This Story

Photograph of an octopus swimming just above the ocean floor.
by Pia/Pexels

This story walks a delicate line. Perhaps we will find an easier approach of starting with what the story does not want.

It does not want to be seen as pretentious. This story would never go to a chic restaurant and, upon hearing the sommelier say the restaurant has no more bottles of 1984 Fancypants Chablis, throw a fit and storm out of the restaurant. This is not one of those kinds of stories. Also, when wearing a polo shirt, this story does not “pop the collar.”

It desires to be seen as a “story among the people.” On weekends, after mowing the lawn, it sits on a patio chair and sips a common brand of beer — not a “this dude only drinks microbrews nobody’s heard of and listens to bands nobody’s heard of” type of beer.

This story wishes to entertain, in the hope that people will have a good time while experiencing it. Of course, “good time” is subjective to every reader. Some readers prefer action:

Viv dispatches the four members of Baron Lybo’s assault squad with throwing knives as she creeps around her house that they’ve entered in the night. Viv acts as a ninja using the familiar territory to her advantage. The last two assaulters fire their AK-47s before Viv’s knives plunge into their necks. The shots will cause neighbors to call the cops. Viv slings the four AKs on her shoulder and marches outside to her muscle car. Plenty of ammo is in the guns for her to attack one of Baron Lybo’s drug warehouses. But how did the baron discover Viv’s safe house? Is one of Viv’s few friends a snitch? Does her car have a tracking device?

Other readers prefer romantic comedy:

In the office’s break room, Jacqueline stands at the counter and has no way of knowing that Antonio is walking behind her when she turns around. Jacqueline bumps into Antonio. She was heading to the microwave to heat her leftover chicken curry. Both people watch in surprise as the green curry sloshes, then dollops of curry sauce leap from the container and land on Antonio’s shirt. He recovers from the surprise and says, “I better soak it before the stain becomes permanent.” As Antonio unbuttons his shirt and holds it under the sink’s faucet, Jacqueline is hit by lust/love’s gentle cheek slaps: Delicious six-pack of abs! Knowledge of good laundry practice! He chose to solve the problem instead of lashing out in anger!

But this story doesn’t want to be only entertaining. Going for thrills and laughs is a fine goal. Reaching beyond that, into the realm of admirable

(in the story’s estimation),

is to also aim for resonance. To weave a story with such emotional depth, readers will remember the story as more than “five or ten minutes I spent while avoiding my work at the office, or while I waited for the bus.” To resonate with readers, the story could show a character with weaknesses:

Parcy slumps on a kitchen chair as the dishwasher starts. Another difficult day of work. Tempting is the thought of pouring wine into one of the tall, retro-swirly decorated glasses (thrift store finds; to hell with “proper” wine glasses) and binging on a TV show. Yet, Parcy doesn’t want that tonight. There’s an urge for a meditative time. Parcy taps her phone’s screen to find the Quiet Nights album by Miles Davis. Interesting how the jazz mixes with the sound of water spraying inside the dishwasher. Parcy wonders when she’ll feel consistently confident at work. To get past the thoughts of being behind. Doubt weighs heavily. She closes her eyes and focuses on the trumpet’s music. She wishes she could ride the music, let it carry her around the apartment while rain falls outside the windows.

The story’s aim is for this kind of character, contrasted with a character representing a societal ideal that’s impossible to achieve. Such a character would breeze through life, everything coming easily to her/him/them.

This story would rather include a character facing struggles, while developing strength and lessons from struggles and failures:

The octopus swims away from the crowded sea floor, into a maze of rocks, gliding over and under, around them. Until the octopus finds the cave and enters its darkness. The sun’s rays diving into the water do not reach inside the cave. That’s preferable to the octopus. She needs a break from her parents nagging her to find a mate (“Please! We’d like grandchildren before we get too old and slow to play with them.”) and her friends, whose kidding around can sometimes get on her nerves. In the cave, the octopus dances. Her tentacles swirl and ripple in complicated patterns. Nobody can see her. She dances simply, for the joy of movement. A good way to let off steam and help ease her mind. However, she is wrong about nobody seeing her. Today, a lanternfish happens upon the cave. Seeing the octopus, the lanternfish turns off her green glow. The octopus is so involved in her dance that she doesn’t realize the presence of another creature. Until the octopus spins toward the cave’s opening. Immediately, she stops dancing. She says, “Why are you spying on me?” The lanternfish says, “I couldn’t help it. I came in here and saw you and I didn’t want to stop you. Please keep dancing.” The octopus says, “No. You’ll judge me.” The lanternfish says, “Too late. I already judged you. Your dancing is wonderful.” The octopus says, “You really mean that?” The lanternfish nods and says, “I’d like to see more.” The octopus says, “Promise you won’t make fun of me?” After the lanternfish promises that, the octopus says, “Will you tell the others?” The lanternfish says, “I won’t. Your secret is safe with me.” The octopus hesitates, weighs her options, then begins to dance again. The lanternfish turns on her green light, brightening the cave. The lanternfish joins in the dance, swimming over and under, around the swirling tentacles.

