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Possibilities

August 13th, 2009 5 comments

When it comes to writing, possibilities are all around us, and they not only can provide inspiration for our next masterpiece, but they can be a potent remedy for Writer’s Block.  Every day, events both large and small happen in our lives, and they potentially contain our next story or novel.  Not only that, they contain seeds that can blossom in many different directions.

Here’s an example from my own experience.  A few days ago, I went in for plastic surgery to remove three lesions on my head.  It was painful.  After the surgeon cut around the lesions, he gave me shots with a tiny needle to numb them for removal.  As I lay there, occasionally joking with him, it occurred to me that there just might be a story in this.  What if I got up from the table, looked in the mirror, and found that I had a new face?  Perhaps I’d leave the office to discover I’d lost my public identity.  No one recognized me anymore, and that included my wife, my kids, the people at work, my employer, and so on.  Imagine trying to earn a paycheck under these conditions, or getting amorous with my wife when I looked like someone else.

Can you guess what tabloids would make of this?  PLASTIC SURGEON ACCIDENTALLY GIVES MAN A NEW FACE!  Use your imagination and create your own banner headline.

But this is ridiculous, right?  For Pete’s sake, I only went in to remove a few lesions.  Still, in the realm of the imagination, anything is possible.

Here’s another possibility: I gazed in the mirror and saw my new face, but no one else did.  To the world at large, I looked exactly the same.  In fact, even when I was photographed, I looked like the John of old.  But not to me.  To Yours Truly, I appeared to be someone completely different, perhaps even a . . . woman.

Hmm . . . that may be going too far.  Still, can you imagine the interesting complications that would create in my life, the fascinating fictional twists I could give it?  Please ponder the possibilities.

Maybe you’re a realistic writer and have no tolerance for full-blown fantasy.  Very well.  Let’s make the plastic surgeon an attractive woman, and when our eyes meet, we have an instant connection.  At first I think it’s romance and that I’ve found a lifelong soul mate, but later I discover the surgeon’s my daughter from a casual one-night stand thirty years ago.  And woe for me, she wants revenge for never having a father.

No, scratch that last sentence.  It’s too bizarre.

Let’s tack in another direction.  Science-fiction, perhaps.  Or horror.  My plastic surgeon is a mad scientist, or at least a man who finally can’t resist the temptation to try a new, untested procedure.  So Dr. Jekyll injects my cheek with a mysterious solution, and in the days to come, I gradually transform into an evil, physically grotesque creature.  Or perhaps I change into a divinely beautiful one, so exquisite I can no longer live among people.  Or perhaps . . .

By now, you should get the idea.  If you’re a writer, possibilities surround you 24/7 and enrich your life even though they may wear prosaic clothes.  They’re as close and imminent as your next visit to a drugstore or visit to the dentist, even as close as your next sneeze or broken shoelace.  Keep a creative eye open for them, folks, and you just might have your next (prize-winning?) story.

 

 

Categories: Fiction, ideas, inspiration, novel, Writers, Writing Tags:

Writer’s Block

October 13th, 2008 2 comments

John B. Rosenman

Every writer has a writer’s story, right? Well, here’s mine in the creepy spirit of October. Once, about sixteen years ago, I drove home from my writers’ group and some things happened that made me wonder if I was beginning to lose my mind. Back then, I’d barely heard of Alzheimer’s, a disease that sneaks upon you like the subtlest of thieves and steals your mind and soul.

To many writers, perhaps the most horrifying thing of all is the possibility of losing their mind, the very source of creativity which makes them writers in the first place. Hey, folks, it could happen to you. . . .

 

WRITER’S BLOCK

Morey Rosenfeld was feeling just fine as he drove home that night. Stopping at the toll booth on Route 44, he picked up the quarter from the seat beside him and tossed it into the basket. Then he continued toward his home.

The night was rainy, the weather cold, but things were just jake with Morey. After all, the writers’ group had loved his story. Okay, okay, to be strictly accurate, they had only liked his story. But all five members in the library near the waterfront where they met every two weeks had praised it in one way or another. True, some had been more enthusiastic than others, but all, he was sure, had liked it. Jacqueline, in fact, had actually written “Great Stuff” on the front page in the irritating chartreuse shade she favored. And even Richard, his beard bristling above his ample stomach, had said that with a little tightening and a better ending, it might be “quite good indeed.”

