Tag Archives: John Smolens

Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

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…continued from John Smolens’ “How to Get Your Story Started” in The Writer, is step 5.

5 Now you’re ready to begin a short story (60 minutes).  Keep it simple.  Have at least two characters in the same place at the same time and have them respond to each other in some way.

I sometimes call this “The Last Vacant Seat on the Bus session.”  If nothing else, have a character take the last available seat on the bus (or a train or a plane) and start the story the moment she sits down.

The key, as with nearly all stories, is that there needs to be some kind of conflict.  I’ve had students begin with someone who reeks of garlic, or someone who immediately begins asking the other character personal things (“What does your mother think of that tattoo on your neck?”)…

This is probably my third try on this step.  Really, my “narratives” from steps 3 and 4 were more entrances to story than anything.   I rarely experiment so often with different perspectives in one piece of short fiction.  It’s an interesting process I’ll probably do often to force myself out of a failing piece, which is the most comfortably sad place for fiction to be.  This piece requires a lot of research–I feel committed to keeping Andrew as a pilot, so here goes.

start time: 8:45.

I never cared to fly with Andrew, but he never begged like he did that afternoon, with his eyebrows all overgrown and upward-arched as though they might give him some sort of innocence I knew he didn’t have.  I went just so he would quiet down.  My head pounded worse than normal, like all the noise in the world fell asleep in my ears and woke to a rotten alarm clock, a horrific concert of pain and thought, so many violins, laughing children, drum beats and then, Andrew.

“So you’re coming for sure, right?  You aren’t going to sit in the copilot’s place, then bail on me before buckling the belt, last second, like usual?”  Andrew asked.

“I never did that,” I said.  Sometimes he just liked to hear himself talk. “Why did I marry you, again?”

He didn’t answer.  I couldn’t either. The birds loomed, bawking against the clouds like little terrors.  I prayed for one to unleash on me, so I could go home and shower, taking flight myself.

He called this plane Laney, and gave her a pronoun that oozed from his mouth like honey into his morning tea.  Sickening, if you ask me.  My legs ached when I saw the white plane.  The familiar black striping down the side seemed to lock me out of the ethereal part of Andrew’s life.

“You ascared?” he asked.  His brown eyes sharpened, nearly black, his smile widened, the creases nearest his temples deepened. Perhaps this is what frightened me about the plane deal.  How can he have such appreciation of something without a pulse?

“Afraid, you mean?  And no.  I’ve never been afraid of one thing.”

“Not those mice from last fall?  The ones in the pantry?”

“No,” I said.  We would be able to see our house from the air here, I bet.  Maybe my rheumatologist’s office or the supermarket.  My life would disintegrate into specks.

Andrew extended his arm from the doorway of the plane.  Surprised it was strong enough to pull me up, I gasped at the effort I had to put into it.  Was that satisfaction in his face?  There, in his forehead, right below his widow’s peak.  Satisfaction.

“Well I’m glad that was so easy for you,” I snapped.

“Take a load off,” he said, gesturing to the seat beside him.

“No, I’ll sit in this back seat,” I said.  He seemed a stranger, to me, in this place–mostly because his back was curved slightly towards the dials, his hands were lax like paws, and there was no recliner, no breakfast nook, no place for me there.

end time: 9:52.


Step 4 of John Smolens’ “Get Your Story Started”

Continuing in the fiction mode, here comes Step 4 of The Writer magazine’s “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, verbatim:

4 Now write again, trying a different approach or perspective (60 minutes).  Consider the material you gathered from Step 3 again; this time, however, vary your approach.  If in the last session you wrote in the third person, this time work in the first person; if your last session was primarily narrative, then this time try to create a scene with dialogue. 

The point is to mix things up, to see things from different perspectives, which to a large degree is what fiction is all about–it offers the writer a unique sense of freedom.  It asks you to explore not only the exterior world through a character’s eyes, but to explore her inner world–why she sees things the way she does.

