What’s A Short Story?

One writing site I follow recently held a contest: “Write a short story in 500 words or less.” As I read through the various submissions this morning, part of the problem for me was thinking a story is always fiction. However, this contest called for a non-fiction story. So I read brief memoirs, rambling musings about life, possible devotional articles, but few submissions that I’d consider a real STORY.

Am I off-base in my understanding of STORY? There are a number of weekly writing challenges I do participate in that call for writing a story in xxx words, so it’s good to get a handle on the concept, even if I didn’t enter this contest.

Image from Pixabay

According to GRAMMARLY’s website, “Short stories are a form of narrative writing that has all the same elements as novels—plot, character development, point of view, story structure, theme—but are delivered in fewer words. … A short story is a short, self-contained work of fiction…”

And I see the ubiquitously quoted “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”

Writer L Ron Hubbard gives good pointers on how to critique a short story: You need to judge the originality, the scene-setting, characterization, conflict and plot, a theme. It should be engaging and deliver some emotional payoff.

The Ragtag Daily Prompt for today is BRIDGE and I think it fits in today’s musing.

A short story should create a BRIDGE between a writer and a reader. Whether fiction or non-fiction, I need to reach out through my own – or my character’s – experience and touch your heart. It may be only a little chuckle, a small example of the human nature we all share, or a bit of sorrow.

Image by Josch13 — Pixabay

If I write about the time our family went to the zoo, saw the polar bears, watched the antics of the monkeys, had a great time, and came home, will that touch your heart?

If our beloved Jr disappeared at the zoo and we searched frantically to find him, that experience could easily be crafted into a story and would resonate with all parents. If I had to tell it in 100 words or less, that would take a lot of whittling! There wouldn’t be a lot of room to develop scene or theme, but it could be done.

Stories, especially short ones, need to start with a bang. No “Our family was at the zoo one sunny morning in mid-July. We were watching the polar bears splashing around in their pool when our I noticed that our son had disappeared in the crowd.”

Rather…
We watched the polar bears splashing so comically in their pool. I turned to lift my six-year-old so he could see more of their antics…and he’d disappeared!
“Frank,” I screamed over the noise of the other tourists, “Where’s Junior?”
Frank whirled around. “Junior! Where are you,” he shouted as we both scanned the crowd frantically.

Most readers would easily get the picture and feel some connection to this couple.

Anyway, enough of my musings. What do you see as the elements of an engaging short story? Do you like upbeat, happy endings? Or are you one who likes being left with a haunting melancholy when you’re done?

“The Cause of Problems Is Solutions”

In this post I’m sharing a few more thoughts on Idealism

Ideals are wonderful things as long as they are securely linked to reality.

One day a speaker mentioned that in Ireland, a Catholic country, divorce is illegal. (He didn’t mention annulments.) Afterwards another lady commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that way here?”

I said, “The murder rate would go up.” Perhaps I’m too much of a realist, but…

My sister Donna was married at fifteen, with a baby on the way, and suffered a number of beatings from her drunken husband. Six years and three children later she left him. He’d come home drunk, they’d fight and he’d start choking her until she passed out. True, there was fault on both sides but she had good reason to fear.

Though she’d divorced him, being a Catholic he had their marriage annulled later so he could marry again.

“The cause of problems is solutions,” some sage once said.

The price of gas here in SK shot up last month. (Shall we attribute that to Biden or Putin?) Last week a friend commented, “Well, we’ll all have to go back to a horse and buggy.”

Simplistic. Idealistic. Nostalgic, maybe even romantic? But how feasible?

From her perspective this might be, seeing she lives in a farmyard with barns and sheds that could accommodate a horse and buggy. They’d have some pasture for a horse and hay-making equipment wouldn’t be hard to come by. But can you imagine the folks in ten- or fifteen-storey apartment buildings in the city, thousands of families trying to feed and house horses? Can you imagine all the horse manure on the city streets!

City-dwellers might just walk or use public transport (which also uses fuel) but my friend’s brothers use gas, oil and diesel in their farming operation and seed cleaning plant. Farm production – and consequently food supply – would be limited if crops need to be seeded and harvested by horses.( Being soft-heated myself, I’m so thankful farmers don’t use horses anymore. Some of those poor animals were horribly mistreated.)

