HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: "It seemed like such a good idea at the time."
How many times have we each said that? When you decide--I'm going to clean out all my dresser drawers, then you dump them all on the bed so you'll HAVE to do it, and then--you just can't do it. And sleep on the couch.
Or how about cleaning the oven? Changing the shelf paper in the kitchen? Joining a gym?
They all seem so brilliant at the time we think of them. Sometimes it's even more elaborate. You think: I'll learn Italian! I'll learn something! I'll grow! And--hey, like Julie and Julia, I could even write a blog or an article about it!
And then, you actually have to do it. Like that couple in Australia or wherever, who decided to run a marathon every day. (I beg you.)
Barb Goffman, our dear friend of Jungle Red, actually did it. A sort of--reading marathon.
Could you have done this? WOULD you have done this? Read--and decide.
A STORY A DAY
by Barb Goffman
I began 2012 with what seemed like an achievable goal. Read one short story a day for a year and write about each one on a blog set up by Spinetingler Magazine. How hard could that be? The stories, by definition, would be short, so surely I could fit one in each day, right?
I was doing really well until March, when I got sick to death of reading short stories. (Given that I write short stories, I probably shouldn’t admit that publicly. So let’s just keep it between us.) But once I let go of the pressure of needing to read a story every day, and later when I let go of the pressure of my revised goal of wanting to read 366 stories in the year (which meant reading several stories on some days to make up for days I read none), I came to enjoy the project more.
The end result: In 2012 I read 300 stories that I wrote about on the blog. Counting stories I didn’t write about (stories I hated, didn’t finish, were unpublished, other reasons ... ) I probably hit 366.
Woo hoo! I was done. A respectable finish. You’d think that would be the end of it. Well, that’s what I thought until people started asking me what I learned from the project.
HANK: Including me. Because it seemed like such a wonderful educational possibility, that the secrets of short stories would have to--emerge. Right? So, okay, Barb, go ahead.
BARB: That took some analysis. But here it is:
There is no one rule an author should follow to ensure a short story will be great. So much of what makes a story stand out lies in author’s details, voice, and cleverness. Two authors could have the same idea, the same plot, but one’s story will sing while the other’s plods along because of language choice or attention to detail. My best suggestion is to find authors you think are great and read them. Read all their stories. Read the ones you particularly like over and over. Analyze their craft. Try to figure out how they got you to live in their world. If you’re lucky, your own writing will improve as a result.
Here are some stories I read this year that really made my motor hum.
• “Susie Cue” by Steve Liskow (appeared in Deadfall, published by Level Best Books in 2008). A special-needs man cares too much for the wrong people. This was a heartbreaking and engrossing story with lovely description.
• “Kiddieland” by Tim Chapman (appeared in The Rich and the Dead, published by Grand Central in 2011). No one wants to believe children can be evil. An engrossing story.
• “Some Things Can Never Be the Same” by Stephen Allan (appeared in Deadfall, published by Level Best Books in 2008). A man is torn between helping his bank-robber son and doing the right thing. A well-written, heartfelt story.
• “Awake” by David Dean (appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 2009). A spooky story about a man falling asleep, not paying attention to the normal noises his house makes—air turning on, boards settling—until he hears a noise that’s not normal at all. This story has an open ending. You don’t know exactly what happens next, but the story is still satisfying because its beauty is in its detail and mood.
• “Family Plot” by Margaret Press (appeared in Deadfall, published by Level Best Books in 2008) and “Contender” by William Kent Krueger (appeared in Once Upon A Crime, published by Nodin Press in 2009). These authors know how to plant clues so deftly, that when you get to the story’s end, you’re surprised, and then you realize you shouldn’t be.
• “Puck” by Pat Dennis (appeared in Once Upon A Crime, published by Nodin Press in 2009). A story can be light in tone and still wonderful if an author knows how to bring a character to life.
• “It Ain’t Right” by Michele Gagnon (appeared in Vengeance, published by Mulholland Books, 2012). Writing so rich, I can’t even explain why it touched me so.
And, finally, my favorite story of the year:
• “Exit Interview” by Lynne Heitman (appeared in Boston Noir, published by Akashic Books, 2009). I’m going to paste here part of what I wrote about this story on the blog:
What should have been the best day of Sloan’s life turns into the worst. Or maybe the second-worst. As one character tells her, “It’s just a wrong-place-wrong-time-bad-chain-of-events kind of deal, and if one thing had gone different yesterday, maybe none of this happens.”
I like to think of myself as a good writer, and then I read a story like this—which blew me away—and I’m inspired to keep practicing and trying to improve. It isn’t the plot of the story so much as the way it’s told. The author draws you in to Sloan’s head, and you are right there in that moment and it’s so real. I can’t even describe why it struck me so. I’ll just say: go read it.
But don’t only go read Heitman’s story. Read many stories. There’s so much good writing being published in the short form. If you haven’t tried it lately, you really don’t know what you’re missing.
And now, I’ll throw the discussion out to you, dear reader. Have you read any amazing short stories lately? If so, what was it that made that story sing for you?
HANK: And could you have possibly read a short story EVERY day? Would you? Or have you ever taken on a huge task? And done it? What was it?
Barb Goffman is a short-story author who lives in Virginia. Her stories mostly focus on families, because the people you know best are the ones you'll most likely want to kill. Barb’s been nominated for the Agatha Award four times and for the Anthony and the Macavity awards once each. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-coordinating editor of the Chesapeake Crimes series (Wildside Press) and as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. She's an avid reader and a doting mom of a very cute dog. Her first collection of short stories, tentatively titled Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, will be published in the spring by Wildside Press. You can learn more about her and her stories at www.barbgoffman.com.