Since last time I wrote in first person with much dialogue, this time I will write primarily narrative in the third person.  Here is my response.

Start time: 9:02.

NYC2123 Laney

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When Andrew left, Arlene was sleeping and had all the shades pulled down against the sunshine.  This kind of sun was unusual for Western NY in February, so Andrew took the clear skies as a sign he wouldn’t find any resistance.

Arlene insisted she couldn’t drive, so she wouldn’t miss the car.  Andrew didn’t wake her to say goodbye because she knew he was leaving and hadn’t bothered to say a word to him since she found out.  Andrew didn’t think about when she’d see him next or if she’d see him at all.  She planned that Andrew would return for her rheumatology appointment next Friday.  He knew better.

When he saw Laney, it was his life calling him back.  Sure, Arlene allowed him to fly Laney around the region, but she reacted like Laney was his mistress.  Really, she had more reason to be jealous than she knew.  Laney was a small plane–a single engine, a dove-gray beauty that had been mostly idle since Andrew’s last flight, a night he’d almost left.  About five months ago, Arlene had checked herself into the ER with pain so searing she claimed she was dying.  By midnight, she felt fine, and the doctor confirmed she could leave.  When they walked into their house, Arlene’s cave, she poured some Shiraz in a glass to toast her recovery.  That’s when Andrew took Laney out last.  Arlene passed out after a few more glasses, so Andrew flew Laney around the Lake Ontario, glimpsing how the waves kissed at the shore.  With each breaking wave, he imagined the fish pushing further into a warm hibernation, and Arlene falling further into herself.

Today was the matrimonial flight, Andrew kept telling himself.  He left his wedding ring on the speckled counter at home, next to the wine rack, where Arlene would be sure to find it.  Even his fingers could feel the difference.  There wouldn’t be much left for him to say.

Jordan, his nephew, had been managing the airport since Andrew’s retirement.  He agreed to get Laney ready for Andrew’s flight today, but didn’t know he wasn’t coming back.  Arlene resented that Jordan inherited Andrew’s airport and the air crafts.  Besides Laney.

Even the control Andrew felt, the palpable lifting of the wing flaps with the push of the hard charcoal lever, signaled that Andrew might have nothing to do with the passing birds, but could navigate this aircraft without worry about its body and how it might fail.  When he pulled the throttle to its full position, he was assured the plane would move clearly and swiftly into flight.  He would lift off, over the hospital, over his home at Lakeview Terrace, past the town limits and off of the unforgiving land.

End time: 10:16.

 

 

 

 


Where Fiction Intersects: Step 3 of John Smolens’ “Get Your Story Started”

Instructions from Step 3 of “Get Your Story Started” by John Smolens from The Writer magazine:

3. Write something that links some of the pieces (60 minutes). 

Consider what you recorded when you got out of the house and now write a narrative that attempts to connect some (probably not all) of what you saw and heard.  Establish a single point of view other than your own, and in a voice that is very not you.  It may be based on one of the people you observed, or it may simply emerge from the writing.  If so, you’ve moved away from simply recording your observations towards writing fiction.

E.M. Forster famously encouraged literature to “only connect,” and I believe it’s a good signpost to put in the path of fiction writers.  It gets them thinking about relationships, about cause and effect.

Plane over Hillsboro, Oregon.

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My response to Step 3.  Start time: 9:20.

Arlene holds her cane as though it’s an option, an accessory, like her crimson-rimmed reading specs.  Sure, she’s in control, always in control, but she looks miserable, like a used mop that dries hardened with salt from the winter slush.  She’s weathering, all right.  But I don’t feel sorry.

She told me she was getting drinks tonight, so I know she’s not up to snuff.  “Do not to say a word to me like that last time,” she said to me in the car, so I won’t.  I squeezed her leg anyway, from across the console.  She didn’t flinch.

Now, at least there will be a table between us.  I don’t have to be the good husband, not physically, anyway.

