Posts Tagged ‘short story’

With the 2013 Short Story Challenge, I had two goals:

Write enough stories to participate in Khara House’s Submit-O-Rama in October

Learn to write really good short stories

As the count sits now, the first objective was met but the second is doubtful. Here’s the box score:

Finished – 16

Accepted – 2 (one to Spry and one to the Wordsmith Studio Literary Mash-Up)

Rejected Once – 7

Rejected Twice – 2

Pending – 6

The rejected twice (like this one) are the ones that hurt the most because I really, really like them the way they are. I thought I would revise them and resubmit but, really, I think they’re wonderful.

So I’m sitting on them for a while. Maybe the next time I look at them I’ll see what their flaws are.

When one meets one objective and not the other, the question is how to meet the other. Certainly revision is a good task but also more practice. I need to write more stories.

With that in mind, rather than abandon the Short Story Challenge 2013 as over, I’ve decided to continue into 2014 and have another 12 stories ready for October to meet Khara’s 3-per-week minimum submission requirement.

This year I have three collections I’m working on:

Snowed in Memphis

The Derecho


I sketched the Memphis outlines but haven’t filled them in yet. That project requires some research as it’s a literary project with some Canterbury Tales tie-ins. It’s been fifteen years since I studied The Canterbury Tales (and then I did it in Middle English ugh!) but this idea has been with me since 2001, so I’m going to pursue it this year.

Last year’s stories include three from The Derecho, but a collection needs at least 10 so that leaves seven more stories to be told. I have the beginnings of two.

Bearskin is the retelling of a Grimm fairy tale from several angles and including various elements of supernatural occurrences. The drafts come from the Reuts Publications November project (all three of mine were rejected, alas). They’re a YA publisher and I am not a YA writer, so I’ll revise these into my genre.

These projects are against the advice of a novelist I met in 2013 who said, “No one buys short story collections.”

I guess they must be simply for my own education and appreciation. I can be okay with that. I had an objective in 2013 that I failed to achieve: Learn to write really good short stories.

Renewing that objective for 2014 is, I think, the right thing to do if I am to become the writer I want to be. And who is that writer?

The one who writes really good short stories, of course.


Last night in our November Columbia Writers’ Alliance meeting, I presented a workshop on dialogue.

I used clips from a favorite novel, Water for Elephants, which had short pieces of dialogue of each type. Here, I’ve used my own work because I wanted to see if I’d been successfully applying what I know about the fundamentals of dialogue in a story.

Here’s what dialogue does in a story:

Set the scene

Tell the reader where and when they are. What is the weather like? Is it daylight or darkness? Is the sun shining or is it overcast? Are we amid flowers and manicured pathways or desolation and ruin?

From Sunday School:

“So what should we talk about?” Preacher asked.

“Heard they won’t get power back to Calvert County till Tuesday,” Popeye Logan said.

“Heard that, too,” Ed Duncan confirmed.

“Your son out workin’ today?” Mr. Mahoney asked Preacher.

“Sure is,” Preacher said, “came home for dinner around 2 a.m. and then back out again. Been on for 48 hours.”

“Heard the resort got power back yesterday morning,” Mr. Cleary said.

“Got money,” Popeye Logan said, “Gonna have that.”

“Ain’t the money,” Mr. Mahoney said.

“Sure ‘tis,” Popeye said.

“It’s a business. No power, people go home. They go home, you issue refunds. Gotta keep the power on. Plus, they got their own grounds guys up there.” Mr. Mahoney blotted his upper lip with a handkerchief.

“Gotta have money to have all that,” Popeye said.

Advance action

This kind of dialogue changes the story. You can find it by locating the beginning of the dialogue passage and jotting down each character’s condition: sad, anxious, worried, angry; then read the dialogue and jot down the characters’ positions. If they’re the same, the dialogue has not advanced the action.

From The Second Sister:

We’d been far enough from water for long enough that our own skin had itched with filth. But we hadn’t seen nothin as far gone as Byron Meade.

“What is this, Dad?” Erika said.

“Hello,” Emelyne said, reaching her hand out.

“Don’t touch it,” Erika snapped, smacking Emelyne’s hand away.

“This man saved me,” Dad said.

“Saved you from what?” I asked.

“And I’ve brought him here to repay him.” Dad clapped his hands together and looked at each of us who were starin at that bear.

We stood there, the father and the daughters and the bear in the empty swimming pool with our shelter behind us and the fire tossing shadows around us. The Old Texas sky arched above us full of stars.

“Repay him how?” Erika asked.

“You’ll marry him,” Dad said.

“You must be joking,” I said.

Give insight into characterization

Characters can speak with a dialect, can use splendiferous vocabularies, can stutter, or can drift off the main point of the conversation. They can use one-syllable expressions, purposefully shortening names and employing slang like, “k” and “huh?” All of these are ways to show character. How a character speaks is an indicator of his education, his interest in what’s happening, and his origins.

From Gordon Finch’s Miracle:

“Whaddaya doin?” she said.

Gordon looked at his raisin toast then back at her, lumpy and bulging across from him. “I don’t understand the question,” Gordon said.

“I mean every night? Right at twelve.”

“Twelve thirty.”

“Other people are sleepin’. Whaddaya doin’?” she asked again.

“I work,” he said, then, “at the tire plant, I work at the plant. I get off at twelve. I come here to eat.”

“Every night?” she said.

“No,” he said. The toast was cooling in his hands. The cheese on his eggs gone gelatinous now. He said, “Only when I work.”

Who Does it Best?

I’m a Hemingway fan and he’s prone to dialogue exchanges that are so lengthy one can lose track of who says what. I also have a spot of playwriting in me and because of that I like for the words the character uses to stand alone, without tag or narration, and I believe that if those words are good enough, one doesn’t need the excess.

Just to indulge myself, from The Sun Also Rises (p.128):

“Say,” Bill said, “what about this Brett business?”

“What about it?”

“Were you ever in love with her?”


“For how long?”

“Off and on for a long time.”

“Oh, hell!” Bill said. “I’m sorry, fella.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “I don’t give a damn anymore.”


“Really. Only I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

We know there are some firm rules about how to incorporate dialogue. The most important rule is:

Speak only those things which no one else knows or could possibly know without it being said.

If the dialogue is merely repeating what the reader or the characters already know, then it isn’t being productive. Remember that most people don’t speak what they’re really thinking, so you must somehow convey their thoughts through the words they choose.

Until the next workshop installment, why not share your thoughts on dialogue? Who does it really well? What makes a dialogue passage stink?

Additional resources: Write to Done, Writer’s Digest, Roz Morris via a G+ from Melanie Marttila of Wordsmith Studio 

So I’ve done it!

Thanks to Khara House for the kick-in-the-pants. I’ve now sent 13 stories out into the literary universe. One has already been accepted, thanks Spry! For taking “Two Trunks.” One has already been rejected, thanks, Lascaux, for giving “Have You Seen” a look. We’ll try to find a home for it elsewhere.

So here’s the final week’s roundup:

Good Friday

Everyone knows the bureaucracy of registering your vehicle can be tedious, but has it ever made you feel like you’ve lost the last shreds of your sanity? This is a rare first-person short story because I simply didn’t know how else to tell it. Favorite line:

The camel-toed crotch followed me back into the parking lot, recorded the license plate details, noted the inspection sticker, pulled the seatbelt across her lap, and administered a driving test. She seemed unhappy when I passed. I felt crazy enough to drive into oncoming traffic with her in the passenger seat.

Submitted to The Bellows American Review because what’s more American than hating your fellow Americans in all their misshapen body, attitude-bearing, brutal honesty?

God Called

Like Gordon Finch, this story has been around for a while. But it was the addition of the first call and the tying of the two together that really made the story work. It’s about a woman who receives two phone calls to two separate residences, six years apart, both of which become pivotal moments for her. Favorite moment:

Very few people have cell phones. The phones are still rather clunky, the size of a can of vegetables and almost as heavy. Mare’s has a translucent orange cover that lights up when it rings but it rarely does. When someone calls it, the phone sings an electronic song that Mare sometimes doesn’t recognize as her ring tone.

To me, the cell phone description juxtaposes nicely with the home phone, that impersonal umbilical to the universe outside of one’s home. I like that the cell phone’s individuality and independence are not fully realized yet and so there’s a sort of in-between time when the home phone is frustratingly abused by unknown callers but the cell phone isn’t entirely adopted.

Anyway, this one went to Shadow Road who suggests submissions ought to be about characters who are struggling with things we can identify with. Without giving away the story, Mare’s struggles are adolescent-to-adult and family-shelter-to-independent-person. Who hasn’t been through that?

Sunday School

I’ve worked on Sunday School since last summer when I saw a group of elderly folks holding class under a tree outside their church. It was the Sunday morning after a tremendous wind storm had knocked out the power in middle Virginia and I thought, isn’t it too hot for them out there? What do different circumstances do to their weekly polite conversation? Favorite line:

What did Anne Marie know of Daniel? Of a lion’s den? Of anything, really, except how doggone hot it was. Ninety eight degrees in the shade. We ought to be prayin don’t none of us have a stroke. Mr. Mahoney and his “we don’t have a choice.” Shoot, they did so. They could have gone home and suffered this heat alone. With dignity. In their underwear.

This one went to Arcadia partly because it’s really long (4,910 words) and they have no limit. But also, because the conversation is subtle and the moments are intentionally understated. The story I read that they’d published, King of the Apes, had the kind of subtlety I hope “Sunday School” has.

So that’s it.

Submit-O-Rama is over and I’ll just get to sit back and wait on the acceptances (!) or rejections (boo!) as they come. My fiction is out into the literary universe and the goal of Submit-O-Rama was to push beyond my comfort zone and challenge myself.

When at the end of last week I had three stories left to send and all three needed significant work, I could have quit. But I didn’t.

And even if they are rejected, at least they went.

I feel pleased with the process above all and with the work, too, for the most part.

How did your Submit-O-Rama wrap up?

So I’ve done it. With a little help from my friend Jodie Smith over at The Queendom, I’ve gotten three more stories ready for submission and sent them off into the literary universe.

Here are the selections and the magazines to which they were sent:

Run or Bleed

When the evidence of failure shows up again, Amy does the thing she’s best at: she runs. Favorite passage:

She could see the light in the bathroom glowing as she passed home and knew Michael was in the shower. She was behind schedule so she thought about cutting the route short and heading inside. Instead, she picked up the pace for the last mile.

Submitted to Damselfly Press, a literary organization promoting women issues and women writers.

Have You Seen

A billboard asking for help finding a missing woman brings to mind questions about how the woman went missing in the first place. Three character profiles in the imagination of a fourth woman make up “Have You Seen.” Favorite passage:

That moment, that hard labor, that fear when the baby hadn’t cried right away, the three weeks of bed rest leading up to it, being such a pain-in-the-ass pregnancy that she’d sworn she wouldn’t do it again. The weight from the second one wasn’t even gone yet when she’d gotten pregnant with the third. All that and another damned boy.

Submitted to The Lascaux Review because some of their published works I read had the same tone as “Have You Seen.”

Schickabusch Waits

Originally scheduled for week three but the best fit for a magazine that asked for alternative views, Schickabusch is about an Elf on the Shelf who is trying to earn his freedom. Favorite passage:

This year will be different. This year the kid is four. She’ll find him, she’ll grab him. The spell will be broken. He won’t be able to return to the North Pole. He’ll stowaway with the shredded wrapping paper in the garage, ride the garbage to the curb. He’ll be free.

Submitted to Gone Lawn, a web journal that says they’re about “progressive” literature. I thought the pop culture tie-in of Schickabusch was appropriate.

So that’s it. One more week, three more stories. The ones for this week are under editing right now.

How’s your Submit-O-Rama challenge coming?

I did it. I sent three stories, “First Time,” “Packing,” and “Daylight.”

First Time
Winkie and Tommy have come to the hillside overlook to lose their virginity. But a derecho sweeps the mountain and derails their plans.

Favorite part:

Tommy took a deep breath. When he shoved himself inside of her she gasped.

Something broke. A loud crack, the splintering of something, a giving-in to the wind, then a branch ripped out of the giant tree behind them.

Submitted to Passages North, the literary magazine of Northern Michigan University.



Dominique and Roman are filling her suitcase with freshly laundered shirts, wrinkle-free pants, and unsaid things. She’s leaving for a year and they’re beyond the debate stage. Now the sadness sets in.

Favorite part:

“It’s just a year,” he said again.

She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.

“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.

“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”

Submitted to Salt Hill Journal, the literary magazine of Syracuse University.



The last night before they leave for school and Sophie has her ex-boyfriend’s brother in her room. Can she (should she?) get him in her bed or will she let daylight come and steal the chance away?

Favorite line:

A touch on my back and I didn’t have to turn, I knew it was him. He handed me another beer and stood a little too close for a little too long. There was a choice to be made regarding the tension we’d found earlier, upstairs. I could feel a throb deep within me and I decided to let it happen. I turned my head, lifted my face, my cheek grazed his. Neither of us pulled away.

Submitted to Lumina, the literary journal of Sarah Lawrence College.

So, week 1 is over. I feel brave. I feel a little nauseated. Oh well. Off into the literary universe my work must go!

Have you submitted anything yet? How did you feel the morning after?

I started 2013 with the goal of having enough polished work to really participate in Khara House’s October Submit-O-Rama. The rules state three submissions per week, which is 15 pieces (five weeks X three submissions).

As you know, the 2013 Short Story Challenge went well and I have 13 stories but only 9 of them are edited.

So, I’ve decided to revise the calendar by skipping the first week (this one) to complete edits. I promise to begin submitting next week.

That gives me four weeks or 12 stories. Twelve is perfect because one of the stories has already been submitted and accepted to Spry. So I have to take it off the list.

So, check back here for next week’s submitted titles (with clips) and the lucky literary magazines that get to read my work!

Are you submitting in October? Have you Joined Submit-O-Rama? Share in the comments.


Posted: April 17, 2013 in Short Story
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Just Write Short Story Challenge of 2013 continues with this offering. I broke my own rule and edited one I’d drafted some time ago. I think it’s appropriate, though, since my friend who inspired the story has now returned from Liberia. Your comments are appreciated. Please let me know what you think.



Dominique laid another tightly folded shirt into the suitcase. “Twenty-two,” she said softly to herself.

“Here,” Roman said, hoisting a full basket of dried laundry onto the bed next to the suitcase. The covers fell away from the pillows, created lumps, made the basket lean unevenly as though it might spill. He held the basket’s rims tightly, shimmied it to flatten the folds of comforter beneath it. Then released his grip and stepped back.

“Thanks,” Dominique said. Folded another shirt, pressed it into the suitcase. “Twenty-three.”

He lingered at her elbow. Waited.

She scratched 23 on the page next to the line item “30 shirts.” Then she turned to him. “What?”

He shrugged, but it wasn’t real. He didn’t really not know what to say. So much simmering beyond his tight lips, sizzling on his tongue. He swallowed.

Their eyes met. Large, brown, wide eyes on her narrow face. Squinting, lid-shaded green ones on his own face.

“What?” she asked again.

He looked away, his posture resigned.

“Thanks,” she said, clasping the laundry basket’s edge and shifting it. Reached inside, she pulled out another shirt, folded it tightly, laid it into the suitcase.

He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t left.

Another shirt. Folded. Laid. “Twenty four,” she said softly.

She could hear him breathing, not huffing or grunting, just breathing. Sharing the air with her. The room felt warm, late-day light streaming through the blinds, heating the carpet. The cat laid under the window, stretched luxuriously in the heat.

Dominique looked up at the ceiling fan, its blades still. She leaned toward the wall behind her, flipped the switch up. The blades began to rotate, a low whir as the fan came to life. The wind between them muted the sound of his breathing.