That was what he yearned for: getting home to his study where he could polish that tale to a high gloss, sort and pick among all their criticisms to create something that was truly fine. Licking his lips in anticipation, Morey turned on the radio and started to tap time to the music. Ah, the Beatles and Yesterday. That was his generation. Well, fifty years old or not, he still had plenty of time to be a successful writer, didn’t he? Who knows. Maybe he had two or three best sellers in him just waiting to come out.

Morey frowned, lightened up on the accelerator. Let’s see . . . He must be approaching the toll booth by now. He’d better get that quarter.

Blindly, he felt beside him on the seat where he had put the quarter so he’d have it handy. Where was it? He ran his hand back to the fold at the rear of the seat, then moved his fingers in widening circles on the fabric. Nothing. Could it have fallen to the floor?

Carefully, he bent forward and felt about to no avail. No, it couldn’t be there because he remembered placing the quarter securely beside him on the seat about halfway back. Since he hadn’t slammed on his brakes, there was no way it could have fallen off. Puzzled, he felt about the seat again. Still nothing. And he’d need the quarter for the toll booth, which must be right up ahead. . . .

It was then he remembered picking up the quarter several miles back and coming to a complete stop to throw it in the basket.

The memory made him catch his breath, and a moment later he had another shock. He had borne to the left instead of keeping right, and now the median kept him from getting back over so he could make the turnoff to South Military Highway. He looked angrily at the cars just beyond the median, which was where he wanted to be. So close and yet so far! Despite the urge to reach the other side, he knew that driving over the median’s curb was unthinkable. He’d just have to keep going on this side until he could loop around at Merrimac and head back. That meant going miles out of his way.

What’s wrong with me? I forgot the quarter, and now this. Turning off the radio, which only annoyed him now, Morey tried to tell himself that he’d had a long day and it was late. But another explanation occurred to him, one that caused a cold knot of fear to form in his chest.

His father . . . Against his will, he remembered how his father had been at forty-eight, just weeks before his death. By that time he had become so senile he couldn’t even remember his name or go to the bathroom by himself. Morey remembered the beloved face staring at him without comprehension in the nursing home. Not a flicker of recognition, not a glimmer of what they’d shared had touched his father’s eyes. Only forty-eight, the man he’d admired and loved had sat like a vegetable in rubber diapers, staring at him with a vacant gaze he could never enter.

When he reached Merrimac, Morey swung around and headed back, trying to out-speed the dread that was gaining on him. Thirty years before, when his father had died, Alzheimer’s was a word that no one used. But articles Morey had read since made it clear that there was a certain family predisposition toward the disease. Not an absolute correlation, of course, but definitely enough to make him concerned.

Like father, like son.

While still in his early thirties, Morey had started to monitor himself and watch for early warning signs of the disease. He knew the first indications of his father’s decline from talking to his mother had come when he was forty-four, or perhaps as early as forty-three. Little losses of memory at first, absent-mindedness that his father had passed off with lame jokes. Then, however, had come greater lapses, leading ultimately to oblivion.

When Morey had reached forty-six with no symptoms, he had permitted a small sigh of relief. And each year as another birthday passed, the odds had looked a little better. Two months ago, when he had turned fifty, he had almost felt reborn, telling himself that it looked like he was out of the woods.

Now this had happened.

Keeping to the right, he turned off onto Military Highway and headed home, still trying to convince himself he was wrong and had nothing to worry about. Come on, could he really be turning blotto when he had the presence of mind to worry about it? He laughed. Sure, he was tired, that’s all. The office drained him, and this evening he had driven fifteen miles to a two-hour meeting. He had every damn reason to miss a turnoff.

But the quarter. He had forgotten that too.

Fear clawed at his heart despite his efforts to shake it off. Then he remembered his story and felt his mood brighten. Sure, they had all liked it and he was going to get cracking on it soon as he got home. Let’s see . . . Richard and Alan had both felt the ending was anti-climactic and said he should end the story a paragraph sooner. But instead of that, he’d . . .