“Arlene!  How wonderful to see you,” Joel, the restaurant manager, says.

Is it?  She’s a wreck.

“Joel.  How have you been?”  Arlene spins her cane out as though it’s her dance partner, not her saving grace.  She wants him to hug her because I don’t.

He does.  Christ, he’s a baby.  Gotta be mid-forties.  Her chin stays put on Joel’s shoulder bone for a long time.  I’m confident that it doesn’t bother me.  Maybe he thinks she’s his grandmother.

“Andrew,” Joel says, thankful to pull from Arlene’s grasp.  “How’s retirement?”

Whys everyone always asking this?  Good.  One step closer to death.

“Fantastic,” I say.  “You know, playing some solitaire, some online poker.”

“Must be nice for you, Arlene, to have Andrew around more,” Joel says.

Is it?

“Yeah.  It’s getting better,” Arlene says.

I smile anyways.

“So how ya feelin’?” Joel asks Arlene, but looks at me.  I’m already sitting, so Joel helps Arlene sit in the booth.  She has that grip on his sweater that shows the yellow tones in her skin.

I’m not saying a word this time.  Last time I had to tell Arlene to keep eating, so she would keep occupied and not tell the whole damned place about her course with illness this time.  She’s lucky.  Some people suffer.

“Oh, Joel.  These shots in my legs.”  She’s gesturing down, as though he can see the pain through her slacks.  “They make me feel like I’m damn pregnant.”

“Sounds rough,” Joel says.  “I wouldn’t know much about that.”

I’m smiling again.  Neither does she, I think.  Even when she was a pretty thing, she was fertile as the Mojave.  Hell, maybe she would have had children to care for her.

“Joel, I’ll have a vodka on the rocks.  If you have time to grab it for me,” Arlene says.  Christ.

“Sure thing, Arlene,” Joel says. “Andrew?”

“I’ll have a coffee,” I say.  It’s gonna be a long night if it’s anything like last night.  I dumped her drink, red wine from a bottle that’d been re-corked on the counter for months.  She wasn’t moving from the living room recliner, that’s for sure, but her mouth was.

That’s when I let it out.  “Arlene, I’m leaving on Tuesday.”

“Where are you going?  And what will I do?”

I was going to leave.  Leave.  Capital L.  My mind was halfway round the world already.  My parents died in Georgia, had a sprawled-out plantation home that my sister keeps now.  I’ll fly Laney out there first.

“I have to meet with Jordan,” I lie.  “He needs some help with Laney.”  She hates that plane, and that I gave my nephew the airport, but I have no one else to pass it to.

We haven’t talked about my trip yet today, but I’m sure when she finishes the glass of vodka Joel has just set in front of her, it will come up.

Joel is a good man.  A bit of a girl, sure, the way he’s so eager to please.  Should have asked him for some Moonshine to see how far he’d go to get it.

“Your coffee, Andrew.  Been out on the plane lately?” Joel asks.  He’s being kind.

Arlene snorts.  Her hair has grayed even more since I’ve retired, or she’s stopped keeping up with it.  She looks god-awful.

“Not lately.  I will as soon as the weather breaks,”  I say.

“Oh, you will?” Arlene asks.

“Wanna come?” I ask Arlene.

“Never did,” she says.

“I can’t believe that Arlene,” Joel says. “I can imagine the rush.  Why haven’t you gone?  In all these years,” he says.

All these years.

“I’m sure the pressure and elevation would do a number on my body,” she says.

Right.  Or her mind.

“Nothing like it,” I say.  “The jolt of the engine, the smooth hop you feel just under the heel.  It’s freeing,” I say.

“Take me out sometime,” Joel says.

“I wouldn’t trust him,” Arlene says.

She doesn’t.  She shouldn’t.

“Sure thing,” I say.

Stop time: 10:37.


The Voyeur…continued from “Get Your Story Started” by John Smolens

The following is taken verbatim from The Writer magazine article, “Get Your Story Started.”