Some of our electricity comes from hydro turbines, a bit from wind-power, but most of our businesses, factories, greenhouses, power-generating plants – indirectly all our utilities – depend mainly on gas, propane, and/or oil. We’ve built ourselves a society dependent on gas + oil. This is our reality. If we suddenly found ourselves low on gas and power, I can see some folks starving and/or freezing to death. We can find ways to cut back on consumption but there’s no going back to the good old days.

A Simple Solution?

One way to cut back on fuel consumption would be to ground all airplanes. Jets use a terrific amount of fuel, right? And for sure, dry-dock those diesel-guzzling, pollution-generating behemoths that lumber across the oceans taking rich people on completely unnecessary exotic cruises. People don’t need all this virus-spreading international travel. Stay home. That’s what we do. Er…unless we want to go some distance…and we’re in a hurry. 😉

What do you think…are my solutions feasible? What if pilots, stewards, various traffic controllers and business people all over the world start protesting the loss of their jobs? Try taking away people’s income and the lifestyle they’ve come to rely on and you have a huge problem.

True, people who call themselves “realistic” can be downright pessimistic. However, the reality of a situation or of human behavior in general – our fondness for money in particular – can scuttle the best ideals. Idealists don’t always get this.

Idealism Takes A Hit

Occasionally I read an article posted on POCKET, historical articles or some journalist’s take on a recent news story. I’ve read about the newest wave of CENSORSHIP, an issue that often boils down to an idealistic approach versus a realistic one. I read about one young man who responded to the many PROTESTS and CONSPIRACY THEORIES by starting his own. Others said, “Hey, why not?” and the crazy thing went viral.

I’ve heard about the social upheaval massive immigration has caused in Texas. Last night I started reading J D Vance’s HILLBILLY ELEGY, describing the “hollowing out” and desperate poverty in the US Midwest — “the Rust Belt.” All this input rattling around in my mind, plus my own experience, has produced cogitations I’m going to share in several upcoming posts. Starting with…

Idealism In a Real World

A few years after we were married we were discussing a politician of our day and my husband commented, “He’s too much of an idealist. I’d rather see a crook elected to run the country than an idealist.”

I understood where he was coming from. A crook usually has a good handle on how things really work. A dreamer who isn’t facing reality can be dangerous when handed the reins. Now, with almost fifty years of practical observations as well as a keen interest in history, I understand that sentiment so much better. Especially after I read a number of accounts of how the ultimate idealism, PROHIBITION, worked, especially in the US.

An elderly friend once told me about Nellie McClung’s sad observation on being hit by reality. McClung (1873-1951) was one of Canada’s original suffragettes and women writers. She worked hard to get the vote for women; once women had the vote she was elected to the Alberta Legislature. Being all for home and family, and opposed to the demon drink that destroyed homes and left wives and families destitute, she was totally in support of Prohibition.

The sad remark she made in her old age, according to my friend, was: “We thought when women got the vote, we’d outlaw liquor. But we never thought we’d see the day when women would take to drinking!”

I could have told her that. When I was young most of the women I knew drank. My own mother, according to my sisters, “spent half her life in the beer parlour.” My younger sister, Donna, unsuccessfully fought a lifelong battle with alcohol, though it was finally a drug overdose that took her out. Always a feisty kid, I think she would have loved a swig of bootleg booze.

Evangelical Christians have always leaned heavily toward idealism, thinking they know what’s good for the rest of the country. But there’s a whole ‘nother world in their midst – my own non-religious people – that Protestant Evangelicals haven’t really been able to acknowledge. And when those citizens rise up and start following their inclinations, idealism will crash.

Bootleg booze, rum-runners, organized crime: the Christian Women’s Temperance League never foresaw how these would flourish.

Now for a secular example…

Breast-feeding Is A Natural Act

Definitely it is. However, there’s a reason why North American women have been hesitant – some may say “inhibited” – from breast-feeding openly in public places. In fact, one weekend in Saskatoon a group of zealous women set up a display in the Midtown Mall promoting the natural act of breast-feeding. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” they claimed, “Nursing a baby should be allowed openly anywhere with no embarrassment or legal questions.”

In an ideal world, it would work. In this awfully real world…

In the course of shopping, I passed by their display several times. They’d set up a prominent booth and hung huge posters above it showing mothers nursing their babies. Lots of posters and pamphlets displayed around the booth. But reality lingered in the shadows. Each time I noticed a number of fascinated men strolling, or lingering by walls and in corners, so obviously drinking in the visual stimulation.

