In the pouring rain, across a highway divider in an unknown town, I sit at a red light, listening to the rain thump the car. Gone are the jokes about the cheap hotel room that cut the tension while we toured the tiny downtown where trees squared the block and the rotunda stood tall. I fell in love with the sidewalks so straight, but then we left the white concrete and landed on the streaming highway with the rain sloshing the four corners of our truncated world.
Something rustles inside my husband’s head and, turning toward me he suggests we eat at the 5/4 Steakhouse across the median. A big red sign flashes in the standing water: “Welcome to the Quarter.”
Once upon a time when we traveled for fun, we’d ride to the real French Quarter in New Orleans where we ventured into the coolness of the antique stores and wandered until the wooden floors gave way to dirt three rooms back. One such trip, I bought the Jesus icon with the silver cover that slipped on and off. I carried it under my arm, out of the overpowering smell of the merchandise rotting on the shelves and across the parking lot to gaze at the boats docked on the river, so mechanical, black and greasy and full of metal. Churning and smoking and heaving through the water. Then we drove home, and I hung Jesus on the bathroom wall.
We exit the car, struggling through the rain, and land dripping in the entranceway. A stop clock graces the maitre d’s table with a sign below it: “Served in a Quarter of an hour or your meal free!” The place is big on signs.
We order steak and potatoes, and while we wait for the arrival of the food, Paul throws his hands in the air. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you. I have to tell you this.”
It’s a long story about two drunken women at a roulette table in Vegas, a mother and daughter, I think. Paul travels to Vegas on business. He’s in the entertainment business. He says he needs to travel on the weekends, that’s when business is done. Today is Thursday and only Alabama, so he’s brought me with him.
I read the little stick that came protruding from my potato. “I’ve been rubbed and scrubbed and you can eat my skin.” Shaped like a small smiling spud, the potato stick winks at me. I slip it in my pocket.
“I told him to hell with that.” Paul is cutting into a steak so rare it could get up and walk away from the table. “‘My damn plane is leaving,’ I said, and I hung up on the son of a bitch.”
Somewhere I think the story has changed, like channels surfed in the night when you’re not paying good enough attention. The waiter comes up for more service, but Paul waves him away, dismissive the way he is.
He’s talking to me.
“Well, what do you think?”
I finger my plastic potato prize. “Sorry. I kind of lost the plot.”
“That’s not very nice.” He wags his head, jaw to the side. “I tell you what, I bring you on a trip and a spool of barbed wire, and I’m fixed.”
No, I tell you what. When I get home, I’m going to take the Jesus with its silver cover from the wall and I’m gonna take the gold-embroidered bath towels and the silver candlesticks from the dining room table and the writing paper from inside the writing desk—and maybe the writing desk, too—and I’m going to stuff it in a suitcase with my new potato prize and then when it’s time to go, I’ll be ready.
And you can take that truth and hang it on the wall.
(an old short story I came across when cleaning out papers; as it was thoroughly written, I thought I’d share)
After a long hiatus, I submitted a couple of short stories to literary magazines today.
I’ve been working on the new website, mulling over what stories I wanted to include. The website will have a “Photo Bio” featuring a sentence about my life that reflects a dominant themes in my work and a representative photo. Click on the photo and you can read (or listen) to work that engages the theme.
For example, under the “I grew up to be a lawyer and show clothes on the runway,” you will be able to click on a glamor shot and read The Dress, which appeared in Skirt! Magazine, or listen to “Show the Clothes.” where two models get into fisticuffs.
Given my recent proclivities, much of the fiction will be in audio form, but I also want to include PDFs folks can read. I knew I’d use “Held at Gunpoint,” the story that received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. But what else?
In search of an answer, I wandered through old stories lurking inside folders entitled “Odd Devices” (where the structure doesn’t follow a standard “and then this happened” telling); “Distance Stories” (where the narrator is not as close a point of view as I normally use), and one folder I can’t tell you the name of without blushing.
Inside the “Women” folder, I found two old stories I liked so well I don’t want to “self-publish” them by placing them on the website. Instead, I slipped them into envelopes (yes, no email submissions) and sent other copies to Submittable and other online submission processes.
One story is a post-Katrina story set in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m hoping the topical nature of it, given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the storm, might help with its acceptance. The other is a story about a young woman who had to leave her children and live on the street. Because I wrote this BEFORE I began facilitating a writing group of men and women who live on the street, I shamelessly began my submission letter: “For seven years, I’ve facilitated a writing group of men and women who know homelessness.” I measured the story against that experience to see if it rang true (it obviously did), but I had no fear of exploiting the experience since I wrote it prior thereto.
