Thursday, March 31, 2011

The April Fool's Dare

For the month of April (and this is no joke) I plan to write approximately 30,000 words of short fiction. About 1000 words a day.

This will, of course, make me immediately want to work on novels instead. Tough.

A long time ago, I wrote a number of short stories for the Mick and Casey series, but they kept coming out too long for most of the available markets. So one at a time I started writing them and then I shelved them as they got too long. I recently looked back at some of these stories and found that most of them were almost done. And they are some fun novelettes -- just right for 99 cent ebooks. One is a full novella.

The thing about mystery short fiction is that it's often a one beat mystery. A good set up and one twist. Maybe a double-back on a really good one. But imho, a mystery needs a little more space. Even a one or two beat twist needs room to develop properly. You need space to not only set things up, but to mislead the audience. And you also need space for your characters to play.

I'm eager to let these stories fly at the length they want to be. And I've often thought that the novellas written by Rex Stout for his Nero Wolfe stories were the perfect length for the character-driven light puzzle mystery.

So the first goal is to finish up those stories, but since they are mostly done, that shouldn't take up too much of my word count. I'm also going to write as much new material as possible. I have some odd short stories I'd like to put in a collection, but I don't have anything to go with them -- so I want to write some companion stories. Space operas, more odd fairy-tales. Even a romantic suspense.

And I think I need to do more horse stories, although they will overlap with other genres.

I plan to publish some of those stories here, for the Sunday stories -- including the first one this sunday, in honor of those Mick and Casey stories, a folktale about things that you try to make small, but they only come out bigger and bigger.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Farley Granger, and Paying Your Dues

FARLEY GRANGER died today. You may remember him from Strangers On A Train or some other of his movies, but what he really loved was the stage.

He loved the stage so much, he did something unusual for a Hollywood star of the old system: he bought out his own contract with Goldwyn so he could make time to act on stage whenever he wanted. (In those days, you didn't contract for a particular movie -- you signed with a production house and they told you what to do.)

So he went legit, and found that Broadway was not impressed with his credentials. At that point, a lot of stars would go back and do what's easy, but Farley Granger loved the stage. So he did what actors do who are not movie stars, he knuckled down and paid his dues. He attended one of the major workshops. He did stock. He did small parts. He also did television to pay the bills. (Of course, in those days, TV was a great place for a "real" actor -- they had live dramas and lots of interesting and serious stuff.)

I understand it took him ten years to establish the career he wanted on the legit stage. But it was worth it. It was more than a matter of proving that Mr. Move-Star-Boy could do the job on the stage. It wasn't about waiting his turn either.

I think that's something that so many people misunderstand about the concept of "paying your dues." It isn't about waiting your turn. And although it earns you respect, it's not about earning respect either. It's about learning your craft. It's about becoming a seasoned pro. There are things you just can't achieve with anything but time and experience.

I think that's something for everyone to remember. You may be able to buy your way out of a life you don't want. You may be able to find short cuts to escape something. But to have the life you DO want, you have to build it. They don't come ready made.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Progress Update

I wrote another short short, but it is going to need editing. (It was one of those odd ideas you get while brushing your teeth, and then by the time you're done, the whole story is in your head.)

I also finally installed Adobe Design Premium CS5 on my computer. I've had it for months, but whenever you install new software, you need to set aside time for everything to break. Just now I want to learn some new tools in Photoshop, but I also don't have any deadlines looming on Photoshop projects, so it seems like the ideal time to get it installed. I appears to have gone well. So far.

I came up with a really great concept for the Mick and Casey novelettes I plan to publish over the next several months. Really nice and pulpy -- fun. But also easy to do a new cover for many different stories. And I've done a mock-up of the first cover, which I hope to finish up in the next couple of days because....

I'm going to try to publish "The Curse of Scattershale Gulch," a Mick and Casey mystery novelette, this weekend.

And tomorrow I am going to post more formally about my goals for the April Fools Dare. (I plan to write short fiction, and finish up a bunch more Mick and Casey novelettes and novellas.)

Story Notes - Away He Run

Yesterday's Sunday Story was "Away He Run" - a contemporary fantasy which was published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine a very long time ago. These notes will involve spoilers, so you may want to go back and read it. (It's short.)

This story started in what I assume is the most traditional way to write a story ever. I sat down and emoted. I started with a feeling, and imagined myself in an unknown character, and then built the story around that.

The image that came to me was that of someone hiding and fearful. I knew it was a child. And I knew the person looking for him did not mean him harm.

Why did I want the child to be hiding from someone who meant well? Because it was the most interesting immediate conflict. Fear in spite of good intentions -- not scary fake good intentions, but real honest good intentions. That's interesting and immediate.

There was another reason that image came to me though: I was working on a novel called Moon Child: Ready or Not (which I hope to release this fall). In the novel, Charlie is an orphan, lost and alone in our world, who knows only one thing about himself -- he is really a magic prince who is destined to save another world. If he doesn't show up to take up his destiny, horrible things will happen, so the story begins as he hides from the authorities as he casts a spell to take himself home. Except that he accidentally takes one of the cops with him. (The cop in question, Jasper Wardell, is a secondary character in the title story of The Bellhound collection, btw.)

That story is a very warm story about an anxiety-ridden kid and the laid-back adult who mentors him. And I that warmth infused my imagination when I wrote "Away He Run." But in the short story I got the chance to explore a more traditional father/son relationship, with the father taking responsibility for decisions which the child has to live with. In the novel, the responsible child's decisions affect the laid-back grown up.

The last element that formed this into a story was an old folktale. I don't even remember the full plot, or if it had a full plot. It was about a childless couple who get a witch to transform a mouse into a child for them. They are loving parents but the mouse needs to grow up to be a mouse.

And that's when something clicked with the image of someone hiding from a benign caregiver. A cat hiding from a trip to the vet -- and suddenly I had the whole form of the story. The vet becomes the doctor/witch, and the growing up to be a human becomes a metaphor for just plain growing up. Losing childhood to become an adult, seeing the world as something beyond oneself.

I always loved this story, even though it really did not seem right as a children's story. It seemed too mature, and perhaps even disturbing for younger children. But I was happy to find that Marion Zimmer Bradley liked it as well as I did and published it with no changes.

Last year I put this in a collection of my children's fiction The Enchanted Tree And Other Tales of Transformation, but I decided that it belonged in a more mature collection. It's now the second story in the new collection The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic.

(You can find The Bellhound at Amazon Kindle, Kindle UK, and Smashwords.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Away He Run - a family tale of modern magic

For Sample Sunday this week, I give you a short story I published a long time ago in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. It's in the collection I just published: "The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic."

* * * *

Away He Run
by Camille LaGuire

TOM HATED RAIN. The cold, wet rattle of it muffled the sound of his parents’ voices. He crouched on the top step and listened.

“Tom?” called Dad. “Come on, Tom. It’s time to go!”

They were putting on their rain coats, and neither had looked up yet. They had not seen him, but they would look up at any moment. If they saw him, he would have to come. He felt the old panic begin. He’d been wrong to put off thinking about it. Now he couldn’t think at all. He just wanted to run.

His mother turned, about to look up. He scrambled around the corner and pressed his back against the wall. Her voice came to him softly from the bottom of the steps.

“George,” she was saying. “He just ran away.”

“Oh, Christ,” said Dad. “Not again.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs. The fourth step creaked. Tom pulled open the linen closet and slipped in backwards, not quite pulling it shut behind him. He did not want the sound of the click to give him away.

“Tom?” His father was halfway up the stairs. “I thought you were over this.”

“George, wait. Maybe...he doesn’t like the treatments.”

“Who would?”

“Maybe we should postpone the appointment....”


His father’s voice was near and loud. Tom cringed into the sheets. He wished he could flatten himself to nothing, slip under the sheets and never be found.

“He can hear us,” said Mom.

“I’m sorry.” Dad’s voice was quieter, but there was still an edge to it. “I just don’t want to have to go through this again. It’s the last appointment.” Mom was silent, and after a pause, Dad continued. “Dr. Minas is right, and we’ve got to make a man out of him....”

“He’s young yet.”

“Not all that young, and he’s getting older all the time. Look, I’ll check out the bedrooms, you watch the stairs.”

“Let’s both just sit here and wait for him to come out.”

“He’s not going to come out.”

“Yes he will. Come on. Sit down. It calms him to hear our voices.”

Dad let out an exasperated sigh, and neither made a sound for several seconds. Tom leaned ever so slowly to see through the crack. Mom was sitting on the top step, facing down. Dad was leaning on the railing with an air of dejection.

“He hasn’t done this for three visits,” he said softly.

“He just couldn’t take it anymore, George. It must be very painful.”

“You think so?”

