In the original challenge post I said I had three things to work in a self-diagnosis of my own short story woes. Those things were:
- choose the right moment for the story,
- embed enough information without killing the story with exposition, and
- come to a satisfying conclusion.
As part of my study, I picked up some work by my old fiction teacher, Brock Clarke. He probably doesn’t remember me and has no idea he has a fan (stalker) in Columbia and on Facebook and Life on Clemson Road and NAIWE and Wordsmith Studio and Columbia Writer’s Alliance. Oh well.
Anyway, his short story collection What We Won’t Do was available in the RCPL so I picked it up.
I the first two stories I learned a couple of good short cuts on the exposition problem.
For example, Clarke uses the main character’s profession as a florist to tell us a number of things about her. First, she is empathetic with other living creatures. To care for plants, one must be, yes? Her identity is “florist” and she describes it this way:
“Among florists there is no honor, no lack of honor either, nor a fondness for community, rivalry, or the what-alls of advertising. There is no consensus in sexual preference. There is no celebration of sexual difference. There is no sex.” (p.6)
This passage juxtaposes our florist with the people she’s spending time with, the cripples at the Veterans’ hospital who grouse and complain and compete over everything. She pretends to not understand their tendency towards these behaviors.
Clarke never tells us how she became a florist, he doesn’t even tell us her name. She says, “I am a florist accused of moral contamination,” and we learn she is at the VA to serve community service after a drunk driving wreck.
She tells her husband, “The judge said I needed to learn something about hurt. He also said I was developing into a bad woman.” To which her husband, who woke up the day after his thirtieth birthday and became self-righteously sober, responds, “well…that’s true.” (p.6)
We learn that after his redemption, he started killing her plants.
It’s a four page story. It’s intricate and complex. It’s the single few slivers of the woman, her husband, the plants, and the VA. It’s enough to describe a crucial intersection in life: where we decide to stay or decide to change. She says,
“I keep buying houseplants and leaving them unattended. Bobby Candace keeps killing them. I keep buying more plants. He used to not kill them. I keep hoping he’ll remember why.” (p.7)
It’s not an epic, life changing, all engrossing, love story. It’s a sad beginning-of-the-end incident told in four pages. It’s succinct and rich and beautiful. (I’m going to write about juxtaposition using this story later. Stay tuned.)
I need to learn to get the necessary history in without killing the reader with exposition. I need a few clever lines. In Run or Bleed, I have a woman who wants to be pregnant but isn’t. Her husband seems indifferent to the condition. I had written:
Michael’s responsiveness had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.
Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”
Admittedly, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys.
“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”
Amy would smile and agree. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.
“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.
“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.
Following Brock Clarke’s lead, minimal discussion, just the telling pieces, I edited it to this:
Working on pregnancy was Amy’s chore. Michael took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers. Michael had said, “good riddance.”
When his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, Michael would say, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share. Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?”
Then he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.
The only problem I see is Michael seems like kind of a dick. But I think, to tell the story, I may have to let him be that way. If she loves him, he must have something redeeming. As with Clarke’s nurse and her newly-sober husband, his redemption is the thing that changed him. For my Amy, though, she can’t get Michael to care about pregnancy any more than he cared about the cat. That may be a pretty important detail.
I’m working on paring down exposition for the next little bit as I try to edit my two finished (submitted) stories into print.
What are you working on in this month’s effort for the 2013 Short Story Challenge?