I love writing short stories but set that aside as I pursued writing novels. I’ve had six short stories published and amongst them are some of my favorite characters. I’ve considered revisiting these people who inhabited me for spurts of time and had their tale told in 3,000 words or less (I write very short short stories.) And after reading Rita Plush’s post on short story writing and short story collections, I’m considering it again.
I’m hearing about more and more short story collections these days. Do you read short stories? Have you written or published short stories? Tell us in the comments.
Please welcome Rita Plush back to Women’s Fiction Writers.
Alterations: The Short and Long of It
by Rita Plush
Stories link us, they connect us to our own lives and to the lives of others. Story-telling is as natural as speaking and goes as far back as humankind. Think of the cave paintings and how people recorded their lives before they had words to express themselves. We’re wired to document our lives.
And so we tell our stories. We describe and elaborate, at times we add a little color and interest to make the story better. As writers, we stretch the truth for the sake of a more interesting story. We tell stories about everyday things, what the cable guy said when he hooked us up to HBO. Or we describe the outrageous outfit on the checkout girl at Waldbaums, the one with the eyebrow piercings and nose ring when she rang up our chicken parts and Eddy’s ice cream.
Then there are our family stories, told and retold. Stories that go back generations and become part of our oral history, telling about how Grandma Malka hid cigarettes in the hem of her long skirt to bribe the border guard in order to gain safe passage to America. From our children to our grandchildren we pass down these stories so that they might know how it was with their ancestors, linking the generations one to the other.
Sometimes the spoken word becomes the written word, more structured, more ordered, but always there are our stories.
Part of my personal story is that I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t begin to write till I was in my late forties as a candidate for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Queens College in NYC. Now in my mid-seventies—it’s never too late girlfriends!—I have many published essays, articles, one novel (Lily Steps Out, Penumbra Publishing 2012)—another in the works—and a collection of short stories (Alterations, Penumbra 2012) under my faux leopard belt, and though writing came naturally to me, getting my stories into print was another story entirely.
Ninety-three tries—and that’s no typo—it took before my first short story was published in 1993. Other stories I sent out met with the same kind of rejection. What was I doing wrong? My stories had heart—I thought. The characters were believable—my writers’ group said they were. Yet all that came in the mail were form letter rejections and the occasional “try us again.” And try I did, till “Love, Mona,” that first story was picked up by a journal, and over time others as well.
To anyone who is struggling with a novel and thinks a short story would be a piece of cake, my advice is Don’t Try This At Home. It’s precisely because of its brevity that the short story requires a certain kind of discipline. And though, as with a novel, there are no hard and fast rules to follow, I’d like to share some of things I’ve learned over the past twenty years that have helped me in honing my skills on the short form.
- For one thing, because we have much less space in which to tell our story, a smaller landscape in which we and our characters can move around, there is sess room for little asides and vignettes—I do love those little asides and vignettes—fewer characters—one of my favorite things is creating characters—no wonder my stories were rejected time and time again.
- The backstory, if there is one, needs to be incorporated into the narrative or dialogue. Dialogue being the most practical and word-efficient way to move the story forward. Yet an entire, understandable world must be created in those 10-15 double-spaced pages.
- Every word, every gesture, everything that’s said and done by your characters, the setting, the climate and atmosphere of the story, must bring the reader to the climax of the story.
- That doesn’t mean that the story has to be neatly tied up. The ending can be open-ended, it can be a surprise, but it should resonate with what has already been laid out. We want the ending to make sense to the reader, even if that ending is disturbing. Make them cry, make them laugh, make them beg for more.
“Alterations” is a collection of stories written over a period of twenty years, some of them harking back more than fifty years, stories that had lived in me, the way stories do, as a bit of memory – a certain smell, the turn of a head, or the particular sound of a voice.
Stories set in Brooklyn, are told through the eyes of a child growing up with the rumble of the El along 86th Street, walking with her mother in her big-shouldered mouton coat, as she did her errands and talked with the shopkeepers. The walkup apartment house where the metal taps on her shoes made a satisfying clicking sound as she ran up and down the marble steps. The seamstress in the building, her friend’s father who seldom spoke, the people her parents knew, the relatives—her ear pressed to the wall, hearing talk that was not for her to hear—the people they spoke of in Yiddish so the child would not understand.
Decades later, they called to me, the memories of them morphing, changing, altering, the people becoming characters that were and were not them. And I kept writing. I dressed my characters, gave them habits and a particular way to speak and put them down on the pages, wanting things they could not have, remembering things they wanted to forget. They mended and they sewed, they owned stores and boutiques, they jerry-made contraptions and carved dollhouse furniture. They dug in the dirt and planted tomatoes, and put together a jigsaw puzzle in a far off mountain cabin—they loved to dance.
“Alterations” didn’t start out as a collection, in that one day I sat down at my laptop and said, “I’m going to write a collection of stories.” It started with that one story I began in 1993 about a quilted dime-store night table and a sleeping Mexican painted on a cupboard door, the story I had a compelling need to tell. Other stories followed. But I no more thought collection, than I thought my name was Joyce Carol Oates.
A collection needs a connective link, stories that have something in common, a recurring theme or idea that ties them together. But I wrote my stories without a specific theme or idea in mind. The characters and the writing itself brought the stories to fruition. Little girls and adolescents, a teenager, a father, a son, grown women, a whole slew of characters, who to my mind had little to do with each other. Yet when I reread them all again last summer, I saw that there was a link, and that link was the aching need for family, a recurring theme in my novels as well.
Families of different types and mindsets, families that were broken and those that were healing, families my characters clung to, and those from which they ran. And it was to that enduring notion of family life, with all its messy complications, its intrigues and dramas, its loving and sometimes mysterious bonds, that I dedicated “Alterations,” in memory of my parents, Molly and Max Weingarten.
Rita Plush is an author, teacher and interior designer. Her writing practice includes fiction and non-fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in many literary journals including The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iconoclast, The MacGuffin and Passager. She is the author of the novel, Lily Steps Out (Penumbra Publishing, May 2012), and she is at work on a second novel that follows some of the characters in “Lily.” Her short story collection “Alterations,” was published by Penumbra in May 2013. She has lectured on the decorative arts at libraries throughout Long Island, at Hofstra University and CW Post-Hutton House and is Coordinator of the Interior Design & Decorating Certificate at Queensborough Community College and teaches several courses in the program.
Rita, and the publication of Lily Steps Out was the feature article—“published and proud”—in Newsday’s Act II section in July, 2012, and “Rita Steps Out,” was featured in the Times Ledger August, 2012. She has interviewed on Metamorphosis, The Writers’ Dream and The Play’s the Thing on Long Island TV, Chanel 20. She has guest blogged about writing on Best Chick Lit, Women Fiction Writers and Dames of Dialogue to name a few.
Visit her at www.ritaplush.com for more news about Rita.