“Honestly, George!” said Mom, looking at him sharply. “How insensitive can you be? Of course it hurts. Why would he act this way if it didn’t hurt? Tom, honey? Tom, I’ve got your Mr. Mouse. He’ll be there and so will we. Tom?”

She was looking in the wrong direction, calling for him down the hall toward his bedroom. Her lilting voice cracked as she held up the cuddly gray mouse. Tom felt a sudden coldness. If he was to be a man, he would not want a toy like that anymore.

“I wish we’d never started this,” said Dad, to himself. Mom turned to him angrily.

“Well, I don’t!”

Now they were going to fight. Right in front of him. And he was trapped in this closet. He half rose up from the sheets, looking for a place to go.

“How could you say that? Don’t you love him?”

“I was thinking of him when I said it.” Dad’s footsteps moved down the hall, away from both of them. “I’m going to look for him.”

Tom felt that jittery panic. Now he was going to be trapped in that car in the middle of a cold angry fight. He had to get further away, to the attic.

Dad would be looking under the beds by now. Mom never chased him. She would be watching the stairs anyway, maybe sulking. She wouldn’t even see him if he didn’t make noise. He pushed the door open slowly. She was looking the other way, sitting on the step, leaning forward. He carefully set one foot down, and then the other.

She suddenly sat up, throwing her head back with one sharp shuddering sob. Tom jumped. Mom turned and saw him. She tried to smile. A little crooked half smile.

“Tom? Oh, Tom.” She rolled to her knees. Tom turned and dashed for the attic ladder. “George! He’s here!”

Dad came out of the bedroom. Tom glanced down to see him stop, helpless anger on his face.

“Christ, Janice, you know shouting scares him.”

“What about your shouting?”

Tom slammed the trapdoor shut and sat on it. Their voices were muffled. Were they arguing? Sometimes they shouted but got over it. And sometimes, even when they talked normally, they just got worse.

He wanted to get higher, further, not just out of sight, out of reach. He looked at the trunks and boxes. There was a tall wardrobe by the window. He could climb the curtains to get to the top of it. That was stupid. The rod couldn’t hold his weight, and what kind of a hiding place was it anyway?

He tried to be reasonable, but the voices below had stopped, and he could hear the ladder creak. He looked out the window. The rain blurred the view of the backyard. It was a gable window, and though he could not get down, he could get onto the roof.

He pushed up the window. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it was cold. He hesitated. The trapdoor behind him moved. He scrambled out, ignoring the dirty water and crawled up to sit beside the gable.

It was only a second before he heard the window open further. He started to sidle up higher.

“No, Tom. I won’t chase you!” said Dad. Tom could see his fingers wrapped around the corner of the gable. Then his father’s face appeared, strained and already wet, as he leaned out to see the boy. “I promise I won’t come any further.”

Tom stopped. The drizzle was getting through his clothes and hair now, and besides, he believed his father. Tom hugged himself and crouched where he was. Dad waited a moment.

“Are you all right now?”


Dad let out a small sigh of relief. “Will you come down now?”

Tom did not answer.

“What’s wrong?”

“I....” Tom didn’t know how to say what was wrong. “I’ll change.”

“But it’s a good change.”

“I can’t remember how to purr!” Tom shouted and shook the water off his hands. He wanted to hiss and spit. Dad looked like he had been hit in the face with a cold bucket of water. He swallowed, and opened his mouth to reply, but at first no sound came out. He shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Tom.” He said it so quietly that Tom calmed down. “I never would have started this if I had known what we were putting you through. It’s just that...we wanted a child so badly, and you were such a sweet little lost kitten. When Dr. Minas said she could change you.... Do you really hate being a human?”

“That’s not it,” said Tom. “It’s better to be a human. Really. But this time... I’ll forget everything, won’t I?”

“No, Tom. Of course you won’t forget everything.”

“What kind of cat was I, then? Why can’t I remember that?”

“You were brown tabby kitten, with green gold eyes. You were only three weeks old. That’s why you don’t remember.”

Tom wiped his hand over his fine brown hair. It was still the greyish-brown color of a cat.

“Will my eyes still be green gold?”

“Yes. You’ll still be you. You’ll just loose some of your wilder urges. You won’t be so mean to Jimmy Stimpson.”

“I won’t ever be mean to him again. I...I didn’t know better. I know now.”

“But if you were fully human, it wouldn’t be a matter of what you know. You wouldn’t have to fight it.”

“And I won’t like to play with Mr. Mouse anymore.”

“Of course you will.”

“You sure?”

“You’ll play with him more. You’ll know how to love him, the way your mother and I love you.”

Tom shook the water off his hands and fidgeted. “But how do you know I love you when I can’t purr?”

Dad laughed. “Humans have other ways of purring,” he said. “Maybe you can’t see that until you are fully human.”

“I know you love me,” he admitted.

“That’s right,” said Dad. “So come on down now.”

Tom started to move, but froze when he looked down at the roof, sloping away to the backyard so far down.

“I can’t”

“Come on. You got up there. You can get down.”

“I’m scared.”

“Turn around and come backwards. That’s it.”

Tom slowly backed down the roof. Dad slipped an arm around his waist when he got close enough and pulled him in. Mom was waiting right behind him. As soon as Tom was inside, she grabbed him and hugged him.

“That’s a purr,” said Dad. Mom looked puzzled, so he explained. “Humans purr in lots of ways.”

“Oh,” she said, “Like laughing. Maybe after this you’ll be able to laugh.” She looked down at Tom with an expression of pained hope.

While Tom changed into dry clothes, Mom and Dad kept whispering and signaling to each other. The fight was over, and they were trying to discuss something behind his back. He batted at Mr. Mouse while he waited for them.

“Tom,” said his Mom all of a sudden. “You don’t have to go through with this. We could keep the appointment just to ask questions, or maybe we just won’t go at all. What do you think?”

Tom looked down at the stuffed animal in his lap. The black plastic eyes stared back. He wrapped his arms around the mouse and squeezed, resisting the urge to kick and bite its ears. Like Mom hugs me, he thought, and he tried to remember what it was like to purr.

It almost felt right.

“Let’s just go and do it,” he said. He wanted his purr back, even if it had to be a laugh instead.

* * * * *

Tomorrow, I'll tell you more about where this story came from in the Story Notes post.

The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic is available for 99 cents, in multiple ebook formats at Smashwords, as well as at for Kindle. Coming soon to Barnes and Noble, the Apple iBookstore and other e-retailers.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Praise of Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses

(This is the final in the series of posts about Mary Sue and Gary Stu. See the beginning here: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

When I was a kid I was disappointed in the movie National Velvet. Nothing against Elizabeth Taylor or Micky Rooney. I loved them, and I loved the horse, and the racing and riding sequences were great. But I felt the filmmakers had missed the whole point of the book.

You see, in the book, Velvet not only wins The Pie in a drawing, she also inherits a BUNCH of horses. She has horses coming out of her ears. All sorts of horses. Ponies, and hacks and of course, The Pie himself.

How could Hollywood possibly have missed the wonder of so many horses?

There isn't a kid who loves horses who didn't, at one time or other, have an imaginary herd, and probably a shelf of toys to go with them. All named and with personalities and everything. One horse is never enough. There may be one main horse, one special horse, but if you're a horse person, you need a string. You really do.

My favorite horse book was King Of The Wind, which was about one special horse, but the book was chock full of other horses. There were horse characters left and right. The darn thing starts out with the sultan's stable where there are hundreds. And a gift from the sultan to Louis XIV of like a dozen horses which are each the finest of a particular color.

I give you wish fulfillment. It's a powerful tool in any story.

I think, in our quest to be sophisticated, the writing culture has lost touch with this core aspect of storytelling. With anything worth doing, our first try tends to be pretty bad. So yes, beginning writers, and unsophisticated writers, tend to write wish fulfillment stories badly. They also do a lot of other things badly. It's easy to make a self-fulfilling prophesy out of that. Beginning writers make a certain mistake all the time, so you swear not to do that ever, in order to prove you're not a beginner any more.

But as a writer you can end up in creative handcuffs.

I'll give you another example of why wish-fulfillment is important to literature, and not just kids' stories: Jane Eyre.

In the comments on the first post in this series, Mary posted a link to an essay by George Eliot called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." She describes the classic Mary Sue romance, as written (and read and loved) even to this day. She did not have had Jane Eyre in mind when she wrote it, but she sure described the plot of it to a T.

But let's assume she was talking about the silliest trashy knock-offs of Jane Eyre. Even there, I have to disagree with her. Those books serve a purpose to their readers. They are not a mistake. The oh-too-perfect heroine has oh-too-perfect problems in deciding among her herd of suitors (Should she chose the palomino or the bay or the chestnut...?) but no matter how empty headed the writer or the reader of such a story is, the story serves its purpose if it gives satisfaction.

And that's a part of the difference between a child's game and a story. The difference is not that one has wish fulfillment, and a character who is a star and a stand in for the writer. Both may have all those things. The difference is that the child simply has a string of wishes. The story has two other things:

One is that a story throws problems in the path of those wishes. I mentioned earlier that imagination is one way we explore the world -- it's how we learn. Well, we don't just learn to avoid danger that way. We also learn how to succeed.

So James Bond (THE classic "Gary Stu" character) may be everything the audience wants to be... but he isn't actually perfect. He is subject to the laws of physics. He bleeds. He can die. He's just tough enough and smart enough to survive, and that's what makes him vital. We want to survive, we want to be heroic. By watching James Bond, we rehearse what it's like having nerves of steel.

The point of reading about the silly heroines of the female novelists is that through them the reader practices the aplomb of the successful court female. Aplomb is critical in social situations -- even to this day, teens can die of embarrassment. So it doesn't even matter if the story is about the perfectly successful heroine or the failure. They are both about learning to not die of embarrassment. Jane Eyre, in that way, is just like James Bond -- she teaches us to have those nerves of steel.

The other element that turns a dream into a story is that the star is a stand in for the reader, not the writer.

The difference between playing and writing is responsibility. And responsibility takes maturity. Writing is communication. It's all about the experience you create for the reader. This involves understanding the reader, and the reader's reactions. Including the reader's wishes and hopes and dreams. The reader is like one of those horses. He grants you trust and control. You don't betray that trust and make it all about you. And if you don't care to accept that responsibility, you should at least consider the fact that a reader has no problem bucking you off. You don't have a bit or spurs or whip or even a saddle. All you've got is your wits and an understanding of the reader.

This is why the Mary Sue/Gary Stu pattern has such a bad reputation -- because immature writers don't take the responsibility of creating a good story for the reader. They're too wrapped up in themselves. And that's not a flaw of their writing. No critique will fix that. They've got to work through those stories until they reach a higher level of maturity.

Now, as for the horses....

What is the purpose of the surplus of horses in National Velvet? What lesson do you learn? What do you gain from reading something like that?

The key there is that it's a transitional story. A dream is "I want to win the lottery - oh look I won!" A story is "I won the lottery, now what?"

The wish fulfillment in National Velvet isn't at the end, it's at the beginning. The story is about dealing with it. She wins a stable full of horses -- so she and her family and friends have to manage that stable. Who will ride which horse? Who will care for and groom and feed them? Then she wins The Pie -- a horse with so much heart she can't just play with him and take care of him. She and her family have to devote their all to seeing The Pie reaches his maximum potential.

In some ways, the story of The Pie is a metaphor for writing. Velvet is the writer, and she has to stop fooling around with just her own dreams and take it to the next level. You could say she has to go from playing Mary Sue, to turning The Pie into an equine James Bond.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

It's our job to turn wishes into real flesh and blood horses.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Too Much Stuff Going On

You'll have to wait another day for the Gary Stu post. (Which will answer the question: What does James Bond, Jane Eyre and way too many horses have in common?) Life caught up with me this week, and though I had drafted the Mary Sue posts in advance, I had left this one for later thinking I had time. Alas, later has not arrived yet.

I decided instead that I needed to get my next short story collection finished and published. I'm prepping this a little differently -- using Word's style sheets differently, and more according to Hoyle, I believe. (I love style sheets. I adore InDesign and css. I HATE Word. I loathe Word. I really really really wish Smashwords would accept some other format. Like maybe ... html? Ya know? The universal format on which so many of the other formats are actually based?) But since I haven't done this yet, I am a little nervous of the results.

It will be a 99 cent collection, called "The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic." I'll offer it free for a month on Smashwords once it gets approved for the premium catalog, which takes a while. That, in turn, will make it free on the sites of their partners, like B&N, Sony, Apple and Kobo. Amazon may match it, though they rarely do. (I'm hoping that Smashwords will soon have a deal worked out with Amazon, which will allow us to offer things free just as we can at the other retailers.)

I've just got to rewrite my "about the author" blurb at the end, because the title story, "The Bellhound," has a tie-in to the YA fantasy I will be publishing in September or so.

Oh, and speaking of free books. I finally got B&N to offer Harsh Climate for free. It seems to be doing well. I will keep it free until the end of the month (though B&N may hold the price a little longer). In the meantime, Smashwords has it free as well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Praise of Mary Sue 2 - Mary Sue Goes To College

(This is a series about how the "Mary Sue" story can be useful to the writer. You can read Part 1 - Mary Sue - Bane of Fan Fic or A Literary Genius? and Part 2 - In Praise of Mary Sue - Learning To See Stories From The Inside. And part 4 - Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses)

Injecting story into real life.

A lot of people use fiction as therapy. If you have an experience you can't let go of, or some issues you're stewing about, you can fictionalize them and reprocess them that way.

This is, of course, not a recommended way to create a story, at least not for publication. Even if you are writing "glorified real life" stories as for literary classes, you want to write the real story after you've processed your issues with the subject. This is something I first learned in college, and I consider it a great bit of wisdom: Write about whatever you want in your journal, but when you're writing for other people (i.e. for publication) do NOT write about things you've just recently been through. You don't understand them yet.

On the other hand, writing in your journal about them (or daydreaming through them) can be a way to gain that understanding. So, you should write about them, just don't write formal stories.

Me? I don't need the excuse of a difficult psychological issue to inject stories into my real life. If I'm doing the dishes, I imagine my characters doing dishes. If I'm shopping, I imagine what kind of decisions my characters would make about what to buy. (I sometimes have to go and put a product back on the shelf when I realize that I don't want it. It was the character who wanted it. It's like having a toddler in your cart sometimes....)

Ahem.... but I find that sometimes, when I am stewing over something, or I feel the need for some pretend justice, or just want to rewrite life, playing with reality can be good for your writing as well as for you self -- particularly when it comes to character development.

Case in point: That instructor I mentioned in the intro post to this series. He had some valuable things to offer now and then, but he also had some bizarre ego issues. His classes were like psychological experiments in mind control. Every term he spent the first class period feeling out the students for vulnerabilities. He sorted the alpha dogs from those who could be manipulated...

And then for the rest of the course, if you were an alpha dog (i.e. someone who resisted the mind games) you got the grades you wanted and a minimum of pleasant, neutral feedback. For everybody else, he'd spend all his time pushing their buttons, bullying, and manipulating. I was an alpha dog, as were several other of the advanced students. Which meant we sat and watched the show, and made constant decisions on whether to intervene and defend the puppies. Whenever one of us did, the teacher would back off immediately. But many of those puppies really wanted his approval, and they didn't want to be defended. So an awful lot of the class was like watching a really bad movie, and not being allowed to get up and walk out.

At some point, out of boredom or annoyance, I started putting characters into that class. I had to modify the character of the professor, of course, because the real guy would never ever have gone into conflict with anyone who wasn't a puppy. I toned him down, because after all nearly every creative writing group (literary or not) has interesting interpersonal dynamics going on. Sometimes I even made him a generic professor, a good guy even. (Lately, he has been a care-worn Richard Dreyfus, facing a class full of unprepared and disinterested freshmen....)

But in the first version, I used the real life dynamics of that particular class. And just out of sheer peevishness, I put my antagonist from a YA fantasy story in that class. He was an acerbic boy genius, who not only liked to write fantasy stories, but secretly, in his spare time, he lived those adventures. You know, adventures with real magic. So it was the giant ego of the manipulative college professor who sneers at fantasy fiction vs. the giant ego of an only slightly reformed wannabe super villain (complete with magic powers he would love to use, but has sworn not to), who also hates authority figures.

This was a source of great amusement, until I saw what this was doing for the character. A writing class is a GREAT place for character development!

Seriously, in a writing class people have to behave themselves, and they also have to reveal their stories -- their dreams! And most important of all, they have to respond to the dreams of others. And again, with the protocol of a writing class, they have to behave.

And oh, my, that was the key to Stan the Wannabe Supervillain. He didn't reveal much in what he wrote (he wouldn't), but the interesting stuff was how he reacted to the stories the other students wrote, and to the instructor -- especially how he treated those other students. Even though Stan was already well developed, I was surprised by the stuff he'd come up with on those stories. (I used real stories from the class in order to give some substance to the scenes.) I knew he identified with the underdog, but he was obnoxious, and so I did not realize until I ran this scene just how fiercely he felt about underdogs. And he himself, being young, and also trying not to turn into a supervillain, seemed to be learning and maturing before my eyes. He started figuring things out...