Pulling into the driveway, he turned the engine off and reached for his briefcase, which he’d put on the passenger seat beside him.

No briefcase.

He sat there for a minute with his hand on the seat, half-hoping it would appear. When it didn’t, he closed his eyes, then opened them and felt the seat again. This time he moved his hand around as if to conjure or compel the briefcase to return. After all, he thought, he was a horror writer and maybe the damn thing had been snatched by some demon into the nether regions.

That’s not funny, Morey, he told himself. Not one fucking bit.

He turned on the ceiling light and gave the car’s interior the once-over. Then he did it again. Nope. Oh dear sweet Christ, he didn’t see it anywhere.

Maybe he was going crazy. His father’s curse all over again but just a few years later. Maybe he should even be grateful for the extra time.

He got out of the car and looked at it. Walked around it a few times. Then he got in the car again and looked it over, this time craning his neck to peer beneath the seats as if a briefcase five inches wide could fit beneath something almost flush with the carpet.

Nothing.

He got out, closed the door and leaned against it before putting his face in his hands.

Staring against the blackness inside his eyelids, he heard the front door open and the outside light snap on. Then footsteps.

“Morey, are you all right?”

He lowered his hands, blinked at his wife’s plump, concerned face.

“I . . .”

Morey?” She came and took his hands. “What’s the matter?”

He tried to control himself, but his voice quavered. “Sarah, I can’t remember.”

“Can’t remember?”

He shuddered, his face and mouth wanting to scrunch up like a little boy’s, like his five-year-old son’s had when he’d fallen off his trike.

“I . . . I forgot about the quarter for the toll, and then I didn’t get off at the right exit because I forgot to keep to the right.” He swallowed. “And now I can’t find my briefcase. I distinctly remember putting it in the front seat of the car when I left the library, but when I got here it was gone!”

She peered into the car. “Have you checked?”

“Damn it, of course I’ve checked! Do you think I’d say it if . . .”

“Of course not,” she soothed. “I’m just trying to cover all the bases.” He watched the light come on as Sarah opened the door and knelt on the seat to look inside. For a moment, he found himself hoping that his brown briefcase would miraculously reappear just where he’d left it. If it did, he wouldn’t ask any questions.

But it wasn’t there, of course, and Sarah could only back out and stand looking at him.

“Did you go to Super Fresh on the way home?” she asked. “Maybe you left it there.”

He shook his head. “No. I came straight home.” But then he paused. How did he know he hadn’t stopped and walked into the supermarket with it? He sometimes stopped there on the way home to buy beer or ginger ale. And the fact that he hadn’t bought groceries home didn’t mean anything. Hell, if he was losing his mind, maybe he’d left them there too.

She studied his face. “Morey, are you sure you didn’t stop somewhere on the way home and leave your briefcase?”

“Yes!” Panic clutched his throat, and suddenly he realized something. His story – a glitch had erased it on his computer and he hadn’t saved it on disk. Worst of all, his hard copies with readers’ comments were in the briefcase! The story, the fine story that they’d all liked which he’d intended to revise, was gone. Gone Gone Gone! And he knew he couldn’t reconstruct it from memory.

Almost choking, he told her about it.

“Oh, Morey.” She came and held him. “I’m sure it’ll turn up.”

“No, it won’t!” he said. “The story’s gone, every last copy. It was a good story, Sarah. They all liked it.” He sucked in his breath before continuing. “My father . . .”

Her lips tightened. “Now, Morey, I don’t want you to get upset about that. You’ve just had a long day.”

“It’s not that!” he said. “It’s my father, don’t you see? What happened to him, what I’ve worried about. It’s coming true, and the same pattern too. First, you forget little things, then . . .”

He clutched his head.

“Stop that,” she ordered. “We both agreed you didn’t have to worry anymore. You just had a physical and tested out fine.”

“It doesn’t matter!” He stepped back, not wanting to be touched. “A physical can’t tell your mind’s starting to go. It can’t see inside your skull.”

“I still say you’re taking this much too seriously.” His wife glanced at the car. “Morey! Have you looked in the trunk? Maybe you put it there.”

