Thursday, December 25, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 (Going on 24) Years of "Teaching": Appendix Appendicitis 2

Took me long enough, didn't it? This is what happens when I conceive of making a simple list of stories I've used in class with a brief explanation of why. Most of the time, I don't know why, not consciously. And the answers aren't always simple.
I have one more appendix to add to my notes on short story writing. May I complete it before I mark my twenty-fifth year of teaching, or pass into oblivion.
A Long Reading List of Short Stories
Below is a list of stories I’ve assigned to my Short Story Writing students over the years. It may not be complete but it’s as close as I will ever get without digging through boxes and crates (yes, I do have boxes; crates may be a slight exaggeration). It constitutes my unofficial “anthology” of short stories, if ever I were to put together a textbook for my class. I never used a textbook , because I never found one that contained everything I wanted. I keep running into the problem that most collections of short fiction are geared for literature classes. I would like to see more anthologies designed for use in writing classes (publishers: get in touch with me; I’m available).
Certain stories I’ve used over and over again. Others I have tried once and promptly abandoned. It’s difficult to know how a particular class will respond to a particular story. Every class reads the same story differently, just as every individual reads the same story differently. In one class I might have great success with Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin”; in another class it shoots right over the students’ heads. You make your picks and you take your chances.
The stories reflect my own tastes more than they reflect any notion of choosing “the best” or “the greatest.” That’s for literature classes. In my writing classes I’m more interested in what’s being done story-tellingwise and how that may have been accomplished. Of course, that doesn’t preclude a story being “great,” which a significant number of these stories happen to be (and not necessarily the ones you might first suppose).
When I started listing these stories, I had no idea how many there were. Twenty-four years will do that.
In no particular order:

“Araby” by James Joyce
I’ve been using this one for ages. If you haven’t read “Araby” you haven’t taken my class. The quintessential “epiphany” story, which serves as a decent model for what can be done with a story based on “personal experience,” real or imagined. Sometimes I say it’s the greatest story ever written; other times I say I haven’t the slightest idea why it’s earned its reputation. But I keep reading it and I keep finding new reasons to admire it.
“A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield
This may be my second most often assigned story. I love that all takes place in one scene, in a little tea room, between two people – although much is touched upon within those constraints. I admire its economy and its mastery of point of view.  I am also amazed at how differently students will interpret the characters in this story (and so validly)
“Duel” by Richard Matheson
I’ve used this story because the TV movie made from it is so well known. I emphasize the economy and precision of Matheson’s storytelling. We also look at the opening sentence: it’s apparent simplicity but it’s subtle drawing of the reader into the action of the story.
“In the Late Cretaceous” by Connie Willis
I use this one because it’s so funny and because of the way she draws the parallels between the dinosaurs demise and the modern university, as well as keeping the multiple threads of her characters in play without dragging down the story’s pace.
“Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth
A great “problem” story. Editorial comment: you have to go back to the short fiction to see how great a writer Roth can be.
“The Last Mohican” by Bernard Malamud
Malamud’s “doppelganger” story. It’s a good example of a story putting a character to a very personal test by pairing him with a character that subtly reflects a part of his own unacknowledged, darker nature.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
Absolutely essential to read this story. We look at the opening paragraph and see how it prepares you for every subsequent revelation of the story. The ending as well is worth many re-readings.
“Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor
When I get tired of talking about how great “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is, I try to find another exemplary O’Connor story. This one isn’t perfect, but it has at its heart a great problem, which the protagonist tries to solve. His failure is brilliantly illustrated, like the tattoo itself that Parker gets.
“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” by Flannery O’Connor
See above. Along with the masterful control of point of view, its powerful climax and its serene, haunting ending.
“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
I read this story for years without going back to the ballad of which this turns out to be an effective and loyal retelling – a matter which adds such great resonance to Bowen’s painstaking and effective use of detail – sense of place, character, tone and mood. The heart of the story is so lightly but effectively introduced. And the ending, after multiple readings, remains chilling and disturbing in the very best way.
“A Tree of Night” by Truman Capote
One year my class night fell on Halloween. I decided to celebrate (and allow my students to celebrate) by choosing three of the creepiest stories I had ever read. This was one of them. I love stories that take place in essentially one setting – in one scene. I later tried my hand at my own “terrors of travel” story, called “The Ambiguities.” Capote, I confess, still managed the more effective job.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
My second choice for Halloween (my third was “The Demon Lover”). A profoundly scary story where essentially nothing dramatic occurs. It is all in the dialog – the sense of threat from “Mr. Friend,” of the mercilessly cool exercise of power and the thick sense of inevitability of our unfortunate protagonist’s fate.
“A Guide to Berlin” by Vladimir Nabokov
On first reading, this looks like a random selection of jottings, interesting in their individual vividness, but not particularly cohesive. With the last few sentences, you realize this story is a story, structured to hide its intent in plain sight. It’s still open to a number of interpretations, but its themes of war and time and remembrance remain powerful even nine decades after its first publication.
“The Jar” by Ray Bradbury
What’s in the jar? Imagination. It’s TV. It’s the unconscious manifest. It’s just junk collected in a jar. It’s the perfect metaphor – except you ruin it if you call it a metaphor. I’m not sure if I have a clear reason why I’ve used this story in class except that it fascinates me, and I hope it fascinates my students as well.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
I’m adamant about stories being about people. I’m also adamant about exceptions to the rule, of which this may be one of the most notable. This story “works” in a profound way, but why? The commentaries my students provide on that question I find ceaselessly fascinating.
“The Wooing of Ariadne” by Harry Mark Petrakis
I have always loved this story for its plain narrative structure, its strong first-person voice and it’s just-breaking-the-ice conclusion grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat. And yet, in its simplicity (it’s been staged as a high school play) it leaves a depth of texture and interpretation that’s humbling for any writer who reads it. Petrakis, perhaps, is a writer’s writer. He channels all his Greek ancestors with every sentence.
“The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr.
I’ll never forget the rage expressed by one of my students, a retired accountant, at discovering that this was a science fiction story only after reading almost the entire story. Of course, a careful rereading reveals that this is science fiction story from the very first sentence. Books can be written about this one story – or at least collections of essays.
“The Chaser” by John Collier
This serves as the classic example of how to do a full story in one scene, consisting mostly of a dialog between a young man looking for a love potion, and the older gentleman who sells it to him for a dollar. Within the scene, we gain, in the most economic way, what led the young man here and – inevitably – where he will go from there, and how he will return to the little apartment of the older gentleman. A masterpiece of economy, voice and structure.
“Walking Distance” by Rod Serling
Often, I’ve had students in class who weren’t familiar with short stories – but they were familiar (especially if they were “of an age”) with anthology format TV shows, like The Twilight Zone. I chose this because not only is it one of the deepest, most poignant (and slightly autobiographical) of the TV episodes, it’s also one of Serling’s best short stories as short stories (he published a few collections of prose versions of his scripted episodes).
“The Familiar” by Albert E. Cowdrey
The first story of Cowdrey’s I read, which mixes a vivid New Orleans location with mystery and magic. I used it as a example of “trusting the story” to find the “voice.”
“The Little Things” by Bridget McKenna
This is a great example of how to take a fantasy premise and write about it in the most realistic way possible. A brilliant, vivid, witty tale by a most underrated writer. I thought my students would appreciate it and I was mostly right.
“The Dead Boy at Your Window” by Bruce Holland Rogers
I love this story as an example of taking an impossible, dreamlike premise and presenting it in a mix of folk tale and dream record – but never questioning its bizarre reality. It has a strong, emotional core that is never overplayed and all the more effective for that restraint.