Which helped me see what he didn't understand before. In the end, he split off into another character -- the actual villain in a different YA fantasy (which I hope to publish late summer or early fall). I had to "regress" the maturity he gained in the scenes, but I came to understand him so well, he became very easy to write.

So with that success I started to put other characters in creative writing classes -- not dysfunctional ones, just regular writing classes. Some characters were not writers, and so I had to figure out what would make them take the class, and also figure out what they would write. Some of them would tell stories from their lives, which is a great way to develop a character -- not only what small incidents have happened in their lives, but what do they think about it and how do they present the story to strangers?

The problem with this technique is that it can be great fun. I can actually sit there and daydream them forever. (One way to limit how much time you spend on them is to write it in a journal. You notice more the volume of what you're doing that way.)

I still do the writing class schtick sometimes, although these days I've added a new story to that development pot: over the past ten years or so my day job has often become dysfunctional in an almost surreal way. So every now and then, I'll appoint one of my characters as temporary head of our department or division, and see how they handle THAT mess of personalities.

This fantasy is sometimes satisfying, but not as fruitful, because you can't always let your characters do what they really would do. I did have to explain to Mick and Casey that the appropriate response to someone canceling the wrong class was not to shoot them. Still, I'm having more fun with George, the title character in my w.i.p. The Man Who Did Too Much, who is something of a wannabe Simon Templar. His obsessive-compulsive need to take care of things makes him a much better manager than I expected (although I did have to explain that blackmail and breaking and entering were not acceptable either. He just smiled and said "absolutely!" I don't trust him when he does that.) I think I'm going to have to put him in charge of something further along in the series.

And George brings me to the next and last installment of the uses of Mary Sue. Tomorrow we will be talking about James Bond and other actual real professional writing examples of the wish-fulfillment fantasy. (In which we will meet Mary Sue's brother, Gary Stu -- because even if Daniel Craig does look good in drag, we should give a little time to the male side of the picture....)

Check out Part 4 - Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Praise of Mary Sue -- Learning To See Stories From the Inside

So yesterday I introduced you to Mary Sue, the bane of fan writing, and explained how it was the bane of literary writing as well. I also introduced why I thought it is useful to explore the instinct we have to write Mary Sue stories. (Check that post out if you don't know about Mary Sue and you want to know what I'm talking about.)

Today I'm going to talk about the "fan fiction" side of Mary Sue, and take a look back at my own early imaginings:

When I was a kid I often "played" the stories I read, or saw on TV or heard in songs. Looking back, I realize I was creating fan fiction. I just never wrote it down. (And I would have been horrified at the idea of writing it down -- it was personal! Besides it was an activity, not a work of art.) This probably started with Harold and His Purple Crayon, and Gilligan's Island, but earliest I actually remember were a "mash up" stories I created out of the TV show High Chaparral, and whatever songs I happened to be listening to at the time.

I never appeared in these stories, nor did any character I would recognize as me. Instead I injected characters based on the songs I was listening to. Given that this was the late sixties, the wild west experienced an awful lot of angry, angsty troubadour-outlaws singing songs of rebellion, with occasional psychedelic ballads about love for all mankind thrown in. (I had a couple of Donovan albums among the Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle and Beatles.)

The stories were classic Mary Sue in that they often consisted of the characters from the TV show standing around as an audience for the troubadour and his horse. Sometimes the characters would be in conflict with the troubadour, but they would be semi-passive because they were just reacting to the actions of the "guest character."

Hold that thought about guest characters in your head for a minute, (it's important) because just now I had a flashback to a different fanfic/daydream I used to have. The TV show Emergency! was a favorite of mine, and I often played plots from that too. But in those dreams, there were no guest characters. I was always in the head of the main characters. Usually Johnny Gage, but sometimes any of the others. There was no passivity in those stories. No one stood around and admired. It was all rescuing and climbing and digging people out of collapsed buildings and defusing bombs and fighting fires while saving lives.

But that's what that show was about, so it makes sense.

So why the passive stuff on High Chaparral? Wouldn't it make sense for a little kid to play adventure stories the same way? Actually no, because the storytelling style of the shows themselves were different. High Chaparral was a real horse opera -- as in it was like a soap opera. It was about character development and interpersonal conflict. Sure there was usually an Apache attack (or a negotiation with the Apaches), or a bank robbery, or a bar-fight, but these were just ways to turn up the heat on the interpersonal stuff. Also, High Chaparral had a tendency to focus on a particular character or pair of characters in each episode, and let the other characters react, or observe.

So yeah, that whole thing about standing around and letting one character dominate the stage was an actual storytelling technique. And for an ensemble cast it was a great thing, so that everybody got a chance to chew the scenery.

Furthermore, when I think about it, nearly every long-run TV show in history (and in the old days, they used to last longer than now) would start using "guest star" plots after a while. After a few years of developing the character arcs of the main players, you'd reach a kind of status quo. Then you need something to shake it up, make it fresh. Enter the guest star. He or she would come in and disrupt things and give the main characters something to react to. Plus they'd often get a big star and it would be an opportunity to chew the scenery and steal the show from everybody, while the main players took a rest by just reacting.

In a western (or other dramatic type show) this would often be the "hostage" show -- where the guest star would take some of the main characters hostage, and thereby turn them into a passive audience. Sometimes the hostage taker would be a real villain, sometimes an innocent person driven to crime in desperation. Sometimes it would be the comic relief (those were my favorites -- bumbling wannabe outlaws). Sometimes it wouldn't even be a crime story -- the "hostage taker" would be a guest whom the main characters couldn't get rid of. A troublesome orphan child dumped on the household, a mischievous old conman who comes to visit, a grand dame whose carriage broke down and who won't leave until it's fixed.

And in all of these kinds of stories, the main characters went into reaction mode while all attention was put on the guest star.

Just like a Mary Sue story.

When I look back at all of those stories I played out in Mary Sue style -- whether it was Bob Dylan holding John and Victoria Cannon hostage, or Johnny Gage bravely keeping a trapped patient calm while the fire burned closer and closer to the bomb -- I was practicing storytelling technique, the way a toddler practices walking. I was taking things that worked for me as a viewer, and playing with them to see how they worked. My goal at the time was to keep the magic of the experience going, but in the process I learned to tell a story.

And over the years, I find bits of those old stories come back to me and mash up with new things. I still learn from that.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a different element of Mary Sue -- the part about injecting yourself into a story. Only in this case, I like to inject elements of a story into my life. It can be very therapeutic. It can also do amazing things to develop a character or setting.

Mary Sue - the Bane of Fanfic, or a Literary Genius?

I've heard the term "Mary Sue story" all my life, but only recently came to know what it really meant. This is probably because, even though I read a lot of sf and fantasy, and I hung around with sf fan writers, I never actually read much fan fiction.

The concept of Mary Sue comes from fan fiction. (For those who don't know: fan fiction is what fans of a TV show, movie, or book series, write for fun, based on the characters or world of that series. These stories take many forms -- not just Mary Sue -- and I will not go into it. Let's just say it's a huge subculture that includes anything from Star Trek to Manga to Harry Potter, and even old shows like Alf and Magnum P.I. You can Google it for more info: "fanfic" or "fan fiction" or "fanzine.")

When a writer or editor refers to Mary Sue, they're usually talking about a particular trope: where a story is all about admiring a central "guest" character who is not a part of the series. That character is too perfect for words -- a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the writer or reader. Basically, Mary Sue would be the new kid at Hogwarts who outshines everyone, and who becomes the leader of Harry Potter and his friends and impresses them greatly while saving the day from the baddies, and winning prizes, and just being the bestest of all.

I'll be honest, when teachers first described the common writing flaw they called "Mary Sue," I didn't realize they were talking about fan fiction. I thought they were talking about literary fiction. Because, you know, I went to grad school. If you take out the trademarked characters and material, and Mary Sue sure sounds like what we learn to write in college writing classes.

For instance, generally speaking, in literary fiction you're supposed to write something of import, but it is supposed to be based on your own real life experiences. But it's supposed to be ordinary, and you can't use anything that might feel commercially popular. (I mean, you can, but people act like you just made a rude bodily noise.) You're supposed to comment on ordinary life in a way that raises it to a higher level: so, although nobody actually admits it, you get rewarded when you manipulate and heighten real life into something it really isn't. It may be full of angst and anger, but it always seemed to me a kind of wish fulfillment -- like a dark comic book without the cool costumes.

You get to raise your petty disappointments and daily annoyances into into something important. And I'm not knocking that as a literary device. Sometimes small things are important. But sometime they're just narcissistic.

I remember once in a class where a student wrote about an event he had literally experienced in real life -- a funny story about real people who worked at the post office -- and the instructor thought it was great.... Except that it had a major flaw the instructor insisted had to change. The "narrator" of the story (who was a minor character, an observer) wasn't glorified enough. Those poor ignorant working people at the post office should have looked up to him more. There was a competition in the story, and the instructor suggested that maybe the main characters should say things like, "well, since you're a college fellow who reads books and all, why don't you be the judge?"

