Monthly Archives: March 2015

Writing the Short Story, Part I

This blog focuses primarily on providing tips on writing novels. In today’s publishing landscape, writers can gain traction by focusing on short stories. There are markets out there for short stories. The short story requires less of a time commitment than the novel. When I was cutting my teeth as a fiction writer, I dabbled in short stories before I attempted a novel.

Conventional wisdom suggests it is easier to write a short story than it is to pen a novel. I’m not so sure. So let’s explore the differences between the short story and the novel. Chief among them is obviously the length. How long should a short story be? In my research, I found a wide range of answers, from 1,000 words to a maximum of 20,000 words. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 3,500 words, or about 14 typed pages at 12 point type, double spaced. Of course, a writer must check the guidelines of the publication to which she is submitting her work as there is usually a maximum word count listed.

With fewer words, every word must count in a short story. The word count limit means a writer must take a different approach to the short story than she would when writing a novel. The story must have a tighter focus. While a novel can span years and even decades, a short story usually takes place in one scene or two at most. Think of a short story as a snapshot, or a microcosm. Short stories challenge writers to reveal large themes in few words.

In a multi-generational novel, the writer can explore intra-family relationships over the course of decades. In a short story, the writer must capture the relationships and conflicts among characters in that family in one or two scenes. For example, a rift may develop in a family over many years. In a short story, one pivotal scene that shows how and why this rift developed must suffice. The writer must shift from a “macro” to a “micro” focus. 

While a limited focus is essential in writing a short story, the writer should also curtail the number of characters. Populating a 3,500-word short story with eight to ten characters doesn’t make sense and will confuse the reader. I would limit the number to three characters, but a writer may need more than that number of characters to serve the needs of the story.

In developing characters for short stories, there is no space for detailed character development. The character’s transformation may be more subtle in a short story than a novel. A few well-placed, descriptive words can delivrer insight. For instance, if a writer describes the main character as having wild hair and a scruffy  beard and wearing tattered jeans, that evokes a certain image. The writer doesn’t necessarily need to go into detail about the characer’s upbringing. Calling a character a grifter and giving that character a test sets up the elements for the story.

I will cover other aspects of the short story in another installment.

What about you? Do you write both short stories and novels? Which do you find more challenging?

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Stage Directions in Fiction Writing: Where is the MC?

I read a piece submitted by a member of my writer’s group. In the opening scene, the point-of-view character looked over the shoulder of his wife, who was seated in the corner. Wait a minute, I thought. If she was seated in the corner, how could he look over her shoulder? Or, was he looking beyond her shoulder. My confusion took me right out of the story. And it was a strong piece.

In my own work-in-progress, I must have read the opening scene a half-dozen times before I discovered the main character at one point was standing in the kitchen, putting English muffins in a toaster. A moment later, she was seated at the kitchen table and I had not described how she got there.

Janice Hardy blogged about this topic here in February. She emphasized the importance of balance in stage direction. “As with everything else in writing, good stage direction requires balance and subtlety with the rest of the text. Too much and it feels like the scene drags, describing every little move a character makes. Too little and it feels like something was missed.”

Nat Russo, posting on the blog A Writer’s Journey, observed that stage direction can bog down the pace of the story. “Stage direction impacts your pacing directly be slowing it down wherever it appears.” Russo wrote.

“Managing your stage direction well can be crucial to pacing and overall readability. Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension), too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is,” Russo wrote.

My take on stage direction is that the writer does not need to describe every movement in detail, but the writer must at a minimum let the reader in on where the character is situated in a scene. And why the writer made that choice. The level of detail depends on what the writer wants to accomplish in a scene. If a couple is about to have an argument, does the writer place them nose to nose or on the other side of the room.  It depends. If they cannot stand the sight of each other, perhaps they want to be as far away as possible.

Is movement important to the scene? In the opening scene of my novel, the main character’s father storms out of the house. This means he has to walk through the kitchen, the dining room and the parlor, with his daughter walking behind hm and pleading with him not to go. The distance allowed me to heighten the tension. If he was at the front door and decided to walk out, the tension would have quickly dissipated.

Small details, such as a character fidgeting in his chair, can be revealing. Describing the chair in detail and where it was in the room could be distracting.

It all comes down to balance. Give the reader enough stage direction to allow her to visualize the scene, but not so much that it drags the scene down.

What is your take on stage direction? How much is too much?

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Book Review: “Let Me Frank With You,” by Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe is one of my favorite characters in modern literature.  Bascombe embodies the hopes, dreams, restlessness, complexities, and insecurities of middle aged white males navigating a changing landscape in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America. Introduced to readers in “The Sportswriter” (1986), Bascombe’s journey continued in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day” (1995) and “The Lay of the Land” (2006). 

