…or maybe not. You know me, right? The title was a clever way (if I do say so myself) of warning you as to what I am about to expound on. Short Fiction.
A woman once waved me off, saying, “I never read short stories. I like to get lost in a novel.” So I told her to get lost. Had she given my work a moment’s consideration, she might have reconsidered. Or, I could have sold her a first draft edition of my short stories with a guarantee she’d get lost in them. I often do. But that’s why first drafts are followed by second, third, and as many drafts as necessary to cut and polish a rough stone into a sparkling gem.
Another thing. There are times and places that make it nearly impossible to get lost in a novel. The bathroom, for instance. Enough said about that. Offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers—bank and supermarket lines all are examples of great short story reading areas. You can’t get lost in the novel because you’re always wondering if you’re going to be called next and if you’ll have enough time to get your stuff together without looking like a klutz. I’ve tried that. I fumble my book or glasses or pens or everything, and end up (literally) picking them off the floor. Later, under no pressure, I reread the chapter. Carrying a short story anthology with you is more efficient, beneficial and potentially less embarrassing. Sure, carrying a Kindle is cool, but real readers know that an old-fashioned book won’t run out of battery power at the height of passion, leaving you—uh—let down.
Short Fiction is fun. It’s sort of like religion. Every time you turn around, there’s a new one. Or a freakier, funnier, or more intriguing spinoff than the last. For example, you can neither pin down the exact nature and number of angels, nor get a solid word count for what a short story is. The genre’s arguably-accepted word count ranges from 1,000 to 20,000. Always check the guidelines for the contest or periodical you intend to enter or query. Their number of angels on the head of a pin may differ from yours.
Fewer than 1,000 words is called short short story or flash fiction. “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” created a wrenching story image attributed to Ernest Hemingway. However, in 1921, a columnist wrote that a classified ad, “Baby Carriage for sale, never used,” exemplified the plot of a story, and his example, it is believed, may have given rise to the Hemingway tale.
Sometimes the challenge comes in a number of sentences or lines. Here’s an old five-sentence story I entered in an online challenge:
(Five Sentence Fiction) Virginia Nygard 6/23/15
I sit in the dust outside Mabel’s Beauty Parlor while Mama sits inside getting a Marcel wave.
She come out so beautiful I bet the stars will hide in shame tonight…just like me.
Picking her way ‘cross the wooden sidewalk, she pats my head, kisses my cheek and then sashays to the shiny Ford Model A, just panting at the curb for her.
Mr. James Windsor Whitehorn don’t never come ‘cross the tracks unless he come to pick up Mama for doing the town like he say.
I know what you be doing, my eyes say whilst I wave them away into the night.
So, writers, stretch your mental muscle and play with various kinds of short fiction while you’re working on The Great American Novel. It could be your bread-and-butter while you’re waiting for the Great Ka-ching!
And you out there afflicted with Short-Attention Span Syndrome, Short Fiction might be the short fix you’re seeking!
Last time we covered the sensory prompts that could stimulate ideas for writing. So what else is there? Well, a lot of ideas come by using those senses in creative ways.
Here are a few:
1) Close your eyes. Flip through the dictionary, or any printed material. (It would help to have the printed matter first. On the other hand, feeling your way to some source of printed matter might give you a better idea for a story!) Next, let your finger land on a word. No matter how implausible it may seem, use that word to create a sentence. Bioluminescence? No problem: “Eureka!” the mad scientist exclaimed, “bioluminescence demands such amounts of energy that creating it in humans has just solved the problem of obesity!” Great. Write a sci-fi story! (Not this one, though. This one is mine.)
2) Choose one cartoon from the scads your friends forward in emails. Use the situation to write either a hilarious story or the reverse—a tale with a chilling twist. Someone sent me this one today: Wife is looking in the mirror reciting her flaws. She says to husband, “Say something to cheer me up.” He says, “Your eyesight is perfect.” Oo-o-oh, have I got an ending for that one!
3) Whether on America’s Funniest Videos, nature shows, or You Tube, you’ll see animals doing funny, freaky, or adorable things. Pick one and write a story from the animal’s point of view.
4) I just discovered a new reason to go to the refrigerator. Reason? Well, more like an excuse when my husband asks what I’m doing there. “Oh. I just had a great idea for a story. What if someone opened a refrigerator to find nothing but a scrumptious hunk of leftover cake like this one, and it was labeled, ‘The right person may eat me, but the wrong person will…die.’” (Works for whatever in the fridge tickles your taste buds or tingles your brain cells!)
5) If you had a 3-D printer that could copy anything—animate or inanimate—what would you copy? What would you do with it? What would be the consequences?
6) Do you keep a journal? In Beyond Déjà Vu, my sequel to Déjà Vu Dream, Jennifer journals her frightening dreams as C.J. weaves through the plot; and she records her conflicting emotions as her relationship with Chad changes. Pick something from your journal that might be viewed from a different perspective with the passage of time. Give it to a character to rewrite!
7) This idea has been done, redone, and done again, but like a good, fiery-hot ethnic meal… it bears repeating! (Burp. Yum. Sorry.) Google master plots. You’ll find sources for summations of plots and master plot exercises. You may even have read a book and thought, “If I had written this book, I would have…” Well? Do it! Use the idea and reverse it.
That’s enough for now. I’m thinking about that refrigerator tip because my stomach is grumbling like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s puppet named Walter, a grumpy old man. (Listen, Walter, there is no cake in the refrigerator. That was purely a writing suggestion. Okay, okay. I’ll go check again. No need to call me a dumb a**)
…Or angel, muse, intuition, or higher power. Whatever you may call it, it’s usually right. Just once in awhile I wish it would speak, not in parables or whispers, but in direct words in capital letters. Like Jennifer in Deja Vu Dream, I often fail to interpret subtle messages, but later, when I get bonked on the head, I say, “Oh, that’s what the whisper meant!” It happened again yesterday.
While getting dressed, I stubbed my toe on the cabinet and grumbled about the bulky shoes, thinking, “You could trip with these things!” Not having much choice, I answered myself, “Well, not now that I’m aware of the possibility.”
I drove to the mall, and after shopping, returned to the garage. Seeing no one parked beside my vehicle, I angled toward my car. Eyes on my destination-the car, not on the route to it-I failed to notice the concrete tire stop in the empty parking space.
Uh-huh. Here’s where the bonk comes in. Same toe stubbed the concrete and I went sprawling. Nothing broken or dislocated for having landed on concrete, a major miracle to those who know me! Just a sore right forearm and hand that took the brunt of my fall.
Moral of the story is twofold. Listen to your guide, and plan your route. It applies to writing as well as to staying upright.
The muse may be pounding away at the keyboard through you, but have you planned your route? Do you know your characters better than your family members? You should, because you know your characters’ thoughts, but not necessarily those of your family members. Once you have the skeleton of the story, do you flesh it out with taste-tempting words and other sensory detail? How about scenes and plot twists that intrigue the reader? Don’t let it get as far as a concrete editor who’ll send you flying back to your keyboard!