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Month: October 2012

The Story Tittle Matters

The title does so much of the initial work of the story. Not only does it establish the tone, it provides the reader with subliminal clues, such as the setting, the plot’s main conundrum, etc. I’ve always known my titles encapsulate the meaning of the story—if you didn’t get the title, I haven’t written the story well enough. But these other things I have only just seen as I read aloud.

Extraneous Characters Need to Go

Occasionally, readers complain about the number of characters in my work—I like a well-populated world. But, when a story is read aloud, you are really forcing the reader to follow a line of thought. The reader has to tuck away information to be retrieved later. If a character they’d had to remember isn’t vital to the story, then you’ve asked them to do a lot of work for nothing, which I don’t think they will appreciate.

My Stories Do NOT All have the Same Voice

Sometimes when I’m considering the stories I’ve chosen to include in this collection, I lump them all together: the funny Southern stories. But when one reads aloud stories written in first person, you assume your character’s personna. The narrators in these stories have different voices. I know this because I can hear it: I read them differently.

Five Years of Reading Radio Commentaries Wasn’t for Naught

I wrote and read commentaries on WKNO for a long time. I learned a “read” story is different from a written story and different from a told story. For some reason, these short stories are good “read” stories. I was smart to decide to podcast them, read aloud.

I Know How to Write a Short Story with a Plot

Reading aloud, you can hear the ping! of the plot points that pique the reader’s interest, that which hooks them in, keeps them going, ear cocked, waiting to find out what happens next. Plot is so not my strong suit. So it’s nice, reading these stories, to hear the hook setting deeper.

The Power of the Delete Button

Often, the first sentence of one of my paragraphs should actually be the last sentence of the prior paragraph. Something in the need to KEEP PEOPLE LISTENING (Don’t hit that delete button just yet!) shows me this. I think it’s the awareness that the last sentence of a paragraph shouldn’t be a hard stop. Rather, as with the end of a chapter, it should lead the reader into the next paragraph. I never saw that until reading aloud.

So, all these hours and hours of reading these stories aloud in order to record a ten minute story, a twenty-one minute story—it’s more valuable than it feels.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

 

Leaving the Station

We slowly roll from the platform, green metal tankers absorb

the golden sun.

Where does the red in the light come from?

Why does the end of the day bring

clarity?

The buttery light loves the

iron couplings

the grey stained concrete, and

slicks against the surface close as morning

toast.

The broken windows of the Good Samaritan Center

flash orange beside

whitewashed brick and idle

dump trucks.

Old warehouses weep paint.

Corrugated tin runs with rust.

I think the sun is in its playground.

Sage waves on rooftops, coal humps in the shadows, diagonal steps descend fat silos

Underneath it all clank! clank! clank! the train wheels.

Then silence as we enter the trees,

the slanting light caught in the leaves,

held

cupped

as it decides whether to leave or stay

in transition.

 

I’d been working on the short story for years. An early version was workshopped in Richard Bausch’s Moss Group. Later, the story received an Honorable Mention in the Memphis Magazine Short Fiction Contest. But I’d never successfully placed the story for publication anywhere. That’s because it wasn’t right.

“Ain’t No Commies ‘Round Here,” is included in The Vagrant Nature of Love collection. I’m currently reading all the stories aloud and timing them, in my pie-in-the-sky idea that I will podcast the readings, making the stories available to folks who don’t usually read short stories. Ten of the stories have been published in literary journals but, for those that haven’t been, I’m revising as I read aloud.

This brought me back to “Ain’t No Commies.”

The story involves an uncle, a nephew and a living wage ordinance. It begins with a bang—the child is saved from dying—then settles into a good story of a reunion when the nephew is a young man. The problem with its drafting arose in the last two pages of the story, inside the lesson the uncle learns from their encounter.

A while back I realized the dilemma. Some of the stories in the collection masquerade as relationship stories, when their true point is justice-oriented—a young grocery clerk starving in the land of plenty. I thought “Ain’t No Commies” was such a story. It isn’t. The meat of this story is the relationship; the living wage is the vehicle. My mentor, Rebecca McClannahan, called this phenomenon, “The thing and the other thing.” The thing being what is happening on the surface; the other thing being the emotional movement beneath the story. I had the two switched.

So, today, when I read, I went to work again. Hours later, I clicked my timer and began reading aloud. When I arrived at the last two pages, my voice cracked. “Buck up, you fool!” I told myself. But it just got worse. That’s how I knew I’d finally nailed it: when you’ve worked on something for years and know full well what is going to happen next, yet you’ve drafted it in such a way that the words make still you cry, you’ve hit the sweet spot of the story.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

In filing new query letters for my short story collection, I came across an old document. The year was 2007. The list identified agents who asked for stories or the entire manuscript. There were many. I chose one.

The agent I picked was not good for me.

I piddled around with him for four years, only to ultimately part ways, my fiction unsold.

I’m not saying I made a mistake—in the interim, the cross book was published and the Door of Hope Writing Group came into being. Knowing me, neither of those things would’ve happened if I’d had a Literary Book—capital L, capital B—on the table.

