Monday, October 23, 2017

What Exactly is a Short Story?

These last few days, theTeaching Authors have shared their admiration and wisdom about the indomitable short story. With special congratulations to our own TeachingAuthor Carla Killough McClafferty on having a story featured in the brand new collection, 30 People Who Changed the World: Fascinating Bite-Sized Essays from Award-Winning Writers--Intriguing People Through the Ages: From Imhotep to Malala edited by Jean Reynolds. Short stories are Mary Ann’s guilty pleasures.  Esther raises four cheers for the short story.

I have to admit, I am not a big reader of short stories, although I’m not exactly sure why. In fact, I'm not so sure I know what a short story is. O yes, I’ve read Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. I’ve even published a few, working with the mighty Marion Zimmer Bradley when I first started out, many years ago.

But what exactly is a short story? I mean, I certainly understand the more cursory elements of the short story versus the novel. Short stories are, well, short. The character comes for a visit, stays for an evening, and complains about a particular problem. But then just as she is getting interesting, she leaves.

As Eudora Welty once said, “A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

 It turns out, the short story is becoming popular again. In her 2016 article, The Rise of the Short Story, Laurie Hertzel examines the reasons why the short story is not only gaining popularity, but enjoying a new heyday not seen in decades.

But, what exactly is a short story? 

“Writers who do short shorts need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness. Sometimes they have to be prepared to speak out directly, not so much in order to state a theme as to provide a jarring or complicating commentary. The voice of the writer brushes, so to say, against his flash of invention. And then, almost before it begins, the fiction is brought to a stark conclusion - abrupt, bleeding, exhausting. This conclusion need not complete the action; it has only to break it off decisively.” -- Irving Howe

“It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” – Raymond Carver 

“A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, ‘Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can’t forget me, there’s still more to write!’ Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect inside me in a very natural, organic way.”Haruki Murakami

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

"I seem to turn out stories that violate the discipline of the short story form and don't obey the rules of progression for novels. I don't think about a particular form: I think more about fiction, let's say a chunk of fiction." -- Alice Munro

“I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”O. Henry

Anita Desai (July 2017) reflects on how tales briefly told are in the habit of returning, that "... a short story is not a failed novel any more than a novella is an extended short story. Each has an altogether different set of rules and effects. Length is one of them, but lengths vary wildly. As Hortense Calisher said, “How long should a short story be? As long as a piece of string. I mean – to tie up the parcel with.”

 "Instead of those long stretches in which a novelist becomes stranded, the short-story writer must launch forth on what is a high-wire act, refusing to look back or down into the abyss, running the length of it at a sprint so as not to lose balance: quick, quick before you fall!" -- Anita Desai

So, it seems a short story is an organic, boldly told magical trick resembling a high wire act that stretches to the end of the universe and back. And if it makes you feel something, especially if it breaks your heart, it's good.

Does that sound about right?

Bobbi Miller

Friday, October 20, 2017

Out & About, And More on Short Stories

This has been a busy month for me, with various events to help launch my new novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing). Last Friday, Oct. 13, I spoke at the Fall Conference of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Catholic Library Association on the "Story Behind the Story of Playing by Heart." Tuesday evening I hosted my first ever Facebook Launch Party. The party was a ton of work to plan but great fun. I laughed out loud at times, especially during Game #3. (If you want to see why, you can read the discussion for yourself.) Tuesday was also the day my guest blog post on "Pulling a Novel from the Drawer" was published on the terrific Cynsations blog.

And just last night I gave a presentation to the SCBWI-IL LaGrange-Naperville Network on the topic of "Working with Small Presses." That presentation was based on the research I did for my article of the same name in the brand new 2018 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. I still have three more events scheduled in the next ten days, including a signing at the amazing Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville Saturday, Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. If any of you are in the area, I hope you'll stop by.

Also, before I get to today's topic, I hope you won't mind if I share a small request. My new novel, Playing by Heart, is included in this year's SCBWI Book Stop. I'd love for you to stop by my page and post a comment to help me qualify for some great prizes. (Comments have to be posted by Sunday, 10/22.) While you're there, you can see the lovely video my publisher made for the book.

Now for today's topic: Short Stories. Because of all the busy-ness, I haven't had time to really think about my post for today. I'd actually been looking forward to this topic because I'm trying to write a short story for an anthology and I've been having a tough time with it. Part of the problem is that I went to set it in the same world as my novel Playing by Heart, featuring some of the same characters, but I don't want to have any "spoilers" for the novel.

