Tag Archive for short stories

Books on sale for $1.99 for e-readers!

My grandmother used to love a good deal and was upset when coffee prices rose to fifty cents a cup, but I think even she would approve of a book on sale for only $1.99.

Both my titles are available for all e-readers this month for that low, low price each, so grab your copies, peace out to Grandma, and settle in for some short story love.

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Olive Kitteridge exercises – part 2

As I wrote about here, Olive Kitteridge is both a wonderful book and a kick-ass instructional guide for fiction writers. I’ll continue here with a few more exercises based on things I think Strout does like a boss:

Two stories in one: In “Tulips,” we learn the story of the Larkin family as well as what happens to Henry Kitteridge after his stroke. How does the blending of two stories strengthen both narrative lines, and how does the larger (public) story help to shape the smaller (private) one? Write a story where you take a larger event–of national importance, or local importance–that affects many people and tell it beside a personal story that is unrelated but happening simultaneously. How does the public story help to shape the private one, or how does the private story inform the understanding of the public story for the character?

Character understanding: Oftentimes when we’re telling a story, we’re telling it to try and figure out just what it means or because there is mystery inside of it somewhere. In “Tulips,” on pages 145 and 157, Olive is trying to understand why her son doesn’t seem to like her very much, and while telling the story, the reader begins to understand even though she can’t see through to the truth. How can you lead the reader to understand what a character cannot?
Write a scene where the reader understands something the character telling the story doesn’t–a child telling their parent about an incident at school, a man telling a friend why his spouse has left him, a person fired from a job for no apparent reason.

Assumptions: People often aren’t what they seem, and not in the secret I’m-a-serial-killer way they (delightfully) would have us believe on Criminal Minds, but in that we are more multi-faceted than we give each other credit for. Strout constantly is turning characters on their ears in a way that is believable and in-sync to who they are but a surprise to those who know them. Look at the portrayal of Mary acting out of character on pg 160, or Marlene not just being a sweet, daft woman on pages 176-77.
Write a scene where someone upsets another person’s expectations, where they do something that isn’t out of character, but that reveals another facet of that character.

I hope these have been helpful, or if nothing else, will lead you back to read Olive Kitteridge again. Even writing these up, I’m tempted to take another look and discover all I’ve missed. If you have exercises of your own based on specific works by Strout or by other writers, let me know in the comments!

Olive Kitteridge exercises

I’ve long been a fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for about anyone who loves to read, and each time I read it, I’m struck once again by its wonderfulness. I’ve taught it a lot too–in short story writing classes, in novel writing classes. If I taught straight up lit classes more often, I’d use it there too. As such, I’ve put together quite a few fiction writing exercises around this book that I thought might be useful to others.

(I’m referencing the trade paperback edition.)

1) Inference: Look at pages 18 (longest paragraph), 31 (first paragraph, second section), and 100 (second half of page). Much is revealed, but little is actually said about what has happened, rather it is implied. This is a practice in suspense and subtlety. Write a scene where something has happened but that something isn’t actually said: a character lost a job, is putting a marriage back together after an infidelity, cheated on an exam, etc. How can you imply the action so it is understood by the reader without actually saying it, and what does the not saying reveal about the character?

2) Setting: Look at page 39 and the top of 40. In this scene, Strout uses the setting to further the conversation both by addressing it and using it as backdrop to mirror the current emotions. Write a scene where setting is used to deepen the meaning of a conversation between two characters.

3) Triangles in fiction: Read pages 116-118. Pay attention to how Olive’s allegiance changes throughout the scene from her husband to the boy. How does this happen? Why do triangles work so well in fiction? Write a scene with three people where two are aligned and there is an outsider that comes in and changes that alliance: A couple and a child, three friends but two are closer, two co-workers and their superior, etc.

4) Ambiguity: Strout does a lot of “telling” in her stories and does it brilliantly, but sometimes she relies wholly on action and leaves it to the reader to interpret. Students sometimes have a hard time with this, but I think she has some great examples for discussing the difference between ambiguity versus vagueness. With ambiguity you have different interpretations of the same action, while with vagueness, you’re left with no real interpretations and have to fill in the blanks about what has actually happened. Page 122 has a great example of a solid action left up to interpretation. Olive’s body doesn’t work the same anymore but does that mean she’s changed, she can’t return to “normal,” that the physical pain is a manifestation of the emotional? I don’t know for sure, but I know what’s happening to her body and can suggest evidence for all the readings. In this exercise, try writing a scene with solid action that can be interpreted multiple ways. What types of textual evidence do you need to supply? Do any of the readings contradict the others? In many ways, this is just “showing versus telling” taken up a notch.

I’ll have a second post soon with a few more.

Short Story Month recap

I hope you all found some great short stories to read in May! In addition to what those I wrote about here, I have a few more to mention:

The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus is one of my favorite stories of all time. It chronicles Louise’s struggle with her weight through childhood, college, marriage, and motherhood, and Dubus perfectly captures how all-consuming the obsessions of weight and body can be. The tagline for this story could be “Inside every unhappy fat girl is an equally unhappy skinny girl.”

