review: Short Story Mechanics with Richard Thomas

My first writing teacher was my high school’s gym teacher. What could go wrong?

There we were: a small group of sensitive, bespectacled book nerds, our heads full of poetry, our thoughts a jumble of hormones and innocence, eager to pursue our dream of becoming a writer.

Toss in an angry meathead who doesn’t want to teach writing or have any respect for the craft. Boom. Mentally dismembered young writers, their unwritten stories bleeding on the linoleum floor, wondering what the hell hit them.

The experience turned me off writing classes for decades.  I wrote here and there for the following year, a twinge of PTSD with every word. That passed with time, and writing became a joy again.

After my first small publications, I wanted my writing to grow further and faster than craft books and critique partners could take me. I took a deep breath and hunted around for a class.

I ended up taking a short story class with Gamut (horror fiction magazine) editor Richard Thomas at Litreactor. I did my research to make sure I respected his work, finding some of his short stories, reading his Storyville column, and asking writers I know if they’d had the experience of working with or learning from him. The responses I got were favorable, so I signed up for the class.

And I got so much out of it.

Richard picked out my weaknesses and addressed them. He pointed out my strengths and built upon them. At multiple points in his lectures I had a ‘eureka!’ moment where I figured out what was making some of my stories fall short (and how to fix them). Never once in his critiques did he try to make my voice sound like his voice, and that’s what impressed me the most.

Now that the class is done, I’m going back to stories I’d given up on and getting excited about them again.

What the heck is your point, Jenn? I couldn’t find actual reviews of writing classes when I was hunting for one. There’s kajillions of them out there, and they cost money. For a struggling writer, money is often an issue and every hack with a wifi signal is onto the ‘masterclass’ buzzword. It can feel like a gamble.

I believe most writers will benefit from a class with Richard. The value is well worth the cost. Yes, this is an honest review. I’m not getting any compensation for it.

Richard Thomas has another Litreactor class starting up in late July, this one focusing on flash fiction. Check out his website and you’ll see even more. My kid’s got cavities we need to fix, so I can’t take another class for a while. Don’t be like us. Brush, floss, and take Richard Thomas classes.

keep-it-brief-3
he may look grumpy, but he’s no phys. ed. teacher. (Photo from litreactor.com)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some short stories to work on.

 

 

 

 

gentle whimsy from my tattered thoughts

At long last, I have found the place where stars go during daylight hours.

stars
#notscientificallyaccurate (that was for you, James)

#

I saw a single firefly last night in the rain. His little blue light glowed beneath the shelter of a plantain leaf. The light reflected back from the raindrops all around, and he didn’t seem lonely at all.

the terrible thing I did to the selkies

Karen and I spent the summer making fun of the beach selkies and the girls who mooned over them. I dunno, maybe we were jealous. Those guys had rippling muscles and oozed sex appeal, but they never looked at us, two gawky girls whose breasts hadn’t budded yet.

At the end of the summer there were a few who’d had their sealskin coats stolen by lovelorn women. They stood o016n the beach, unable to go home, looking haunted and broken. Searching.

Giggling with glee, Karen and I ran to the thrift store, buying every seal fur coat we could find. That night we hid them all over the beach.

We set up our beach towels for the day to watch the selkies find them and rush around with mistaken joy, only to be crushed when they discovered the truth.

It’s still the meanest thing I’ve ever done.

Karen laughed at me when I told her I felt bad. “They’re not even human!”

I gathered up the remaining coats and brought them back to the store. It made Karen furious. We never hung out much after that.

 

 

*this post was first written as a comment on a writer’s prompt at the Write Practice

a breakfast with fear

“Hello, Fear.”

“Hello, Paige.”

Paige strode across the sunny terrace to a bistro table set for two. Wisps of gauzy fabric whispered about her bare feet. She threw herself into a shaded chair with the petulance of a teenager whose been called a child. “What’s on the menu today? A cup of discouragement? A plate a self-loathing?”

Fear smiled, revealing his fangs. “Both, actually.” He served these dishes to her cold. “Enjoy your breakfast.”

