book. To paraphrase, it was something like: “Sam knew either it was a lucky sign or a sign of disaster when….” After some freewriting, that prompt led to a strange and touching story about a man who works with chimps, teaching them to sign, and in particular his relationship with a troubled chimp named Roscoe. I like where the story’s going…I just have to remind myself (several times a day) not to abandon it because the words aren’t lining up like obedient little children. They rarely do, anyway, and just because the writing is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Whew, this was a longer post than I intended. Thanks for taking time to read.

Merry Christmas, or Something (flash fiction re-post)

I originally posted this in November 2012, and something reminded me about this piece of flash fiction. Heavens, it’s dark. For the record, I feel pretty good this morning. The speaker’s tone doesn’t reflect my current state…though I imagine I was pretty down when I first wrote this.

Merry Christmas, Or Something

There’s nothing left for me here, but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving.

I’ve grown accustomed to the ache, the longing to be elsewhere, and that’s usually enough most days. The nights are what worry me, when he starts playing that old guitar, the one his father stole for him a thousand Christmases ago, that he doesn’t touch unless he’s been drinking, transforming it from a piece of junk into a troubadour’s dream.

He coaxes such painfully beautiful music from the instrument, it nearly makes up for his caterwaul of a voice, his hesitant delivery, the way he stumbles over words he should know
because I know them and just about everyone who isn’t deaf knows them, too.

“You don’t understand music,” he always tells me, but what he means is, “You know a shitload more about it than I do,” so I keep my mouth shut and listen to him, settling against my longing to leave like it’s another lover, a more patient one than him, this would-be musician singing in a destroyed living room.

The winter night looms outside the windows, waiting to creep in when the lights are off and we’re in bed, clothes scattered through the place, his hands wandering across my body, re-staking his claim to make sure my dream to get the fuck out of this town doesn’t come true, the dream where I grab what I can, cram it in Mama’s pink and brown suitcase and shove his old car in gear, willing it to work at least across the state line.

The Opposite of Rainbow (with Commentary)

This is just plain silly.

The Opposite of Rainbow (with Commentary)

She peered from the window
into the shadow-laced street
and wondered aloud… “What the hell is this? This isn’t the opposite of rainbow. Is that even possible, or is that just some shit you came up with when you were high?”

Lights popped on like new thoughts,
but the shadows merely shifted,
digging deeper into themselves,
and she took a breath…and said, “This is the worst fucking poem in the history of poetry, and I mean that goes back to whatever the hell passed for rough drafts with the Egyptians, like maybe they chiseled some shit and said, ‘Wait, that’s the symbol for a bird. That doesn’t work here. What the hell’s the symbol for water? Dammit! I wish we had a real alphabet.’”

The opposite of rainbow had come,
invisibly snaking its wake through the night,
its knowledge of color only a memory,
and the girl at the window remembered, “That she has better fucking things to do than listen to this! Get me out of this dumbass poem and let me go about my life without rainbows or whatever their fucking opposite is!”

She was free of rainbows,
their opposites, the lights,
the shadows, the memory,
and she knew

“How is this still going?! The end! Go write something else, you miserable hack! Leave me alone!”

it was, finally, over.

Heh. I plan to write a song called The Opposite of Rainbow which will, undoubtedly, be melancholy.  So it goes.

Cutter (flash fiction)

“I need to feel something,” Lauren said. She wanted me he to cut her. I didn’t want to, but the pain in her eyes convinced me. I knew the relief would be more powerful if I did it. I sighed and reached for the knife I’d sterilized earlier.

“Where?” I asked quietly. We were naked in bed. The outline of her breasts showed through the thin sheets, but I didn’t get hard. There was nothing sexual about this, for either of us.

“On my upper arm,” Lauren said, turning her head away from me. She didn’t like watching me cut; she liked the surprise of the pain, the sting that opened the floodgate. Carefully, I pulled back the sheet. I kissed a spot right above her left bicep before I pressed the knife into her flesh.

I heard her draw a sharp breath, followed by a moan of pleasure. The blood, bright red, trickled down her arm. I grabbed a tissue and blotted it away and asked, “More?”

“One. Right below.”

I made another precise cut . Again, Lauren drew a breath and moaned. She began crying. “Thank you,” she said, turning over after I cleaned off her arm, rubbing it first with alcohol, two dabs of Neosporin and finally applying two small Band-Aids. This was the way things had been since I took over most of the cutting. If she insisted on continuing it, she would do it safely. I tried not to be angry with her when I discovered untreated, uncovered cuts. She liked to cut her the back of her neck, and the wounds would turn angry if I didn’t catch them.

The sun had fallen by the time she curled into me. Her eyes, clear from pain, looked sleepy. “Thank you,” she said again.

“You’re welcome,” I told her and kissed her. She leaned into the kiss, but I knew sex was out of the question. That was OK. I’d already caused enough destruction.

Diary Entry or Letter or Something From Charlie

Bear with me on this, folks. As some of you know, I recently bought an old typewriter, which has been an enormous source of inspiration (and a bit of frustration, too).

typewriter poem
When I use the typewriter, certain distinct voices emerge, voices decidedly different from the ones that make themselves known when I use pen and paper and when I use a word processing program. That makes sense. Frederick Nietzsche’s friends said his writing changed after he began using a typing ball. Not that I’m Nietzsche or anything, but I imagine most writers are sensitive to which medium they choose for writing.

When I took the typewriter yesterday, the voice of a man named Charlie emerged. From what I can tell, Charlie has a drinking problem (shocking). There’s more to his story, but the pieces come to me slowly. I sussed out some more details on the drive to work today (like who Liza and Tom are…still not clear on Brother George). I also don’t exactly know where Charlie lives. Anyway, here’s an image of the diary entry or letter with a transcription following:

charlie

I woke up with a bird beside me. You read that correctly; a small finch had perched itself on the mattress to the left of my head. It regarded me curiously and without fear.  For my part, I studied it for a few moments before becoming alarmed. Was I dreaming? But I knew it wasn’t a dream. The bird was real.

Continuing…

I wasn’t sure what to do next. How often does one find the way of being in the world? i resist the urge to tell the truth, i know. let me die in peace. there wont be a better time my dear than to say than today when all are weak and weary they ask me if i been drinking so i tell them the truth. yes. old liza aint happy with that but that dont matter. it was just a matter of time before i started again. thats what brother george said and he should know. hes an old drunk like me.

A bit more…

I worry about liza though cuz she too old to start down tha path. she eyes my bottle though like it some kind of treasure. it aint but thats between me and the devil and god if the three of us ever get to talking. i suspect we will one day or night.

there aint much left of this old ribbon so id better stop. tom wont get a new one until next month.

-charlie, june 7, 1966.

Hmm. I’m interested in how Charlie’s diction changes as he types. At first, I imagine him waking sober (if hung-over). As the entry progress, his lack of punctuation and general disregard for grammar makes me think he’s drinking as he writes.

More updates coming.