Flash Fiction Serial: Less Flash, More Serial

One of my students read a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing. Paraphrasing, King says that he has to keep writing a story so it doesn’t grow cold. This week I’ll continue writing Tally and Carl and post as I draft.

Part 2

Carl picked me up at six the next Saturday morning, leaving his truck to idle while he came to the door and knocked. Mom offered him a cup of coffee which he drank black. He whispered, knowing Shane was in the other room. When he stood to leave, I stood too. Mom tilted her cheek up for me to kiss.

There was a package of mini powdered donuts on the seat and a bag of sodas on the floor. We drove north toward the dam. Dad had taken me fishing there a long time ago. I didn’t like the smell of the still water. I spent the day tossing Fruit Loops near the bank, watching them slowly bloat. On the drive out, I wondered if I should pretend with Carl, like I really liked fishing.

You like fishing? he asked, tires crunching in the gravel lot.

Kinda, I said.

It’s nice, he said, Gives you a chance to clear your head. I’m out here most weekends.

I hop down from the cab, taking the sodas and donuts. Carl gets the poles and tackle from the bed. He leads us down the earthen dam and tells me which side we’ll fish off, unless I want a competition. It’s the same grassy bank, wet with dew. There’s no breeze but I’m glad I wore a hoodie. Carl opens the bag of donuts and takes two, passes the bag to me. The donuts remind me of when we went to church with Charlene and had juice and donuts in the Fellowship Hall after the service. Carl opened a Pepsi and handed one to me.

Breakfast of champions, he said. He took a long drink and set the can in the grass. He bent over the tackle, opening a sour cream container filled with dirt and worms. He handed me a pole and pointed where I should aim. I came close and started reeling the slack. Carl told me how to fish even though there isn’t much to know when it’s the shallows and all you have is a light pole.

I might go out to Montana this summer and learn to fly fish, he said.

You could do that up north, I said.

Montana sounds cooler.

I make the bobber dance a little, reel it in and send it back out with the same worm. This time I feel a nibble all the way up the line, down the pole to my hands. I watch the bobber dip under and give a slight jerk on the line. There’s too much slack and I only startle the fish away, a little ripple. Enough of the worm is still on the hook, I send it out again. We do that side by side for a while, casting lines, eating donuts, drinking sodas. There are a hundred things I’d like to ask Carl about. He lives with his grandparents but I don’t know why. He quit baseball this season but I only heard rumors why. I want to know what he’d like to do after he graduates next year. I sneak looks at him. He’s seventeen, two years older than me. I like that. He’s got hair that glints gold in the sun. His clothes are as worn as mine. He’s lean like a farm worker. His nose could be on a profile stamped on coins.

I’m suddenly very conscious of his body near mine, of the way he clears his throat and cracks his neck to one side, of how his hands look working another worm on my hook. I remember to breathe.

Can I ask you something? I say and before he answers, I ask, How do you get it?


The liquor.

Oh, he says and laughs a little. You looking for a side business? I can’t tell you just so you can undercut me. We both know I’m not asking for that. He squats down and fiddles with a new bobber on his line. When he straightens and casts again, he says, I really can’t tell you. I’m sorry. He sounds sorry. After a few minutes he says, Ask me another. I’ll answer this time.

I think about what I want to know. I’d like to know if this is a date, if my first date is here on the dam with my hair pulled in a ponytail and the smell of mud between us. I look at the water, as still as when Dad took me here years ago, and I wish I were here with him, not Carl. My throat goes thick so I can’t speak. Carl jokes he doesn’t know anything about the Kennedy assassination but the thought of Dad being here with me that many years ago, putting worms on my hook and not getting mad when I laid down to watch the clouds, it makes me want to cry and I can’t, not in front of Carl.

He puts a hand on my arm. He can tell something. He speaks like he’s coaxing me out from hiding. Tally, hey, you’re alright. What’s wrong? I pick up my Pepsi and take a drink, swallow the lump.

I came here with my dad a long time ago, I say. We both cast our lines again. Neither of us are getting bites, even though we can see the shadows swimming. Carl says, Me too.