Waiter!

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Step 2- Get out of the house (60 minutes).

Go someplace different, someplace with a lot of people–preferably people you don’t know or seldom see.  Restaurants, bus terminals, train stations and airports are excellent sites.  Find a spot and observe the people around you.  Describe as much as you can.  You may use lists, narrative passages, fragments of overheard conversations recorded as dialogue.  Catalog what you see; gather as much detail as you can.

Here is my response.  Some of it might not make much sense.  We went to dinner at Park Ave Pub, thinking we would find lively conversation and people from a large spectrum of life.  This is a fine dining restaurant.  The service was wonderful, but I can’t help thinking that the fact I kept a mini legal pad and a pencil to the left of my place-setting made them think I was writing some sort of criticism of their restaurant.  It’s not a pub.  Don’t be misled by the name.

Much of what I have recorded is in portions of conversation.  There was only one booth behind me, and since we were seated by the window, we were on the outskirts of the floor.  Not to whine, but I’m whining.

The Restaurant Itself

A dark, intimate space–the paint gold and taupe in an almost-argyle pattern.  The bar was lined with people, very organized and polite in their own spaces, like dolls surrounded by clear plastic cases.  From the ceiling were strings of crystal discs that caught an ethereal glow from the Christmas lights hung along the perimeter of the room.

Our table had a candle that cast a pumpkin-colored shadow across the grain of the butcher-block.

The ceiling resembled a cedar-shingled wall hung above us.

Behind Cory a pair of mirrors in a medieval shape were framed and surrounded with brick veneers.  He kept looking across the restaurant, and hissing that the plants surrounding the sconces were plastic.  “I hate plastic plants,” he said at least three times.

I kept shushing him because I was trying to hear the businessmen behind us.  To everyone else, we must have looked like the couple in the restaurant that didn’t speak to each other.

Across the restaurant was a really beautiful painting.  The whole place was neutral, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the painting was in muted golds and taupes, too.  The image was of three men scraping hard at hardwood floors.  From my seat, the floors in the painting resembled toothpicks, the way they cozy up next to each other like planks you could walk on.  Cory called the men “planers,” which was interesting to me.  In the corner of the room in the painting, was a dark mass I couldn’t make out.  Cory mentioned maybe it was a dead body.  He’s reading too much Dexter.

Loud conversation from the bar.  Debating Aphorisms.

“So you mean you don’t know ‘See you later alligator?'”  Man said.

“No, I suppose I haven’t heard it,” Woman said.  “Is it like ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?'”

Snippets of dialogue from the businessmen doing business at the booth behind me.

“Yeah it’s cold out there.  I’m used to it though.  I’m from the Adirondacks.  We keep the house at 60 degrees, so we don’t do a lot of entertaining,” said Waiter to Airport Owner.

“I own a little airport in Lake Placid.  You know we land, some single engines, some twin engines, mostly small, ten-passenger planes,” Airport Owner said.

“How did you get to owning an airport?” Waiter asked.

“The same way you go into the restaurant business,” Airport Owner said, chuckling.

“So you have a teaching degree, too?”  Waiter said.

Finally, the Fuel Salesman showed up to dinner, and Waiter offered the men wine.  They must have been shy to order, because Waiter prompted again, “Red or White?”

“Eh, red,” Airport Owner said.

“Well there’s the red wine list,” Waiter said.  “Then there’s the list that’s off the list.  And if you still don’t find something to your liking, there’s the list off the list off the list.”

Other random snippets heard from the businessmen.

“I used a hair dryer to melt the snow.”

“Another dealer went bankrupt a couple days ago.  I said I’ll wait for the Chapter 11 until…”

“…in today’s day and age…”

Loud talker at table across the restaurant

A brown-haired woman said to the table of five, “Didn’t you think the dogs were miserable?”  she laughed, and that made me think she was being nasty, like Cruella Deville or something, but the rest of the table laughed too, so maybe she was just being honest.  Or funny.  She didn’t look like a funny person.  She just looked average in her navy blue, cable-knit sweater that I imagined was from Coldwater Creek or Dress Barn or Fashion Bug.