Hopefully, the reader would connect on some level with the character, to feel less alone in the world.

Which springs a kind of magic. The little drawings that we’ve come to the collective understanding that they represent letters. When grouped together, they form words. Strings of these words can inspire pictures in readers’ minds and inspire emotions in their hearts.

Such is the wish of this story. With every reader who happens upon it, the story knows it walks the delicate line between failure and success.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Author Interview: Megan Hinde

3 book covers: The Complete Collection, A Second Helping, and Pieces Fall Together

Fellow writer Megan Hinde offered to interview me, and I gladly accepted (posted here). I suggested that I interview her as well, as I was curious about her background as a writer. Let’s learn a bit about her…


1. What caused you to get started in writing?

Midlife crisis…I turned 40. Honestly it just evolved, I wrote quite a bit in high school and college, I worked on my high school newspaper and my college paper. Once upon a time I was a Journalism Major with a concentration in print media. But then life happens. In 2015 I found underlying creativity that had been lying dormant for a good while. Grace Summers who was a character from a piece of dialogue exercise came out to play.     

2. You’ve published a variety of story types in your books — such as flash fiction, detective, and thriller. What inspires you to write these different types of stories?

Variety is the spice of life. Over the last six years writing short stories has also led to reading more variety. I got into more Agatha Christie and odd short story anthologies. Then the Where, What and Who of Writing came to be and immersed me into Flash Fiction. Which was a style I hadn’t really ever written. 

‘Inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Clue, is my version of Where, What, And Who. I think of these as writing prompts to help get the writing juices flowing. I thank everyone for playing along, and invite you to be inspired by the prompts. Also feel free to suggest a place, an item and a name/occupation.’ 

The Detective Stories are just fun, I may have a slight obsession with classic crime, pulp fiction and serial killers. Which all make for good storytelling. Sometimes inspiration just happens, be it things you over hear, read or watch.

3 book covers: Welcome to Edna's Kitchen, Edna's Kitchen: Holiday Collection, and Edna's Kitchen Presents The Best of Bacon

3. You’ve also published several cookbooks, all coming from “Edna’s Kitchen.” Who is Edna? Is there a story behind why you chose that name?

If you read the introduction to Welcome to Edna’s Kitchen you would know. That being said, yes Edna became a creation out of a short story I wrote about my grandparents called After the Glory

‘Mrs. Rachel Darling sat in front of her typewriter working on her next column for The Daily Star, the local newspaper for the area. Her column Ask Edna had recipes, gardening advice and household tips and tricks.’

It has also evolved into its own breathing entity with 16 ebook cookbooks and a recipe blog on WordPress.  

4. What are your favorite meals to cook?

Stroganoff, Spaghetti and Meatballs and Lasagna. Runner ups would be Pot Roast with Potatoes and Carrots, and Slow Cooked Pulled Pork with Katsu Sauce.

3 book covers: Detective Stories, Descending the Spiral Staircase, and No Rest for the Wicked

5. Do your story ideas start with a character, a scenario, or something else?

Usually scenario, which is why I like the Where, What and Who writing prompts. Some of the combinations just write themselves. Like this one: Airport, Winter Jacket, Martha.

‘Winter Jacket 

Martha stood at the arrival gate in the Kansas City International Airport, clutching John’s dark blue winter jacket to her chest. John had been deployed overseas, it had been the longest six months of Martha’s life. She watched, shivering in anticipation as the crowd of people exited the jetway, waiting to see his familiar face among the crowd. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw him, he immediately pulled her into his arms, the winter jacket being crushed between them. She never felt safer or more at peace.’ 