 “The Brown Wasps” by Loren Eiseley
Technically, this is an essay, but an essay with all the elements and qualities of a good short story.
“The Snatchers” by Jane Yolen
As they say these day: “Because Jane Yolen.” I needn’t say more, except that I was looking for a story that worked in a contemporary fashion though it evoked all the disturbing strangeness of a good folk tale.
“O Lonesome Day That Ends in Shame” by Andrew Fox
“The Secret Life of Mrs. Lewis Lockhardt” by Tom O’Neal
“The Gentleman” by Martha McPhee
“Every Day Different” by Robert J. Levy
One term, many years ago, one of my students wanted to know why I didn’t use more contemporary stories in class – what was being written now and what, logically, editors were buying. I picked this story from Redbook, I believe, along with another and a couple from The New Yorker. I can’t say I remember much from the reading of them. All of them seemed somehow incomplete, indirect, in conclusive. I suppose I should give them another chance, after almost twenty years, but so far I’ve been able to find more interesting stories to add to the reading list rather than revisit this and the others I chose that term.
The exception, at one level, is the story “Every Day Different,” which I drew from a then-current issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story shows exceptional skill as it finds a new take on an old story premise.
 “In the Balance” by Judith L. Post
From that same period of the stories cited above, I found this a solid, balanced and very human mystery tale drawn from the pages of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which is still a good source for work of equal caliber.
“Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard
Also from that same above-mentioned period (my students rode me hard in those days). This appeared in the New Yorker, which appeared to signal that “popular” writer Leonard had arrived. The piece demonstrates all the qualities and strengths of a first chapter of an Elmore Leonard novel, which is exactly what it is.
“The Price” by Algis Budrys
Like “The Chaser,” a chilling story done in one scene, in one room, with four characters and a powerful ending.
“Semper Fi” by Damon Knight
“Masks” by Damon Knight
Knight published both these stories, in different places, with annotations on the right-hand page, explaining why he put this in or didn’t mention that. They may not be Knight’s best stories, but I like to show students that sometimes there is a method to the madness, and the effects they feel from reading a work of fiction have deliberate (as well as intuitive) causes.
“Two Gallants” by James Joyce
“Eveline” by James Joyce
Occasionally, I tired of using “Araby” in class, so at different times I have tried these two, which are both fine stories, though they don’t have that feel of lost innocence, regret, and kick-in-the-head-epiphany that makes “Araby” so vital.
“The Magic Man” by Charles Beaumont
I was looking for a story that evoked a sense of wonder without necessarily engaging in fantasy or speculation. Of wonder, of “magic,” and its intrinsic frailty. In other words, I was looking for an excuse to include a story by the brilliant (and overlooked) Charles Beaumont.
“The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark
It occurs to me, as I look at the Muriel Spark stories I’ve chosen over the years, that the brilliance of Spark is often in her choice of point of view. Here’s a ghost story told by the ghost. It is not like anything you would imagine a ghost story to be, but when you reach the end it is profoundly apparent that no other point of view could have told this story so fully and so powerfully.
“Three Fairy Tales With Unhappy Endings Due to Bad Timing” by Pamela Miller
A set of three poems by my wife which are exactly what the title states they are. I gave them to students so they can see how one can re-imagine folk and fairy tales, using the basic structure of such tales to add a new twist, especially helpful for writers who have trouble applying structure to their writing – why not borrow parts or even the whole of another kind of story?
“Exchange” by Ray Bradbury
A beautiful latter-day Bradbury tale that takes place in a library. What’s not to like?
“The Distant Sound of Engines” by Algis Budrys
Budrys was a genius for many reasons, but he possessed a particular genius for telling science fiction tales without traditional science fiction trappings or settings. This story takes place completely in a hospital room, narrated by an injured truck driver. It is evocative, haunting and unmistakably science fiction.
“Henry James, This One’s for You” by Jack McDevitt
Stories often rely on the decisive actions of their protagonists. That’s certainly true of Jack’s evocation of a book editor’s anxiety. Half the readers of this story cheer the editor’s action; the other half scream bloody murder (for a reason).
“Steadfast Castle” by Michael Swanwick
A story told entirely in dialogue utilizing a simple method and effective method. More than a clever exercise in technique, content and form are beautifully matched.
“Charles” by Shirley Jackson
A recent addition. I wanted to find a Shirley Jackson story that wasn’t “The Lottery.” This story may telegraph its conclusion, especially for more sophisticated readers, but it’s still fun to study how Jackson drops all the hints that allow we readers to intuit the story’s ending long before the protagonist does.
“He Swung and He Missed” by Nelson Algren
I had a hard time choosing an Algren story for my classes. So many of them seem formless; others have a structure that seems to lead to an inevitable march toward doom – neither impression is really true, but it can be too easy to arrive at that conclusion after an initial reading. I picked this one because it’s essentially a love story, an unabashed love story, and a poignant one at that. I believe Algren is one of the unacknowledged geniuses of American letters, and I decided this one is an “accessible” introduction of both Algren’s wit and his hard edges.
“Circe” by Eudora Welty
Just tried this story recently. I was intrigued by a Welty story that didn’t take place in her native Mississippi, and a story based on myth.  I admire that Welty has chosen the point of view of a character from whose POV we rarely see, and that her narrator’s eye is as relentlessly perceptive as in the best of her better known works.
“Dalrymple Goes Wrong” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I chose this one because it has an opening that is, of its sort, absolutely perfect.
“The Forks” by J. F. Powers
I chose this one because it has an ending that is, of its sort, absolutely perfect.
“Coming to Terms” by Eileen Gunn
I liked this one because it has a mystery at its core that is never solved and that keeps the story from resolving, I believe (though I may be wrong). And yet it works. It also helps that its inspiration is the author Avram Davidson, who I consider one of finest writers of the twentieth century, and whom I suspect would appreciate this story, and even unravel its intrinsic mystery.
“The Green Glass Sea” by Ellen Klages
Started (and published) as a short story. Turned out to be the first chapter of her first novel. Is it a short story disguised as a novel chapter, or a novel chapter disguised as a short story? Either way you decide, it has a vivid austerity. Klages is an author who will always find a way to break the rules, but invisibly.
“The Prehensile Tail” by James Tate
Tate is a brilliant, surrealistic prose poet. His work often breaks every expectation a reader might have, but we still enjoy reading his crazy little tales. I like to ask my students, “How can he do that?”
“The First Year of My Life” by Muriel Spark
