Posts Tagged ‘writing’

So I finished the novel I started in 1989 and submitted it to the SC Arts Commission’s First Novel Competition. Related posts forthcoming, this experience has been awesome. But here’s the first post-submission reflection.

Let me explain what happens when you re-join a world you created.

First, you remember the times and reasons you created the world to begin with. In 1989, I was thirteen and had just moved to California from Virginia. It was a tremendously dramatic experience for me, one which if properly psychoanalyzed may reveal itself to be the source of every-terrible-thing-I’ve-ever-done.

It was also tremendously defining for me, not just my personality but my family as well. One of the characteristics born of that experience is my disdain for unmet expectations. This characteristic revealed itself in 2000 when I informed Charlie that I expected an engagement ring for Christmas and if he had no intention of meeting that expectation, he should say so.

In 1989, I was expecting to go to middle school with my best friend from whom I’d been separated at the end of 5th grade because of school re-districting. I also expected to be in school with Brian Craighill, the boy on whom I had my very first crush.

Moving to California crushed those dreams. Crushed them.

The second time I revived the novel our family had moved back to Northern Virginia and new boy, Marc, turned against me in a devastating way and took my friends with him.

The third time, my family had splintered and I was at college trying to figure out what kind of life I had now that my old life was over.

Finally, in 2009, I picked the novel back up and wrote the only version of it that would be recognizable in the final draft completed yesterday. In 2009, I finally realized Brian’s struggles were about an unwillingness to change, to grow up, to admit he was not meeting expectations.

  • From the 1989 story I kept the original characters, with a few new ones and the title.
  • From the 1993 story I kept the secondary conflicts, the love of Brian’s life has betrayed him and his parents don’t understand him.
  • From the 1995 version I kept the primary conflict and it contributes the book’s first two sentences: Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night. I also kept the narrator, which is Brian in first person.
  • From the 2009 version I kept the scope of the novel, it’s told in six days, and the underlying tension: Brian does not want to go home for Tony’s death because the last time he was home, he’d done something that severed his ties with his friends.

What has not changed is that this story is about Brian Listo and his friends. They are The Crew, an amateur skateboarding “team” of which he is The Captain. Best friends since elementary school though now separated by their college choices. Brothers to one another even though life choices (drugs, girls) have tested their loyalty.




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 year I was five months in to the writing life I had always wanted. It started in April 2012 when I went to the Clemson Literary Festival and came home and wrote my first short story in 15 years.

By October I had a few drafts of disparate stories and a finished novel whose first ten pages had won an internet popularity contest.

But when Khara House suggested we submit as many as three pieces a week, 26 pieces to 26 different literary magazines, or at least four pieces over the course of October 2012, I was sorely underprepared.

That year I submitted one story – to The Baltimore Sun who never bothered to even decline the thing. They just ignored me as the literary universe has done my whole life.

I queried three agents with my first 10 pages, two of whom said, “thanks but no thanks,” very kindly, I might add, and the third took The Baltimore Sun approach.

What I learned in October 2012 was that I needed a body of work. I needed enough fiction that I could legitimately contend in the literary universe, or at least enough to draw response of some kind.

So I created the 2013 Short Story Challenge. I have one loyal participant besides me. Thanks, Melanie!

The goal was to have 13 polished stories by October so that I could complete Khara’s Submit-O-Rama challenge. I did it. It’s over. Now here’s what I learned:


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 

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.