Bring on the Drama, Mama!

I don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, it lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. Suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back into the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama even more. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her two kids by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank repossesses her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary baking talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, we don’t feel sorry for her. In fact, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer increases admiration for Mary by watching her react to events that might crush the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her react by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the act of adding more tension to our story makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!

Drama is just one of the topics that we’ll cover in my upcoming Charlotte Lit online workshop: Let’s Write a Short Story: Studio. What makes this course different is that every student gets a special “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

New Online Class on the Short Story Starting September 13!

Great news! For several weeks this summer, I’ve been at work with my friends at Charlotte Lit designing an exciting new online class–my first ever. This class is what we call a “Studio,” which means that it offers deeply engaging, content-rich online modules and a combination of pre-recorded and Zoom live course instruction through a really cool platform called Wet Ink. The course runs from Sept. 13 – October 10, which will give students the rare opportunity to draft a full-length short story AND receive detailed feedback from me. It’s unlike any course I have ever taught, so I am really excited!

Most short story workshops throw students into the open sea without a life ring. What makes this course different is that students have the benefit of using a “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students actually start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

During our time together, we’ll also study model stories by masters such as John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Walker, but we’ll also cover excerpts by contemporary authors such as Tessa Hadley and Ralph Hart. I’ll also share how this same technique helped me write “Golden Delicious,” a short story which earned first prize last year in the Starving Writers Competition sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council. Studying the work of other writers will give students the opportunity to learn how to read a short story like a writer, another exercise that will deliver practical dividends throughout their lives. Even better, the principles we learn can easily be applied to the novel as well!

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

Are You Ready to Write a Short Story?

We’re counting down the days until Saturday, March 7, the day of my special workshop, “DIY – Write a Short Story in a Day,” at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, and I could not be more excited!

Some people say that the best way to write a short story is to take advantage of that first burst of passion and write it all at once. We know that this is how Shirley Jackson conceived and wrote her beloved and intriguing story, “The Lottery,” and I suspect that many other writers use this same approach. We’re going to try this method ourselves, with the help of a one-of-kind short story writing kit I designed just for this class. From story triggers to the five essential elements of a classic short story, our students will have just what they need in one convenient (and cute!) little box. Everything but the typewriter (or pen and paper, if that’s your preference)!

I’m currently assembling all of the kits, and being an amateur “crafter” of sorts, I’m relishing every moment. When it comes to sewing, for example, it’s very important for me to have all of my materials — machine, rotary cutter, thread, fabric, thimble, even my ripper– by my side. Why should writing be any different? My hope is that our students will take these “tools” with them beyond the class and use what they learn to generate and pen an endless array of short stories.

There are only 2 slots left in the class, so if you’re interested, don’t miss out! You can easily sign up by registering online or by calling (919) 545-8044 during regular business hours.

And if you can’t get enough writing inspiration, on April 25, I’m leading a workshop on Share Your Writing with the World – Revision and Submission, also at CCCC, which will be the perfect follow up to our March class. We’ll talk about markets for short stories and more, including flash fiction, creative nonfiction and essays, and poetry.

Hope to see you soon!

Be a Shape Shifter!

little puss
What do you see in the magical coat of Little Puss? Evil snowman or smiling panda bear? This tricky feline is a shape shifter!

What’s your favorite genre, someone recently asked me. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays? My answer: All of them!

The longer I write, the more I’ve learned that the various writing genres are not mutually exclusive. The same solid idea that sparked a short story could easily morph into an essay or a poem. Especially if you still have curiosity about the topic. So why limit yourself to just one form? Be like Little Puss, a shape shifter!

Case in point. Shirley Jackson. This renowned writer didn’t just pen short stories and novels; she also wrote essays and even drew cartoons! Here’s another:  Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote stories, novels, poetry and his nonfiction memoir, Speak Memory, is a model for any writer in terms of craft. Dorothy Parker: poetry, stories, book reviews. And Tennessee Williams wrote much of the above and even took playwriting to another level by tackling screenplays.

Shakespeare was also a notorious shape shifter, excelling in every form available at the time. If he lived today, in addition to the plays and poetry, he’d probably dash out a sitcom or two, don’t you think?

Shape shifting is also more efficient. In my case, my essay “Eulogy of a Northern Red Oak” eventually turned into a poem. It’s essentially a condensed form of the same essay but with unusual line breaks and intentional omissions, the sadness of the topic–the loss of our natural habitat–is exacerbated. The poem was named a finalist in the 2019 Poet Laureate Competition and will be published in “Waiting for the Wood Thrush,” my first poetry collection by Finishing Line Press in November.