He sat on the edge of the bed, next to the basket. Out of her peripheral view now, forcing her to look at him as she reached into the basket for another shirt. Shake. Fold. Press into the suitcase. Twenty-five.

“I’m reconsidering,” he said.

“You’re sad,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

She stopped, looked at him, said, “no.”

Another shirt.

“Okay. I get it. Huge opportunity. Big deal.”

Really big deal,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “it’s a really big deal. It’s just…”

“A year.”

“It’s just a year.”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled. The smile pulled her lips away from her teeth, stretched across the entire bottom half of her face, made her look like a child. “I like it said that way.”

“It’s just a year,” he repeated. But he didn’t smile.

There’s a life here. Work and friends and afternoons at the beach and nights on the boat. There’s a life here. Her life is here. He didn’t say these things. He’d been repeating them silently since he said them three days ago. She knew them.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase. “Twenty-six.”

He folded his arms over his stomach, hugged himself. Watched her moving. Those long, thin arms, long skinny fingers, elbow bones, wrist bones, the slight jingle of a bracelet, brown skin freckled and aged by the sun, thick blondish hair on her forearm. She reached into the basket. He caught her hand.

“It’s just a year,” he said.

She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.

“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.

“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”

“It’s hot there.”

“So fucking hot.” She had rehearsed that phrase, knew it, meant to prepare for it.

“What are you packing?”

“Two shirts a day. Pretty sure my deodorant won’t help.”

He laughed, still holding her hand against his face.

She tugged gently and he released it. She took another shirt out of the basket. Folded. Pressed into the suitcase. Twenty-seven.

No questions. When the opportunity came up she had no questions. Didn’t ask where she would live, who she would know, how she would eat or send bills to the States. Didn’t ask if she needed to know French or if there was wifi. Didn’t ask if he could come.

Still sitting, slumping now, next to the basket, he was in her way a bit. She kept on with the shirts, expected him to move when she needed the space for folding pants. She didn’t push him away.

“Not sad,” he said.

“No, it’s only a year.”

“Not sad,” he said again, “gonna be great. You’re great.”

She grinned again. He didn’t. “Thanks,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Roman replied, softly.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase, the stack rose over the edge now. “Twenty-eight,” she said.

He moved behind her, trailed his hand against her hip, across her back, stepped into the sunlight streaming through the blinds. Reached his hands over his head, bending at the elbow to avoid touching the fan. Arched his back, stretched. A yawn. A grunt.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “just stiff.”

She arched a brow, glanced at his pants, “yeah?” Stuck her thumb under the strap of her tank top like she’d pull it off. Just tell her to.

He shook his head, laughed a bit, “no.”

A shrug, hands back to folding. Pushing the desire away. “Too bad. Gonna be a while.”

“Only a year,” he said.

“Should it be?” she asked suddenly.


“You could, you know, with someone.” She had rehearsed those words, too. But they still hurt.

“No,” Roman replied, then again, looking her in the eye, “no.”

“It’s okay. I’d understand.” She looked away.

“No, okay?”

She looked up. Their eyes met. Hers brown, wide, brave. His narrow, glazed with tears. “Okay,” she said, “Good to know.”

“There isn’t anyone else,” he said, suddenly angry, he hadn’t rehearsed that conversation. Hadn’t thought about that conversation. Didn’t like it.  “It’s only you. I’ll wait.”

“And you’ll come for Christmas,” she said.

He laughed, “multiple times hopefully,” he said and now he grinned.

She laughed, too, threw a balled-up pair of socks at him. He caught it, tossed it back into the pile.

Roman flopped onto the bed, stepping over the cat, but startling her anyway, the bed shambles puffing around him, letting out the air they’d trapped with the laundry basket shifting. He climbed up to the pillow, tucked his hand under it. Snuggled into it, breathed in deeply.

“A bed to yourself,” she said.

“For a whole year,” he said.

“You’ll forget how to share.”


He pressed his face into her pillow.

She folded shirts and counted.

There are criminals here. Sex crimes here. Victims here. They needed her as much as those people in Liberia. There was work to do here. She had been making a difference. She had been changing peoples’ lives. She was needed. He didn’t say these things again. But their echoes filled his head.

It didn’t matter how many criminals she got off the street, more arrived. No matter how many victims she found justice for, another young girl came in the next day and the next and the next. She was swimming against the tide and she was tired. It didn’t feel like progress. At least she didn’t think it did. She couldn’t remember what progress felt like.

Another shirt. Fold. Press. “Thirty,” she said softly. The stack leaned a little. She broke it halfway, positioned the top half in a second pile next to the first. Pushed them both against the edge of the suitcase. She pulled the laundry basket toward her.

“Didn’t know you had thirty shirts,” he said.

“Me neither.”

“Work shirts?”


The ceiling fan tinked and wobbled above them. He turned onto his back to watch it. The blades spun, the air washed over the room. The fan’s two chains shivered, clinking together occasionally, but mostly gyrating in separate orbits.

Roman put his hands behind his head. His elbows made butterfly wings and he pressed them in and out, shifting, getting comfortable.

She glanced at him, stretched the length of their bed. She imagined climbing on top of him, one leg on either side of his hips. She imagined sitting back into his crotch. She smiled to herself.

He turned as if he’d heard her lips part.

“Naughty thoughts?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Oh, come on, I’m here. I’m laid out. Love me,” he said.

Roman turned onto his side, propped his head on his palm and ran the other hand down the length of his leg, finger tips extended. His shorts bunched on his thighs, his knees stacked, his legs tanned with days of sailing, the hair bleached from the sun.

She looked back to his face, his eyes closed, his lips kissed toward her. Then he opened one eye to see if she was looking. Closed it quickly and kissed again.

She laughed. “Very sexy.”

“How can you resist?” he agreed, “how can you leave?”

Huge opportunity. Important work. Break the rut. We’re not moving forward. This will make my resume. People need help. I’m the perfect candidate. No strings, remember? Unsaid already said things floating like pasta to the top of the boiling water. Done. Cooked through.

She reached into the basket, pulled a pair of pants toward her. Looked back at him.

He was still looking at her. The question had been real.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Pouting,” she said.

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

He fell onto his back again, stared at the ceiling fan, hands folded on his belly. She couldn’t see herself straddling him now. The question had taken the air out of the room. She reached up and tugged on one of the fan’s chains, three pulls, slow, stop, high. The fan whirred to a higher speed.

She glanced at the cat who had resumed her languorous stretch in the light. Turned to the legal pad, scratched through “30 Shirts.” Finished folding the first pair of pants, rolled them tightly, laid them in. “One.”

The tinkling of the fan’s chains. The rock of it against its base. The sound of linen, then rayon folded, rolled, stacked in the suitcase. The rattle of the suitcase’s zipper.  Making room. Making it fit.

After a while he got bored, sat up, dropped his legs over the other side of the bed. She glanced up, saw his back, shoulders hunched. Wondered if he was crying. Waited.

He stood, turned back around, reached for the basket, pulled a pair of pants out of the basket.

“You should take skirts,” he said. “Cooler.”

“So my legs can sweat easier? Slide against each other?”

“That slick slapping sound when you walk?” he asked. “Sure.”

“No thanks.”

He smiled at her.

“Is it hot all year?”

“Yes,” she said. Then, quieter, “yes.”

She stacked another pair of pants. He stretched the pair he’d rolled out to her. She took it, met his eyes. Green behind the crinkles of thirty five years, squints like he was laughing, thick lashes she had always expected to peel off whole like falsies.

The right thing to do. A chance to make a difference. A chance to build her resume. A chance for them to see how they would survive. If they would survive. He had work here. Things to do. No other women. Not for him. Just her. They were only 35. They had plenty of time for suburbs and minivans. He would wait.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

He took another pair of pants. She did, too. Fold, roll, place in the suitcase. Push to the side. Make room.