We shall see if anyone wants them, but here’s the primary thing: they are good stories. Right now, when I’m going through so much rejection trying to get an agent for the novel, it was really nice to run across these stories and realize with the cold eye of not having seen the work in a long, long time—you CAN write.
As I always say, you never know why you’re going from A to B but, most of the time, it’s not the reason you think. I thought I was getting my new website ready for launch, but what I really was doing was laying a balm on my soul.
In an effort to identify an agent who might be interested in an urban fantasy novel I’ve written that features Mother Mary and Jesus, I subscribe to a daily email service from PublishersMarketplace. The email lists the deals of the day: sales of Fiction, Nonfiction, Mystery/Crime, Sci-fi/Fantasy, etc. The sales are described in one sentence. I have noticed a pattern. If the description of the sale begins with a long dependent clause describing the literary accolades of the author, the sale is of short stories.
The other sales—Thriller, Children’s, Young Adult, etc—focus in the limited time of the one sentence on the narrative hook. The short stories depend on the literary credentials of the author as the selling hook. This broadcasts to me the belief that people do not read short stories for pleasure; they read them for literary merit. To me, these attributes are not mutually exclusive. But listen and you will hear many, many readers’ impression of literary. “Literary” is hard. “Literary” is intellectual. One could conclude from the email that, to be bought by a publisher and sold to the public, short stories must be hard and intellectual.
I am a literary writer, though I don’t have the MFA and prize credits at the level of those whose short story collections are being listed. You might say I’m not a good enough writer to pitch my short stories to an agent and publisher. I think that’s fair. My question, though, is when did short stories become defined solely by their literary merit?
Let me be clear: there is not a Literary genre on the list. Short stories are reported under Fiction at Debut or General/Other. The same place that lists Romance, but I’ve never read a Romance description that begins with the author’s writerly credits, an obvious option for many gifted Romance writers. Does this approach mean short stories are sold as literary because, like the steamy plot summaries of Romances, that meets the expectations of short story readers? That, in fact, the only readers of short stories are literary readers? Maybe, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy if you ask me.
I love short stories. I cut my reader’s teeth reading them and my writer’s teeth writing them. One of greatest desires if for MORE people to love short stories. But if you consistently describe them using the heavy credentials of the writer rather than the intriguing plots, the compelling characters, the humor (!), you automatically lose many potential readers. As my mother would say, “Quit that.”
There, I’m finished. My short story rant for the day.
When a friend sent around a “let’s play” Facebook message about ten books that stuck with you, I made the list off the top of my head. When I finished, I realized on that list I’d included three short story collections.
Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty: a collection of interlocking stories set in Morgana, Mississippi, which I’ve read more than three but less than eight times.
Welding with Children, by Tim Gautreaux: the funniest set of short stories I’ve ever read, including the title story involving the narrators attempt to discuss the Bible with his brood of grandkids.
The Stories of John Cheever, by- you guessed it: surely the most elegant of short story writers, Cheever came into my awareness in college; thereafter, I asked for one of his collections for Christmas only to receive a large, shiny red book of his ENTIRE collection, a gift that to me still spells Christmas exuberance.
Many people write short stories because, well, they’re short. We’re almost universally taught to write short stories as a way to get our writing legs underneath us, working our way up to the novel. That’s why I did it, anyway. Now I see a new truth: I’ve stuck with the short story form because it has stuck with me.
I don’t know where you are—based on my blog stats, there’s a good chance you might be in Brazil or New Zealand or Italy or India or Britain—but whatever part of the world you’re in, it might be raining.
That steady downpour that makes you hunt a sofa, a blanket, a warm cup of coffee or tea.
You need a nap, really, a chance to drop off to sleep, snuggled on the sofa, stealing a moment of doing for yourself.
But what to do until sleep arrives?
The TV has become boring, and you’re too lazy right now to read.
Here’s the ticket: listen to this story. Or this one. Or if you are one of those folks who takes longer to drift off, give this one a try.
Seven minutes, eight, you’ll be done.
Turning over, yanking the covers beneath your chin, you’ll sigh in contentment. Sleep will descend, and your dreams will make you laugh out loud.
As much as I have promoted the free access to the stories—on this blog, iTunes, YouTube—one of the more popular vehicles for listening has been the $10 CDs. People listen in their cars; they use the CDs in their cars.