Another of Spark’s brilliant exercises in voice, this time by casting a baby as omniscient narrator. Just when you think you’ve pegged it as a brilliant stunt, the story gets profoundly serious. Never turn your back on Muriel Spark
“We’re the Only Colored People Here” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Another novel chapter disguised as a short story and included in anthologies, but all the parts of a short story are there. Brroks uses her skills as a poet to distill all of the work of a story into a vivid scene. I use it as an example of how poets teach us a lot when they write prose. Probably more than prose writers can teach poets when they enter into verse.
“To Da-duh, In Memoriam” by Paule Marshall
Story as memoir, or memoir as story, executed with the utmost craft.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
The ultimate example of the “unreliable narrator” and how it can be used to devastating effect.
 “Bang Bang You’re Dead” by Muriel Spark
Another splendid Spark conceit: people sitting in a room watching home movies. Each reel of film provokes a memory that helps to tell the story behind each shot in the movie. Nothing is ever as simple as it really seems.
 “And Come From Miles Around” by Connie Willis
I love this story because it’s about perceiving things and noticing things that everyone else takes for granted. It is a story about being a writer in which a writer never appears. Willis is known these days for her big-getting-bigger novels, but her brilliance is most apparent in her shorter works.
“The Cat and Mouse in Partnership” by the Brothers Grimm
I first read this Grimm fairy tale as an undergraduate and I still find it to be a near-perfect model of folktale as story. “And that is the way of the world.”
“Never Meet Again” by Algis Budrys
I use this one because it’s one of my favorite “parallel universe” stories. You can count on Budrys to find the deeper human dimension to almost any science fictional concept.
“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield
This story so splendidly models and balances all the traditional elements of a short story, it would be shame not to use it in a writing class. A lit class would after all sorts of perceived symbolism here, but the power of the story is in its perfect plain-ness. It is completely out in the open and brilliant.
 “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
I’ve used this classic story to illustrate how a short story can resolve itself without the protagonist’s success. After all these years it remains a chilling (pun intended) finale.
“The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant” by Jeffrey Ford
It’s so difficult to find stories that accurately depict the life and activity of a writer, I grabbed this one the moment it was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. It accomplishes the first goal, and neatly illuminates the nature of fiction by the end of the story.
“My First Time” by Drazen Bell (Gregory Bell, former student)
Greg Bell attended the first short story class I ever taught, so of course I wanted to include his story in my class when it was published. It effectively camouflages its structure in a breezy narration, focuses on the most mundane of matters and defies you to find it uninteresting.
“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin
“Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly
I paired these stories in my Science Fiction Writing Workshop and they worked so successfully together, I figured I’d try them in my short story class. The pair demonstrate how literature is in a conversation with itself. The Godwin story illustrates an effective strategy for manipulating a reader’s perceptions of what constitutes the “cold equations” of the universe. The Kelly story addresses our own sense of identity and uniqueness: the “equations” aren’t cold, but we can be.
“The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber
I went to Thurber because I wanted more humor in the stories we read in class. The oddest thing we discovered is that humor often doesn’t survive scrutiny. With Thurber, humor is most often a product of voice and though both these stories have major flaws if we look at them structurally, they are still great fun to read.
“The Riddle” by Walter De La Mare
This is one of the oddest stories I’ve used in a class and one of the oddest I’ve ever read, period. It breaks several of the rules that a class like mine tries to outline, but either in spite of or because of its rule-breaking, it creates a powerfully disturbing atmosphere that never lets go. Never.
“The Novella Race” by Pamela Sargent
A funny story treating the literalized metaphor of competition among writers. What if the writing of novellas was an established Olympic event? Years before NaNoWriMo made this sort of thing less metaphorical.
“The Goldin Boys” by Joseph Epstein
“The Count and the Princess” by Joseph Epstein
I wanted to find stories that took place in recognizable Chicago neighborhoods and address some real problems faced by people growing up  in a world that might be familiar to some of my students. Epstein taught Freshman Writing for many years, and his concerns for clarity and precision are joined with a profound desire to find dignity in every little action and gesture.
“Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland” by Carson McCullers
I wanted to find a McCullers story that a.) did not take place in the South, b.) was funny and c.) had that odd kind of ambiguous reversal that marks so many of her works. So much depends upon a dog walking backwards, sometimes.
“The Circular Ruins” by Jorge Luis Borges
“Everything and Nothing” by Jorge Luis Borges
“The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges
There is no way that I can describe the genius of Borges in a few sentences. I won’t even try. Why I try to introduce Borges to my classes is that I want to show them that you can write about the most metaphysical of subjects (reality and the nature of identity) through the simple specificity of places and people
“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Because it begins so deceptively simple and it ends so powerfully. This is the story I point to when I want to show aspiring writers who and what they’re competing with. Novelists will be relieved to know that Bacigalupi is best in the shorter form. Don’t get me wrong: his novels are great. But his stories are masterpieces, “Pump Six” most of all.
“Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick
Resnick’s skills as a storyteller are apparent throughout this story, but the main reason I picked it for my short story class (as well as for my science fiction writing class) is that his narrator, who is also his protagonist, is an intelligent, likeable, sly and memorable character who is also justifying his performaning an act most readers will find abominable. I ask my students, “How do you get away with that?” “Do you ‘get away’ with that? And why?"
 “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler
Science fiction fans are disappointed when this story is chosen over Butler’s “Blood Child” for selection in major anthologies. I’m not. Every sentence sizzles with anger and frustration, and yet the story is anything but despairing. She does a number of very daring things for a short story author to attempt. Contemporary readers will think the science-fictional “concept” here is the devastating virus and the post-apocalyptic landscape in which Butler’s story takes place. What’s truly “sfnal” here is that Butler’s story “about” language is a meditation upon language and questions its boundaries in ways that make more allegedly sophisticated works appear anemic and superficial in comparison.
 “And Now the News” by Theodore Sturgeon

I can pick a dozen Sturgeon stories to use in a writing class, for a dozen different reasons. But I believe the one common element you would find within the diversity of his ideas, structures and characters is this: voice. His narrators are always in control of the story, and always directly address you, as if you were sitting across the table from them, in a café or dining room. This one, which addresses some aspects of suburban life seemed appropriate in a class that I teach at several suburban campuses. It still delivers a powerful kick at the end.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Latest Mantra and a couple of quotes

(a brief inclusion I'm adding to my class notes for the "Writing Short Stories" class I teach for Oakton's Alliance for Lifelong Learning Program. It will go at the end of the section on "Narrative -- Plotting -- 'Story.'"

Below that is a non-satori satori taken from Algis Budrys' brief little masterpiece, Writing to the Point. Did you ever wonder why it seems all the best books on writing are also the shortest? This will go after the 2007 satori about "the BING! moment."

So now your version of my class notes will be complete as well -- Kids! Collect them all!)


MY LATEST MANTRA (in 2014): Journalists, election campaign consultants, marketing “experts” and other souls who wish to sound sophisticated and erudite have seized upon the term “narrative.” It’s become the latest secret key and entr√© into what’s happening, how the world works and how to make the world seem like it is working. You can’t go half a minute watching a PBS talk show without hearing someone use it in some knowing fashion. Which is fine. I’m all for everyone with a smart phone thinking they know all the secrets of the universe (unless they think that by knowing them they should by rights control the universe as well, and then act upon that belief).
But when it comes to writing, specifically the writing of stories, and fictional ones at that, I find myself reciting this mantra as I read the work of a number of my student:
n  The “stuff that happens” is not the narrative.
n  The narrative is not the plot.
n  The plot is not the story.
Each may lead successively to the next, but never (or hardly ever) mistake the one for the other, or think that you may arrive at the end result without the aid of each (or at least two out of three).
And nothing is more important, at least to the writer, than the story.

 +   +   +
NOT-SO SATORI IN 2014: I keep looking for simple ways to say this, but Algis Budrys can’t be beaten at succinctness: “Writing primarily consists of forming a series of events in your mind and somehow transmitting them into the mind of a reader.”
And one more: “Story affects the reader through a balance between an engineered series of events and an artful depiction of what they mean to the characters involved in them. Without the art, the engineering is empty hackwork. Without the engineering, the art can’t be communicated clearly.”
(from Writing to the Point, The Unifont Company, Evanston, 1994)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Farewell Green Knight