The last diner  This is a sketch of the woman I saw most clear.

Her name is Arlene, and she walks with a cane.  Her hair is so frosted that if it were snowing, you wouldn’t see the flakes nested on her strands.

The owner or manager greets her by name, Arlene, and she is happy to see him because she holds her cane away from herself to give him a hug.  She seems tired in her gray turtleneck sweater, as if she might want to pull the knit up to her forehead and nap.  Or lay her head down on the manager’s shoulder.  She says to the manager, “I feel pregnant with these shots I’ve been getting.  I can feel the stuff in my legs.”  The manager steps away from the booth and gestures for her to sit down.  When she does, her companion (husband? brother? friend?) enters my view.  The manager addresses this man as Andrew.  He is perfectly suited to Arlene, a gentle person, with the color of steel wool, but the touch of felt.  Andrew pats Arlene’s head and sits across the table from her.

So there’s Step 2.  Tomorrow night, I will post Step 3.


Shared Prompt: “Get Your Story Started” from The Writer magazine

English: penulis = writer

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I came across an exercise in The Writer magazine that I thought would be fun to assign in workshop.  But first, I need to test it. “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, is featured in the January 2012 issue, and is a five-step process to jump-start a piece of fiction.  Lately, especially in this blog, I’ve been focused on nonfiction for whatever reason, so really, I’m not too far from the self-focused students in my soon-to-be ENG 210 class.  I am a pretty good specimen for this experiment.

Smolens prefaces his process by saying he’s used it with both novices and experienced fiction writers.  This exercise is meant to concentrate not on length, but on time spent writing.  The five steps are meant to be followed on five nights, respectively and consecutively, and each step has a prescribed amount of time.  I am following the steps exactly as they are described.

So, taken verbatim from The Writer magazine, January 2012 issue, is the first step:

1. Focus on where you write (45 minutes).

Write for a minimum of 45 minutes, describing where you are as you write, how you are writing (using pencil and paper, computer, etc.) and why you have chosen this particular time of day to write, Simply describe your physical location, what about it makes you comfortable–or uncomfortable.

…the first step prompt continues on for a while, so I won’t bore everyone with its description here.  If you’d like it, let me know, and I’ll find a way to get the article to you.

Here’s my response to the test.  Start time: 9:20 p.m.

1. To my left, there is a banker’s lamp from my grandfather.  My father meant to discard the lamp because he was skeptical it would work.  The glass shade was tilted, dusty, and loosely screwed on.  I took it from the back of his Jeep and told him I’d work on it.  Though I won’t leave it on unattended, it really brightens up my writing area.  I also like the irony of the “banker’s lamp” on my writing desk.

I’m sitting at the desk in my purple study, which was finished shortly before my second son was born.  I chose the color, and now I can’t remember the name of the specific shade, based on the responses I received on a Facebook poll.  Ridiculous.  Cory says it’s purple.  It’s more complicated than that.  A purply-brown, maybe?  The walls are covered with found art, photographs (new and old), and gifts from friends.  Some things on the walls are not photos or pictures at all:  I have a menu from Java’s on Gibbs, that I’ve framed.  I have a cowgirl coaster set from my friend, Anne, that is tiled precisely square, with looming horse heads on each, just below an old vintage bird “silhouette” art piece that my husband, Cory, bought for me for our four-year anniversary from the failing antique shop north of Main St.