In the September edition of my Creativity Newsletter, I shared about trying to get back into a fiction-writing mindset after being away from it for so long. I talked about reading a book that had been sitting (unread) on my shelf for ages, Movies in the Mind: How to Build a Better Short Story, by Colleen Mariah Rae. The book contains some interesting exercises, such as one in Chapter Two called "Nightly Recap" that asks you to do the following at the end of each day:
". . . lie in bed with the lights out and recall as vividly as you can as many details as you can. No paper, no pencil--you're just doing this in your head in the dark. Think through what you saw, smelled, tasted, touched, heard, and felt during the day. . . .
      Flesh out the details. Don't just say to yourself that the wool sweater worn by the person sitting next to you smelled pungent--stretch. Where in your nose did you smell it? Did it jab on both sides behind the tip of your nose? Details!"
Rae goes on to say that doing the "Nightly Recap" develops a "writer's repertoire" of material to draw from. As I said in my newsletter, I believe this exercise can help other types of creative work besides writing. I'd argue that paying attention to details this way feeds the creative part of our brain.

I noticed that doing this exercise regularly caused me to become more observant throughout the day. My mind seemed more "tuned in" to the sensory details around me. Unfortunately, these last few weeks I've been so exhausted by the end of the day that I've zonked out before even starting this exercise. I hope to get back to it when things settle down again, just as I hope to get back to working on my short story.

Meanwhile, I'd like to share a couple of articles that may be of interest to short-story writers. The first, "How to Write a Short Story from Start to Finish" by Joe Bunting links to a second article he wrote listing "Top 100 Short Story Ideas." I didn't find the latter helpful for my purposes. Do let me know if it helps any of you. Also, if you have any recommendations for books on the art of writing short stories, please share them in the comments.

And special congratulations to our own TeachingAuthor Carla Killough McClafferty on having a story featured in the brand new collection, 30 People Who Changed the World: Fascinating Bite-Sized Essays from Award-Winning Writers--Intriguing People Through the Ages: From Imhotep to Malala edited by Jean Reynolds. I can't wait to read it!

Don't forget: Today's Poetry Friday! This week's round-up is hosted by Leigh Ann at A Day in the Life.

Just saw this morning that today is also the National Day on Writing. When I think about #WhyIWrite, the first thing that comes to mind is that I can't NOT write. It's part of who I am. Does that make sense to anyone of you?

Remember, always Write with Joy!

PS: Forgot to say: Congratulations to Judy S. for winning our giveaway of Playing by Heart. For all those who didn't win, stay tuned. We'll be having another giveaway soon!

Monday, October 16, 2017

30 Short, True, Stories

In this series we’ve been writing about short stories.  I’m announcing a collection of short stories—true short stories—compiled in a new book titled 

In full disclosure, I have written one of the short articles in the book. Each of the 30 entries is short, punchy, and entertaining.  It is filled with people you know and people you’ve never heard of before.  I think it will be a great book for classroom teachers to use with students.  And the details learned in the book will make any adult seem like a shining star in any future battle of trivia.   

Carla Killough McClafferty

Click here here to enter the book giveaway for Playing by Heart written by our own amazing and talented Carmelo A. Martino. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Short Stories--My Guilty Pleasure

     Psst!  You wanna know a secret?

     I am a secret short story writer.

    OK, a sort of secret short story writer. I have stories in two YA anthologies, SUCH A PRETTY FACE: Stories About Beauty and THING I'LL NEVER SAY: Stories About Our Secret Selves, both edited by Ann Angel.

    I grew up writing short stories. After all, what were our school readers but a bunch of short stories?  A five page short story was a doable proposition for an eight-year-old.  Writing a whole book?  That was for grown-ups.  (Sometimes I still think that I am not "grown-up" enough to write a novel!)

   Short stories were everywhere when I was a kid. My mom's magazines....Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, McCall's, Good Housekeeping...balanced out the recipes and housekeeping tips with short stories, two or three every issue. My own subscriptions to Seventeen, Teen and American Girl (a Girl Scout publication, not the doll people) not only had short stories, but story contests for their readers. In high school, I was a prize winner in both American Girl and Seventeen contestsWhile the prize money was cool, the real prize was publication in a national magazine.

First publicity photo, age 15, taken by my dad.

   I continued writing short stories as a young adult, but the market had dried up.  Those women's magazines had either gone out of business or stopped publishing fiction. The short story writers I admired published in "literary" magazines.  So I embarked on the "literary road" to publishing.

    It's a tough road.

   First rule of the pre-published author:  Know thy market. To educate myself, I read tons of digests, journals and reviews with names like Glimmer Train and Monkeybicycle. I discovered that if novels are a journey, short stories are an epiphany, a moment of time.

   Second rule:  Pay attention to rule number one. I learned that literary magazines don't like child protagonists, which puzzled me. I thought I was writing about childhood from an adult perspective like Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster or To Kill a Mockingbird.  I didn't write about adults because I just didn't find them interesting.  I was a school librarian, and spent roughly 75% of my day with kids whose lives were endlessly fascinating to me. Just not to acquiring editors. I went on writing about children anyway.

   Third rule:  Get used to rejection. These were the rejection slip years.  Literally, slips of paper with the phrase "does not meet our current needs" paper clipped to my manuscript. (Literary digests/journals/reviews run on a shoestring budget.) All this rejection arrived in my mailbox in a self addressed stamped envelope. When I pulled out those manila envelopes with my handwriting on it, it felt as if I was rejecting myself. Weird.

  Fourth rule: Always read your form rejection slips. You never know when some kind soul might add a personal note of encouragement. Thanks to a Post-it note on yet another returning story, I discovered my writing path.  "You write well about children" said the anonymous note, "but we don't publish stories about children.  Why don't you write for children?"

   Duh! I had spent years and years as a children's librarian. Why didn't I think of that?

   So I did.  Write for children from their POV, rather than about them.

   I still love short story writing. I still harbor a secret desire to wake up one morning reincarnated as John Cheever, although even Cheever might have a tough time breaking into print in today's market. Currently "little" magazines are filled with well-established authors.  I am really lucky to have been included in those YA anthologies mentioned above.  The authors for these collections have some kind of connection to the editor, either personal or professional. In my case, Ann Angel, the editor of both Such a Pretty Face and Secrets I'll Never Tell is a friend from the Vermont College MFA writing program. I keep a file of short story ideas, because you never know when someone might invite you to submit to an anthology, usually organized to a specific theme.

  Speaking of anthologies and breaking into print, here is your opportunity to be part of an anthology sponsored by and to be published by Crown Books for Young Readers in 2019.  Go for it! (I'd enter myself but this is specifically for unpublished writers!!!)

   I'll end this post with a picture of how I wrote my first stories. This is a my dad's 1914 Royal that  he bought secondhand in 1946 to attend night school. Talk about "pounding the keys." If you didn't throw your whole weight into typing, those keys didn't move.  Amazing I ever wrote anything because typing it was a physically exhausting experience!

     Book Giveaway: You have until Monday, Oct 16th to enter the book give-away for fellow Teaching Author Carmela Martino's new book Playing by Heart.  Click here to enter.

posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Monday, October 9, 2017

Let's Hear It for The Short Story!

The long and short of today’s post?

Number One: I get to introduce our newest TeachingAuthors theme - The Short Story, a literary form beloved by both writers and readers that offers an invented story shorter in length and less elaborate than a novel.

Number Two: I also get to introduce you to three of my favorite children’s books that, despite their different formats, surprisingly stand taller because their authors utilized the short story form!

Number Three: Times a-wasting so be sure to enter our Book Give-away of Carmela Martino’s YA novel PLAYING BY HEART, inspired by two amazing 18th century sisters, one a mathematician, the other a composer.  For details on how to enter, click HERE to read Carmela’s post.  The Give-away ends October 16th.

And finally, Number Four: WeNeedDiverseBooks is sponsoring a Middle Grade Short Story Contest!  The winning entrant will receive a US $1000 prize and his or her story will be included in the Heroes Next Door Anthology, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and published by Crown Books for Young Readers in 2019. The contest is open to diverse writers world-wide who have not previously published a short-story or work of longer fiction.  Click HERE for the details. Entries will be accepted October 15 through 5 pm, EST, October 31.

While I don’t write short stories, I do adore reading them.  My favorite writers of adult short stories include Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, Jhumpa Lhari and Alice McDermott.
When it comes to children’s literature, Mother Goose, Hans Christian Andersen, Raoul Dahl and Arnold Lobel top my list of short story authors.
Themed anthologies are all the rage now for both middle grade and YA readers.  I’m a Big Fan of Johanna Hurwitz’s BIRTHDAY SURPRISES (Beech Tree), which was one of the first such middle grade anthologies, published in 1997.

in short, here are those three favorite children’s books of mine that maximize the short story in all its glory: a picture book (!), an early chapter book and a middle grade novel.

There’s almost an element of sophistication when sharing author-illustrator Amy Schwartz’s picture book STARRING MISS DARLENE (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 2007) with little ones.  You can see them sit up just a little bit taller and feel just a little bit older when they realize this is a 32-page picture book with sections that look like chapters!  Each of the three stories’ words and illustrations - in “Theatre Class,” “Outer Space” and lastly “Sleeping Beauty,” can be taken in separately.  Read together, however, they are interconnected by the story’s lead character, one hippo Darlene.  Her dramatic longing and trio of efforts to shine grow in heft and depth as she hugely succeeds.  Three interconnected stories.  Three plays.  Three acts? Oh, how the short story form so serves this format.

I treasure my autographed copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s INDIAN SHOES (Harper Collins, 2001).  IMHO, it was ahead of its time as an early chapter book for 3rd through 5th graders. Each of the six interrelated stories is a stand-alone tale of but one adventure Ray Halfmoon, a mixed-blood Cherokee-Seminole living in Chicago, shares with his Grampa.  Read together, though, the six adventures show the fullness of their loving relationship.  Ray and Grampa had been the featured characters, I learned, of several of Cynthia’s earlier picture books turned back by her editor Rosemary Brosnan.  Cynthia thanks her in her dedication, identifying her as the someone “who believed that these two characters belonged in children’s literature and found a place for them,” not to mention, the perfect form.

Jim Westcott’s JACK’S TALES (SplashingCowBooks, 2015) gifts middle
grade readers with three short stories about the very same anxious boy over three successive years.  What better way to see a character overcome his fears?!  As with STARRING MISS DARLENE and INDIAN SHOES, each of the stories -“Jack’s Monster,” “Jack’s Pizza Ghost” and “Jack’s Save” -  could stand alone.  Jack grows before his very own eyes, as well as the reader’s, with each successive short story.

Thanks to their authors’ original use of a well-known literary form, not one of the above three titles falls the least bit short in telling its storied story to its intended audience.

Here’s to the Short Story, written and read!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, October 6, 2017

PW: Halloween Book has "Luscious Rhymes"

Howdy, Campers and Happy Poetry Friday! (The link to Poetry Friday is below.)

Be sure to enter our current give-away of Carmela Martino's new novel (inspired by two amazing 18th-century sisters who were far ahead of their time, one a mathematician, the other a composer), Playing by Heart. Details on how to enter are in this post, which introduces the book. The give-away ends October 16th.

Campers--I'm overjoyed to feature one of my former students in today's TeachingAuthors "Student Success Story." 

As soon as Denise Doyen walked into my 2005 UCLA Extension Writers' Program class, "Writing the Children's Picture Book," I knew she was a force of nature. Her writing was so strong, her life energy filled with such forward motion, this gal was going somewhere! She's a perpetual student. Before my class, she'd taken classes with Ann Whitford Paul and Barney Saltzberg. After my class she fit perfectly in Barbara Bottner's critique group.  

Author and poet Denise Doyen with her newest book
photo credit: Michael Doyen

Denise's first picture book, Once Upon A Twice, drew starred reviews (Kirkus raved that it was "Undeniably arrayed in a gorgeous brocade, woven of fresh, inventive wordplay," and a member of the EB White Committee wrote, "Wonderful writing in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Enchanting. Tickles the tongue and 'comes to life' as a read aloud."). 

And...BOO!  Just in time for Halloween, her newest stellar rhyming picture book is out, illustrated by the fabulous Eliza Wheeler, published by Chronicle Books. Filled with Denise's trademark inventive wordplay, it's earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly which said, "Luscious rhymes and an atmospheric eeriness immerse readers in a neighborhood battle." (Read the whole review here.)

So, let's meet poet and author Denise Doyen, shall we?

Welcome, Denise! We're so glad you stopped by. Could you tell us a bit about how your writing career began?

I had been a director/choreographer for children’s television at Disney. I loved creating entertainment for kids; but production hours are long and Hollywood’s a tad ruthless. I quit so I could closely raise my two sons. Later, when they got to be teenagers (that poignant, inevitable age of detachment, “Mom, drop me off a block ahead!”) I realized I missed having a professional creative outlet. My focus remained children. So, I enrolled at UCLA Extension, in “Writing for the Youth Market.” Over two years, I took in a succession of courses, primarily about picture books.

I really enjoyed your class; we made dummies, visited booksellers and children’s librarians, made fave-book lists, wrote/rewrote stories, read Bird by Bird and generally, got inspired. Great class. After UCLA, I joined SCBWI, and started attending all of its editor/agent days, writing workshops and conferences. I worked hard to make sure I really knew my stuff, then I jumped in! ...and began submitting. 