Fiction Workhorse Recap

I give myself these projects because I’m not in an MFA program with actual assignments. And if I didn’t make up assignments (ex: sestina, Postsecret flash fiction, one more page in the notebook), I would probably just go on thinking maybe someday I’ll write that thing about a thing. And it’d be brilliant when I did. But I know better: between here and brilliant is a lot of workhorse.

In five weeks, I managed just over 18,000 typed words total, a thousand of which are wails and whines and a couple of thousand more of which are stutter starts. Some of those stutter starts might find their own finish, someday. Two of the starts are third or fourth goes at stories that are kicking around upstairs, looking for a way out, but unwilling to be rushed. One week isn’t enough time and five thousand words not enough space for either story.

Here is what I gleaned:

Knocking out a story without pretense is fun. I like to start stories with the idea that someday readers (like, hundreds or thousands) will read the piece and love it because in the turn of ten or twenty pages, they are transported / connected / entangled. Up front, I demand a lot from an itty bitty five hundred word start, putting immense pressure on everything that follows. Such an unfair and un-fun way to draft! Telling myself that all of these stories were only practice gave me no obligation to consider revision or submission.

Still, I like to practice revision too. One or two of my Fiction Workhorse drafts will give me that.

My 1000-5000 word parameter is on the low, low end of short fiction. During the first two weeks, I was reading a lot of published short fiction and noticing how long most of the pieces are. For one-a-week, 1000-5000 is easily done. I spent between three and five hours writing each draft, including light edits. More hours if you count headspace.

Working on a story in my mind before going to the page is a great strategy. The challenge from one week to the next was dropping the previous draft and its characters and finding a new story. I took a day or two after finishing a draft before starting the next, but that time wasn’t wasted. I was looking for what might turn into my next draft: BBC, news, podcasts, overheard conversations. When an idea came, I let it sit for a day. I’d go to my notebook and write a few notes, but not much more. Then, if I came to a turn while drafting, I took a break from typing and l played out a scene in my head. Try visualizing a scene a few different ways before choosing the better option to write. Take notes on the other possibilities if you want to revise later.

Fiction Workhorse was a good time. I almost missed writing another short fiction piece this week. Almost.

One of my next assignments: tell variations on a single story, after “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood or “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris.

Writing It In My Head

For this week’s Fiction Workhorse, I am writing my one to five thousand story in my head. You’ll have to take my word for it, that’s it’s great. By the time it makes its way to the page, perhaps so-so.

This one-a-week is cracking the whip. While writing the last two stories, I stood in front of my laptop typing things like

This is pointless
Can’t think of anything. Anything anything

until something showed up. Five hundred words of that pep. I went to the page with a story in mind but no place to begin. I usually use my notebooks to write around possible starts for pieces, but I bypassed the slow writing for typed words. This week I haven’t opened my one-a-week file. Instead, I turn the radio off in the car and think about my characters. In my notebook, I jot names, places, possible plot. I am trying to write a story in my mind so that when I begin typing, I’m not at so many losses. There are chunks of the story I haven’t clarified yet. Big fat chunks. In a moment, I’ll return to my notebook and think through: the framing of the story, its scope.

This is a unique challenge, to let a story write itself in my mind, but only for so long because I’ve decided that I have to post it Thursday. The point is practice. Maybe something will come of a couple of these stories – or maybe these are just the laps I’m running.


Multiple Choice

When I was kid I read the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I didn’t fall in love with the books themselves but with the idea that I could go back to page 49 and decide to turn left instead of right. This may have completely screwed up my perspective on decision-making. Real life does not allow for so much page-flipping. But if Choose Your Own Adventure messed with my concept of linear living, the series also revealed a storytelling truth: You can go back and end it differently.

Isn’t “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood a kind of commentary on storytelling flexibility?

I’m not giving a complete analysis here. Not at all. I like the story though. The last time I read the piece I thought about Choose Your Own Adventure plus Multiple Choice. I want to try writing a multiple choice piece that tells a few stories, that opens characters to left and right at once. I want to write that because I can’t live it like that. I want the chance to go left and then the chance to go right, without left wrecking my chance at right.

Times like this, I see the appeal of reincarnation.

What I tried today is a baby practice of the kind of form I’d like to experiment with. I wrote a five questions multiple choice test. It goes nowhere, for all the directions it contains.

Please fill in the corresponding answer bubble completely.