I happened to have a friend who had worked at the post office at the time of this incident, and she laughed when I told her of the instructor's comment. She recognized each of the people from the story, because they were so well drawn, but she also knew that even though they were working people, nearly all of them were well educated. One was a retired professor, another read a book or two a day, others were published poets, and moonlighted as singers or small business operators.

The point about this anecdote, though. is not that the instructor was ignorant about working people. The point is that, given his comments on other stories and other things he said, he really honestly felt that for a story to have import there had to be a Mary Sue character. The story had to glorify some kind of intellectual outsider -- the writer. And even if the story isn't about that character, you tell the story from that point of view.

I don't know that he knew he had this prejudice. He was an extreme version of the stereotype of the narcissistic academic fiction writer, but there were others.... Well, the reason I left grad school was because I was really tired of the Mary Sue nature of what we were pushed to write by nearly all the instructors. (That and I ran out of money.)

Another example of the literary Mary Sue: we had a writer in our sf writing group for a while who was a creative writing major. He was writing a fictionalized version of the trip he took across America after graduating from high school, in which he had sex with beautiful young women of every race, creed, color and income level. I will call him, for the sake of this example, "Billy." The main character of his story was also called "Billy." He was an open minded guy about everyone else's fiction. He had nothing against science fiction or fantasy. However his criticisms were always the same. "I think this story would be stronger if you centered the story around the blue alien, and made it more of a coming-of-age story about his trip across the universe, seeking love and sex. Oh, and I think you should call him Billy."

Am I exaggerating? Well, okay, he didn't tell us to name the character after his characters, but he always wanted every character to be just like his character -- the one he was basing on himself.

I say this not to diss the academic/literary writers, who are not all such clueless narcissists, but to point out that the urge to live out a story -- to inject oneself into the story in a glorified way -- is not limited to ignorant TV fans who don't read. It's a part of what we do as writers.

Mary Sue thinking is natural to our brains. It's one of those fundamental things. The biological purpose of our imagination is to help us see the possibilities, both good and bad. We naturally inject ourselves into hypothetical situations. It's how we learn. And furthermore, that part of the brain is hungry for stories. And it's that primal urge that makes us want to hear or read stories from others. Stories expand our experience, and make us better, smarter, safer human beings.

I'm going to spend a couple more days talking about Mary Sue, and her brother Gary Stu, not to warn you away from them, but rather to encourage you to look at them, recognize them and USE them.

Mary Sue helps us develop our basic storytelling instinct, she gives us a chance to explore alternatives, and for writers in particular, she gives us a clue to the deep psychology of readers. I'll explore each of these three things over the next couple of days.

Next time I will reminisce about my own first Mary Sue stories -- except I didn't realize they were stories at the time. I thought it was called "playing."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Update Post - and Rango movie review

Yesterday I wrote a 2000 word story on the Baby Shoes theme mentioned in yesterday's contest announcement. (Go, check it out. Enter!) Of course I am not eligible to win, since I am the judge, and am also providing the prize.

The story is in the O. Henry style -- which means it is more of a yarn. An old-fashioned narrated or told story, rather than a modern dramatic scene. (In this case, the person selling the baby shoes explains the story to the newspaper editor who is taking the add down.) I have another idea which would have to be told in more modern dramatic style, but it will still be in the O. Henry style of story.

Today, I had dim sum for lunch and went to see Rango. When we got out of the movie I turned to my friend and said: "It's like the Coen Brothers directed a Bullwinkle cartoon." And then a while later I had to add, "and David Lynch was the creative director."

Rango is a VERY sophisticated movie. Not a movie like Shrek, which seems to actually wink at you with the double-entendres and cultural references. Rango is more like an early Robin Williams performance: it all just comes at you full speed -- double-entendres (sometimes racy), movie references, goofiness. Sometimes so subtle it's hard to follow what's going on, sometimes slap-you-in-the-face blatant, and often both at the same time. When there is a crude reference it tends to go by fast. (I'm not fond of crude humor, but it didn't bother me much in this, probably because of the speed.)

And like one of those old Robin Williams routines, it doesn't really matter if you miss things, because it just bounces on. It's visually grand (especially for movie buffs -- though heavy on classics of the sixties and seventies rather than earlier), with fun characters and an actual story.

In short, I loved this movie, but I'm not sure if it's in spite of or because of its rough edges.

And the kids in the audience definitely seemed to enjoy it, but I can't say I'm sure it's appropriate for the usual family audience. The inappropriate jokes are the sort to go straight over the kids' heads, and I suspect they might go over the heads of some adults too. (Which could explain the PG rating.) It might be best to see it before letting the kids see it. (Or at least read through IMDb's parent's guide on it.)

As for the rest of my day, I ended up with a migraine. Not a painful one, but I was half blind because of it. So I did not get more writing done, but I hope to do a little tonight before bed.

I also have some outlines scribbled for a blog post series on the "Mary Sue" story: what it is and how it can be useful to a writer in spite of it's well-deserved bad reputation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The First Daring Microfiction Blogfest and Contest!

(Note: the winner has been announced!)

This is to announce the First Daring Microfiction Blogfest and Writing Competition. If I enjoy this enough I will do it again. The theme is Hemingway's six-word story about baby shoes (see Rule 3 below).

The point of this contest is for us all to have some fun, and for you to show off your writing. I am a great believer in writers putting sample fiction on their blogs and websites. Preferably stuff which is more fun than polished. That's why the stories must appear on YOUR blog or website. I will only publish links to your stories, and not the stories themselves.

The Baby Shoes Microfiction Competition Rules:

1. You must follow these rules to be eligible for the prize. The prize will be a $10 Amazon Gift certificate. There is no entry fee. Entries which don't follow the rules may be eligible for the blogfest, but not a prize (see below).

2. The submission must be a story (not an essay), and it must not be more than 1000 words.

3. The story must be based on Hemingway's six-word story - "For sale, baby shoes. Never used." While the story doesn't have to contain those words, it must involve someone selling baby shoes which have never been used, in some way. It's up to you how far you stray from the basic premise.

4. I will award the price based on my own odd tastes, and my judgment is final. I may find that I simply don't like the story which is best written, or that I love some aspect of a story which has big flaws. (For your reference: I like cleverness, I like silliness, and I don't mind strange. I also don't mind old-fashioned sentiment. I don't like to be put through grueling experiences, but I do like suspense -- so if in doubt, go ahead and enter.)

5. I reserve the right to reject entries which I find inappropriate or offensive. I am hard to offend, but I have no idea what I'm going to get, and I'm not going to link to child porn sites.

6. I also reserve the right to change/edit these rules for clarity!

  • Publish your story on your own blog or site before the deadline. Include an intro and a link back to this post. (NOTE: it can be a third party site. I will only read it if it's on the web somewhere.)
  • Send an email to with the link to your entry. (NOTE: I do not use this email for any other purpose. Don't try to contact me through it otherwise.) Do NOT send the story itself. You must publish it on your own blog or website.
  • The subject of the email should say "FOR CONTEST." You may include a title and/or your name to help me keep track of the entries.
8. You may enter as many times as you wish.

The deadline is April 30, 2011. I encourage those who can to enter earlier. I will post the links to the entries I've received each week (on Friday nights). You'll each get better exposure if you don't all send the entries at the same time.

After the deadline, I will estimate how long it will take to read them, and set a date to announce the winner. At that time, I will contact the winner through the email address he or she used to submit the entry. Then I will post the winner, along with a master list of all entries.

For those who want to break the rules:

If you want to write something that relates to the theme, but doesn't fit the rules (an essay, poem, excerpt, or a story longer than 1000 words, for instance) you may still enter the blogfest, but you will not be eligible for the prize. Just send me the link at the above address, and put "FOR BLOGFEST" in the subject line, instead of 'for contest.' I will include these links in my weekly list.

If you don't have any ideas, I suggest you go back and read my Magic of 100 posts. You'll end up with lots.

Have fun, show me what you've got, and good luck!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Story Notes: My Own Darker Microfiction

(This is the last of the Story Notes from this weekend's posting of three microfiction stories.)

So I finally get to tell you about the writing of my own story "You Kids Get Off My Lawn!" (If you want to avoid spoilers, go back and read it -- it's microfiction, so it's super short.)

I started with a basic idea-generation exercise. The theme was "Spring Break" and it wasn't long before I wrote down the phrase "You kids get off my lawn!" I realized right away that all the conflict and tension I could possibly need were built into that. But since I was looking to write microfiction (a story of less than 500 words) I knew that it would end up a twist or revelation story.

