Short Story Challenge Story #2

Short Story number two is written.

The focus of this story was a decision to do something foolish reversed by a chance conversation. The question was what is the real pivotal moment?

The protagonist is heading out the door, stoned and toting a six pack. Planning to make a 32 mile round trip to hang out with a friend, fully intending to drive impaired there and back. The phone rings and a state trooper on the other side of the line asks the protagonist not to drink and drive.

True story.

How does that moment occur? If it comes in dialogue, how is that dialogue delivered?

If the pivotal moment is, “I’m calling tonight to ask you not to drink and drive,” should that phrase be broken from its introductory clause “This is Officer Daniels,” with a dialogue tag, like so:

“This is Officer Daniels from the South Carolina State Highway Patrol,” said the voice. “I’m calling tonight to ask you not to drink and drive.”

Where does the tag belong?

“This is Officer Daniels,” said the voice. “From the South Carolina State Highway Patrol.”

Additional tension-building description here?

The voice was calm, confident, and familiar. Not in the I-think-I-know-this-person way, but in that internal way we have of recognizing sounds that are part of our history. Only the faintest glow of warmth to hint that I know.

Learning where to break the action for description and how to use that description to build tension should be basic story telling mechanics. Yet, I find it intuitive. Maybe it’s the result of reading so many scenes: my familiarity with the acceptable number of beats between words. I think it works this way, the way I wrote it, tell me what you think:

So it was cold outside and I had gloves on and my coat and I had to remove one glove to answer the phone.

“Hello?” I said. I blinked, pressed my other gloved hand to my eye, tried to focus.

“Hello? Miss Fanning?”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s me.”

“This is Officer Daniels from the South Carolina State Highway Patrol,” he said. His voice was clear and familiar. Not in the way that I knew him but that I understood somewhere inside of me that I knew Him.

“Hello,” I said again.

“I’m calling you tonight to ask you not to drink and drive.”

I stared at the six pack on the stove. I closed my eyes, mind swimming from the bong hits. “Excuse me?” I said.

“Just a courtesy call,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. I peeled off my coat, pinning the phone to my ear with my shoulder. I stuffed the gloves in the pocket and tossed it on the futon on the other side of the kitchen wall.

I stood in the kitchen, the glow of the stove’s hood light illuminating my intentions like a jack-o-lantern. The bottles made jagged tooth-like shapes on the ceramic counter tops.

“What else can I do for you, Officer Daniels?” I asked.


First Story Done

First story of 2013 done! Working title: “First Time”

I’m working on a series about the inhabitants of a resort town when a freak windstorm sweeps through on a Friday night. In this first story, two young lovers have planned to lose their virginity to one another in a sleeping bag. The romance is perfect in that high school way: an empty rental cabin, the dark tree-covered driveway, a patch of grass overlooking the valley, a bottle of wine. Then the clouds roll in and the wind picks up and the romance is spoiled.

In an effort to work toward capturing more exposition with fewer words, I’ve added a few details here that I think tell us a little about who these two are:

It was a rare Friday night that Winkie didn’t have to sit through one of Logan’s boring-ass basketball games. She’d told Mama she was going out with the girls but when Hannah parked her VW Bug at the quick mart, Winkie jumped into Tommy’s light blue GTO.

Once they arrive at the overlook:

Standing at the trunk, Winkie felt herself fit against Tommy, heard her heartbeat and felt a throb between her legs. She pulled him tighter but then he laughed off her hungry kiss.

“Relax, Winks,” he said, “We’ve got time.”

And, later:

“Your brother says some good wines have screw tops these days,” Tommy said.

The moment is here:

He rolled on top of her and held her face in his hands, his forearms on either side of her, the length of his body fitting neatly over the length of hers.

“You know I love you,” he said, a huskiness in his voice she hadn’t heard before.

“I know,” Winkie said. The wind took her voice, slipped between his kisses on her lips, her jaw, her neck.

Tommy took a deep breath. It was their first time. When he shoved himself inside of her she gasped.

Something broke. A loud crack, the splintering of something, a giving-in to the wind, then a branch ripped out of the giant tree behind them. It crashed onto the car a few feet away. The noise deafened them both.

Winkie squeezed her eyes shut. She felt him inside of her, felt him go soft. She opened her eyes. His face was lifted, his chin above her mouth. He stared at the GTO. Winkie was pinned. She couldn’t see what he saw, could only see the horror on his face. She twisted underneath him, arched her back, rolled her eyes up to her brow, and looked. She got an upside-down view of the GTO, bent and tortured under the branch.


Later, he stumbles out of the sleeping bag, naked, and approaches the car like a zombie. An unrelated memory comes to Winkie and she starts laughing. Her laughter, understandably, annoys Tommy. The exchange between them becomes distant until finally, he tells her he’s called her brother to come get them.

I’d like to add some details. I debated whether or not to explain why Winkie is called “Winkie” but haven’t figured out whether I want to do that here or not. We don’t know much about Tommy except he loves his car (but why?) and he looks up to Winkie’s brother (again, why?) and I’ve been asking whether the answers to those questions are important or not.

It’s a work in progress, but I’m pleased with it. I’ve put it aside as story #1 and am now moving on to #2.

Leave me your thoughts: Have you taken on the 13 Short Stories in 2013 Challenge? How’s it coming?

Lesson 1: Exposition

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:

  1. choose the right moment for the story,
  2. embed enough information without killing the story with exposition, and
  3. 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?

2013 Short Story Challenge

Here’s the challenge:While other people are working

13 short stories in 2013

You can call it one-per-month with an extra if you want. I’ll probably pace myself that way. But the rule is a new short story counts toward the 13 but a revision of anything written before 2013 doesn’t.

(This rule is for me since I have four unfinished stories that need work.)

Can’t recycle ‘em. Gotta start fresh.

Who’s in?

I’ll post links to your stories on the monthly 2013 Short Story Challenge Check Up entry on THIS BLOG.

Facebook-wall-post-me a link to your story and I’ll add it. Or put your link in a comment below or over on Life on Clemson Road.

If we’re serious about getting better at something, we need a plan to study and practice that something. Someday I’ll tell you how I learned football and became a better cook.

Here are some books I requested from the Richland County Public Library to start my short story study:

Homeland and Other Stories, Barbara Kingsolver

What We Won’t Do, Brock Clarke

Carrying the Torch, Brock Clarke

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, edited by Dave Eggers