There is also a little truth in all my fiction, details or characters that come from my experiences in life. A lot of them are inside jokes or references for my entertainment.  

6. Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it?

Not really, if the inspiration is there things get written. Coffee is always involved. 

7. Do you ever experience “writer’s block?” If so, what do you do to help ease out of it?

Not so much ‘writer’s block’ as lack of inspiration. Over the last two years the inspiration to write fiction is just not there. Hence the growing number of book recommendations and articles about other writers. Been reading more and writing less. 

3 covers of flash fiction books: Haunted Hydrangeas, Down the Rabbit Hole, and Hat Trick

8. What kinds of fiction do you enjoy reading? Do you have favorite authors?

I’ll read just about anything, if it doesn’t hold my attention I just stop reading it. I go through phases. I used to read  a lot of Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Miller, and James Joyce. Recently it’s been Agatha Christie, and Rex Stout.     

9. What is one work of fiction that moved you deeply? Why did it have that effect on you?

Here’s the thing I read for pure enjoyment. I don’t put a whole lot of thought into what I’m reading usually at night to fall asleep. This is why I was never an English Lit major. Put it this way, in high school I asked my friend how ‘Catcher In the Rye’ was rather than actually read it. 

10. What project(s) are you working on now?

There are always ideas floating around in the back of my mind: Things like do we need another Holiday Treats From Edna’s Kitchen? Does Detective James Andrews need a back story or a continuation of his Detective Stories? Or is it time to walk away and take a break? I don’t have any answers, I figure if inspiration occurs then more words will be written. 


Links!

Megan’s books are available on Amazon.

You can read some of her stories on her blog — along with recipes and photos.

Her Goodreads page is here.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Photo of a hole in drywall within a house.
by Lujia Zhang/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted a review of Horrorshow, and I wanted to follow that with a post about another aspect of the novel.

This post has a spoiler for Horrorshow, so if you plan on reading it, you might want to stop reading here.

(Well, the post’s title is big clue, but try to forget that.)

Moving on…

In that book, just beyond halfway through it, the main character (Riley) starts coming to grips with the notion that he could be a character in a novel. I’ve learned that the phrase to describe the situation is “breaking the fourth wall.” The Free Dictionary gives a background how that got started:

“Taken originally from theater, in which the fourth wall describes the invisible ‘wall’ that stands between the audience and the stage.”

I can’t remember when I first heard about the concept, but it’s a fascinating one. The idea that a writer can develop self-awareness in their characters, so they realize (or are told) that they’re within a story.

A helpful video on “metafiction” is on YouTube: Understanding Metafiction (Literature, Films and Video Games).

The movie Stranger Than Fiction (2006) explores the idea when Harold begins to hear, inside his head, a narrator describing his life. I enjoyed that movie, and it planted a seed in my mind to eventually write a metafictiony story.

Years later, I heard the Radiolab episode, “The Real Don Quixote” (2015). The show’s guest Bruce Burningham (professor at Illinois State University) talks about how Miguel Cervantes broke the fourth wall in the sequel of Quixote’s adventures. In Part Two, the character Sampson Carrasco tells Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the Part One book and drops the news that they’re characters.

The episode set the brain gears turning, then I wrote a flash-fiction piece “Characters in a Story,” in which two characters chat about the suspicion that they are, yes, characters in a story. Maybe funny in an absurd way, but too much like a writing exercise.

I came up with a broader story, and that flash-fiction piece is within it: Other Lives of the Boothbys

Cover for Other Lives of the Boothbys, with the title included within other text that's not important and grayed out.

Bradley Boothby has also seen Stranger Than Fiction, and he feels déjà vu when he walks by the building for Randolph-Turley Publishing Company. Bradley doesn’t think he’s a fictional character, but he feels he is somehow connected to a story published by that company. So Bradley takes the step of entering the building and talking with an editor to see if, somehow, his name is included in one of their books.

That meeting sets off a series of events. Included in those, the editor Jack Schneider and the writer George Foulkes write passages of books inspired by Bradley’s quest. Jack Schneider takes a crack at writing scenes of two characters forming a deeper relationship. George Foulkes starts a new story in which another writer is visited by his characters from a post-apocalyptic world.

I had fun writing Other Lives of the Boothbys, trying to come up with how different people could be inspired, then act on that inspiration. All of the writing process wasn’t fun, as self-doubt continued to pop up. I wondered if people would find the book boring. But in the end, I was pleased with the story, and I’m proud of it.

Tomorrow, I’ll post an excerpt from the book. Ah, the suspense…

But if you can’t wait for 24 hours, you can read an excerpt from the novella’s beginning here (I posted it last year).

LeVar Burton’s Podcast and Writing Contest

Photo of a recording studio with a microphone.
by Jonathan Velasquez/Unsplash

If you enjoy listening to stories, I highly/strongly/very muchly recommend LeVar Burton Reads podcast.

First: who is this guy? LeVar Burton is an actor: he was Kunta Kinte in the Roots miniseries and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation (among many other roles). He hosted Reading Rainbow for more than two decades. Also, he has directed episodes of TV series and movies.

In his podcast, Burton reads short stories. As he says in each episode, “the only thing these stories have in common is that I love them.” Typically, the stories have science fiction or fantasy elements. Burton makes for a really entertaining narrator with a smooth voice. To me, his enthusiasm for the stories comes through in his readings. His warmth and thoughtfulness also come through as he introduces the stories, then talks about how each affected him after the story.

It’s difficult to pick a few examples of the stories I’ve heard on the podcast, but here’s a short list: 

The podcast’s website. You can listen to the stories on SpotifyAppleStitcher.

Now on to his writing contest…

Photo of a woman typing on a laptop computer
by Christin Hume/Unsplash

Here’s the chance for a writer’s short story to be read on season 10 of LeVar Burton Reads! How awesome that would be for him to read an indie writer’s story — or writer published by a small press. The contest’s website is here.

According to the website, “Works must include speculative or fantastical elements.” So stories would fit into speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, or horror. 

The contest’s theme is Origins and Encounters. That centers on the intersection of different civilizations and the results of that intersection: The website says:

“We are interested in stories that examine the magical joys and tragic pitfalls of blended civilizations and cultural exchanges in all their forms. As our worlds change, what precious things do we carry with us and allow to be altered or demand they remain untouched? What is taken from us and what will we do to get it back? What do we allow ourselves to remember of our histories, our roots, and what do we allow ourselves to forget? What do we leave behind and what do we choose to carry into the future?”

Only the first-place winner’s story will be read on the podcast. But there’s more! Their story will be published on Tor.com, and the winner will get $500. The second- and third-place winners will also be published on Tor.com, as well as receive money: $250 (2nd place) and $100 (3rd place).

The contest starts today (August 1) and ends on August 31. Stories need to be between 2,800 and 5,200 words. For the rules and details, click here.

Octavia Butler’s Rules on Writing

Photo of colorful bubbles
by Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted reviews of two books by Octavia Butler, and today I’m following them with highlights from one of the essays included in Bloodchild and Other Stories. I thought these highlights deserved their own post.

The essay “Furor Scribendi” (“mania for writing,” according to Merriam Webster) includes Ms. Butler’s rules for writing, and she encourages writers to make them into habits in your life. In each item, the rule is taken word for word from Ms. Butler’s essay, then I’m offering a condensed explanation of each item in my words.

  1. Read. Inhale fiction and non-fiction, read books in the genre you’re writing, read books that discuss writing. And that doesn’t have to be old-fashioned reading: audio books are good ways to experience books, and you get the benefit of hearing the sound of language.
  2. “Take classes and go to writers’ workshops.” These provide feedback on your stories — readers who can tell you what works and what doesn’t work in the stories, before you send them out into the world.
  3. Write. Set aside time in your schedule to write every day. If you’re stuck with your work in progress, shift to journal writing. Setting down your thoughts could inspire ideas for later stories.
  4. “Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it.” Check the writing and research. Fix the flaws you find.
  5. “Submit your work for publication.” Check out the markets and submit your stories to the ones that interest you. Yes, this can be scary. And yes, rejections will hurt. Every writer experiences them. You can learn from rejected work, and you could use it in a new project — even sections of those old pieces.
  6. “Some potential impediments for you to forget … first forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not … Forget talent. … continued learning is more dependable than talent… finally, don’t worry about imagination.”

