shining the spotlight on short story collections
Recently, I had to write the acknowledgments for a collection of (very) short fiction, and as I thought of person after person to thank, I realized maybe I hadn’t been that kind-of mythic, solitary writer of lore, holed away from the world as if in a cave, banging out words that barely can be seen with the light of a single desk lamp.
A story recently accepted by Cream City Review illustrates this (modern) phenomenon. The story began with a prompt in an online office: “Pick at least two sentences (or more if you dare) and use them verbatim in your story.” The ten sentences—for example, “Who is Marvelous Marvin and why is he wearing my underwear?” and “Candice, twenty-four is not just two dozen!”—presented a goal, and the equally energizing challenge of a deadline in which to write the story. I decided to use all ten sentences. The surreal quality of each one led me to the idea of an hallucinating character, and the different names made me think of that character envisioning an entire village. So what kind of person would be transformed profoundly from this village of figments? Someone alone, fated to paralysis, someone like my own father, suffering with Parkinson’s, a thought which lead back to me, fearful about my future, my ability and commitment to care for him, the disease in my own genes. None of these deep-seated drives would have been confronted or brought to light without that initial prompt.
So thanks Scott Newton Twombley for that prompt that led to a draft of a flash about a father hallucinating because of his Parkinson’s medication and the son’s allowing the hallucinations to continue with disastrous results.
So many of my stories wouldn’t exist without the impetus of a prompt. I’m in a flash-a-day writer’s group that uses 5-word prompts generated daily (People sign up for a day of the week; on a recent Tuesday, I posted “mine, fire truck, birth, market, uncharted,” words I found on the front page of CNN). Recent stories came from a Writer’s Digest prompt about a money-filled enveloping leading to adventure and First Line Journal’s requirement to use a given first line (“While not the intended effect, the outcome was surprisingly satisfying”). Word-limits, such as the six-word memoir or the five-hundred word limit of Quick Fiction, often not only help generate stories, but also create an urgency in the writing.
Once posted, the story, tentatively titled “Future Perfect Tense,” underwent a reading, review, and (gasp!) voting by the online office members. The feedback focused on taking out some of the prompted sentences, confusion about the ending, its disjointed feel, and a general dislike for the tentative title, “Future Perfect Tense.”
So thanks, David, Ivan, Tania, Elise, Karen, Beth, Kim, and Frank (and the rest of The Flash Factory) for all your insights!
The story won that week’s contest, giving me the confidence to revise it. I really liked the title, even though most people didn’t; I liked the way it evoked the son’s fear of his own fate (future), the father’s desire for health (perfect), and the Parkinson’s (tense). I decided to tell the story using future perfect tense, making the thing people had the strongest reaction to (albeit a negative one) a central part of the story: “Before the police arrive, the Parkinson’s will have stiffened my father’s movements, slowed them down to God’s time.”
Having people respond to an early draft gets me to focus on the central element of the story, to figure out what draws people’s passion and interest. While the prompt forces me to search for the story to contain it, these first readings give me the feedback needed to know what aspects of that initial story to emphasize, what the primary focus will be. Often, the thing readers didn’t like—really, really didn’t like—becomes what I build the revision on, for it’s often what gives the story its originality and edge, its ability to stand out among a world full of stories. It’s not the focus group agreement I’m looking for, but the sense of where the readers’ passions lie. In this story, it had to do with their dislike of “future perfect tense,” their uncertainty about whose story it would be (the father’s or son’s?), how much everyone liked the hallucinated village the father created, the ambivalence about its ending with a gun and a police involvement. These responses defined, for me, those areas of risk, made me aware of what I was up against with this story, the things that, if I wanted to keep, had to be sold to readers with an equal amount of belief and commitment.
Next, I posted the story at the Zoetrope Virtual Studio Flash Wing Workshop, where sixty-nine writers read it and nine offered formal reviews. For forty days, readers and reviewers have access to the story. Along with the comments and insights and suggestions of the reviewers, maybe it’s those forty days of waiting—my resisting the desire to send it out now!—that allow a story to reach (or at least, get close to) its full potential. The typographical, grammatical, nit-picky errors get discovered, along with broader issues of plot and character and the like.
Thanks Eliza, Bonnie, Tom, Rosanne, Melissa, Jeanne, Bev, Kevin, Gary and all the flash-happy Zoetropers for the reviews!
Each story searches, during those forty days, for its ending, its sense of fixity, the right word in the right slot, the inevitable yet surprising finale, a rightness, the ending that’s more than a joke, a twist, a clever word-play. Depth. Profundity. Discovery. The gain that only comes from loss. Something that haunts, like those figments from the father’s deepest desires. What an amazing thing it is to know I have the time and help to find those final words—or, as is (too) often the case, to learn that I’ve already found them, a few sentences or paragraphs earlier.
Well, this story gets a happy ending, a publication in a journal I’ve (often) wished about getting into. Sadly, there’s only room for my name on the byline. In addition to the aforementioned names, there are of course those hundreds of other names that made it possible for me to write that story, every story, names that go back to the time when my grandfather, Ed Simpson, carried in his wallet the poem I wrote for him and pulled it out to show anyone who stopped to talk to him.
The hardest thing for me, as both a person and a writer, to do is to step out of that dark, womb-like cave and take the risks necessary to face the uncertainties inherent in writing stories. While the final answer always resides inside, the outside world of writers and readers have helped me with every single story I’ve written or published. To thank all of them would take more words than I have available—and plenty more I haven’t the ability to express. The collection that came together as a result of all their quotes begins with a quote from Kerouac; in the collection, I didn’t include the beginning of that quote, “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones….” I discovered, in writing and collecting the stories in Mad to Live, how important it is not to shamble alone, but rather with a whole host of mad ones dancing with you along the way.
So thanks, Dingledodies.
Randall Brown teaches at Saint Joseph’s University and holds an MFA from Vermont College. Work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Hunger Mountain, Connecticut Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Evansville Review, Dalhousie Review, upstreet, and others. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008) (Read the Short Review’s review here). His essay on (very) short fiction will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field (Rose Metal Press 2009). He is currently the Lead Editor at the flash journal SmokeLong Quarterly.