  1. When your wife tells you she’s pregnant
    a. Cry because she’s crying and it will mask your panic
    b. Openly panic because the economy is shit
    c. Rejoice for children are blessings and your quiver is three shy of full
    d. Secretly hope it’s a boy this time
  2. Offered a promotion at work, in exchange for your sleep
    a. Take it knowing the raise will cover requisite gallons of Starbucks
    b. Do the math on minimum hours sleep necessary
    c. Realize your sleep is well in the red anyway
    d. Ask if refusing means you’re magically given eight hours a night
  3. The vacation you plan for your family is
    a. A road trip to your birthplace, calling it family history
    b. Two weeks of camping, mosquito bites and burned wieners
    c. One barely affordable trip to Disneyland because they’ll love you more later
    d. Staycation!
  4. After you leave your in-laws you
    a. Are silent the entire two-hour drive home
    b. Realize you drank too much to drive and hand the keys to your spouse
    c. Pray thanksgiving at marrying into such a lovely bunch
    d. Hope the kids appreciate your sacrifice
  5. On Saturday morning you have two early morning hours to yourself. You
    a. Get on the bike you’ve been meaning to ride all summer
    b. Spend thirty minutes thinking how the kids never sleep this late
    c. Make coffee and drink it while it’s still hot
    d. Go online to read the Times but get lost googling coworkers

Go write your own multiple choice test about anything. Have fun making things up.


P.S. Massive pain to format multiple choice on WordPress. Any ideas?


April Revision: Fiction

Three revised fiction pieces. This post features references to two BBC news stories. But the real selling point is that I’ll tell you about one of the worst stories I’ve written in the past year. That’s up first:

Two Girls Stolen: Working title, not working hard enough. And terrible piece, really. In the middle of writing this I thought there was a bit of brilliance to the characters and situations. I thought the story was fantastic! It isn’t. I know, because I just trudged through a chop chop chop kind of revision and still ended up with a Jodi Picoult* wannabe. You tell me if it’s something Jodi Picoult would write, if she were sitting at a stoplight, listening to a BBC news bulletin about two kids found in the Roma community, guessed to be missing British children:

That’s it. Really. Except I made the two girls from Wisconsin, gave them to a child trafficking ring before they were brought home by foster parents who realized their foster kids were actually missing children; and then I stayed with the families for another decade, sussing the emotional wringing of reuniting with family but missing foster parents and and and. It is a really bad piece.

But when I wrote it, oh, I thought I was on to something. Give points to waiting a month or two or three before revising: you see the junk. I revised to see if I could salvage anything. I can think of only one way this piece might be salvageable. I’ll let you know when I play around.

Jake: I like not naming my fiction. This piece is a shout-out to another BBC interview I heard. The reporter was speaking with a man who’d helped rescue people during the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi; the reporter asked this man if he thought of himself as a hero. Of course, the man answered no.

What else could he have said? I put a note in my phone: Can a hero admit they are a hero? And then I stumbled my way around, finding a character named Jake, his time and place. Jake is a muralist who comes to Kuwait to paint, gets caught in an attack, helps rescue, admits he is a hero, and gets slammed. This was as far as I’d gotten when I began revising the piece. I revised, hoping an ending would come to me. It did: I took a creative George Saunders-ish leap and then made my husband read the whole thing. He liked it.

David: I need some new boy names. Seriously. I wrote this piece nearly three years ago. David is a young soldier serving in Iraq. Near the end of his first tour, he knows he will die during his second. I remember sitting at my in-laws’ kitchen table typing my way to an end. When I was done, the whole thing was forty single-spaced pages. Because I dream about publishing a book, I was vain enough to reformat the piece into two-column landscape and got around seventy book pages. Ish.

But a third of the way to novel length or not, most of David had to go.

I avoided the piece for a long time. I’d open the file or remember a couple promising scenes, but not until this month did I make myself revise. I read through first, without touching. Then I thought I might die at the amount of work ahead. I swept my cursor down the entire first two pages and deleted. Felt better. I cut entire subplots. I tightened sentences. I changed the direction of one relationship. I changed the ending.

The piece is now nineteen pages.

Both Jake and David will get another go. I think both pieces work but I’ll wait another month or so before I revisit.