Cory is nearly sleeping, leaning up against the wall on the built-in bench/hidden storage area he and his father installed for me.  I’ve just turned off the Sabres game, which was playing on the radio from a window behind my blog post.  They won, so I’m guessing he’s having a good dream.  He’s asleep at this point.  Though he was reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the novel that the Showtime series, Dexter, is based on, so maybe his dream is not so pleasant.  When I’m writing and he’s reading he takes a deep breath, and that’s when I know he’s going to interrupt me.  Then he’ll say, “Sorry to interrupt you, but…”  This time it was, “Do you remember the first person Dexter killed in the first season?”  Oh, seriously? I think.  Aren’t you about to read about it?  Dexter came into our life via Netflix (is this the right spelling?  I guess the spell check probably wouldn’t recognize it).  Cory found the series one day when he was off work and I was teaching.  Since, we’ve been pretty hooked.  We watched all five (or maybe six?) seasons before this last season began.  Now it’s over, and I have to wait until next fall, I guess.  This is probably why Cor bought the book.  He needed a fix.  Now, he’s snoring.  In twenty-five minutes, when the experiment is over, and I get up from the computer, he will deny falling asleep, like he always does.  It bothers me, and I’m not sure why.

I’m drinking a pomegranate martini.  This is unusual for me.  I’m not a desperate housewife, or raging alcoholic, but I had a rough day today, as far as cleaning up Johnny and Sammy’s messes go.  This was part of the reward.

Cory is still sleeping, but has sighed and rubbed at his nose.  I stop to look at him, and think the absence of the clicking will wake him, but it doesn’t.  He is so sleeping.  When he sat down to read, he said, “Man, sitting on this is like getting into a coffin.”  I know he’s never been in a coffin, but I let that go.  “At least you’re alive,” I said.

Directly in front of me is one of my favorite pictures.  Partly because it’s so unbelievably believable, and also because it’s of my brothers.  In the background of the picture is a large wall calendar.  It’s 1971, a year that I really believe I should have lived through.  My brother, Darrin, is sitting on a formica table in a white overall jumpsuit with what looks like a matching conductor’s hat.  It’s cute, but he’s a dork.  No, he’s actually only three.  Three-year-olds get a pass.  My other brother, Jamie, is barely able to sit up on the table.  My mother’s arm is holding him up, but I can’t see her fully.  All I can see is the dark outline of her arm, the shadow cast slightly just beneath.  Her arms haven’t changed.  They even had burn marks from the oven racks then.  Between my brother’s legs is a liquor bottle that reads Penn.  I’m not sure what type this is (if I wanted to stop, I could Google it), though I’m betting it’s whiskey.  In his mouth is an unlit (I hope) cigarette.  He is also wearing a conductor’s hat, though his is either pink or orange, not white.  He is not yet a year old.  I’m guessing less he is less than six months old.  I wonder where that table is now.  I would like to have it.  Gladly, I  know exactly where my brothers are: Darrin is the smoker.  Jamie is not.  Hmm.

My martini glass is persimmon in color.  I hadn’t heard that color in ages, and then I heard it on Phineas and Ferb, and have been dying to use it since.  Dalmation-like spots pepper the glass.  I love this glass.

Before I started writing, Cory and I were watching Teen Mom 2.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures.  Very few television shows can captivate me like this.  I almost didn’t write at all, but Cory turned off the tv before the second episode came on.  The third episode starts in one minute.  There were a couple reasons I didn’t want to stop watching: A baby girl had to be sedated for an MRI, and her parents were crying wrecks while she was slid into the machine, her big toe monitored by a gray plastic apparatus to be sure her heart didn’t stop.  Another reason, a little boy’s mother had left him to be with her boyfriend, and when she broke up with her boyfriend after a domestic dispute, his mother returned to the boy, who was being cared for by his grandmother.  He ran, smiling huge, with his arms outstretched to his mother.  I wanted to swoop in and pick up the poor boy, and then trip his mother.  (I think Cory just woke himself up with his own snoring.  It scared me a little.)

Cory just sat up and asked, “What time is it?”

I told him, “It’s 10:03.  I have two more minutes I’m supposed to write.”

He squinted at me.

“How was your nap?”  I asked.

“I didn’t nap,” he said.

One last sip of the martini.

End time: 10:05 p.m.