He froze, remembering that he, Richard, and Jacqueline had talked for a half hour in front of the library before he’d left. Perhaps he had picked up his briefcase from the walk and put it . . .

No. He hadn’t. There was no reason to put it in the trunk.

“Come on,” Sarah said, “give me the keys. You have them, don’t you?”

He fumbled in his pocket and gave them to her, then stood gazing up at the bone-white moon. The wind moaned like a lament, and he thought of all the stories and best sellers he would never write now. The dark legacy of his father was closing upon him, and it was worse than with his father because he had things he wanted to say. Things he must say. Now he would simply forget them along with his deep desire to write, which he had discovered just a few years ago, a need which had transformed his life and pointed in an exciting new direction. Now he would never write at all, would never find what his ultimate potential was. He would simply end up gazing into eternity as blankly as his father.

“Morey,” Sarah grunted, “I can’t get it open.”

He shook himself and walked over to the trunk. “Here, let me –”

Abruptly the trunk popped open.

Washed by moonlight, the interior was clear. A spare tire, a jack and flashlight. An old copy of Family Circle.

No briefcase.

He stared at the magazine, then turned and walked into the house. Sarah found him in the kitchen a few moments later.

“Morey . . .”

He raised a hand. “Don’t say anything.” He sat down at the kitchen table and looked up at her. A tear ran down his cheek. “It was such a good story, Sarah. They all liked it. And I looked forward to rewriting it, getting it just right.”

“You will, dear. Trust me.” She put her arms around him again, pressing his face against her soft blouse. “It’s not your father’s illness. You’ll see. Your briefcase will turn up and you’ll have your story and be able to work on it just as you wanted.”

He pulled away. “No, I won’t! I’ll be just like my father and you’ll be my mother all over again, looking after me until it’s just too much and you have to put me in a home. Not that we can afford it, of course, not with the cost of those places being what it is these days.”

“Morey!” She knelt and looked up into his face while he wondered if he’d even recognize hers in a year. “You’re just working yourself up for no reason,” she said, clasping his hands. “Look, try once more. Isn’t there some place you might have left it?”

“I just told you,” he snapped. “I . . .”

He stopped. “What is it, Morey?” she asked.

He rubbed his mouth. Yes, he’d been talking to Richard and Jacqueline in front of the library. And then, when he’d left them, he’d reached down and picked up his briefcase. . . .

Or had he?

He stiffened in the chair. He must have taken it. If he’d forgotten, they would have stopped him, wouldn’t they? They would have called, “Morey, you left your briefcase.” It was unthinkable that he’d just walk away. That is, unless he was losing his mind.

But the way he was thinking now showed rational analysis, deductive reasoning. If he had forgotten the briefcase, now he was thinking his way to a solution, and mental cases didn’t do that.

“What is it, Morey?”

He sighed and told her.

“Well, what time is it?” she asked when he was finished. “Maybe you can still call the library.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s too late. Nearly ten. Besides, I know for a fact I didn’t leave it there.”

Call, Morey,” she said. “What can it hurt?” He watched his face. “Please!”

He sighed, knowing it was useless. He hadn’t left the briefcase there.

Please, Morey.”

He shrugged. “Okay, but it won’t do any good.”

He reached for the phone book, then realized he remembered the number clearly. Heart pounding, he dialed the number.

At the other end, it started to ring. Once . . . twice . . . three times . . .

He started to replace the receiver.

“Wait,” Sarah said. “Give them more time.”

He returned it to his ear. Four times . . . five . . . six . . .

“Sarah,” he said, “there’s no –”

On the seventh ring, someone picked up the receiver. “Hello?” a young woman said.

Morey cleared his throat. “Hello, I . . . I didn’t think anyone was still there.”

“I had some books to re-shelve,” the woman said. “Can I help you in some way?”

“Yes, I . . .” He glanced at the sliding glass door, seeing his tight-lipped reflection, his eyes burning with lamplight. Is this the face of my father? Will I forget even that which is closest to me? “Look,” he continued, gripping the receiver so hard his fingers whitened, “I know it’s probably a waste of time, but could you look and see if there’s a briefcase standing on the walk in front of the library? I think I may have left it there.”

“A briefcase?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll go and check. Be right back.”

