Friday, March 1, 2013

Win a Critique!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It's proof sometimes themes simply appear. Earlier this week we talked about aromatherapy--and today  we host an author whose sleuth is named Stella Lavender. See? You can't plan stuff like this.

But Karen Pullen says she just had a very enlightening experience. Why--she asked me--do some short stories stink, some seem "meh," and some--are instantly fabulous? And--keep reading--she's offering a wonderful prize to a lucky commenter.

SHORT STORIES: Love ‘em or Leave ‘em?
    by Karen Pullen


Reading a book of short stories is a different experience from reading a novel: like eating a box of chocolates vs. a four-course meal. But a great story can stick in your mind for weeks, months, years. I still remember stories I first read years ago by Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. A great story has that intense bingo moment of revelation when the human condition is revealed in all its depth and complexity. I’m particularly fond of Irish short story writers like John McGahern, William Trevor, and Claire Keegan who write about marginal characters’ love and despair.

Recently I judged nineteen stories for a mystery fiction award. All had been published, so they were edited and polished. I wasn’t told who wrote them or where they were published but clearly the authors had written entertaining, readable stories.

So why do only two stand out as phenomenal and unforgettable? Make me think, I wish I could write like this.

And, insecure, I’ll never be able to write like this.

But if I can figure out what makes them special, then maybe I can write a good story.

Though I gave the two entries very high scores, their special qualities weren’t completely captured in the rating sheet. And perhaps my reasons were unique to me, just my personal taste. What I like isn’t going to be what you like. That’s true of music, vegetables, and room temperature. So feel free to disagree.

So here’s what I loved about the two stories that won my cold judge’s heart.

Characters who seemed real, not cardboard or stock. Flawed, even unlikeable, prickly, weird, a bit obsessive about their desires. Just like me and you, underneath our thin good-manners veneer.

Language that’s neither clichéd nor pretentious. Practically no “telling.” Reveal all through the eyes of the narrator. The narrator is a wee bit unreliable, unaware of what is going on, which keeps me reading, because I want to know! Tight, tight language, not a spare word.

Story. The story has to be more than a bunch of stuff happens told in snappy narrative. I want unpredictable. Turn my expectations upside down, surprise me. But keep it logical, plant a seed early on! I love a reversal. A sweet kind character reveals a nasty streak. The bad guy is suddenly on the side of good. An innocent child is not a passive pawn but an agent of doom. Murder goes unpunished, nay, even rewarded.

My scoring will be combined with other judges to select finalists, then there will be voting. Perhaps my favorites will win but maybe not: there are two other judges and lots of people voting. And tastes differ.

But as soon as the award results are announced, I’ll email the two authors and express my pleasure in their stories. I’ll come back to this Jungle Red post and identify them, in the comments. Perhaps some of the blog’s readers will seek out the stories to decide for yourself whether you agree they were amazing.

Would you like me to critique your story or opening chapter? Tell me, in the comments, what makes your favorite story so great! I’ll randomly select a name from the comments so please include website or email so I can get in touch and ask for your 15 double-spaced pages. Point me to some remarkable writers, and good luck!

HAK: WOW! I wish I could enter...




*****

Karen Pullen left a perfectly good job at an engineering consulting firm to make her fortune - (um, maybe not) - as an innkeeper and a fiction writer. Her B&B has been open for 12 years, and she’s published short stories in Every Day Fiction, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Spinetingler. Her first novel, a mystery called Cold Feet, was released by Five Star in January 2013. She lives in Pittsboro NC with her husband, her father, and four spoiled cats. Her website is www.karenpullen.com.

*****

Cold Feet Synopsis. SOMETIME DEATH IS THE ONLY WAY TO SECURE A SECRET. Special Agent Stella Lavender is looking forward to an elegant outdoor wedding, a much-needed change of pace from her adrenaline-fueled work as an undercover drug agent. On the grassy lawn of the Rosscairn Castle B&B, she waits with the couple’s family and friends for the ceremony to begin. But one of them has other plans, and as the guests grow restive, the satin-clad bride is dying most horribly. When the sheriff asks for Stella’s assistance, she’s energized by the opportunity to prove herself. But why would someone kill a bride on her wedding day? Even as a paranoid drug dealer seeks to silence her, Stella must unravel a complex knot of obsession, grief and secrets before the murderer claims another victim.