She sipped at her cup in cheeky rebellion. It was all she had left and she refused to fight with him. “I must say, I couldn’t help but admire your work in the United States this week.”

Fear sat down in the chair opposite hers, crossing his legs and taking a nibble from her plate. “It’s almost too easy. The threat of nuclear war makes everything so deliciously tense.”

“Hmmm.”

Fear leaned forward, licking his lips. “What about you? How’s the writing going? Received any rejections of late?”

Paige shook her finger at him. “Naughty Fear. I haven’t even finished my breakfast yet.”

“Ah, then allow me to offer another dish: a bowl of ‘my accomplishments are all worthless’ stew. Full of all the things that eat you up on sleepless full moon nights.”

“How generous of you, darling Fear!” She watched him cringe at her ‘darling’.

“Now, Paige, be careful. You wouldn’t want to piss me off.” He snarled, his eyes flashing.

She leaned across the table, sweeping her cup of discouragement, her plate of self-loathing, and the stew to the hard-tiled terrace ground. They shattered with a satisfying smash. “Do your worst. You were always going to anyway.”

Drool began to ooze from his fangs. He always loved his victims best after they moved past the simpering, tearful stage. Paige held his gaze. She was growing stronger. He would make a writer of her yet.

 

a sketch of Harold

Harold’s ears pointed upwards, sharp enough to skewer a falling leaf. His skin had grown sallow and green-hued from shunning the outdoors in daylight and too many hours in front of his computer. A hard, bloated belly bulged at the buttons of his vest and poked over his belt. A permanent slump had begun to form in the painful spot where the vertebrae of his neck met his shoulders but he paid it little mind.

It hurt his feelings when people pointed and laughed at his appearance. He read blog after blog of people suggesting he not let it bother him, but no one ever seemed to offer any advice as to how to make this happen. He began to feel nothing but contempt for these self-proclaimed experts, these gurus of the internet.

Harold spent his days in the cramped quarters of his cubicle, typing at a frantic pace to keep up with the four to five live chat conversations his employer expected him to follow all at once. Each conservation represented a disgruntled customer he didn’t have the authority to assist. One out of twenty would thank him in the end, while the rest would swear and curse his very life.

By the end of most days Harold hated people, every single one of them.

The only time Harold spoke aloud to a human being was when he ordered a tea from the local cafe after his shift. If the girl with the charming smile worked that day, he would remove himself from line and go into the bathroom to test out his voice, hacking out the hoarseness that came from his lonesome, silent life.

When he could squeak out his order without an adolescent’s cracking voice, he returned to the line. His heart beat too fast for ordering tea and his eyes hunted the coffee shop for the chance to meet hers. Some days he lived for the moment when she brought him his tea, as if there was no one else in the whole world but her, and him.

IMG_8308

Until her eyes flicked over to the next customer and the spell fell to pieces.

The days she didn’t work grew dangerous for the innocent users of internet comments everywhere. His eyes grew sharper, his skin sallower, as he unleashed buckets of pent-up rage and bitterest hate on everything he saw. No one was safe, not the woman seeking advice for her toddler’s diaper rash – no, she was a terrible mother and he needed to rake her over the coals. Not the liberal commenter on the news site, nor the conservative one, how dare they have opinions! He would squash them into nothingness while cackling menacingly to the ceiling and finally, finally feeling alive and listened to and important and someone!

Harold is an internet troll.

story’s end

“How do you know when a story is finished, mum?”

I take a deep breath. “That’s a loaded question, pumpkin. Every writer has a different way of knowing, and I can only tell you my way.”

She looks frustrated. “But how do you know?”

“I know a story is done when I can read it out loud without tripping over any lines or feeling self-conscious.”

She stares at me, a perplexed look on her face. I struggle to explain myself. “It might sound simple, but it takes a lot of work to get there. First I revise it a few times on paper, then I start reading it out loud, pen in hand to mark the spots that need work. Sometimes I’ve gotten my plot tangled in my first revisions, so I have to do undo all of that.”

She continues to stare, the furrow in her brow growing deeper.