Boy, you're not kidding you jumped in, Denise. Can you talk a bit more about the critique groups, workshops, etc. you've jumped into? 

I’m in a critique group called GOYA which stands for either the Urdu word for “the suspension of belief created by a good storyteller” or an acronym for Get Off Your Ass! (and get published.) As you mentioned, I also claim a seat in Barbara Bottner’s Master Class, which is sort of a guided critique group with savvy pointers/prompts when you need them. I circled back through UCLA Extension and took novel and poetry classes to expand the scope of my writing. And I still take advanced workshops or seminars when I can find them and fit them in. I think a writer can’t help but keep learning while reading good books, editing, critiquing. But I do consciously search for new tools and shoot for keener insights. 

And how did you connect with your agent?

I went to the Big Sur Writing Workshop hosted by Andrea Brown Literary and Henry Miller Library. The wonderful writer, Meg Medina, was in my group. We synched, liked each other’s work. She rec’ed me to her agent there, Jen Rofe, and we hit it off as well. It was a kind act by a fellow writer, an example of a generous spirit that I’ve continued to find in the kidlit world. And Jen’s proven a true champion of my writing, exactly what one hopes your agent will be. 

(Campers, it's true, we are part of kidlit's generous community, and let me tell you, Denise is one of the most generous--truly.)  Denise, tell us about your new delicious new book.

It’s called The Pomegranate Witch. It’s loosely based on a childhood memory of a mysterious lady in my neighborhood. I told the anecdote to my writing group one Halloween and when I finished they said, “That’s a book!” Hunh. So, I stored that kernel of inspiration in my idea journal and started working on the story the next summer.

How did you go about writing it?

There were underlying themes I wanted to explore/expose: the fact that the hermits, loners or odd cat ladies we sometimes brush by, surely have—on closer inspection—interesting stories, depths or surprising former selves. I also wanted to show kids’ antics and imaginations back in an era of Free Play when an afternoon was full of exploring, scavenging and inventing on your own. Kids back then solved their problems without adult intervention. They learned from successive failures. They kept trying. It’s how one becomes resilient person. In the book, the gang fails time and again before they score a pomegranate—and yet they are thrilled with that singular prize ... because they really, truly earned it. (And yes, presenting those challenges is part of the Witch’s agenda.)

Because all this had a nostalgic feel and the witch and her tree, a legendary vibe – I decided on a traditional ballad form like Casey at the Bat or Paul Revere’s Ride, with their heptameter meter. It took me three months to craft the poem’s 24 stanzas--to make the rhymes unique and the cadences flow. I remember: I was working at a campus cafĂ© at UCLA every morning from 8:30am – 12:30pm while my son took a pre-calculus course. He’d come out of class and I’d be so happy, “I got a line done!” And he’d be like, “Wait. You’ve been writing for four hours and you got one measly line done? And that’s good?” “Yes!” (Let’s face it: writing a rhyming picture book is a fun but grueling process.)

Then, my insightful editor at Chronicle, Taylor Norman, challenged and goaded and patiently helped me make everything more crisp and clear. It’s an interesting process, figuring out when to defend and when to bend. We worked well together, worked things out. And finally came Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations. <sigh> I was so captivated when I first saw her fantastic, charming, quirky rendition of The Pomegranate Gang! I’m still smitten. Lucky, lucky author here.

The Pomegranate Gang ~ from book, The Pomegranate Witch

I love that--"figuring out when to defend and when to bend." And it's true--writing a rhyming story can be a "fun but grueling" process. Many of our readers know this well.  And finally, Denise, what’s the One Thing You Wished You’d Known as you began your Writer’s Journey? 

Ya know, I naively started out thinking I was already a pretty good writer. But what I actually was―was a natural writer with good potential. I wish I’d gotten down to the nitty-gritty of tackling my craft at a rigorous and professional level sooner, really learning all those boring punctuation and grammar rules, not being content with an overused metaphor, etc. etc. etc. It would have made me competent and competitive years earlier.
That's a great answer--thank you for your honesty, and for stopping by for a chat. I don't want too give much away except to say that your rollicking, rhyming original story make me hungry for pomegranates!


Now off you go, Campers, to Poetry Friday at Violet's today--
and oh, what a pumpkin-spiced feast it is!

posted with pomegranate juice stains on her shirt by April Halprin Wayland