short fiction

short stories read aloud at NPR Chicago

I ran across something at the Chicago Public Radio website that really made me happy. They have a program called Stories on Stage — actors reading short stories. Some of my all time favorites are there, including Toni Cade Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” read by Cheryl Lynn Bruce (toward the bottom of the page). If you happen to have a copy of the story, read along with the performance. There are other favorites of mine, as well, including Charlie Baxter’s “Gryphon.” A few I would love to hear aren’t available, for some unknown reason.

To listen to audio on their site, you need to have RealPlayer 8 or later. You can download the current version for free.

half a dozen words, redux

Remember Hemingway’s famous (or infamous) short-short-short story?

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

We had a back and forth about this some time ago. I don’t particularly like Hemingway’s baby shoe story, which strikes me as maudlin and manipulative. However, I do think that writing this kind of thing is good as an exercise for limbering up the writing mind. I don’t have much success with it myself, but other people seem to really get a lot out of it. Which is one of the cardinal rules of writing: if it works for you, it works. That is, don’t argue with the muse. You know she’ll make you sorry if you do.

Charlotte sent me a link to Carolyn Kellogg’s LA Time weblog on this subject, which led me to Smith Magazine, a festival of six-word-long stories:

SMITH is the home of Six-Word Memoirs and a vibrant community of storytellers. Explore story projects, write your story & share it with friends.

[asa book]0061714623[/asa] The website is chock full of writing prompts.  You could, if you like, submit your six cents on everything from heartbreak to shirts. Even if you don’t care to jump in,  it’s  a good place to dig around in for ideas. And then, of course, there are t-shirts.

Larry Smith seems to be the mind behind the website, and he has coauthored (with Rachel Fershleiser) two books on this subject, most recently Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: by Writers Famous and Obscure. One example:

I loved the idea of you. — Audrey Adu-Appiah

Exactly how I feel about these six-word stories.

good questions

I’m going to answer all the questions y’all asked in response to yesterday’s post, but I’ll start with asdfg because I had to think about the answer for a while.

She wanted to know how I decide which characters will be upfront in book six, and if I’m bringing in new characters. It’s a good question because as everybody knows, I’m prone to overpopulating my imaginary worlds. Critics often shake a finger at me about this. It’s the most common criticism I get of Homestead, even.

I don’t know why my mind works this way. I have written short stories that have very few characters (there is a link to a set of three such stories in the right hand column) but my novels tend to be crowded. It’s not like I set out with the idea upfront in my mind. I start generally with anywhere from three to six major characters and things just evolve from there.

Take, for example, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. When the idea was first developing, I was sure of the two main characters (Julia and Dodge). Both of them have backstories, but in the early stages I wasn’t sure how many characters from those backstories would show up in the novel itself. I did know that the setting itself — a small upscale shopping/community center — would require quite a few characters, and I did sit down and think about who they were and how they fit into the story as a whole. It was this line of thought that brought me the secondary story line about Mayme and Nils (more about them below), and the tertiary story line about Lydia and Leo — which had to be cut because the novel was too long.

If I tried, I think I could do an approximate reconstruction of how the Wilderness novels expanded, character wise. I remember very clearly the moment at which  I realized I’d have to have a whole boat full of characters to follow through with the Scottish-family storyline. My emotions, as I remember them, were a combination of excitement and dread, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Out of that crowd, Jennet hung on and spawned a couple story lines of her own.

So here’s my answer: it’s an organic process. The story evolves and characters spring up to people the story. If that makes any sense at all. Some characters are happy to fade into the background once their storylines are finished, but others won’t go away and demand more time with the readers. Jennet is an example of that, maybe the best example. She bugged me all the way through Lake in the Clouds about when she was going to get to come back (thus the letters she wrote to Hannah).

Now, for Book Six. The Bonners are in Paradise, all of them. The old-time residents of Paradise are there, the ones who haven’t died or moved away. And the new residents are there. I seeded this idea in the last novel by means of letters that mentioned Ethan’s determination to breathe life back into the village, and the challenges of finding families who would be willing to settle in a village on the edge of the wilderness where Mohawks and freed slaves were landowners and respected citizens. Because you know, I might be able to sell a couple families with progressive ideas like that (such people did exist) but I couldn’t sell that as a common thing. Most people back then, would have been shocked at the idea. Quakers, who were so forward thinking about emancipation and abolition, were the logical choice but even then I had to be really careful about romanticizing them as a group. Quakers could work hard toward abolition and still be prejudiced. There are documented cases of freed slaves being relegated to pews at the back of the meetinghouse, for example.

So in book six the only new characters are secondary ones, the newer settlers brought in by Ethan, all of them Quaker. There’s some, but not a great deal, of interaction with them. They are good neighbors but not friends, for the most part.

And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that, for now.

Tomorrow I’ll post a little to the question of favorite characters.  You might expect me to give the traditional parental response: I love all my children. But I won’t go that route, because in fiction, as in life, the question is far more complicated than who you love, and how much.

Hemingway's six words

A couple people suggested that Hemingway’s (allegedly) six word story need not be interpreted as tragic. Here it is, again: For Sale. Baby shoes, never used.

Some of you came up with far more interesting six word stories, but for the moment let’s stick with this one, which I called melodramatic and overwrought. My first read on this (and I’m not alone) is that the baby in question did not live to wear the shoes. Of course you could approach it differently. A lot of possibilities come to mind, some of them grizzly: baby born without feet or with deformed feet; really ugly baby shoes received as a gift, and the mother needs every penny she can scratch together; the mother received perfectly fine baby shoes as a gift, but she belongs to a religion which requires its faithful to go barefoot until the age of two; shoes were made in China, and parents won’t buy or accept gifts from China because they are protesting civil rights violations in that country.

You could go on like this for a long time, but the fact remains that if you only have six words, there is no space for explanations. The most obvious interpretation is the one you have to bank on. You could play with the six words you’ve got:

For sale: ugly unused baby shoes.

Need food. Selling extra baby shoes.

Buy booties: Proceeds fund reconstructive surgeries.

These certainly get a more nuanced message across, but do they work? I would say that they don’t, because the original’s problem is also its strength. It’s overwrought, but it also works at capturing the reader’s imagination.

So one final question. What do you take away from an exercise like this? Maybe it’s just a party trick, like balancing a plate on a stick. Is there something to be learned?