As I plunder through my old writing projects, I’m continuing to “shift shapes.” Or is it “shape shift” ? Maybe I’ll breathe new life into an old essay and turn it into a short story. And I think I have a poem or two that might work as a short story….humm….let the magic begin!

 

Stuck in a rut? Try something new!

buster1.jpgFor Halloween, Buster, our little corgi-mix, decided to try a new look. Born with a hastily-tied white “Ascot” around his neck, he decided to switch things up this year. So he’s preening around in a hot dog bun. Hold the onions, please.

Buster’s transformation got me thinking about the myriad possibilities for writers. Are you stuck in a rut? Is your scarf askew? Sometimes, as we enter a new season–especially after a productive summer of writing–I start getting a little antsy. What’s next?

Like Chekhov, who loved wandering the cherry orchard, it helped me to go outside. On Whale Tail Road, we’re continuing to clean up brush and debris from two hurricanes. And Nature, as always, helped push me out of the rut. And it might help you too!

peppersOur jalapeno peppers truly hit their stride this fall, blessing us with a bountiful crop, even in October. So why not put a little kick in your own writing? When I think of the unexpected, Shirley Jackson always comes to mind. In her short story, The Daemon Lover, the protagonist takes the reader through a labyrinth of suspense. Does her mysterious fiancé exist at all? Can you take your reader on a similar journey? No need to veer into a thriller or horror (unless you want to!), you can actually do a lot by putting the familiar into a new context. Does the trip home, a short walk she has always taken, look a different to your protagonist today? Humm….

loofahGardening constantly surprises–with “volunteer” crops springing up in the most unexpected places. And this year, we had a volunteer loofah plant! When the seeds of last year’s crop fell through the deck, a new vine entwined its way up the retaining wall.

We’ve always loved loofah for its exfoliating qualities, so this, too, sent me on a detour. Like the loofah, all writers should feel free to “scrub off” the dead skin and start anew.

Can you give new life to a dead short story by turning it into a poem? And if that doesn’t work out, consider taking it back to a flash story, a shorter version of what you started with. I’ve had a lot of fun recently working on a short story of mine, “Lost and Found of the Dead,” which has turned into a poem, and then back into a story again.

Writing is the ultimate metamorphosis, when you think about it. What other profession allows you to “slip” into a costume and enter the mindset of someone else? No strings, no responsibilities, and it doesn’t cost a penny. So try something new this season and finish your 2018 writing year strong!

So from Buster and all of us at Whale Tail Road, Happy Halloween, er, make that Happy Transformation!

 

 

 

 

First cherries, first lines

cherriesOut of our four young cherry trees, we ended up with just a handful of tart cherries this year. Our Montmorency tree (left), the first one we planted three years ago, yielded the most fruit.

The first line of a story should be as memorable as the taste of a tart cherry–tangy, sweet, then tangy again. It’s almost lemony, but there’s something else–the flavor of early summer, morning breezes, balmy nights, the eerie song of the wood thrush in the hollow.

“One fine evening the no less fine office manager Ivan Dmitrich Cherviakov was sitting in the second row of the stalls, watching The Bells of Corneville through opera glasses.” (Anton Chekhov, The Death of a Clerk)

“Miss Matt was at least partially conscious that she looked like the teacher everyone has had for English in first-year high school; she was small and pretty, in a rice-powder fashion, with a great mass of soft dark hair that tried to stay on top of her head and straggled instead down over her ears; her voice was low and turned pleading instead of sharp; any presentable fourteen-year-old bully could pass her course easily.” (Shirley Jackson, The Sorceror’s Apprentice)

“Hazel Morse was a large, fair woman of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly.” (Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde)

Does your first sentence sing with vivid language? Mystery and intrigue? Does it draw your reader deeper? As I revise the stories I drafted this past month, I’ll be cognizant of the work of the masters in the first sentences of their stories, as quoted above. There’s a trick here, and these authors do it. That first sentence must hint at the plot and the universal truth (or unique vision) that caused the author to write the story in the first place.

As we approach the end of my story-drafting blitz this month, (three more to go!) I was delighted to receive a note from the editors of  The Birds We Piled Loosely, a hip online literary magazine, that they accepted two of my short humor flashes: “Etymology in the Neighborhood” and “We Are So Very Sorry” for their July issue.

Come to think of it, submitting work for publication is also a bit like growing cherries in the south. It’s unpredictable, a little scary, (will a late frost hurt those flower buds?) but the scarcity makes the few cherries you do harvest that much more delicious. So keep it up…both the cherry growing and submitting!