Barb Johnson’s title story More of This World or Maybe Another captures the crazy excitement of being attracted to someone for the first time, and the heart-thumping hope you have as a teenager that something new is about to happen right now. Or now. Or maybe now.

Charles Baxter has long been my go-to for favorite stories. “The Cousins,” originally published in Tin House and reprinted in Best American, showcases what I consider one of his greatest talents: complete honesty from a character who is willing to let us see the worst, even when the worst, given the stretches of humanity, isn’t all that terrible. Not that that lessens the blow. “I haven’t always behaved well when people open their hearts to me.”

I found “The Land of Motionless Childhood” by Joseph O’Malley in the most recent issue of Colorado Review, one of my favorite literary journals. It asks some big questions: is hope just for children? What about laughter? Happiness? One of my favorite moments is when the main character, Kenny, realizes his friend is dating a girl who’s a dud. “Kenny had seen couples who seemed wholly mismatched before, but usually it was the woman who was the open, funny, and vivacious one, and the man who was the dry, humorless drudge.” I laughed when I read that. I know those couples! And he’s right, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in the reverse. I love when a story perfectly captures something I’ve long thought but haven’t realized.

“Tandolfo the Great” by Richard Bausch was originally written for the anthology The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road, where all the authors need to include exactly that. Add to that an unhappy clown with a drinking problem and a five-year-old’s birthday party and you’ve got classic Bausch pathos and humor.

Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss is another sci-fi story recommended by my good friend, Dennis Loranger. I will read whatever this guy tells me. It’s a beautiful story about solitude, perseverance, the connections between humans and animals, and aliens.

I finished up the month with “Projection” by Michael Nye from his collection Strategies Against Extinction. “Projection” totally captures what it’s like to be in college and trapped back in your small hometown for the summer, something I knew a thing or two about back in the day. I never blew up the water tower, but Jesus, did I want to.

I’m already looking forward to next May! In the meantime, any recommendations?

 

 

 

Short story month update

I’ve been reading some great stories this month in celebration of Short Story Month! (And is it wrong that I want to gloat we get a longer month than poetry?) Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Holly Goddard Jones‘s “Life Expectancy” from her collection Girl Trouble. The main character has a sick daughter, a pregnant girlfriend/student, an unhappy wife, and a dead dog, but is stubbornly convinced none of these things are his fault. When he kisses his student the first time he thinks, “He did it because she looked like she needed it. He did it because he knew he could get away with it.” That about sums up Theo. Goddard Jones does a great job creating an unsympathetic character the reader can get behind. I’m looking forward to the rest of the stories in this collection!

“Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season” by Justin Taylor, from Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (a great title!). Favorite passage: There’s always a new worst.”

Lydia Peelle‘s “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing,” is a beautiful story about a depressed woman who falls for a herpetologist and learns life lessons from a salamander. Sometimes what we need is to turn off our brains and remember we are part of nature. “Trust the body, not the mind, he says, smiling. The body loves itself.”

“Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson. You can read the story here. It’s pretty true to the title, bears really do discover fire, but the heart of the story is a man coming to terms with his mother’s decline. I’m a sucker for stories with animals, especially when they’re doing something as cool as hanging around campfires in the road medians, and the way this is handled, as kind of ho-hum, is brilliant.

“Nothing Right” by Antonya Nelson, from Nothing Right. In this story a fractured family holds a premature baby as collateral damage, acting out their own aggressions against each other with little sense of repercussions. If you haven’t read her work, this is a great introduction!

“Bear Hogan Walks the Sky” by Brady Allen in Back Roads & Frontal Lobes. This story is weird, and that’s a good thing. It’s an end of the world/end of the road story that contemplates what it means to be good or bad, and how similar these things can look when shit hits the fan. Brady and I teach together at Wright State and have a lot of chats about fiction writing, and he’s someone I admire for being as disciplined as he is with his writing.

“The Chair” by David Means, in Best American Short Stories 2013. It’s about parenting, and maybe it’s because I have a child the same age as the child in the story, and maybe it’s because I’m also struggling with how to effectively discipline said child, but this one really struck a chord. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Means before, which is crazy since he’s got four highly acclaimed story collections and seems to be kind of a big deal. He’s now on the list.

 

Short story month

Did you know that May is Short Story Month? I had no idea! And as a lover of short stories, I hate to think I’ve been missing out on this celebration. What else have I been missing out on? Is there a Cake Month? Too Many Exclamations in Email Month? Boots for Girls with Big Calves Month? My god, have you people been celebrating Things Erin Doesn’t Know About without me?

To honor Short Story Month, I’m going to try and read a short story a day. I’ll do periodic updates here about what I’m reading, but for daily doses, friend me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter.