Eight Essential tips on writing a short story…via Kurt Vonnegut…

vintage typewriterKurt Vonnegut was certainly never dull…especially when giving advice to other writers. Here are his eight essential tips for a short story that I keep in mind every time my fingers stroke the keys, or my pen hits the clean white page…

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter who sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

For more great articles by Kurt visit Open Culture page. I’m heading for “How to Write with Style” next!

Terror still does not abate…

When I think back about the first great intervention in my life (I count my shock as the second), I’m ashamed to remember how long I tried to hold out.  I first sought the conventional remedy for a man of my background and education (Brown ’39).  One takes one’s child to see Fantasia, one dreams that night of the devil, one’s terror does not abate the next morning, not the next, nor the next.  After two weeks of this, off one scurries to a psychiatrist.  To whom one is induced to complain about one’s own childhood.  One is talked around into trying to believe one had such and such feelings about one’s father and one’s mother: the so called family romance.  (Oh yes, I know the jargon.) It is pointed out to one that the word abate is in itself a not insignificant choice.  The terror still does not abate.

An excerpt of fiction from the short story The Mail Lady by David Gates.

Artwork: Noaz  by Michael R.  Buhler

Feel the chill…

This week’s read for Books Read in 2010 is a collection of shorts called American Fantastic Tales, Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now, edited by Peter Straub.  This a great collection to give the chills…and with tales from classic authors like Ray Bradbury, John Cheever and Shirley Jackson it is quite a ride.  Though I found some of the stories too dull to find out what the creepy chill was all about, some sent me over the edge.  A few I’d read previously, like Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, and an especially strange story, which over the years I’ve always called “the rabbit story” call Stone Animals by Kelly Link. (this story has nothing to do with Easter, I warn you, but plenty to do with haunted houses and haunted rabbits).

One of the best surprises, and perhaps the scariest short story ever written was Prey by Richard Matheson.  I remember this story made into a short horror film for a TV series called Trilogy of Terror in 1975.  It is one of those movies that you see as a kid and always remember.  It starred Karen Black (a cool horror actress around that time, boy could she scream!) as the main character, Amelia, who buys a creepy looking Zuni Warrior doll as a gift for her boyfriend.  It is said that the spirit of the warrior is locked in the doll.  You can probably guess what happens–yeah, it comes to life and tries to kill her.  I actually found the film on YouTube but I cannot get the link to work, so if you’re interested just type in Trilogy of Terror on You Tube home page.  It will come up in 3 short parts.  It seems a bit cheesy now, but when you’re a little kid, you know?…. The written story was better and I even jumped when the phone rang as I was reading it…

Other best stories to note:   Jack Finney’s I’m Scared,  Joyce Carol Oates’ FamilyThe General Who Is Dead by Jeff Vandermeer,  Nocturne by Thomas Tessier,   and my favorite short story by Stephen King called  That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French. (This is a suspenseful story that is obviously about deja vu, and after reading it the first time in King’s collection I thought it was so well written I seriously wondered if any writer could top it.  I still wonder.)

If you feel the need for a chill…pick this one up or check your local library.

7 or 8 Things: Character Study

Another character study fiction piece using Michael Ondaatje’s formula short called 7 or 8 Things I Know About Her.  Here’s: 

7 or 8 Things I Know About Him: A Character Study; Quinn. 

  by J. Rains

        His Father

After his father died he burned all the notebooks.  He painted the basement black, where his father slept until he died, while his mother was on vacation.  Have to get away, she said.  When she came back, she picked up the notebook ashes with a dustpan and brush.

        The Cat

You look like something the cat dragged in, his mother said to his father.  He couldn’t remember the cat dragging anything in the house, except once a chipmunk, which looked cute and fat as it lay on the gold linoleum floor.

        The Pills

He secretly unscrews all his wife’s vitamin capsules and inserts a birth control pill in each one.  He watches her take the vitamins every day.  He doesn’t know that she replaced the vitamin bottle with a new one when she noticed the expiration date.