Revelation stories are the most common story I find in the microfiction world, and, unfortunately, I find they tend to be very weak. Partly because they rely so much on that surprise ending. Of course, there isn't room for much more in a micro-story, and twist endings work well in jokes.... But I notice that, unlike a joke, many writers of microfiction tend to neglect the setup, and put their effort into hiding the twist.

I'll be honest here -- microfiction is no place for mystification. There isn't time for the audience to think the story through. At best, they'll think it through after reading, as with the Hemingway story. But a microfiction story is so short, we've barely started to think before you reveal the ending. That's not very satisfying.

The worst of this kind of story doesn't even try to mystify. In going for the gotcha, the writer writes something boring and ordinary. Like an all dialog story between two parents talking about their kid's grades, until it is revealed that they're really six-armed shark-toothed aliens who eat the head of the teacher in a single gulp. (Hint: if the point of the story is that these aliens otherwise act like regular parents LET US IN ON IT!!!! Then we can either we can laugh at the joke or get tense at the horrible possibilities. Otherwise there is no tension to release. There is only surprise and that's nothing.)


I knew that for this story to work for me, the tension had to come from the situation up front -- from what the audience knows and expects. It can't come from will be revealed, because the audience doesn't know that yet. At best it comes from the clues that lead them to guess.

I also decided that the core of the story is not the violence. So often dark microfiction takes the easy way out and ends with "... and then he chopped them to little bits." It's flat and it's obvious and it doesn't do the job, unless yo have a long and detailed set up to justify it.

Since I am not a fan of horror, I didn't want to do a long and detailed set up to an act of violence. I decided instead that I wanted to deal with the psychology -- the aftermath. I wanted to consider the humanity of the characters.

So, in some ways, this story is a light horror version of the Duck Joke. The old man, like the bartender, didn't handle the situation well. The ghosts are like the duck -- not malevolent, but persistent. And in the horror-logic of the story, the old man had to finally consider what they wanted.

So the twist isn't that there is an act of violence, but rather that an act of violence already happened. So the violence, isn't the end, but the beginning. And I wanted to highlight that even more, so the revelation itself is not the end of the story. It's just the climax, which sets up the ending.

I wasn't sure I would like this story. I don't like horror fiction, and I'm often frustrated by how flash fiction lends itself so easily to dark, and even ghoulish stories. But the plain fact is that it's easier to have an impact in so few words when we go for the more extreme. And maybe that's what makes me more uncomfortable. I love Alfred Hitchcock, so it isn't darkness that I really dislike. I'm a mystery writer, so I quite naturally write crime stories. I just want to see more character. I want a chance to identify with someone, even if it's a bartender or a stubborn duck.

I've been worried about this. I like to write short short fiction, but I want it to fit the tone (and audience) of my other work. Yes, I want to experiment. That's why I wrote this one, as a hack, to fulfill what I saw as a genre requirement for a twist ending.

But what I learned is that you always tend to flavor your stories with elements of you. This one wasn't exactly a joke, but it ended up about the characters, and was compassionate to all of them. They say that O. Henry wrote a story a day to publish in the newspapers for years. Maybe my prejudice that microfiction lends itself to literary or horror is formed simply because that's all I tend to see other writers write these days in it.

Well, whatever it ends up, you're going to see more of it from me.

I also want to see more of it from you, and that is why tomorrow I will announce my first Daring Microfiction Story Contest -- complete with a prize (an Amazon gift certificate). The full rules to come tomorrow - the deadline will be around April 30, and you will have to publish it on your own site or blog.


(In the meantime, you can read more of my short fiction in Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Short Mysteries, available as an ebook from Amazon, Amazon UK, Smashwords and other ebook retailers. 99 cents! Such a deal.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Story Notes: So... Who's The Protagonist?

(Continuing the Story Notes posts on the three microfiction stories from Sunday. This time we're talking about "A Duck Walks Into a Bar.")

In grad school I had this really awful creative writing instructor. When P. G. Wodehouse wrote stories featuring a stereotypical narcissistic poet with an ego run amok, this was the guy he was thinking of. (Next week I will talk about this guy again, actually, in a series about the uses of wish-fulfillment.)

But this instructor had one brilliant teaching strategy. He always started every critique session by asking one question:

Who's Story Is It?

There isn't always a right answer to the question, but it's a great way to examine a story. And I think it's the key to understanding how the Duck Joke works.

I generally think that the bartender is the protagonist. His motivations are understandable. We know what he wants: he wants to run his bar -- not a farm. He doesn't have any duck food, and is not interested in serving it. From his point of view, the story consists of his attempts to get rid of the duck, which don't work, then a desperate ploy, and failure. So you could say, this story fits the "tragedy" or "villain" model of storytelling.

The bartender failed because he didn't understand the duck (and who does?) but also because he didn't care to learn. It's another story where the main character was unable to change.

On the other hand....

We have no idea what drives the duck. We don't know why he doesn't go someplace else where they do have duck food. He never gives a hint as to why he keeps coming in to that bar: atmosphere? convenient location? there is no other place?

All we know about that duck is that he displays the qualities of a hero. He's patient, polite, and persistent. He doesn't escalate the situation when he doesn't get what he wants, and he's always cooperative -- saying "Okay" and leaving when the bartender turns him away. He's also smart enough to overcome the obstacle put in his way.

He feels like the hero of the story. (Which doesn't preclude him from being the antagonist. As I mentioned, in a "villain" story, the protagonist may well face off against someone good -- a MacDuff, a Columbo, or a Tweety Bird.)

So we have two characters who have desires in conflict. Both want to keep a kind of status quo. The bartender wants to keep his bar as a bar, and the duck wants to, apparently, just come in and ask for duck food, whether there is any duck food available or not.

So this brings up two more things I learned in grad school. The playwrighting instructor wanted us to stop thinking in terms of a central hero, but in terms of conflict -- both characters in equal battle and as long as that battle remained, there was drama. I have always liked that as the core of a scene or story. So we could think of this as two equal characters in a drama. But if we do, their conflicting motivations are key.

The other definition I learned was in a literature class, rather than a writing class. We were reading The Great Gatsby, and the professor felt that the protagonist/hero of the story was the narrator rather than Gatsby. His reason was that he felt the real main character of a story was not necessarily the focus of the story, but rather the person who learns the lesson of the story.

And that seems relevant to our Duck Joke, because the duck wins how? By asking the bartender for more information. The duck is willing to learn, and the bartender isn't. So the duck is able to crack the tension and win.

On a higher level, jokes work well as microfiction is because they build tension out of character. It doesn't matter that the characters are broadly drawn cartoons. They have motivation. Even when you don't know the motivation (as with the duck) you can feel that he has got motivation by his actions.

I've always thought that studying jokes is a great way to learn about drama and human nature. I am reminded of Chuck Jones, the great animator who was responsible for so many brilliant Warner Brothers cartoons. (Coyote and Road Runner, some of the most famous Bugs Bunny toons, and of course, the original "How The Grinch Stole Christmas.")

The thing that Jones did, more than any other cartoonist, was to recognize that he was creating for children, and that children are fascinated with certain realities of life they only just got a handle on -- what do facial expressions, and body language, mean? How do you read them to understand others? And how does physics work? Do things always fall down and not up? Jones reduced each of these basic questions to their essence and played with them the way a child plays with blocks.

Jokes are funny because they play with an elastic reality -- and what is elastic but something which stretches (creates tension), and snaps back into place when you release it?

Take your jokes seriously, folks!

Tomorrow I'll talk about another common kind of microfiction - the dark twist story. Then for Sunday, rather than post a "sample sunday" story, I'll post the details on my "Hemingway's Baby Shoes Challenge."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clarence Darrow and the Other Shoe

Waaaayyyyyy too tired to be coherent tonight. I will be even more tired tomorrow. So instead of explaining what makes the duck story a story, I will tell you two MORE stories.

They say that Clarence Darrow would stick a toothpick in his cigar, and then, when the opposing lawyer addressed the jury, Darrow would smoke that cigar, and not tap the ashes off. The toothpick held the ashes there -- an inch, an inch and a half, two inches -- and pretty soon the audience was not listening to the opposing lawyer at all. They were watching the ashes on Darrow's cigar, waiting for them to fall. Which, of course, they wouldn't because there was a toothpick holding them in place.

While technically he wasn't telling a story, he did lock in the audience's attention as well as any cliff-hanger. And imho, you could even say it was a kind of story, as each member of the jury "identified" with Darrow, and had a great urge to knock the ashes off the cigar.

Another story....

There was this guy who worked second shift at a laborer's job. He worked really hard and got home late at night, and he was always tired. He lived on the second floor of an apartment building, and every night after midnight he'd climb the stairs, _tromp tromp tromp_, and trudge into his room, clompling away in his big boots, and flop down on the bed and take his boots off and toss them into the corner. First one -- THUMP! -- and then the other -- THUMP!