50 comments:

Jack Getze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gram said...

Looking forward to the naming of the cats-oops - stories. And I am going to look for Cold Feet. Dee

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Such an interesting post Karen! You are a wonderful, careful reader. Whoever wins the critique will be lucky to have your sharp eyes on their work.

Anonymous said...

Just want to stop by to you Jungle Reds and say what a pleasure it is for me to turn on your blog first thing daily and get a shot in the arm of your positive attitude toward life!!! Some blogs air the grievances of the writer - this is a downer for the reader! So, thanks for your bright stars!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Jack Getze said...

Good luck with the book, Karen. Still remember your short story, Scritch, from our short story contest.

Brenda Buchanan said...

I love a short story that seduces me.

The characters need to be believable people, and while quirks can be appealing, they need to feel organic. Characters who are offbeat for the sake of it are a turn-off.

On plot itself, I look for stories that take me somewhere I didn't expect to go.

I'd love a critique, Karen, so if my name is pulled out of your hat, you can reach me at bbwestbrook@gmail.com

BTW, Stella Lavender - superb character name!

Anonymous said...

It's an old one but I can still remember Shirley Jackson's Lottery turning me stone cold as I became aware of what was actually going to happen. That memory still lives. Mary Moody

Leslie Budewitz said...

Congratulations, Karen! Love the description of your book -- and your protag's name!

(Not entering -- just wishing a Guppy sister well on her new release!)

Lee Carver said...

As a high schooler, I loved the short stories of e.e. cummings. I hung on anxiously, not peeking at the ending, knowing a surprise or sudden reversal waited on the last page. I tried to do that with my short stories forty years later. Such fun!

Lee Carver said...

OH--the link: LeeCarver2@aol.com

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

MAry MOody: "Stone" cold? :-)Yeah, that's got to be the classic story.

I;m reading short stories now for a contest..and it seems like some of them don't really have, forgive me, a plot. They're more like a --slice of a day, or something.

ANd yes, Lee..like the HH Munro stories. I still hink about Gift of the MAgi. I mean--what an old chestnut..and yet, still relevant.

Karen said...

Lucy, Jack, Leslie -- thanks for the encouraging comments.

Brenda - well put, I agree with "take me somewhere I didn't expect to go."

Lee - I'm not familiar with cumming's stories and will have to check them out!

Mary - I love Shirley Jackson. Did you know she won an Edgar? And she writes funny - Life Among the Savages is hilarious.

Deb said...

Hi Karen! I envy you and anyone who can write a good short story. If I have knack, I have yet to discover it.

But I can't wait to see which stories you liked, and why.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thelma! We love you, too...xoo

KAren, did you see any story without plots? I mean--there's suposed to be a PLOT, right? Even in a "literary" story?

Hallie Ephron said...

I find short stories SOOOO hard - in awe of anyone who can write them well. Welcome to JRW, Karen!

Joan Leotta said...

I am thrilled to have discovered this blog(thanks to Sarah Shaber. I would dearly love to win the critique for a short story of mine that has been just missing the mark for some time--but even if I don't win, thank you for the insights in the article on your blog!!
www.joanleotta.wordpress.com

Karen said...

Hank, the stories all had plots because this was a mystery contest. But I know what you mean. I just read Best American Short Stories 2012 and some of them left me scratching my head. Where's the plot?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Karen, okay, well that's interesting..because it may change my judging if a plot is not required. Gee. Who'd a thought.

Welcome, Joan Leotta!

Lexie's Mom said...

I did a reading/signing event recently, and one of the questions asked was "what makes a great short story, and why are they hard to write?" I wish I'd had your interview available as reference! Great post. I love short stories; they give me a taste of an author who is new to me; a shot of adrenaline, sometimes; and an opportunity to see tight, clean writing. I don't have a favorite, though.

Lexie's Mom said...

Oops, forgot my contact info: owner@stonecreekwriting.com. Critiques are so helpful!

Rosemary Harris said...

Welcome Karen...miss I could enter too! I've just written a short story and Hallie is right...they're hard! What do you find is the most common mistake writers make in a short story?

Rosemary Harris said...

...wish, that is...

Karen said...