I was in too great a state of shock to write about it immediately, but last night I discovered that environmental journalist, animal rights activist, raconteur and all-around humane human being Bob Carlson (who blogged the Hazard Hot Sheet as the “Green Knight”) passed away June 9.
Bob got in touch with me years ago, since he was a big fan of the saur stories, and we’d be in close correspondence for a few weeks, then I wouldn’t hear from him for months. Then BOOM! We’d be back talking about one thing or another. We were both children of the Sixties and shared many tastes in art, books, music and humor. And, like a lot of us from that generation, we were “experts” on a million seemingly unrelated topics. He was a great reader – and a reader of science fiction (where he must have first encountered my work) not a “fan” in the “fandom” sense. He just loved reading the stuff, and we filled a number of emails talking about our favorites, and exploring one esoteric subject or another.
What we also had in common, I suppose, was that we were often both struggling to get along: to get bills paid, scrabbling along for subsistence in one way or another. That may explain the months in between correspondence at times. I’m not sure if I even spoke to him over the phone – maybe once or twice. I’m shy about telephone conversations because I’m a talker, and once I’m on the phone I never shut up. I imagined if Bob and I got on the phone we’d talk until dawn and the phone bill would be large enough to fund a Mars mission.
God, I wish I hadn’t been so cheap.
Once or twice we talked about collaborating on a saur story or two. I was a little too cautious – too protective –since I had some plans for saur stories and I wanted to make my way through them before I took “the guys” through any other further adventures.
Damn. I wish I wasn’t such a slow writer. I wish I wasn’t such a stick-in-the-mud about launching into new stories, new ideas.
I remember once, one of my oldest friends was approached by Bob on Facebook, and she asked me if this guy was okay. I told he could seem a bit overwhelming at times, but he was a good guy.
A very good guy. Top dollar. Solid.
But… overwhelming. Yeah. His mind was as big as the universe and, as our old buddy Axel the little blue theropod will tell you, that’s a pretty big place.
And his love of animals: I don’t think I’ve known anyone who worked as tirelessly and selflessly for abandoned and rescue animals. He never flinched from taking in an extra little friend who needed a home and love. His heart was, as they say these days, an awesome thing.
I also remember he once sent me a story – about a chicken named Henny Penny, and it was an updated fable – a little bit of Chicken Little and a little bit of the one who crossed the road; and he worked into it a number of his environmental concerns, corporatization, animal rights and probably a dozen other interesting things into a few tight pages.
He lost his copy of the story with a computer crash. I lost my copy of the story with a computer crash of my own. I did manage to retrieve a lot of stuff, some of which is still on a CD-ROM, but I couldn’t access the story. Bob asked about it several times, since he wanted to revise it. I told him that, as painful as it would be, he should just start from scratch and write it over again, as I had to do on a number of lost stories. Easier to say than to do. As far as I know, he never did. I would love to see what he would have come up with if he had.
I also remember Bob, in several emails, reminiscing about San Francisco and the Bay Area, where he’d spent his younger years. Life had moved him to St. Louis, which is as good a place to be as any, I suppose, but Bob’s heart, as the song says, was in San Francisco.
I hope he’s there now, in some shape or form or permutation.
I wish I could sing, like the Little Sparrow, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” I regret – a lot. We live in a big world that fools us all the time: fools us that it is smaller, manageable, in our grasp – and that even though new things come along, everything we remember will be here always. All our friends, all our loves, are granted some sort of immunity from time, and we are never going to feel any more loss than we already have.
So reading about the death of Bob really kicked me a good one in the gut. Last month, hearing of Larry Santoro passing did the same thing. October of last year, Delphyne Woods – I nearly dropped dead myself.
Death isn’t taking any vacations.
And from now on (he says, fingers crossed) I’m not taking anything for granted.
If you know someone you haven’t heard from in a while – send them a line. Give them a call. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch.
I know – so many people, so little time, but – just try not to lose touch. You’ll have a few less regrets when your own time comes.
JUST ONE MORE THING: I found out about Bob’s death because I was working on a “sort of” saur story last night. It’s about a lot of things, as all stories are, but Agnes and Sluggo are in it, and I’m trying to sneak a few more guys into it, like Doc and Kara and Eliot and Cyrano and Charlie (at least I’ll try. But the story is really more about Reggie, and kids, and loneliness in a world in a world where corporations will spend trillions to find out everything about you, but nobody wants to know you.
So… I was working on this scene set in a toy store, and they’re selling saurs in there, and the sales staff is all dressed up in safari togs, and this one sales rep is wearing a pith helmet.
Yes, I said “pith helmet.” (those of you who knew Bob know why this is important.)
I type the words in: “pith helmet.” I look at them. I look at each letter in each word.
Suddenly, the voice in my head says, “Where’s Bob?” I can’t see those words without seeing Bob in his pith helmet. He was so proud of that thing when he got it. He sent me pictures.
And he looked great in it. He looked perfect.
“Where’s Bob?” So I searched. And with disarming swiftness I learned what happened.
And almost as instantly I went into a state of shock, or The Bummers, or whatever it is that happens to you when the news is so bad you just shut down and turn the world off.
Whatever it is, I’ve been feeling it too much.
So, the next saur story I finish, I’m dedicating to Bob.
Take care of yourselves, everybody.