        First Criticism

He is five and his grandmother tells him that his feet are pigeon-toed.  He doesn’t know what this means.  He writes pejn-td in the notebook his mom got him at K-mart.

       Listening In

Overhear him say “you suck” and “fuck you jolly” to his new laptop computer.   Saturday morning.  9:30.

        Self-Criticism

“Growing up I knew I was different.  I was always alone.  In my head I was surrounded by people no one could see.  I still am.  I can work out conversations with all of them.   It gets me no where.”

        Dreams

The lucid one are about living at a beach house in California where a supply of pre-written novels are hidden in a cupboard, ready for submission.  In his real nighttime dreams he sees the dark things darting back and forth, his vision waning.  There is no beach.

        What we know…

Is that he has thought about taking his own life, how easy it would be to hit the entire bottle of pain killers and obtaining endless sleep.  We know his wife will find him around 6 p.m.

        What we don’t know…

Is that he is incapable of actually swallowing a pill.  We don’t know that his wife has been dead for almost a year and will not find him around 6 p.m.

                                                      ____________________________________________

Writers comments:  This is a character from one of my longer short stories. He’s a writer who can’t remember how to write.  It is actually a journey into a mental meltdown, a man so altered by the death of someone he loves…The cat sequence is from a comment my mom always said and an event in my own childhood when my cat brought home a chipmunk in his mouth for us.  It was quite cute, even though is was dead.

7 or 8 Things

Whenever I write a new story, I take a tip from Michael Ondaatje, one of my favorites, and write out my own version of his short piece 7 or 8 Things I Know About Her  as a character study.  It always brings out curious, things un-thought of previously…I’m not sure why.  Here’s one.  This is a fiction piece.

               The Father

She waited every day for her father to return.  He’ll be home, probably tomorrow, her mom would lie.  She didn’t know it was a lie.  She’d listen for the Camaro’s engine every night until she fell asleep:  it was always quite loud when it came up the drive. 

              The Music

She loved the rock band’s songs.  When her mother took her to what everyone called the club, she thought of the tree house Sandy down the road had in her back yard and the ‘club’ the two of them created.  They played music on Sandy’s tape recorder.  They threw their supply of fist-sized stones at the boys who tried to climb up the ladder.  They played “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and the Black Hearts and sang at the top of their lungs.

              One Dog

They adopted a dog with three legs that had been hobbling around the neighborhood.  He was old and raggedy but her mother patiently gave him a bath.  He slept on the rug by the kitchen door.  She took him out before school.  He hobbled off one day and never came back.  Mr. Pierce, who owned the bakery down town, said the dog was living with him for three weeks.  His name was fluffy.  She had called him Scruff.

              First Criticism

She is five years old and her parents are screaming at each other.  She sits and watches Sesame Street with her hands over her ears.  Look at that silly, stupid girl, her father yells.  She doesn’t know whom he is talking about.   She covers her ears tighter.

             Listening In

Over hear her in the bathroom of the dorm:  “You could have started over, you could have started over, you could have started over.”

              Self-Criticism

“I don’t like to feel sorry for myself but I always do.  Why do I always wear these same clothes?  Why don’t I get the highest grade, even when it’s an A?   Why do I have to wait to get picked every time?   I wait patiently for my time to come, because my mother says it will.  But when?

             Fantasies

To be picked as the lead singer of the famous rock band.  Her father says she’s got the chops.  She is given the spot without even trying out.   Everyone loves her.   She becomes more famous than her father.  He sits in the audience every night and claps for her.

             Reprise

At Sandy’s old house in the neighborhood, they tore down the tree house.  It had been up there for over twenty years.  She imagines she can hear that old Joan Jet song again as she drives by in the custom tour bus that is painted black and silver with her name emblazoned on the side in gold.  When the bus stops at the drive way a crowd of people she doesn’t know are there to greet her.  Her mother and father stand on the stoop smiling.