Rosemary,great question but hard to answer because there are so many ways for a story to miss the mark :( Some common errors are too many characters and exposition disguised as dialogue.

Joan Emerson said...

Perusing the New York Times hardcover fiction best sellers list [it’s dated March 10th but it was in my email inbox today] . . . I was excited to find Deborah Crombie’s “The Sound of Broken Glass” listed at number nine. Congratulations!

I enjoyed reading Karen’s comments . . . I do like to read short stories, especially science fiction ones, but I really need the story to actually have a plot and to be about something!

Linda Rodriguez said...

YAY! Congratulations, Debs! NYTBS, NYTBS! It has such a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Hank, I judge book manuscripts of literary short fiction for several national contests, and if nothing happens and there's no reason to care, I put that manuscript in the reject pile. I don't care how "beautiful" the writing is--it needs to be going some place for some reason, needs to give me a reason to keep on reading. Lots of us can do "beautiful" writing for pages and pages if we don't have to make sense or go anywhere or make the reader care. That's been my rule for years of doing this judging, FWIW.

And the ones I choose as my winners usually win the prize and have gone on to win national awards with the published books.

Nancy said...

Interesting post! But what about a book of short stories (by one author). Do you critique it differently? Should there be a common theme or idea running through them? If yes, is the title supposed to be a hint?

It is so difficult to identify the characteristics of a story that make it appeal to you!

Thanks for the post.

NGW

LindaE said...

To me a memorable short story is one that, when I've finished it, has me thinking 'what, wait...' and rereading it. I can't pin it down to the plot, the setting or the characters - it's something in the story that is hidden just below the surface, waiting to be revealed with a second, third or even fourth read through.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Linda E--I think..it's so great when there's a story that's so good--you want go back and see how the author did it.

ANd whew, Linda Rod--okay then. I feel better.

NGW--hmm..I think it depends on how they decide to do it, right? I dont mind totally different stories.

HI, Lexie's mom! xoo

Lynn M said...

I worked for years at a maritime museum and loved all the rich artifacts and the people's stories about the little bits and pieces. Some, not valuable for itself -- but having the story made it priceless. One WIP is set at a maritime museum and I love the 3 characters and their friendships and how it develops through the story as the mystery unfolds.

kestrel_cod(at)yahoo.com

Jeffrey Marks said...

I love short stories and I've edited a few collections of them, but it's always that special combination of plot, character and setting that gets me. I like a story that takes something familiar and turns it on its head. I've read for a number of contests and I've seen the same plots done to death. It's taking those old chestnuts and dressing them up with believable characters or a new and different (yet familiar) setting that does it for me.

I have to say that right now Dana Cameron is one short story author who I count on to wow me every time.

Reine said...

I've recently discovered short stories. Maybe I've rediscovered what I liked when I was a kid--the surprise at the end or the twist in the middle that sends the action in an unexpected direction.

My favorite is House Calls by Barbara Ross. It's in a collection called Blood Moon: Best New England Crime Stories. The setting got my attention. I hadn't bought a collection of short stories since I was a teenager. House Calls has characters that might live next door. Their familiar setting takes on the unfamiliar presence of something wicked. It moves quickly through their lives. Surprise twists move straight through to the terrific end.

Karen said...

What great comments. Joan, I like sci fi too! And yes, something has to Happen. Linda R-you can tell right away whether a ms has the special something. Reine, thanks for the intro to Barbara Ross, I'll have to look her up. Also Dana Cameron - thanks, Jeff. And Lynn,the rich detail of a museum for your setting must add immeasurably to your stories. Linda E - I agree sometimes things don't need to be said - I like subtlety too. Nancy, books of stories by one author can be uneven, quite different and disconnected. But connected stories are "in" right now - like Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. Thanks for visiting - you'll all go into the hat for a drawing!

Cynthia said...

My favorite short story is "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It's brilliant in many ways, but I recommend it most for the way it combines gothic, suspense, and humor to create a fantastically readable story--yet also manages to register its thematic protests artfully. Plus, it's like a crystal: depending on how you hold it up to the light, you could read it as a tale of post-partum depression, as a descent into madness, or even as a possession story. And despite having been written so long ago, the voice STILL feels relevant (even contemporary)...it's simply amazing.

Linda said...