And don’t lose touch – ever.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Appendix Appendicitis 1

The “Five Card” Exercise

So imagine that you’ve signed up for my class. First thing you discover is that a crazed-looking, long-haired, bearded hobo has taken over the class. Where’s the teacher? Who’s going to teach you about short story writing?
Oh, wait – you mean he’s the teacher? Can you still get a refund?
Well, okay. It’s a cold night. You’ve driven this far. May as well sit here in this warm (maybe too warm) classroom for a while. It would be rude to walk out on him – not that you’re worried about being rude to a hobo but, you know, on general principles…
The hobo yaps for a while, going on about “story-shaped ideas,” and conflict and motivation – blah-blah-blah. What does that have to do with writing? Aren’t you just supposed to put down stuff on paper about your uncle Toby and how he used to tell fart jokes at the table when your folks invited him over for Thanksgiving? What’s all this stuff about revolution? Oh – RES-olution. Maybe you should have just taken that volleyball class after all…
Just then, the hobo takes out all these cards – or little slips of paper. Five little stacks of cards. What’s this all about? Are you going to play Monopoly?
On one set of cards, on one side a word is printed:
Character

Another set of cards have on them:
Motivation

The third set of cards say:
Setting

One the fourth set:
Nemesis/opposition/ conflict/“trouble”

And the last:
Resolution

From each set he asks you to pick one card. On the other side of the first set, on each card is a name. Here are some for example:
Arthur Stringmeier
Dana Lockwood
Chaney Hitchcock
Claudia Rollins
Budd Buford
Kate Ballinger
Why names? Why not descriptions, or resumes, or articles of clothing?
The hobo says that names are specific. You’re not dealing with generalities. A story is about someone. Not only that, but names are evocative. You hear a name and you imagine a person who has that name. Every student will have a picture of who that character is, but every student’s picture will be different. If you give the same name to five different students you will end up with five different stories.
Let’s say you picked the card for Kate Ballinger. Who is she? What does she look like? Where does she live? What does she do? If you can’t think of anything right away, don’t worry. Pick a card from the “Motivation” stack. You may choose from such things as:
Justice
Survival
Revenge
Redemption
Resistance
Rescue
A lot of “R” words in that bunch. But why do you need them?
The hobo explains that characters have to need something, or want something. Static, inert characters rarely make for interesting stories.
Okay. So you pick one and it turns out to be “Survival.”
What’s next? Setting:
All-night diner
School library
Rest stop on the Interstate
Concourse in city commuter station
Basement workshop
Rehabbed warehouse
Well, the all-night diner sounds promising, but the card you pulled is for the commuter concourse.
What’s left? “Conflict,” isn’t it? You pull one of these:
Well-intentioned idiot
Epidemic
Ancient curse
Angry mob
Jilted lover
Former friend, now rival
“Angry mob” is an easy one to figure out, but the card you pull is “Ancient Curse.”
So, let’s see. So far, you have Kate Ballinger; her motivation is Survival; the setting is the big concourse in a commuter train station (or something like that); and the “nemesis” is an Ancient Curse.
Now all we have left is to see how it all works out in the end. The last card:
Character succeeds by first overcoming personal demons.

Character succeeds through clever deception.

Character succeeds by restoring chaos to an orderly situation.

Character succeeds by trusting an “untrustworthy” friend.

Character succeeds by restoring order to a chaotic situation.