The downstairs neighbor worked the early shift, and didn't appreciate being awakened every night that way, but he understood the weariness of the neighbor. Still, he just couldn't take it any more so he finally stopped and talked to the guy.

"I know you're tired at the end of the day, but so am I," he complained. "When you go clomping up the stairs and then throw your boots down on the floor like that, it's wakes me up. Will you please stop it?"

So the next night, the workman was just dog tired, and he completely forgot about the neighbor's complaint. He went stomping slowly up the stairs when he came home, and clomped across the room. He flopped down on the bed and could barely keep his eyes open. He took one book off and threw it across the room, and it landed with a loud THUMP!

But then as he reached for the laces on his other boot, he remembered the neighbor. So he took the boot off very quietly and set it neatly in the corner. Then he got ready for bed as usual. As he fell asleep a while later, he heared this plaintive cry -- almost a scream of despair -- coming from the room below:

"For cryin' out loud! Will you drop the other boot already?"


This is, of course, where we get the term "waiting for the other shoe to drop."

That's what tension is, whether it's a boot or some ashes. It holds people in suspense until you release the tension. Jokes in particular, are all about waiting for the other shoe to drop -- the shoe being the punchline.

(Hmmmm, you know, I've got this tune playing in my head -- "Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening" -- and I realize that maybe I didn't learn all that about tension and storytelling from Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe I learned my lessons about story telling from the Marx Brothers. They're kind of plot-free, but man do they do tension and payoff.... )

In the meantime, the next entry in this series finally gets to the duck: Protagonist, Protagonist, Who's Got The Protagonist?

A Break and a Challenge

I'm sorry, I just can't get to the next story notes post on those micro-fiction stories tonight. I'm a little too whacked out about what's going on in Japan. (All four reactors having serious problems. Ay!) Among other things. Among many other things. This is going to be a busy week, because we really do live in interesting times.

But further pondering on the Hemingway story gave me an idea. I'll post more about this Friday night, but for now, I'll give you a heads up: I'm thinking of doing a "Baby Shoes Blogfest."

I mentioned to David in the comments that I felt that ultra-minimalist stories, such as the baby shoes story, feel like bullying when they demand that the reader supply their own story to dry facts that don't really mean anything. Most of the readers here are writers, or enthusiastic readers. So why don't we each supply our own story to the Hemingway Baby Shoes non-story?

It can be anything from a full blown story to microfiction, to a simple explanation of what the ad means or can mean. I'll post more about how we can handle the logistics. (That is, people can post stories on their own blog, and I'll collate links here, or we could use one of those "blogfest" widgets, or I could host the stories on my "Daring Adventures" blog which gets almost no traffic, but we could link to it from wherever.) Any comments or opinions are welcome.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Story Notes 1 - A Sacrilegious Post About Hemingway's Microfiction

Yesterday I posted three microfiction stories. As I sat down to write my story notes today, I realized that I have more to say about these stories than there are words in each of the stories themselves. (Read them here.)

I decided to break this into several posts, because I think it's worth talking about. So I'll start with Hemingway... (Doesn't all modern fiction start with Hemingway?) Here's the story again for those who don't feel like clicking on the link:

"For sale. Baby shoes. Never used."

That's the whole story in its entirety. Six words. I understand Hemingway wrote it to give an example of how short a story can be. I don't believe he actually published it anywhere.

I've heard tell that some people think this ultra short mini-micro-story is a masterpiece. I am not one of them. It's kind of a dancing bear. (The point of a dancing bear is not that it dances well, but that it dances at all.)

The problem is that the story itself only happens in your head after reading it. Which is fine for a poem, or an aphorism, or anything too clever for words. (Or too clever for too many words as the case may be.)

And yet, Hemingway's story is as close as you can get to a story in six words. As a matter of fact, I would say that on some level it meets my criteria of building tension and releasing it. The key is the audience reaction to the first four words. "For sale. Baby shoes." Does that raise tension? Yes, and no. I mean, there is nothing dramatic about an ad for baby shoes, people sell them all the time.

At the same time, there is something visceral about babies. They are utterly helpless creatures of enormous value, and it is the biological duty of the species to protect them. So maybe we have a preconscious reaction of alertness.

Then there's the payoff... "Never used." What? Oh my god, dead baby? Miscarriage? What went wrong? These questions follow from the fact that it's a story by Hemingway (something deep and tragic must have happened) and the psychology of the whole "baby alert" thing. But then, imho, you have to think, "But... really? Is there any reason to think they aren't being sold because the parents simply recieved too many gifts of baby shoes? Or because they're pink and the baby was a boy?"

In my opinion, the story is bullshit, because it has no meaning, especially by Hemingway's New Critical standards. He and his followers had this thing about how the story is only about what's IN the story, and, not about what you know about the author, or the point of view of the reader. And there is nothing whatsoever to raise tension, or to pay it off, that's actually in the story. Not even an implication. There might be a baby involved, or might not. It's like saying "look, puppies!" (Is that a story - one word set up, one word pay off? Maybe I'm better than Hemingway!)

If you look at other criteria - a decision made, a change - it doesn't make it at all.

So in the end, I have to say that even though Hemingway's baby shoes story sorta qualifies as a story (if you squint real hard and don't take a New Critical approach) it's not a very good story. Even Hemingway can only go so far with six words, after all.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about Clarence Darrow, and then we'll finally get to  the persistent duck.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Quick Update - I've got a Kindle!

I will be posting the first of my story notes on yesterday's stories in a short while. (I realized I have a lot to say about those short short short stories -- more than the stories themselves say - so I will post it in several parts.)

But I had to pause to give an update: a friend bought me a Kindle. In many ways I still prefer my iPod Touch. The navigation and small size in particular are very convenient -- but I am having a very good time reading Doan and Carstairs mystery novellas (1940's pulp noir with a light touch, lots o' fun) on the Kindle tonight. I'll have a review of the Kindle and of the series as soon as I've read a few of the novellas.

I'm a little behind on getting my next collection up on Kindle as a result. And on my taxes. I hope, however, to get the short story collection finished and posted tomorrow or the next day.

In the meantime, I have unpublished "The Enchanted Tree" so it can be revamped into different collections. The two grown-up fantasy stories in that collection will be in the new Bellhound collection. I'll re-publish the Enchanted Tree as a small children's story collection a little later. (Those who have bought it should still be able to download it at will from various ebook outlets -- they keep them in archive. It will also take a while to clear from the shelves of some of the smaller outlets. That's one of the reasons why I am waiting on republishing the main collection.)

AND I still have to revamp my dare goals, given all my great ideas and the pile of stories I need to get out and published.

Now, on to Hemingway, and why I don't think what some people call his "masterpiece" is really so hot.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

MicroFiction - Three Tiny Stories

Continuing our discussion of what constitutes a story...for Sample Sunday this week, I give you three microfiction stories -- two classics and one of my own. The classics are the shortest story ever written, by Ernest Hemingway, and a grand old joke. The one of my own is a rough draft that I wrote when I saw a call for microfiction on the theme of "spring break" - but I decided to publish it here rather than elsewhere, so we could talk about it.


For sale....
by Ernest Hemingway

"For sale, baby shoes. Never used."


Duck Walks Into a Bar

traditional joke

So this duck walks into a bar, and looks around, maybe a little confused, and finally waddles up to the bar, and jumps up on a stool.

"What can I get you?" says the bartender.

"Got any duck food?"

"No, we're a bar. We serve drinks. We don't carry duck food."

"Okay," says the duck, and he jumps down from the stool and waddles away.

The next day the duck comes back, waddles right up to the bar. The bartender gives him the evil eye, but the duck just jumps right up on stool.

"What can get you?" asks the bartender again.

"Got any duck food?" asks the duck... again.

"Look I told you, this is a bar. We don't serve duck food. We serve drinks."

"Okay," says the duck again, and he waddles off, as the bartender shakes his head at the bird brain.

The next day the duck is back. He waddles right up to the bar and hops on the stool.

"Got any duck food?" he asks once again.

"NO!" says the bartender. "I've told you twice, and I'm not telling you again. I'm getting sick of telling you this. We don't serve duck food, and if you come back here and ask for it one more time, I'm going to nail your little webbed feet to that stool, got it?"

"Um, okay," says the duck, and he waddles off, though this time he takes a cautious look over his shoulder.

The fourth day, the duck shows up a little later. When he enters, he takes a cautious look around, pauses, and then carefully waddles up to the bar. He jumps up on the stool, and he doesn't say anything.

"What can I get you?" asks the bartender, through gritted teeth.