If you’d like to give a CD for Christmas, let me know. The CD has 4 stories—”Lucky Critters,” “Rollerblader for Jesus,” “Ain’t No Commies ‘Round Here,” and “Just Now.”
That’s 80 minutes of award-winning fiction.
LMK if you’d like to order one. I’d be glad for you to have it.
Sometimes I get so frustrated by the pace of my writing career, I Google the titles of my novels to see if something is going on with them that I don’t know about. This is an insane activity, as the novels haven’t been published. The only place they exist—other than a mention or two in contests I’ve placed in over the years—are in my computer. Yet, my lack of control over the excruciatingly slow pace—snail doesn’t begin to describe it; a snail could have traveled to Mexico, attended Carlos Fuentes funeral, and traveled leisurely back to Memphis via Omaha—has driven me to such wacko behavior.
Novels, you say. Novel. I thought she was a short story writer? Well, you see that’s the problem. Before this venture, I was “the woman who wrote that book about making crosses.” I loved my experience of the cross book, and then it was time to move on. I next chose, in effect, to self-publish as a collection these short stories that individually appeared in literary journals, my desire being to introduce folks to my fiction. Do you feel introduced? Are you ready for the next thing?
Maybe my problem is an above-average need for attention and acclaim, fanfare and fawning. But here’s the honest truth: I’m ready for the next thing before most people are ready for me to be the next thing. I’m already skipping down the sidewalk, and they haven’t processed my last chalk drawing. I can’t help it. I’m ready to bop. I want the short stories to do their work and, well-loved, subside into the background.
Lord, did you see what that snail did with Burnt Water? That’s what happens when a snail gets too much tequila.
Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love (or craziness)
This is the last week of the rollout. Look back: the first story launched on June 26 (of this year, as my friend from writing group would clarify.) We sustained a hiatus when my daddy died, then resumed with vigor. When the current week is done, we will enter PHASE II. The collection will be made available in full on other host sites. The work will enter the wider world. So let’s enjoy this last moment of intimacy. When it’s just you and me and the stories, whispering in your ear: “Listen, I want to tell you a story.”
Our mini-series, “Recording Your Fiction,” is a on-going conversation about audio as a self-publishing option. I’m a published author who recently recorded my short story collection, Cain’t Do Nothing with Love. The stories have been rolling out on-line one story per week; they’re available for free listening on this blog, iTunes, and YouTube. Based on my experience with both the publishing and recording option, here are a few questions I’d ask myself if I were to make this decision again:
* Is there a reason you want the stories available in audio?
This sounds so simple, but recording your fiction is not a way to avoid technical issues, time commitment, or money. The actual recording is easy and inexpensive; the tricky part is cleaning up your recorded product so people want to listen to it. I could not have tackled the technicals necessary to learn how to do this. Thankfully, I had a friend who was a professional sound engineer who did it for me, but because he was a professional, he was not free. Thus, just like with self-publishing an e-book, you will have some combination of time and money invested in your audio collection. So, again, the question is: do you have a particular reason for wanting to record, rather then print, your fiction?
* Is your fiction suited to audio?
Listening is harder than reading. Sentences must clear. Action easy to follow, dialogue quickly attributed. This means you need a product that’s well written and, I hate to say it, well edited. If it’s not, the audio amplifies the problems.
* Do you like your recorded voice?
if you don’t have any experience with radio, etc., you might want to ask friends to help with this one. The first time you hear your recorded voice, you might think, God-almighty, that’s awful. Others might disagree. Or vice-versa—you might need some polishing that you don’t hear. But the bottom line is you don’t want to spend a lot of time and money producing something that you can’t stand to listen to.
* Are you ready to explain (over and over again) that you do not, in fact, have a book?
I have experienced a low-level of understanding about what I’m doing. I’m okay with that—I like doing new things—but the literary world isn’t really audio-friendly. Facebook, for example, has no page category for “audio book” so you check “book” and then—ha!—everyone thinks you have a book. If you want to fit easily into folks’ expectations, don’t record your fiction.
All of these answers, of course, are based on my very own personal experience. Others might feel differently. Hence a “conversation.” Let me know what you think.
I can feel it – I’m eating up track, finally in the groove for the story, and the week is over. Finished. Done. Time to move on.
A week is a short thing.
Stay tuned for a new story.
It involves Love.
And a man in a squirrel costume.