Especially with imagination, I liked Ms. Butler’s words so much I want to put more emphasis on her advice:

“Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use.” — Octavia Butler

I’m drawn to this kind of advice. I’ve posted about it from Shel Silverstein (“Put Something In”) and Felicia Day (Embrace Your Weird). I believe the reason I’m drawn to them is that they serve as reminders to me. Be serious about crafting stories, but don’t forget to have fun along the way. And hopefully, these words will be helpful to other writers out there.

All the quotes in this post are from: Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press (New York: 2005), pages 139-142.

Across the Universe

Photo of bluish-black space with tiny dots of stars
by Kai Pilger/Unsplash

Recently I listened to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which was good but I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle better, and in which the Beatles song triggers memories for the main character — Toru Watanabe — of when he was a young man in the 1960s, so the book is a coming-of-age story with cool music references, and triple which it sparked the idea of me possibly writing a book titled Across the Universe, because I’ve been really enjoying that Beatles song recently, and the sci-fi book could be about a team of astronauts on a deep-space mission, and much of the plot could involve the relationships among the diverse crew, since they’re stuck in a spaceship with limited space (the only opportunity of getting a break: space walks, which of course are dangerous yet would increase plot drama), and given that everyone has different attitudes the astronauts don’t always agree or get along (more drama!), but still they must focus on their mission; however, the situation raises the chance of making puns on relationship and companionship, which readers might think is clever in the first mention of the words but would grow tired if they are used too frequently, so no more than one instance per chapter, adding sprinklings of characters saying “I just need my space” to play on another corny pun, but again I would caution my potential self writing this potential book to not overdo the puns, because they would become monotonous — which could symbolize the monotony of flying through space, all that darkness broken by pinpricks of starlight, and readers might think, This book is so gosh-darn boring, there needs to be some aliens swooping in and a majestic battle commencing between the ships and maybe one crew boarding the other ship and the two crews engaging in hand-to-tentacle combat, and I’d rather not risk that potential thought in a potential reader, so maybe the book is not a great idea.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Write Something Towards (‘Ulysses’ pages 160-210)

Photo of vintage typewriter on a desk.
by Patrick Fore/Unsplash

Write something towards
bloodypapered stuff.

Smellsipped poison: burgundy nectar.
Smiledyawnednodded, said, “Prrwht!”

Do wines suppose quiet sorrows?
Glittereyed, John is one
possible softcreakfooted writer.

Remember Cordelia?
Paradoxes are husbandwords backward
flying warningfully to stayathome.

Mulligan leftherhis company.
Myriadminded, Venus brings another shakescene,
wooed catastrophe!

There, fingerponder life:
toyable,
play,
strive,
sunnywinking.

copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Bartholomew Eskrew

Bartholomew Eskrew reached the end of his story and walked away from his writing desk and turned around to look upon the pile of papers next to the typewriter and said, “It’s got to be tighter.” And so, he set upon cutting the story down: removing unnecessary back stories of characters, tossing out implausible situations, slashing needless dialogue that really had nothing at all to do with the plot, crossing out descriptions of places that seem to go on and on and on. He worked like this, a man with a red pen instead of a machete that he would’ve used to bring low the tall grass out in the country to clear an area for a field next to a house he had built with his own two hands, a field in which to plant vegetables and fruit trees, a field with which to feed a family he hoped to someday have to bring life into the house and fill it with laughter, talk, crying, and more–all the noises of human emotions bursting out to remind ourselves we are really and truly alive. Bartholomew Eskrew worked far into the night editing his work this way. The nights strung together, each lit by a feeble light that some people noticed as it emanated out of the tallest window in the old house where many other tenants lived underneath the floor boards of Bartholomew Eksrew’s apartment. The light–seen by those people looking up as they walked the sidewalk, possibly gazing up at the stars and moon, or possibly simply stretching a tired or pained neck–burned each night, with each night’s light connecting to the next like a string of Christmas lights from years ago that’s dim but still works. Bartholomew Eskrew worked steadily, patiently, making slow, ponderous progress, for the more he read of his story, the more it seemed to him that most of it was him just trying to impress the reader, and he wished to pare this apple down to the very core where the seeds remained, waiting to be discovered. Night after night, the pages from the original pile lowered, and the edited pile grew higher. Finally, after two weeks of editing, Bartholomew Eskrew again stood up and walked across the room and turned around to look upon his writing desk and saw what remained and he smiled, finally satisfied with the story. There, on the top page of the pile, written in his careful handwriting in red ink: “He tried.”