*Oh, I loved me some Jodi Picoult at one time. But after reading a dozen, you get the sense she rocks on wrenching twists. Of course, you read what I’ve got so far and you’ll get the sense I rock on traditional boys’ names and BBC stories.

First Sentences, Second Sentences

Here are two more fiction exercises from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Make a list of ten first sentences. Then choose one first sentence and write a few second sentences for it. Experiment with the direction a story might go, at the very start!

Here are three of my ten first sentences:

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter.

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin.

I knew before he said no.

And here are my second sentences:

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. Angela’s parents followed and then the rest of the varsity volleyball team. Within a week, Ashley spent her school days in the high school office.

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. “Her counselor, for God’s sakes,” she said, “He wrote Josie’s college reference letters. Of course she’s traumatized. She applied to Yale. God knows what he wrote.”

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. The family attorney was confused until Mrs. Roby pulled a stack of photocopied letters from her bag. “She has Josie’s locker combo,” Mrs. Roby said, “Josie gets one of these nearly every day.”

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. Tim pointed to the  man’s cupid lips and then to his own. “I think this is my dad,” he said.

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. I shook my head no. I only caught a glimpse, faraway. Tim sighed, put a hand on mine. He said, “Maybe you should report it.”

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. “She’s so symmetrical,” I said, “I mean, really gorgeous.” I took the photo from him and thought how he was always this lucky.

I knew before he said no. His face was fire blush. I shouldn’t have said anything. I had to get out of there.

I knew before he said no. He laughed. I shoved away from him, sat at the other end of the sofa. He sobered. “Hey,” he said, “I thought you were joking.”
“Why would I joke about a baby?”
“Because you know me.”

I knew before he said no. He tried to be nice about it. He said he’d like to give me the time off, but if he made an exception for me. I quit listening. The Hobart was steaming the air between us. “It’s my mom,” I said and he clasped his hands in front like a schoolgirl. I saw a busboy looking at us. I untied my apron and held it out.

Reading for Writing: Short Fiction

A year ago I signed up for a Stanford Continuing Studies online short fiction workshop. I loved it. I started a lot pieces and worked my way through a couple revisions. I decided to keep writing short fiction, and to more purposefully read short fiction. Just as the post I re-blogged explains, when you read for your writing, your reading is a little different. I still immerse myself in a story, but I am also aware of the craft.

Since that workshop, I returned to reading contemporary short fiction. I am already familiar with authors featured in recycled high school anthologies. I wanted to find authors new to me, known or not. Here are a few collections I’ve read recently:

The Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. I read this collection after seeing an article in the NY Times about Saunders. I finished reading the book, downloaded his previous collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and overdosed on the man. In a good way. Even though some individual pieces disturbed me, the whole body of work reminded me of the first time I read Kurt Vonnegut: I didn’t know you could write like that.

The Best American Short Stories 2012 edited by Tom Perrota. This collection was great for my writing. I was writing these long wandering pieces with fifty characters too many. I’d received feedback about unnecessary characters in my drafts but was afraid to cut. This collection showed me the value of keeping a small cast.

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. Years ago in college, I read his first collection, The Shell Collector and it remains one of my favorite short fiction collections. I like his style. What I really like is that he writes pieces set around the world, speaking from wildly varying perspectives. The first time I read Doerr’s fiction, I sensed an almost reckless boldness, to write fiction from all over. I was stuck writing from my own experience. So when I read and reread The Shell Collector or Memory Wall, I think: why not write from places I’ve never been, physically, emotionally or spiritually?

I Want to Show You More: Stories by Jamie Quatro. An editor I work with recommended this collection after reading a couple of my fiction pieces. When I finally started reading Quatro, I felt two things. First, I was so glad I’d already written the particular pieces that prompted my editor to suggest the book.I was pleased to realize I’d managed difficult truth-telling on my own, in my own style. Second, as with Saunders, I read Quatro and thought: you can do that? Which I why I am now experimenting, taking what I’ve seen Saunders and Quatro do in their writing and seeing how it may fit into some of my own pieces.

If you have favorite short fiction authors or collections, please post in the comments. Next up on my short fiction reading is The Best American Short Fiction 2013. I am also reading pieces from The Story and Its Writer.