Everyone’s talking about e-book or print, self-publishing or traditional. I want to talk about something different. Following the advice of my favorite fortune cookie ever—try a different way or new approach—today, I’m beginning a conversation about a different approach: audio. That is, recording your work and making it available to listeners on-line.
I do not speak from a point of authority; I speak from experience. I am a long-time writer, winner of numerous contests, holder of a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize for a short story, contributor to Sue Silverman’s memoir-writing instructional book Fearless Confessions, author of a traditionally published book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God. And I’ve just recorded a short story collection, Cain’t Do Nothing with Love, which is now available to the public.
The conversation will include questions to ask in deciding if recording is right for you, tips on getting started, truths I learned along the way, my experience with the listening public, etc. But today we are going to take a look at the fears that I encountered when I first clicked on the microphone and began to read my words aloud.
Thanks for listening, join in the discussion, share this blog with anyone who likes to try something new—glad to have you along.
Recording Fears, or Why Your Heart Might Skip a Beat
Your voice will sound stupid
Your voice will sound old
Your voice will sound JUST LIKE YOU
You will use a phrase that unbeknownst to you is slang for a pornographic sex act
You will mispronounce a word and not know it and your ignorance will be recorded for all the world to hear
You will no longer be able to pretend this thing isn’t important to you
Those who run the charities you’ve paired with the stories will be offended—now, we don’t want our name associated with that
A friend will ask to listen to the story while you’re sitting there, mortifying you to death
A really good writer will listen to the story and use it as the foundation of a blog entry on why we shouldn’t let amateurs have microphones
People will feel like they know you
You will have spent all this money for NOTHING
Someone will complain about your using Robb Pate’s music without compensating him even though he’s dead
Those who know you from your cross book will be shocked—I thought she was a religious person . . .
You will offend Black folk or gay folk or poor folk or Indian folk—what the hell were you thinking?!?
Your mother will hear you say a very bad word, out loud
People will give your upstanding husband the stink-eye just because his wife is strange
No one will donate to the charities
You are trying to market an approach (online, iTunes, YouTube, blog) to an audience too old (i.e. your age) to be interested, and the audience who gets the approach are too young to care about your work
Listeners won’t think the stories are funny, they won’t get it, they will find it just plain offensive
They won’t think anything at all because no one is listening, your voice echoing into nothingness
Stay Tuned for Part II: How to Overcome Your Fears and Forge Ahead
I am a child of the book. No more than five books from the children’s section of the library—what’s to be done? Not enough money to buy more than one book from the Book Mobile, thank God for Little Bear gifts from loving aunts. Summers spent in air-conditioned rooms lazing on beds, reading one Faulkner after another Welty after another, all in diamond-patterned or green-backed or crackly plastic covers. I grew up to discover paperbacks— The Bluest Eye and the Right Stuff: all right!—and when I got money practicing law, hardbacks.
So why record?
I loved the brown-edged pages, the stiff spines, the thick square paperbacks. I picked which Austin I wanted by which cover I liked. I opened the books and sniffed. I wanted to own that which I loved and I made shelves to hold them in my house.
So why record?
Why turn traitor?
Why abandon the book?
What’s fun is fun and what’s done is done. The stories are fun; the recording is done. The stories had been in print—literary journals, I know, right?—so take a Mulligan. Try something new, you’ve got nothing to lose.
But, seriously. I want the work OUT THERE. Even if that means no book.
Would I be sad if the world continues to change and by the time I finally get a novel ready to launch, the written book is gone, poof! Hell, yes.
Until then, you can go on-line. Hear me read, hear me roar.
And who knows—if the stories get popular enough, maybe I’ll put out the collection in a book.
When her girls were young, my older sister led them on full moon walks. Once a month, when the moon was full, the family would set out, walking into the nighttime. Sometimes the walk was around the block. Sometimes it occurred on hikes through the wilderness. Always, the walks happened when and where the moon happened.
Once, when the family was visiting me in Memphis, the moon rose full. We did not walk along the Mississippi River, marveling at the strong flowing water. We did not tromp through the cottonwood groves of Mud Island, necks craned at the magnificent trees. We went on a full moon walk down Beale Street: brick-paved, honky-tonk lined, birthplace of the blues Beale Street. Thus was birthed this week’s story.
