Short stories are a blast. A world, a character and an event are created in about 1-5K words. People read them in one sitting, so they’d better create a strong emotion or at least a lingering mood.
With Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, I sat down with the title and started typing. Every twist and turn was a surprise for me, but the driving force was the first paragraph that put me into a Rudyard Kipling world of strangers and fools. (We turned into the pass, and the wind stopped. I caught myself listening. For what? ) I knew things would not end well — for the characters, not for me. I knew I’d have some fun.
Waverley was different. I had a snatch of a dream to work with, but the main character really drove it. He told the story, and I listened. The strangest thing is that I knew nothing about the town or similar towns, but I was convinced that everything about the setting was true. I still believe that the time and the place are authentic, and even the reactions of the townspeople to fantastic circumstances feel right to me. This story was one where I got a visit from the muse and sat down and wrote for many hours straight. It’s one of my favorites even though it was a hard one to sell.
When I wrote Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier, I was in a toxic mood. My bad waking dream was transferred to paper with a lot of keyboard pounding and snarling. The whole experience was fueled by emotion. The original draft was relentlessly grim, like Night of the Living Dead. Rewriting made it more accessible and humane, but it still is the creepiest thing I’ve put on paper (at least for me).
A mood, a voice or an emotion can pull the writer through a short story and the reader has little choice but to follow (if the execution is right). But is it possible to coldly calculate a short story? Can one be stick built rather than grown? I think it can, but it isn’t easy.
Peter’s Shell, just published, has rational, left brain origins. (If you haven’t read it, take a look before continuing with the blog. I’ll wait.) I wanted to write an inverted story, and I chose a favorite, Edgar Alan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, as the basis. Most stories cannot be inverted. The plot and the structure need to be almost perfect or it turns to mush.
The best example of an inverted story is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The basis of that script is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Instead of a miser wanting to save his life, we have a generous man wanting to commit suicide. Another reversal: the main character is poor in money and rich in friends. Instead of being shown the error of his ways, he’s shown the virtue. Etc.
Given a strong story, most people could go through the intellectual exercise of turning everything upside down. Peter’s Shell features lovers, not enemies. The intent isn’t murder, it is enhanced life. The characters move toward the clouds, not deeper into the ground. The journey is not toward disease, but toward health. Etc.
I had all of that worked out, literally for years, before the story was finished. If you read the odd numbered sections of the story, you can see the essential inverted version of Poe’s story. (It even includes a bottle of Amontillado.) The left brain had created half of the story that exists now, and it made sense. But it wasn’t a short story.
I picked it up and read it a dozen or more times, convinced that something was there, but lost on how to take it forward. What Peter’s Shell needed was Wendy’s Shell — the even numbered sections. While Poe’s narrator could handle a complete story, Peter just couldn’t.
Wendy does not narrate. I wanted readers to experience her, but not from the inside. She’s a magical character (reversing the roles of Peter Pan), so the narration is third person. She builds her spell with bits and pieces, and I did the same. The child’s voodoo she practices even before she finds the shell comes from what my daughter Carol did at a similar age. The Funny Buck (added to liven up Peter’s bit) in the lighthouse references a short story that got me into Clarion. I walked past the sculpture shop in Manhattan on a day I was working on the story, and I grabbed what I saw. As a kid, I used to drag Pick-Up-Sticks over the ridges of shells and listen to the music. Etc.
I seeded the story with these experiences, emotions and responses. I wrote snatches of Wendy’s Shell, and I found bits to play off of in Peter’s Shell. The picture started to come together, but it wasn’t there yet. I had to knit Peter’s Shell together with Wendy’s Shell in a way that carried the reader along. Essentially, I did this by creating (or discovering) the kind of cliffhangers used in novels to end chapters.
When a writer does that, the next step is usually rationalization. Parts brought together need to make some sort of sense. Normally, this is done in a cold-blooded fashion, but I took a different route. I put my characters in charge. Peter’s voice and Wendy’s intuitive choices finished the sections. When I went back to see if it made sense and was true to the original vision, I was satisfied. I also found that the piece as a whole created a mood, a whole body affect, of exhilaration/anticipation that is both familiar and strange. It is the feeling I have at the beginning of things, when I feel most creative. And this inverts the feeling of Poe’s story in exactly the way I wanted it to.
Can the left brain create a short story? The answer is no, but it can start one. And since a good right brain story usually needs to get shaped up by some left brain logic, there is a nice symmetry here. It is good to have many ways to get to a short story. The important thing is to make sure it delivers the experience for the reader. If they don’t have a blast, what’s the point?