Ford brings Frank back in a series of four linked stories entitled, “Let Me Be Frank With You.” Frank was rootless and recently divorced in “The Sportswriter,” transitioning to a career as a real estate agent in “Independence Day,” and finding his way in “The Lay of the Land.” In Ford’s latest work, Frank is retired and is facing the issue of his own mortality.

In 2006, Ford thought ‘Lay of the Land’ would be the last Frank Bascombe book. In a recent interview Ford said Hurricane Sandy was the event that compelled him to bring Frank back. Ford was so affected by the storm’s destructive power and the crushing of human lives and dreams that he had to revive Frank, as the New Jersey landscape provided the backdrop for all three Bascombe novels. The stories take place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, right before Christmas.

Told in the present tense, the stories find Frank reflecting on the past, living in the present, and sober-eyed about the future. In the first story, “I’m Here,” Frank travels to Seaclift to see his former beachfront house, at the behest of the man to whom he sold the property. The destruction he witnesses is a metaphor for Frank’s realization that nothing is permanent and death looms large.  As he drives to his former home, Frank observes that “civic life has sustained a fierce whacking–house roofs sheared off, exterior walls stripped away, revealing living room full of furniture, pictures on bed tables, closets stuffed with clothes, stoves and refrigerators standing out white for all to see. Other houses are gone altogether.” 

At the twilight stage of his life, Frank is looking to jettison things, including friends. He makes lists of words he dislikes and bonding is one of them. “Emerson was right–as he was about everything: an infinite remoteness underlies us all. And what’s wrong with that? Remoteness joins us as much as it separates us, but in a way that’s truly mysterious, yet completely adequate for the life ongoing.” 

When the homebuyer, Arnie Urquhart, hugs him as they depart, a gesture Frank seeks to avoid, he is unsteady on his feet and the embrace saves him from falling. And then Arnie says to Frank, “Everything could be worse, Frank”…”and he is surely right.”

Which brings the reader to the next story, “Everything Could Be Worse.” Frank returns from his weekly volunteer stint reading for the blind at a radio station to find a middle aged African American woman at his front door.  It turns out the woman, Charlotte Pines, had lived in the house years ago, until a horrific tragedy that occurred during her teen-age years forced her to move. The former realtor in Frank reflects, “No one wants to stay any place. There are species-level changes afoot.”

When Charlotte tells Frank that her troubled father killed her mother, brother and then himself in this house when she was 16, Frank asks her if it is beneficial to come back to the scene of the grisly events. Charlotte said it is helping and later asks Frank if he found it hard to move back to Haddam. “It’s been the easiest thing in the world. Most everyone I knew from before is gone or dead. I don’t make much of an impression on things now–which is satisfying.”

The next story, “The New Normal,” is the most satisfying for me. It centers on Frank’s visit to see his ex-wife, Ann Dykstra, now afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease and living in a high-end “state-of-the-art, staged-care facility.” The ostensible reason for Frank’s visit is to deliver to Ann a special pillow (a “yoga-approved, form-fitting, densely foamed and molded orthopedic pillow…recommended by neurologists in Switzerland to homeophatically ‘treat’ Parkinson’s…”). 

While ruminating on his marriage, Frank reveals that he is prone these days to inhabit his “Default Self,” which means the self he would like others to see in him. It is how he believes others understand him to be: “a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.”  Ann, on the other hand, is preoccupied with bedrock truth. She holds to the belief that the marriage failed because Frank didn’t love her. Frank will not concede that point. What Frank believes pushed their marriage over the cliff was the tragic death of their son, Ralph, to Reyes Disease at the age of nine, an event covered at length in “The Sportswriter” and “Independnce Day.”

Ann  believes we all have ‘selves,’ characters we cannot change. Frank doesn’t buy it. “Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts.  In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.” 

As they depart, Ford offers this tender description. “There is no urge to touch, to kiss, to embrace. But I do it just the same. It is our last charm. Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”

In the final story, “Deaths of Others,” an old friend from the Divorced Men’s Club, Eddie Medley, is dying and invites Frank for a visit. Eddie makes a disturbing deathbed confession to Frank, revealing a shocking act of betrayal that would have sent Frank off the rails years ago, but he takes the news with surprising calm. When Eddie asks if the news changes anything, Frank say it doesn’t. “It’s just the truest thing I can say…A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.”

And that may be the truest and most lasting legacy of Ford’s Frank Bascombe coda.

  

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