I start to sweat. “Sometimes I’m so embarrassed I want to burn it, so I put it away for the rest of the day. By the next morning I’m ready to tackle the broken spots and sculpt my story into what I want it to be.”

I chuckle. “These days this involves pen, paper, and a clipboard resting on the baby’s bottom while she contentedly suckles. When I’m done I’ll feel happy and exhilarated.”

“Exhilarated?”

“That means happy and alive. When I wake up the next day, I might read it again and realize how much work is left. One day I’ll read it and everything will fall into place, a story that flows as smooth as the baby’s bottom it was edited on, and then, at last, I’ll know it is done. At least until my critique group tells me otherwise, but that’s another thing altogether.”

She shakes her head. “No, mum, I mean, how do you know when its finished?”

I stare, drawing a blank. “I don’t understand.”

She stamps her foot. “How do you know when to stop reading?”

“Oh.”

She waits.

“Well, it usually says ‘the end’.”

20170402_150627
writer at work, baby’s bottom not shown

Save

what’s in a Nim?

Baby has arrived and she’s settling into our lives well. Or, more accurately, she’s overturned our former lives and ripped out the guts of our routines. Now, seven weeks after her auspicious arrival in the middle of an ice storm and a seven day power failure (you’ll have to wait for more on this in a future essay), we’ve rebuilt our lives to include her.

We named her Nimia, a hard-won name, I must say. We had a hard time naming our first daughter (Evening), and our second proved even tougher because we were determined to find a name we loved as much as we loved Evening’s.

20170212_125637_resized-001
our wee Nimi-gnome

It’s a great deal harder to name children than characters. With characters, you can write whole drafts knowing full well you haven’t found the right name yet, but with kids it’s different. You can’t change it five drafts and three months in when you find one that suits them better. You’ve filled out legal documents that will follow them everywhere. People know them. It would be like J. K. Rowling changing Harry Potter’s name to Reginald Montgomery in the seventh book. Confusion and complication will follow.

 

Harder still: you have agree on this name with a whole other person. I have pages of names I adore, written in two long lists of female and male, but that doesn’t mean Mr. The Spouse likes them enough to name his children after them.

Does everyone make naming their children such serious business?

We happened upon Nimia’s name when I was eight months pregnant. She had been Nim for a few months already; there’s a few Nims floating around in the fictional world and I’ve loved every one I’ve met thus far. When I hear ‘Nim’ it strikes me as full of fun and unexpected giggles – the perfect name for our little girl. However, we still struggled with a grown-up version of it to give her. For a while she was almost Nimue, but the Lady of the Lake seemed a lot to live up to, and there’s always that matter of Merlin still trapped in a tree …

As for fun and unexpected giggles, our Nim has this funny goat-giggle she makes in her sleep which we find quite contagious. Her name suits her well.

I suspect not every writer takes character naming as serious as I do either. Good ol’ Billy Shakespeare suggested “what’s in a name?” as if he could just pluck a name from a crowd and plop it onto the page without a second thought. No curated lists of striking names for him. Then there’s Neil Gaiman, who famously wrote down ‘Coraline’ in a misspell and got a whole book out of it. What about you? Do you struggle to find the perfect name for a character or does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Do you reach for a pen every time you come across a name that grabs your attention?

A Bedtime Story of the Apocalypse

“The sun won’t go out, mummy. The dragons will save us,” a four-year-old said.

No one listened to the hopeful nonsense of a four-year-old.  A few people standing near her in the grocery store shook their heads. Her mother, who had been reading the nutritional label on a box of Cheerios before the intercom announced the impending apocalypse, ruffled the little girl’s hair with tears in her eyes and said, “Of course, honey. Why didn’t I think of that?”

The mother blinked back her tears and took her little one home to the country, far from looters and panicking hordes. She turned off all media that declared the inevitable end of everything. She pulled out puzzles and toys and sat on the floor and played with her daughter and tried not to think of the end of days.

It was the best two days the four-year-old had ever known, even as the light outside grew dim. “Better than Christmas!” she told her mum with a hug.

On the third day she suggested to her mother they go outside and watch the dragons.

