Toward one hundred words

I’ve been obsessing with 100-word stories lately. I might try to publish a manuscript of 100 100-word stories someday. This has led to editing and cutting many of the fragments, already very short, I’ve been able to find among my unfinished work. Keeping many of the drafts shows some of the decisions made as I’ve revised. One example is below. Word totals follow the title.

Looking for Honey 254

Honey lived two places while I knew her. Sort of remember wanting to offer to help her move, but I’m almost certain I never did.

One was this beautiful big green house. It was big enough to have its own parking lot. Three stories, surrounded by venerable fifty-foot oaks. A wide, thick lawn. She had at least two roommates there, but I think her bed was a thin twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She would roll it up and hide it away during the day, I imagine. Their kitchen was tiny, but you could stand in the fireplace. The rest of the house was full of similar apartments.

The other house was much smaller, one story, two bedrooms. The kitchen was bigger and she had her own room, but to get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Must have made some awkward moments. I house sat there for a few days while she went to the Grand Canyon, house sat and tried to squirt antibiotics down a tube in the throat of her cat. The cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Almost five years later, the big house is still easy to find, but the other house has gone missing. I drive the streets of this town I never wanted to come back to, wandering where I think the house used to be, but I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 171

Honey lived two places while I knew her.

One was this beautiful green house. Big enough to have its own parking lot, three stories, venerable fifty-foot oaks. She had two roommates there, but her bed was a twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She hid it in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we could stand in the fireplace.

The other house was much smaller, one story, two bedrooms. She had her own room, but to get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Once I housesat for a few days, trying to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat. That cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Five years later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. I drive the streets of a town I never wanted to come back to, wandering where I think her house used to be. I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 146

Honey lived two places while I knew her.

One, a beautiful green house. Big enough to have its own parking lot, three stories, venerable fifty-foot oaks. She had two roommates there, but her bed was a twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She hid it in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we could stand in the fireplace.

The other was much smaller. Her own room. To get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Once I housesat, trying to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat. That cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Five years later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. I drive the streets, wandering where I think her house was. I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 123

Honey lived two places when I knew her.

One, a beautiful green house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we stood in the fireplace.

The other was much smaller. You had to walk through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, tried to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat did not like me. The tub made baths there a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Honey Lived Two Places When I Knew Her 106

One, a beautiful green house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during the day.

The other place was much smaller. You walked through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, assigned to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat did not like me. The tub made baths there a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Honey Lived Two Places When I Knew Her 100

One, a beautiful olive house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during daylight.

The other place was much smaller. You walked through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, assigned to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat hated me. The tub made baths a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found. The other is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Defining story

Four quick paraphrases:

 

Algis Budrys:

  1. A character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what readers saw was, in fact, the final result.

 

Geoffrey A. Landis:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice through actions, and
  3. let those actions have consequences.

 

Jim Shooter:

Introduce the character (“Little Miss Muffett . . .”), introduce the status quo (“sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey”). Establish the antagonist and conflict (“Along came a spider”), build suspense (“and sat down beside her”), increase the conflict (“and frightened Miss Muffet”), and resolve the conflict and provide a denouement all at once (“away”).

 

Steve Barthelme:

A story follows an active character through emotionally charged experiences which change him or her.

Feast

Here are some questions I was asked about “Feast,” one of my stories, as part of a class called Writing for Social Change.

  • What inspired you to write this short story? Was there an event that led to it?

No specific event led to the story. I’ve been giving homeless people cash for years and wondered, usually in the act of trying to be helpful, if I was doing a good thing. At least once, my son and I have been together and been asked for help or decided to be helpful. A friend from New York, while visiting Salt Lake City, commented on the number of homeless men here. Members of my immediate and extended family have debated the issue. I have relatives who are working, in their way, to alleviate extreme poverty in developing nations. The question of how to best be helpful, it seems, ought to be a more important one. Rather than an event, the collection of influences listed above led me to the story.

  • What did you hope to understand about social class by writing “Feast?”

I was less interested in understanding social class than in presenting the experience of a character. Social class is undoubtedly one of the forces active in that character’s life, an extremely important one, one more influential than he knows, but it’s not the only force acting on him. He needs to make decisions about what kind of person to be, what kind of relationships to have, with a range of forces seeking to influence him. Part of what I wanted to do was capture his experience within this web of forces. This seemed worth doing because most readers will probably be living within a similar set of forces or influences. The character’s hypothetical experience can be something readers consider in light of their own lived experiences.

  • Was this piece meant to be about social change? Or, how do you think it fits the category of writing for social change?

I remember, as I wrote it (in 1989), not being sure how it would end. I remember asking myself why the sorts of events I was trying to describe didn’t happen more often in the real world and then what would happen if they did. Those questions led me toward an ending. Sometimes the ending seems like a literal cop out.  I remember not wanting the story to be didactic. Didacticism is counterproductive. Years ago, I reread the story and felt it was. This morning, it didn’t seem so, or at least not in terms of homelessness.