The story is dedicated to my sister. The “moral” of the story is hers; the lesson learned mine. My nieces in their younger lives did do Scottish dancing; I can still see them in my mind’s eye, arms raised, legs bent. My sister’s husband did not run off with his physical therapist; I did have a grandmother whose hair was cut only once in her life. The rest of the story—reality, fiction—well, lines blur, don’t they?
I hope you enjoy the story. If you do, please thank my sister.
My fiction is for those who like Flight of the Conchords … even though the show’s no longer on TV. Or “Trailer Park Boys” … even though it’s from Canada … and no longer on TV. Or Beck’s “Loser” … even though its real name is (Get Crazy with the Cheeze-Whiz). Or anyone whose favorite character on “My Name is Earl” was Crabman … even though it’s no longer on TV (ahhhh – I see a theme, and possibly why your fiction doesn’t sell.)
That’s the way it always starts: “You know what would be fun?”
In December of last year, I had my first tutorial with Preston about podcasting. Since then I’ve recorded the stories; he engineered them. I selected a photo; he created a logo. I set up this blog; he taught me how to add audio to it. Another friend, Gary, created the PR packet; I sent it out and set up a “bookless book signing.” At the local bookstore, I read excerpts and led a tutorial on how to access the stories; my friends listened and made it an SRO event. The stories got ink; all the CDs sold. Preston and I launched the stories here, on YouTube, and on iTunes. People listened, they laughed, they congratulated; I bowed in gratitude.
After a brief interruption, we are now half-way through the roll-out of the fourteen stories. Once we are done, we will add the stories to Podiobooks and other sites. At that point, the stories will go out into the wider world, past my friends, beyond my relatives, further than readers of this blog or followers on FaceBook.
I always believe in pausing. Acknowledging. Celebrating. Now, as we are about to enter a Phase 2 of this “Hey, I know what would be fun!” journey, let’s pause and acknowledge: it has been fun. Cheers to happiness.
We are in a re-beginning. The roll-out of stories, interrupted by my daddy’s death and the grief that followed, is re-starting. To get back in the groove, we’re re-turning to the last aired story, “A Trip to the Lawyer.” It’s one of the shortest, 8 or so minutes. That’s a good thing when you’re re-warming muscles. Hope you enjoy it.
“A Trip to the Lawyer”
First appeared in print in RedHot ChickLit Review.
To contribute to Common Ground, a program of the YWCA devoted to conversations on race & communities in action, please follow the link here or visit commongroundmemphis.org
I opened the hand-addressed notecard. The graceful penmanship thanked me for my short story. I flipped the envelope and read the address: the writer was my neighbor. She had read “Just Now” in Memphis Magazine when the story won its annual fiction contest. I tucked the note away with other notes I’ve received over the years, those I want to keep. Of all the times my work has been published in literary journals, this note from my neighbor is the only time I remember someone in the wide world reading my fiction and responding.
Something different is happening now.
This summer, I am releasing my short story collection in audio, an initial four stories then one per week thereafter. I’m still at the beginning of this experiment; I’m only on story number 6. Yet, the difference in how I’m experiencing this publication experience is phenomenal.
I have people emailing me, Facebook messaging me, smiling at me when I run into them in the store. They are going out of their way to tell me how much they enjoy what they are hearing. They comment on the characters by name; they tell me the scenes that vibrated for them.
Why did I publish in literary journals? Because I was told to do so. Build your resume, they said, secure publications to include in your query letter—show agents you’ve got some chops. Better yet, maybe an agent will read your work and call offering representation. As a former lawyer, I saw the sense in this. Plus, to a certain extent, it worked. I have a “resume.” I made great contacts with editors, judges, etc. My work appeared in incredibly beautiful journals, themselves works of art. And, oh, my goodness, did I enjoy getting my work accepted by someone who had the background and position to call my work good.
“Ordinary readers” reading (well, listening) to my fiction takes things in an altogether different direction. The listeners are impacting the stories. For when I think of the stories now, I picture my friend sitting on the couch in the rain, listening to my words. Or another waking up, listening to my voice. Or laughing out loud at something I wrote. Or zipping down the interstate, repeating with gusto my quirky character’s mantra.
The readers are doing something I’ve read about concerning art, the artist, and those experiencing art, something about the triangle of relationship; the role the listener/viewer/reader plays in completing the work. I think this is why the reaction to my fiction feels so different from the feedback I’ve received over the years on my nonfiction book and essays. The listeners are making real something that otherwise is not.
This is brand new to me. Not to mention tons of fun, which was why I set out on this audio experiment in the first place: it sounded like fun. So far, so good.