The Open Window by Saki has to be one of my favorite short stories. The surprise at the end gave me such a giggle. Thanks for the interesting post, Karen ~

Brenda Buchanan said...

One of my very favorite short stories is The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall, which won an O. Henry in 1960. Set in coastal Maine, where I live, it is absolutely chilling.

And I second Jeff Marks on the amazingness of Dana Cameron. She rocks!

Lola said...

I like stories that convey a lot of complexity "offscreen" while the surface of the story itself is simple and pure.

I'd love to win a critique! Lola.Hazelder@gmail.com

Jungle Red Writers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Jungle Red Writers said...
Oh, this is all so fascinating. I adore Dana Cameron,--she's very special.

An I will insist forever that I discovered Barb Ross. Ask me, someday..or when she comes to visit, I'll tell the story.

Brenda, I don't know that story! Looking it up right away. Thank you!

xoxo

Cynthia said...

ps: Wanted to say thanks for this wonderful contest idea--no matter who wins, we all receive the gift of new short stories to read! So cool!

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I love flash fiction. The writer has 100 words to construct a story will all the parts: character, conflict, and resolution.

All the fancies have to be pared off right down to the bone. Every word has to do double duty. Those are my favorite short stories of all.

(terrilynncoop @ gmail . com)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, yes, flash fiction is amazing. When it's good--it's breathtaking!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, thank you Cynthia! Our pleasure...xo

Deb Lacy said...

I love a story that leaves you thinking about it weeks, months and years after you read it. You just can't get it out of your mind.

Meredith said...

When I stop and think about it, I think it comes down to character mostly that makes me like a short story. But I do like for something to happen--even if it isn't anything as dramatic as a crime. There just needs to be a turn or discovery or SOMETHING going on. I love beautiful, poetic language, but I tend to put the emphasis on "story" when I look for a good short story. Thanks for an interesting post--and definitely some authors in the comments I'll check out.

(emrde5619@gmail.com)

Cy said...

I envy those who can successfully pen a short story. The closest I have come is a novella, which I find wonderful in the age of ebooks. I would love a critique. cylonsix@mchsi.com. Thank you for the opportunity!

Jean Davis said...

Great post, Karen. Thanks! I like to be delighted by dialog and surprised by turn of events. I like first person because then, as a reader, I can be in on the joke. Consider Robert B. Parker's Blue Screen, p. 237 (not from a short story. Sorry). "Arlo Delaney's widow lived in a small apartment in a square and graceless white brick apartment buidling on
Woodman Avenue a couple of blocks north of Ventura Boulevard. She acted as if she wasn't happy to see us. But I think she was. It gave her a chance to bitch." Parker wrote some pretty bad dialog, but his deadpan observations make me laugh.

I have a short story I'd love to have critiqued. The main character and I share the same mother, but she did something I would never do in a million years. She absolutely surprised me. Oh, to have the courage of created characters! My e-mail is jeandaviswrites@yahoo.com Thanks!

Michael Kelberer said...

What always wins me over in a mystery short story is the presence of an actual mystery. I know the trend over the last decade has been to broaden the category to that if there's even a hint of a crime, it's in, but...I love a real mystery.
If I'm drawn, you can read me at writer@michaelkelberer.com
Great blog!
Michael

Lynn C. Willis said...

My favorite short is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I'm in total awe every time I read it. And yeah, I'd love to win a free critique! lynn@lynnchandlerwillis.com

Karen said...

I'm baaaack! The Derringer award winners have been announced - yes that's the contest I judged, in the Novelette category. It's sponsored by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. I was a winner last year, but didn't compete this year so I volunteered to judge.

The two stories that made me gnash my teeth with envy, turn vivid green with jealousy, cry buckets that I can't write that well, were "Mariel" by David Dean (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) and "Iphigenia is Aulis" by Mike Carey (An Apple for the Creature, an anthology). "Iphigenia" has been nominated for an Edgar, so I'm not alone in declaring it brilliant, and "Mariel" won the Silver EQMM Reader's Award. Both feature young girls who take no prisoners. "Iphigenia" is somewhat horrifying and sad at the beginning, but the ending soars, in an awful way. The child Mariel is weirdly manipulative and sly. I loved her! (PS - neither story won the Derringer. Proving that my tastes are not universal.)