Yeah, it’s awful – but are you surprised? In a society where respect for women, consideration for motherhood, respect and decency in general, ran the show, this blatant display of lechery wouldn’t be. Pardon me, but I hope those ladies so inspired by their rosy ideals had their eyes opened to the reality of lust. Nursing openly may work in a different, more accustomed, less sex-focused society. But in ours, I believe this peeping is something nursing mothers in our society will deal with if they start to bare it all in public places.

Goals and ideals are great, but a person — especially a leader — needs a clear understanding of what will actually work in our imperfect world.

A Look At Book Reviews

Reader Reviews: A Collage of Lively Opinions

Image by Ben Kerckx at Pixabay

Do you write book reviews?
Do you read book reviews?
How much do reviews affect your choice of stories?
Have you ever been prompted to read a book just because the reviews were all over the map and you wanted to find out for yourself if it’s good or not?

Browsing on Amazon recently, I stopped to read the listing for a new western, then the reviews. And what a mixed bag!
“Childish time waster…start-to-finish nonsense…simplistic…lumbering text.”
While other reviewers said, “Good quick read…thrilling characters…

“Well-written traditional western…hero with high standards.”

Since I’ve started paying more attention to book reviews, I’ve marveled at the variety of adjectives used to describe a story — sometimes the same story!
implausible
poorly edited
unbelievable
far-fetched
ludicrous
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
acceptable
okay
satisfying
slow to start, but the pace picks up
adequate
good escapism
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
compelling
suspenseful
lovely
superb
touching

Some people wax eloquent with their descriptions:
“The inconsistencies are continual and grating…”
“Dialogue vaguely reminiscent of the Trixie Beldon series”
“The execution of the story was more like slaughter.”
I’m not sure what to make of a “western” reviewer’s point-in-favour, though: “Clean fighting by hand instead of shooting and wasting bullets.”

Sometimes a crossing of the Atlantic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. One of the British readers’ most frequent complaints is about American/Canadian writers who didn’t do their homework.
“Complete lack of research into English spoken in the UK.”
“Full of Americanisms.”
But the next reviewer, obviously not up on those differences, says:
“Brilliant read. Cannot wait for the next book!”

For me, the age of the main character makes a difference. If she’s a teen, I expect some immaturity, emotional explosions and moody, self-centered behavior. We’ve all been there. But when the character is thirty-one, has been in the work force for over ten years, and still behaves like a volatile teen, I note that in my review.

The situation of the main character appeals more to some readers, even if the character herself is kind of blah. One reader says, “I like the way a senior woman starts out on a new adventure.”
Other reviewers say that the story drags:
“Glad it was over. Not very interesting.”
“Reads like a travel brochure.”
“If you suffer from insomnia, read this book.”

I believe that some reviewers think more of encouraging the writer, and leave reviews that focus on the positives and skip over glaring faults like poor research, inconsistent behaviour or plot holes. Other reviewers are obviously writing to inform potential buyers.

A writer who wants good reviews must keep up-to-date notes on characters and changes made. Reviewers often note it when a writer hasn’t kept her facts straight:
“In the first chapter we read that her father died two years ago and she still misses him. In Chapter five we learn that he died almost ten years ago.

“In the first book of the series, her nephew was Peter. In the second book his name was Richard. But in the third book he was back to Peter again!”

Sometimes I wonder about the motive of the reviewer. After the majority of reviewers found the above book slow and the MC rather a dim bulb, along comes this enthusiastic:
“Fascinating and poignant story with lovely characters who made you want to know them as friends.”
Was this submitted by the writer’s best friend or beloved niece? Is this her honest opinion, or has someone been paid to write this review?

Now I’d like to hear what you think of reviews and how much you pay attention to them?

Our Poor, Neglected H

And now for one of the most misunderstood letters in the English language…

Rye Regular

Accused of being HIGH-BROW or even HAUGHTY, the use of an H is at least controversial. Some groups of English speakers do an automatic delete, and for sure the French do. We can’t blame the use of H and TH on the Norman invaders. Lately I heard a Cockney speaker explaining that if you want to sound like them, “Get rid of the H’s. Don’t need ’em.” Ditto with the TH’s. “Oo needs an H? Ged along royt wew wivoud ’em, we can.”