He heard the phone being set down and then receding footsteps. Sarah patted his shoulder.

On the wall, the clock ticked. He counted a dozen notched moments of time, then gave it up.

Footsteps approached. Then: “Hello?”

“Yes,” he said, knowing it was hopeless.

“Is it a brown briefcase?”

He sat up, his heart pounding. “Yes! And it’s . . . uh, got a dent in one corner.”

“And initials? MR.”

MR. Of course, he’d forgotten! Sarah had given it to him for his forty-eighth birthday. “Yes,” he laughed, almost drunk with relief. “They stand for Morey Rosenfeld. That’s me.”

Polite laughter. “Well, I’m delighted to tell you it’s perfectly safe, Mr. Rosenfeld. I’ll place it in our closet and you can pick it up when it’s convenient.”

“I’ll be there tomorrow morning!” he sang. “Thank you!”

Sarah beamed as he hung up. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

He wanted to shout. “Thank God! I . . . I thought I was losing it. My father . . .”

“Now, I don’t want to hear any more about him. You’re not your father, Morey.” She stroked his hair. “Tell you what. How about you relaxing while I make us both a nice hot cup of cocoa?”

Cocoa: it was just what he needed. “Thanks,” he said. “That would really hit the spot.”

He watched her put the kettle on, and a few minutes later smiled as she placed a steaming cup before him. “There,” she said, “I gave you two. You deserve them.”

He looked at the marshmallows floating on top, and laughed. “I sure do.” Savoring his relief, he took a sip of the sweet rich chocolate.

“Good?’

“Hmm-mm.”

She sat down at the table and took a sip from her own cup. “Morey?” she said after a moment.

He smacked his lips, his cup already half empty. “What is it, dear?”

“I was just wondering. This story the group liked so much, what’s it about?”

He picked up his cup again. “You want me to tell you the story?”

“Yes, I know I’m not always interested, but you seemed so excited about it.”

He grinned. “You know, you’re a woman after my own heart.” He took a deep breath, eager to begin.

She took a sip. “Well? I’m waiting.”

In his hand, the cup started to tremble, the cocoa rising higher and higher toward the rim.

“Your story, Morey,” Sarah prompted. “Here’s your big chance. I’m a captive audience for a change.”

Sweat formed on his forehead as his cup shook more and more. A drop of cocoa fell to the floor. Then another.

Morey?”

He stared at her, hot cocoa searing his hand without his even knowing. Any moment now, before she asked once again, he knew he would have to answer.

Categories: Fiction Tags:

The ‘Old In and Out': How to Review Short Fiction

June 13th, 2008 9 comments

by John B. Rosenman

Before we begin, here are two quotes from an article that presents the whole subject of book reviews from a somber perspective.

Newspaper book reviews don’t make money.  Ever.  Anywhere.  And they are dying like polar bears in the Artic.

. . . Publishers don’t appear to believe that newspaper ads can sell books.  Well, not ads in book review sections, which studies have found to be the least-read section of the Sunday newspaper.

       – Steve Carper, “Writer’s Bloc – The Sad State of Book Reviewing.”  The SFWA Bulletin, Winter 2008.

On May 27, Richard Dansky posted an excellent article on writing reviews, titled “Upon Further Reviews.”  It inspired me to review my past and travel down Memory Lane to a time twelve or so years ago when I reviewed short fiction for Tangent Magazine.  Since Rich’s blog seems to focus more on books and novels than short stories, I thought I might share my experiences in reviewing short fiction in an effort to supplement his comments concerning the review process.  Specifically, in the words below, I hope to answer three questions.

1.  What’s the best way to review short stories?

2.  Should short stories be reviewed differently than books, especially novels?

 3.  Does the best way to review short stories tell us anything about the way to write them in order to sell them?

Two great things Rich says are that a book review should answer two questions for the reader: first, it should determine whether the book is “worth a reader’s time and money,” and second, “If so, why?  If not, why not?”