The story is about social change in that it poses a question about a problem. Fictional characters model a hypothetical solution, rather than proscribing one.

  • Do you think that fiction is more effective than academic writing/argument? Why or why not?

There are several ways of thinking about this question. One is that fiction is argument by another means. It appeals more directly to ethos and pathos, for example, than academic writing and argument. The difference between fiction and argument is one of degree, of which appeals are emphasized and which strategies are used. Fiction brings about social change, perhaps, using a different set of tools than more overt arguments.

Another way of thinking about this question is that fiction generally encourages empathy, shapes group identities and reinforces cultural norms. While they are revisable, these identities and norms are also foundational, glacial. They suggest who gets to be human and who gets to be, among other things, fed. Who is treated how, in other words. These narratives need to be questioned, revised, and shaped, but such changes happen extraordinarily slowly. The stories we tell each other, in tiny but persistent ways, influence larger cultural norms. Whether parables or fairy tales, part of the reason stories are persistent is that they are memorable and that they are repeated and recycled often.

Academic writing and arguments also influence these larger norms, but not at the glacial level. Academic writing and arguments happen within a context shaped in part by cultural norms and those norms have in turn been shaped by stories, some of them extremely old and some in dire need of revision.

  • In your own words, what is the message you hoped to convey to your readers?

These aren’t my own words, exactly, but I like them: “Be excellent to each other,” especially, I’d add, when doing so is difficult.

 

 

A ticket to escape

Alexander Chee:

To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all that I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have seen only in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of the everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other.

If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: When I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry.

Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can.

Quick, quick, quick, slow

Here are some steps toward a quick rough draft. Pick one or two from the quick beginning section, several from the quick middles section, and any option from the quick endings section.

Quick beginnings:

  • Start with an interesting bit of language
    1. Something you overheard eavesdropping or
    2. A phrase that is stuck in your head
  • Start with a character’s name and with that character doing something
  • Put something you like in the story
  • Put a thing or situation that makes you nervous in the story
  • Start with an accusation or an interdiction

Quick middles:

  • Make things
    1. Complicated for the main character
    2. Worse for the main character
  • Show power shift as a result of a character’s action
  • Let characters think about
    1. Their actions
    2. The events of the story
    3. Another character
  • Show power shift again as a result of an action
  • Show power shifting once more
  • Coincidences and dreams
    1. Can get characters into trouble
    2. But never out of it

Quick endings:

  • Show power shifting irrevocably
    1. Always with the main character as a primary witness
    2. As a result of the character’s action
  • Show at least one of the following
    1. A process begun earlier in the story is completed
    2. A restatement/return/echo of language from earlier in the story
  • Clearly show a change in the character or a reversal of roles
  • Resolve the question of “what’s going to happen” in a brief summary

 

Include many, many images. Be willing to revise extensively and repeatedly.

 

Points of view are flexible

The main point of any point of view has to be not confusing readers; that’s so central it often goes without saying. In my efforts not to be confusing, however, I sometimes don’t allow myself to see some of the possible flexibility points of view provide. Crossing to Safety, for example, is clearly in first person, but consider these sentences:

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?”

Suppose they are sitting on Aunt Emily’s porch, looking down across waist-high ferns and raspberry bushes to the lake. It is a day of traveling clouds. The porch is a sheltered pocket, though the wind is strong enough to scrape limbs across the roof.

Almost without exception, the next thirty-four pages are the first-person narrator providing readers with details of the inner lives of other characters. The narrator does remind readers periodically that he is imagining these inner lives. Contrasts between the narrator’s suppositions and the actual inner lives of characters (as they might have been revealed by dialogue) aren’t obvious.

The next time I write in first person, I’ll use this sort of narrator.

(What’s a good name for it, by the way? Not omniscient, because the narrator doesn’t really claim to know those inner lives. Unreliable doesn’t seem quiet right, either.)

The shrunken draft

I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but creating a “shrunken draft” can be a way to get to know a long draft.

  1. Ask yourself what specific element of fiction writing would you like the next draft of your narrative to focus on.
  2. Highlight that specific element of fiction writing in an electronic copy of your rough draft. For example, highlight scenes in green. Points of view, descriptions, different “times,” foreshadowing, even specific words could be highlighted. However, highlighting more than one or two elements at a time can be confusing.
  3. Reduce the font to the smallest size you’re comfortable with.
  4. Reduce the margins.
  5. Find and click on the View Multiple Pages feature of your word processing program. Continue making these and similar adjustments until you can see as much of your document as possible.
  6. Consider the ratio of highlighted to not-highlighted text. Perhaps contrasting colors reveal long sections of description and few scenes, for example. Or, a narrative you thought shared points of view evenly between two characters does not.
  7. Do the ratios your shrunken draft reveals please you? Do they fit into your expectations for the draft? What do you need to do to address differences between what you’ve got and what you’d like to have?