The other linguistic foible is to stick them in where they don’t belong. “H’Irvin h’Armstrong was here today. He wanted to h’ask you h’if you’d gotten his message?”

But H is here to stay, because we need to HALF– so many things, and because it starts out so many short everyday words we can’t do without:
HURT + HEAL
HOLD + HURL
HELP + HINDER
HIM + HER

Doing some research on the origins of our letter H, I discovered that our H words are mostly Germanic in origin, that their roots go back to a common Indo-European language, and they mostly began with a k or kh sound.
Here, Who, How < kho
Hind (deer) < Kemi
Hip < kheup
Heart < kadia or kerd
Hearth < kherthaz
Help < kelp

The Japanese are fond of their H, giving us words like HONCHO and HAIKU, and who knows how many more if the current linguistic melange continues.

Rye Regular

Dorothy Sayers, in her book, THE FIVE RED HERRINGS, waxed merry with various accents and dropped or added aitches in a realistic way. The book was published in 1931 and she died in 1957, so I’m hoping I’ll be okay reprinting this bit.

Investigating the suspicious death of Mr Campbell, Inspector Macpherson called on Mr. Gowan. When the haughty English butler opened the door, the Inspector asked to speak to the gentleman.
“Mr Gowan is h’out. He’s gone to London.”
In his Broad Scots accent, the inspector explains…
“I will tell ye, wi’oot circumlocution, that there is mair than a suspeecion that the puir gentleman was murdered.”
“So I h’understand.”
“Your name is Halcock, is’t no?”
The butler corrected him. “H’alcock,” he said, reprovingly.
“H, a, double l?”
“There is no h’aitch in the name, young man. H’ay is the first letter, and there is h’only one h’ell.”

Then the Inspector goes on to question Hammond, Mr Gowan’s chauffeur, described as a small, perky man, mongrel in speech, but betraying a strong streak of the fundamental cockney.

“Did ye drive Mr. Gowan onywhere on Monday last?”
“Drove ‘im ter Dumfries. Mr. Alcock comes down when I was ‘avin’ me supper, and says Mr. Gowan wanted the saloon round at 8 o’clock ter tike ‘im ter Dumfries. And I says, ‘Right-oh!’ I says, ‘an’ I can pick up them there pitchers at the same time.’ That’s what I says and that’s what I done.”

As I understand Cockney, this would have sounded like, ” ‘At’s Royt. Drove ‘im ter Dumfries. Mr. Alcock comes down when Oy was ‘avin’ me suppah and says Mr. Gowan wanted the saloon round at oyt o’clock… ‘at’s wha’ Oy says and ‘at’s wha I dun.”

(The WordPress Spell-checker doesn’t like this colloquial post. There are red lines everywhere!)

Less is More

I just finished reading a blog post by Martha Kennedy with this same title. She starts out with a terse bit of editing wisdom from author Truman Capote: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

I heartily agree with what she says. Less is more. Author Jerry Jenkins stresses this over and over in his writing course: “Don’t use two adjectives; one is enough. Better yet, choose a stronger action verb.” Adverbs have similarly fallen out of style, I hear.

Mark Twain once gave wannabe writers similar advice, with a wry wit in the delivery: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

Awhile back I read a book that reminded me of his quip. A good story, but the author seems to over-use adjectives and adverbs, often as a way to pat characters on the back.
– Jill generously gave him a huge slice of pie.
– Jack unselfishly offered to drive them to the mall.
– He appreciated Jill’s considerate offer to look after his sister.
– Jack sighed appreciatively after Jill’s extremely satisfying dinner.
– Jill admired Jack’s dashing good looks.
– Jack’s humble way of suggesting…
– Jack found Jill extremely attractive.
– Jack’s unstinting effort to find the owner pleased Jill immensely.

Get my point?

These seasonings are okay when lightly sprinkled through the book, and I like stories about kind, thoughtful people. However, if superlatives appear too often it can sound like the writer’s trying to impress on forgetful readers what a wonderful, thoughtful, generous character this is. I don’t have to be told twenty times that the hero is smart, generous, and handsome or gorgeous. Perversely, this inclines me to dislike Mr/Ms goodie-two-shoes.

No matter what you’re saying about your characters’ qualities, more than three or four times is overkill. Don’t try to sneak them past the reader by embellishing their wonderful acts, either. Let the reader decide if that your character’s a keeper.