Mother obliged. All that mattered anymore was that her little girl was not afraid. She found reserves of bravery she didn’t know she had to protect the child. She kept her trembling hands to herself.

“Look, mummy, there’s one now!” The little girl pointed at the sky in delight.

Her mother’s eyes followed her gaze and froze. There, an impossible dragon climbed through the sky.  As it grew dark, they watched the dragons breathing fire, twinkling orange lights in a sky full of stars and dragons. “Their fire works like rocket boosters to propel them to the sun,” explained the child. “Wings don’t work in outer space, you know.”

“No, I guess they wouldn’t,” said the mother.

“We won’t be able to see everything from here. Not without a super powerful telescope,” the four-year-old said. “But all the dragons are going to the sun, and they’re going to hold hands with each other and breathe all their fire onto it.”

“How do you know this?”

“The mermaid told me. The one in the pond by the house. They’ll breathe their fire together and it will fix the sun. They’ve done it a dozen times. They’ll have to sleep in their secret moon caves for a few thousand years afterwards, though. Because it’s tiring to recharge a sun like that and they’re going to need a nap.”

The little girl smiled and squeezed her mother’s hand. “Isn’t it nice of them, though? To do that? The mermaid says it’s because they like trees and trees need sun to grow. But maybe they like us a little bit too. You and me, I mean. I think dragons would like us if they got to know us.”

“Me too, sweetie,” said her mother.

That night they fell asleep in each other’s arms, under a sky full of dragon fire. In the morning the mother looked at the child with awe as the sun grew steadily brighter and fears of the apocalypse subsided.

034


This story was written in response to a flash fiction challenge issued by Chuck Wendig – click here to see that original post and peruse other stories!

the day my daughter made a dozen pregnant ladies cry

I brought my four-year-old daughter, Evening, along with me to the baby doctor the other day. We were prepared: a new coloring book, crayons, and a fully charged tablet. When we walked in the door, a dozen or so pregnant ladies looked up at me. We were in for a long wait.

The only available seat was next to a single toy, one of those wooden wire ones that either fascinate or bore, depending on the day. I sat down while Evening settled in to play with it for a good half hour while we waited, and then she started getting antsy. At this point, I had already counted my blessings, because a half hour wait in preschooler time is at least four hours adult time.

She climbed up into my lap for a bit, snuggling in. When she grew tired of that I offered her a coloring book. Evening shook her head. “No, I think it’s time to play with my little sister,” she told me, and rested her head against my seven-months pregnant belly. She rubbed it with one hand and started singing.

I let her go, knowing that even if the ladies in the waiting room didn’t like her off-key little girl voice, they’d probably prefer it to the inevitable screams of me trying to stop her. She really got into it, singing for a full five minutes or so, making it up as she went along, and featuring such classic lines as “I wish you would hurry up and come out so we can go for a bus ride together” and “I love you so much.”

When she finished up, I gave her a smile, mustered up my brave, and looked up at the lady across from me. Her eyes were all teared up, her hand rubbing her own belly. I looked around, and sure enough, each and every pregnant lady in that room was bawling.

I haven’t decided yet if it was just pregnant lady hormones or if my little girl just has an uncanny ability to work a room.

034

excuses, excuses

It’s time to succumb to humanity, to reality, to womanhood. I’m in my third trimester of my second pregnancy now and the complications are mounting. Nothing that can’t be managed, but I’d be lying if I told you that it’s not taking a toll. It’s time to turn inward, and reserve my strength for what’s to come. With that in mind, I will not be able to keep up my daily posts here until I’m on the other side of things. I’ll still post, of course, but the schedule will be more sporadic and less frequent.

The photos that accompany these posts may seem familiar; my forest wanderings are dwindling as my bulk increases and baby throws off my balance. It’s better that I focus on walking instead of photography and re-use older photos for my scribblings.

Let’s move ahead organically, and see what happens. My head is still full of stories, dragons and fluttering wings and trees that do things a tree should never do, but hormones and pain are limiting my time at my desk and with my computer. For the next stretch, it’s a notebook and pen for my written adventures, I believe. When it lets up, I’ll be back to share. See you then, friends.