But.

Changes have occurred during these years that cause a problem, and I’m not talking about changes in the publishing world. I’m talking about changes in me.

I’ve never been a naturally competitive person. “I don’t care anything about beating those girls,” I’d say to my mother in tennis tournaments. What I liked, what got me to the finals, was the beauty of the swing, the well-placed shot . . .  the silver trophy.

Nor have I easily followed someone else’s path. I am arrogant enough to think I can do it a better way. And—here’s the real kicker—I don’t like repeating myself.

So when it comes to getting the short stories into the world, I’ve already done the “send out query letters, get an agent, jump up and down when the agent calls,” thing. That makes it boring, boring, boring.

So . . . .

How to achieve my goal—getting the stories into the world, encouraging people to experience them, maybe even inducing an aha! moment: short stories can be FUN!—while at the same time enjoying myself?

Answer: Podcasts.

Only problem: when I practice reading the stories, timing myself, I start laughing, thinking, this is the funniest story.

I gotta buck up here. Get serious.

Or not.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

 

 

As irrefutable proof of my ingrained belief that the problem must be mine, I retained the title, description, and target audience given to me by a former agent whom an editor said was not marketing my novel correctly. That period is over.

Old Title: Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium

New title: Don Chickote: Or the Strange Adventures of Lucinda Mae Watkins on the Train 

Old Description: a Southern “train trip” novel

New description: The daughter of a fast food chicken magnate hits the rails in a wild ride across America to restore her dead daddy’s rightful place in fried chicken lore.

Old Audience: Fannie Flagg lovers

New audience: Those who mourn the demise of “The Flight of the Conchords.” Who think Darnell was the funniest character on “My Name is Earl.” Who follow Bubbles on “Trailer Park Boys,” who sing along to Beck’s “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”  Anyone who thinks the funniest movie ever made was the one where Johnny Depp wore the fake arm. Readers whose favorite hardback is, “All My Friends are Dead,” who can quote Douglas Adams by heart. Those who don’t understand when you call it “quirky”—it’s just funny.

New secondary audience: devotees of all things chicken

OK. I”m still working on it. The point is, it will be mine this time. Rise or fall, sink or swim, give or take—it will be my sensibilities. Such as they are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Are You Still With Me?

When I was three years old, my daddy died. That’s quite a sad thing to happen, losing  one’s father at such a young age, particularly when he was so young himself. Worse, he died suddenly, violently. His car was hit by a train, at a crossing that had a red light, but no warning arm to descend protectively across the track. He likely didn’t see the flashing red light. He assuredly didn’t see the train.

Terrible, you’re thinking, and so unfair. True, true.

Tragically, he wasn’t alone. His car carried a passenger. The passenger was killed in the accident as well. Two people, both fully alive, both suddenly dead. Daddy Joe’s passenger was only slightly younger than he, taken too soon right along with him.

His passenger was a woman.

Does this give you pause?

The woman was traveling to see her fiancé, that’s what her brother said. Catching a ride with my dad to see the fiancé. She and my dad knew one another from the lease shop, the brother said. She sold my dad oil leases. Nothing more to it, the brother said, just a business trip.

The brother was required to explain the situation, you see, because my dad was out of town—the train tracks he did not successfully cross were in Colorado Springs, and he lived in Denver.

Are you still with me?

So my dad was traveling out of town on a Friday night—did I mention that? The accident occurred late on a Friday evening, about 11:00 pm. His wife was back in Denver. With his two little girls. And another baby on the way.

What are you feeling now?

Still think it was tragic?

My dad’s still dead, still too young, still taken from his adoring family.

My mother did not know the woman in the car. She did not know the woman would be traveling with my dad. Only after the accident, did she learn of the woman in the car with her husband.

A beautiful young woman and a very handsome young man. Dead.

So tragic.

But . . . what if he was doing something he shouldn’t have been?

The facts unfurl, and what you felt at the beginning of my story (sorrow, regret, sympathy) morphs into something else: suspicion, justification, dismissal. Maybe even betrayal: I wasted my emotion on THAT?

You see, if we can successfully justify someone else’s death, even if we have to worm around to do it—ha! he was cheating on her!—we jump on it like a duck on a June bug. He deserved to die, we say, though we probably don’t use such straightforward words.

Whatever.

The point is, we ourselves aren’t doing the same bad thing he was, so we don’t deserve to die. Ergo, we will, in fact, not die.

Witness the triumph of the human brain . . . and fear.

If we remain interested in stories involving the violent death of strangers, it is usually only to tease out the facts we can then use to separate the death from ourselves—he was on drugs, he was drinking and driving, he had a psychotic episode, he was in a gang, he was committing a crime, he was up to no good, he lived in the wrong neighborhood, he wasn’t like us. Satisfied, we turn away.

The death we’ve just experienced is no longer tragic.

We’ve successfully separated from it.

Safe.

Alone.

But safe.

© 2017 - Ellen Morris Prewitt | EllenMorrisPrewitt.com