I believe that reviewers of shorter fiction (e.g., fiction up to seven or eight thousand words) should answer these same two questions.  However, for obvious, practical reasons, if you are reviewing a book of a dozen or more stories, it will probably be important for you to get to the meat of the matter immediately.  When I started reviewing short fiction for Dave Truesdale of Tangent, I felt a need to explore every nuance of a 2,500 word short story.  After all, I had been a member of a writers’ group for several years and knew how exhaustively we critiqued each other’s stories, even if it was a drabble or flash fiction.  But the more I reviewed short fiction, whether it was in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, or Little Deaths, a 24-tale collection of erotic horror fiction edited by Ellen Datlow, the more I saw the necessity to keep it short and sweet, or as Dave Truesdale said, to “get in and out” as fast as possible.

It reached a point where I tried to review a short story in under a hundred words, perhaps as few as seventy or eighty.  Think it over: If you have one or two dozen stories to review, you want to get to the heart of them ASAP.  What folks want is a quick, hard and fast rating, one they can see at a glance.  Does the movie get three stars or four?  If you want to fine-tune it, make it two and a half or three and a half.  While my reviews did not provide a visual rating symbol of this kind (though many book reviews do), I tried to make it plain in those ninety words or so if the story was worth the reader’s time and money, and to what extent it was worth it.

Some readers may disagree with my approach, and initially I resisted the need to “go short.”  I loved short fiction and wrote longer, more analytical reviews to plumb their depths.  But for practical reasons, I soon found that brevity was often the soul of good reviews.  If you reviewed a novel, you could take more time, but with short fiction, less was frequently more.  Basically, in evaluating a story, you wanted to do the following:

      *Identify the author and summarize the plot or its highlights.

      * Identify its strengths and weaknesses, or as Rich Dansky said, tell to what extent it’s worth the reader’s time and money. 

As an example, here’s a sample review, with a few details changed for discretion’s sake.

Sarah Martin’s cover story, “The Eternal Kiss,” shows the consequences of not heeding a father’s warning to stay out of a dangerous forest.  After Cassandra walks in it, she unleashes a warrior imprisoned there for 300 years, who turns her into an old crone with a kiss.  The question is, can her father, a skilled sorcerer, turn Cassandra back into a young girl? Though this is a well-constructed story, it could have used a little more tension and a more cleverly concealed ending.

After readers read this review, I hoped they would know (1) what the story was basically about, (2) what was good about it, and (3) how in the reviewer’s opinion it could have been improved.  In general, then, was the story worth reading and if so, to what extent?

In giving an overall assessment of a collection of short stories, articles, and the like, whether it be a periodical such as Asimov’s or a book of stories such as Little Deaths, the same general principles apply: i.e., get in and out quickly in no more than a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five words, and cover the really important stuff.  Below, for instance, is my introductory paragraph to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, # 31 (Spring 1996) in the Fall 1996 issue of Tangent

This is a good but not great issue with cover art by James Balkovek and an interview with Poul Anderson by Raul S. Reyes.  One nice feature is the inclusion of a “Cauldron” ballot so that readers can vote for their favorite stories and artists, and a report of the results for the previous issue.  However, it would be even better if they included the number of votes received so we could tell how close the three winners were.  Regarding the fiction, my personal feeling is that MZB’s avoidance of sexuality sometimes leads to blandness and limits characterization.

 By this point, I believe we’ve answered two of the three questions I asked earlier.  In general (there are exceptions, of course), individual short stories should be reviewed much more briefly than novels or books for practical reasons such as space, which require the reviewer to leave a lot out.  Assuming this is true, though, does it tell us anything about the best way to write short fiction so we can make that big sale? 

In my opinion, it does.  A short story is a complex creation requiring much artistry and thought.  There are many mistakes the writer can make, so many choices.  It follows, therefore, that very few stories will be perfect or nearly so.  However, if the editor/publisher likes the basic story itself, the plot and character and essential flavor, then they are more likely to purchase it and deal with the defects later when it comes to the editing process.  Generally, do they like it or not?   

Too simplistic?  Perhaps so.  However, here’s a suggestion.  The next time you write a story, follow it up with a 100 word personal holistic review in which you briefly summarize its plot and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.  Stand back, if you will, and try to see the forest rather than the trees.  If you give your story an “old in and out” review of your own, you may find that it pays dividends. 

One last note: I joined the Storytellers community in June 2006, so this begins my third year as a member.  I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and look forward to our future!