The duck pauses. The bartender narrows his eyes and gives him the Clint Eastwood look. The duck swallows and opens his beak.

"Got any hammers?"

"Hammers?" says the bartender, nonplussed. "No, I don't have any hammers! This is a bar!"

"Oh," says the duck, looking greatly relieved. "Then, got any duck food?"


You Kids Get Off My Lawn!
by Camille LaGuire

They came back every year at spring break. Every dang year. Same kids.

Norton lay in bed and tried his best to ignore them. They didn't damage anything any more. They just ran around and hooted and shrieked. And every now and then they broke into one of those college songs, with drunken off-key harmony.

He figured they were from the college downstate. They only came across his place, there down a bleak country road, because they'd taken a wrong turn on the way to that beach resort. There was no reason for a carload of kids to come by his house at all. No reason for them to stop, except for that danged old apple tree that he had pruned to spread out into a wide shelter where he could sit in the summer and contemplate.

They saw that tree and stopped to dance under it. Naked. Two boys, two girls, bouncing naked all over his yard.

He cut down that tree, but they still came back. Every year.

And the only thing they seemed to want to do was disturb his sleep. He lay there and covered his ears, but the caterwalling only got louder. The sound penetrated his head like a bullet. He pulled the blanket over his head. He wasn't going to go to the window and watch them dance around where the tree once was. He wasn't going to run out there. He wasn't going to shout. He wasn't going to wave that danged gun around like he had the first time. They were so high, they hadn't even noticed when it went off.

He never should have buried them there in the yard. That was the problem. Soon as spring break was over, and the resort was empty again, he'd dig those bodies up and move them to where they were headed in the first place. They could party at the beach for all eternity. Then maybe he'd get some sleep.


Tomorrow I'll talk about what makes these into stories. I may split the discussion up into several posts. (The duck, in particular, is a little harder to parse, imho.)

Next Post in series: A sacreligious post about Hemingway.

I also think we should consider very short dramas -- TV ads -- in figuring out what makes an appealing story. There are lots of "story" ads out there, and they really do push the envelope on many different methods.

See you in the funny papers.

The Essence of a Story - Micro and Flash Fiction, part 1

I wrote a couple days ago about short fiction, and in the comments Tim King mentioned his frustration with flash vignettes - and how story has to have some kind of change in it.

"Something must change" is a good working definition of the minimum it takes to make a story. (I have a slightly different definition, which I'll get to later.) Tim got the change from Holly Lisle. I learned it from an instructor in college. He was a poet, and so he often had to deal with the more literary end of fiction, and that was pretty much his definition of what makes a story a story. Something has to change.

Now, he was open to idea that what changes is that options are taken away -- for instance, a story about someone who never tried to do anything different, tries one day and fails, and goes back to the old routine. In such a story it might seem like nothing had changed, but in reality, everything can change in a story like that. A person who never tried to change has the possibility that some day she might. After she tries and fails, though, that rut she's in is no longer a rut or a routine -- it's a prison.

The problem with such stories is that they are super ordinary. Every creative writing class is full of them, because they are so easy to write. They are a terrible cliche. At best, this story line can work well as a subtext to something more interesting. Hard-boiled mysteries, and the grittier type of men's action are often about this -- and they make a better point of it than most literary short stories, because the people who don't change often go through extreme situations which should change them, so when it doesn't, you really believe they can't. A little literary story about someone who tries to change their routine in a small way and doesn't manage it doesn't feel like it's really about anything, because their routine was never really challenged.

Little things, of course, can be made big by detail. I rememember a story in college (don't remember who wrote it) from the 1930s about an uptight spinster who is driving along the highway in California, and she picks up a hitchhiker - a virile young man. The kid makes a pass at her, and when she responds with horror he backs off, embarrassed and very sorry. He points out a fruit truck ahead, and he says he knows that driver will give him a ride, so she can drop him off. Before she can start up again, the kid comes back and offers her a ripe melon, and then dashes away. If I remember right, the story ends with her driving away, sobbing.

This story was not about the fact that this woman can never change. As a matter of fact, I think she did change. No, she's not going to go gallivanting around with nubile young men. The change was revealed in the details of the story. We had a picture of a woman who was sure of herself. Who had control of her life, and who felt she was adventurous. She wasn't afraid to go driving alone across the country. The encounter with the young man showed her that she wasn't as adventurous as she thought. She had not tasted of the fruit of life, really. And furthermore it was now clear that her self-confidence and assurance wasn't because she was brave enough to taste life, but because she had shielded herself from life.

At the time I didn't really understand this story. Our instructor, Mr. Manion, was a grumpy guy, an ex-priest, a very interesting fellow - and not nearly as laid back and flexible as the poet instructor I had later. When Manion asked the students to comment on the story, and we all sat quietly and mumbled things, he finally just shouted at the whole class:


To which the twenty or so midwestern college freshmen all gasped in shock, rather like the spinster in the story.

After all these years, though, I think that the story wasn't about sex, it was about what happened in that classroom -- it was about being shocked about sex, even though we all knew what was going on in the story, and all thought of ourselves as sophisticated grown ups. This woman's life would not have been made better if she slept with every young farm hand who offered her a ripe melon. Her life would have been better if she -- someone who valued living a free and full life -- had been able to deal with the fact that a young man would make a pass at her.

Her tragedy was the revelation that she wasn't who she thought she was. At the end of the story we don't know if she will stop being adventurous or if she will suck it up and learn to deal with life for real. So in this case, the story wasn't about a change... yet. But it still worked as a story, because it raised a question -- what would happen if this "adventurous" woman got pushed outside her comfort zone? -- it answered that question.

A lot of very short fiction -- especially micro-fiction (under 500 words) is based on revelation. Which isn't exactly my definition of a story either. My definition is that a story creates tension and then releases it. It's the release that completes the story, and that release may be a number of things, though usually it's change or revelation.

I'll talk about that next.

But first, I haven't decided what to post for Sample Sunday. I might do a micro-fiction story. If so, it will be a twist story and not as deep as the spinster driving through the tawny hills of California, but it might make for some discussion points.

Next Post in series: Three Tiny Stories

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Problem With Self-Publishing Short Fiction

I said I was going to talk more about short stories, and comment on some stuff brought up in the comments. Specifically what constitutes a story, especially when you start getting in the flash and micro-fiction areas. How do you do more than a vignette? Or are you stuck with only writing certain kinds of stories when you go really short?

I didn't write about that. I found myself wrestling with a bigger problem. A problem that a lot of indie writers will struggle with if they start writing more shorter works.


It takes just as long to do a cover for a short work as a long one. Sometimes longer -- because with short fiction there is less to the concept, so you don't want to give away the story. But you also want them to be quick and cheap to produce. If it's going to be a 99 cent special and you plan to give it away sometimes too, and not do a print version, you can't spend more time on the cover than on writing the darned story.

And you want a consistent style. If you have a variety of kinds of books, and lengths, it's really great if the reader can tell the difference between the short stuff and the more substantial stuff with something other than price. (Especially with so many people pricing novels all over the place.)

I thought, hey, why not go with a kind of literary look -- short story readers lean toward literary, and university presses also tend to look for cheap and easy for their covers.

So I had this bright idea of using a word cloud of the words in the manuscript as an image. It was really cool and slick looking... for a text book. Not the message I wanted to give. Hmmmm.

I finally realized that "texture" backgrounds are really a good fall back. They are often made freely available by and for 3-D graphics artists, and they are also something to photograph for myself.

Plus, I may even use different specific textures for all the books in a similar series. Like this old book texture I found at Zen Textures, (which, admittedly, doesn't look so hot in thumbnail, but it works well enough). It might be fine to use the same image for other fantasy, with a different 'symbol' and title/text.

This is the cover for the fantasy short story collection I plan to publish this weekend. I'll probably play with contrast and things like that first, but I think I will get it where I want it pretty easily, and if I can re-use it for other short stories, that will be fine. (More about that book next week when it makes it's way through the publishing process.)

In the meantime, I also realized that I am going to have to come up with a bunch of images for Mick and Casey covers. I have four novelettes which I will be publishing. I want to keep a similar look to Have Gun, Will Play, but give the short works a different look (maybe another color than the yellow, and shift around the logo).

But I also have the screenplay to create a cover for. I've already decided on the screenplay layout, and I knew I could use the Mick and Casey logo to tie it to the series, while keeping it clear that it's a screenplay. So tonight I also did that cover. (The title is "Girl Gunslinger, the Screenplay Origins of the Mick and Casey Mysteries.")

So maybe tomorrow I'll get to talking about flash fiction. Hey, maybe I should write something this weekend just for the #samplesunday posting. I'll give it a try. What should I write on? March Madness? St. Patrick's Day? Snow that just won't melt?