The card you get seems to dictate that Kate Ballinger will have to trust an “untrustworthy” friend.
You and the other students are now asked to either write down or verbally hash out a story based on these five cards.
Is it hard? Sometimes.
Impossible? Never.
Now, like most creators of exercises, I, the hobo, am usually the worst at actually doing the assigned task. If I received this set of cards, I’d probably come up with a story about Kate Ballinger, an attorney of about fifty who has an unfortunate habit of abandoning jobs as soon as she starts to feel too comfortable and secure. She considers this an “ancient curse,” inherited from her father, whose employment record was at best irregular and kept the family living from paycheck to questionable paycheck. She is in Chicago’s Union Station with her assistant, Miss Maggs, a demoniacally efficient person but with questionable loyalties. Kate and Maggs are ostensibly headed for the suburb of Highland Park to meet with a potential new client.
Kate has surreptitiously bought an Amtrak ticket for Milwaukee, from where she plans to phone in a resignation to her current employer. The weather is terrible. All the trains are delayed. Even so, Kate is determined to go through with her plan, but first she has to distract Miss Maggs long enough to get to the Amtrak departure gates. Now, Miss Maggs wouldn’t mind having Kate’s job for herself, but her mania for efficiency may prevent her from actually doing something to clear the way for Kate’s escape, fortuitous as it may be to herself. This leaves us with two questions as we approach the story’s climax: 1.) Will Kate finally break her self-destructive pattern and 2.) Will Miss Maggs, intentionally or otherwise, help Kate to do the “right thing,” whether that’s to abandon her job or to stay with the firm?
Now, that’s a scenario by me, admittedly a lousy player of this game, done at the spur of the moment with a set of five cards I randomly chose. Most of my students, many of whom are first embarking on the notion of writing fiction, can come up with better ones. Try it yourself with each of the unused category items here. 
The point is, you may ask, why? Why play with this stuff?
First and foremost, because students learn better and faster when they’re doing, rather than just listening or even discussing.
Second, the exercise helps illustrate the notion that a story needs to have certain things to work. I’ve called them “elements,” but now I’m thinking a better term might be “dimensions.” If you have them, you can make a story. If you don’t have them, you’ll have to find them.
Third, because it demonstrates that it’s not so difficult to put together a story. It may be built into our natures. Our brains may be wired to think in terms of story* – which is why we can be given these five random cards and make a story out of them. It needn’t be a great story; it doesn’t even have to be a good story; it just has to be a story.
Many students have done the exercise, put it aside and never looked at it again. Others have developed, continued and completed stories started from the cards. Many of them have been pretty damn good.
The point is not to make story writing seem simple, or esoteric, or to advocate a process of writing fiction. The cards simply help people understand that stories have parts – or elements, or dimensions, or whatever lingo you wish to use – and that we can understand our own process – and the processes that others use – better when we can recognize those parts.

Postscript: Plotto’s Republic

I’ve been doing this card exercise for years. I’ve used variations of it in my science fiction writing classes and as part of two- and three-day workshops at conventions.
It grew from things I read about legendary “plot wheels” that pulp writers used in the early part of the twentieth century. You can see one online that is supposed to have been used by Earle Stanley Garner.
Another touchstone for the pulp-era necessity (at least for some) of a “plot generator” was the fabled tome by William Wallace Cook, Plotto. It was an elaborate index of plots derived from numbered, lettered lists of character types, sources of conflict and means for resolution. A writer could choose one from each of these lists and have a plot to work from in an instant.
Many writers saw that as being the sole purpose of the book. Fiction writers, especially writers of pulp or popular fiction, had to be prolific. Some of the most legendary writers of the era – Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand), Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant), Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson), Edgar Wallace (aka “Edgar Wallace”), and so on – wrote at great speed and volume. Quantity was as important, if not more so, than quality. By spinning the wheel, or picking “one from column A and one from column B, you would have a plot and a couple of wooden characters to go through its motions: fiction not quite on an assembly line but conceived to be shot out in rapid fire succession.
A great deal of fiction is turned out in such a fashion. “Series” books have been a staple of the publishing world for as long as the publishing world has existed. Fiction generated for the media – radio, TV, films – has been pumped out with alacrity (or something less so) for ages.
In the back pages of various writers’ magazines (or their electronic equivalents) one can find ads for various kinds of software that pick up pretty much from where Plotto left off. If there is a way to make the writing of fiction for any media as purely mechanical a process as possible, you can bet there’s someone out there trying either to create it or exploit it, or both.
One person, though, who stated he wasn’t looking for the perfectly-machined story, antiseptic, clean and free of any human fingerprints or sweat, was… William Wallace Cook.
Throughout his book, Cook insists that his plot-making machinery is merely the first step in a process that should be completed with one’s own experience and creative input. Give the same plot to five different writers and you will receive in return five significantly different stories. “Each person that lives, has ever lived or shall live is, was or will be a collector of ideas combined into a certain thing called experience. My experience is not your experience; and that means that neither you nor I, when accomplishing original work, will accomplish identical work. If it were otherwise, there would be no originality in the world.” (Tin House Books edition, page 2 of the “manual” in the back of the book)
What’s more, at times he suggests that the study of creating imaginative works is not merely of benefit to writers. He suggests that writing is a kind of problem-solving, and a means of investigation or exploration.
If we’re doing it right, writing is a learning process – a way to collect and understand experience.
“Whether a man shall sell mousetraps or life insurance, stories or drygoods, he will find in his imagination a power which, furthering his originality, will bring him pleasure and profit such as he has never known before.” (as above, page 38)
I would make no guarantee to any “pleasure and profit,” but I wouldn’t discount the possibility, either. In that regard, I’m glad to discover that Cook precedes me on the road that I’m traveling, and not in any superficial way. When we learn to write we write to learn, because that’s what really makes it worth doing.

*See THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan Gottschall. xviii + 248 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012