Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the road again—and struggling

I feel like a traveling salesman: Louisville, KY, last week; Exeter, NH, this week. I’m teaching in a five-week academic program at the Phillips Exeter Academy Summer School, and I’m here a week early in preparation.

At Exeter, I’m off the grid—no TV, no Internet, just a stack of books. I’m devouring “In Cold Blood” and, having just completed a novel and sent it off to my agent, I’m trying to start a short story starring the protagonist featured in my novel.

It isn’t going well.

I think it’s a matter of trust. I have written only two stories and sold both to “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine” (the second happened just last week), but I just never feel as comfortable with the genre as I do in the novel form. I simply don’t see storylines in terms of short fiction. I tend to see storylines in larger, interwoven narratives spider-webbing into and out of each other.

My friend and former professor Rick DeMarinis, author of eight novels but considered a master of the contemporary short story (he’s a member of the American Academy of Letters and author of “The Art and Craft of Short Fiction”), once told me he believed some people are novelists, some are short story writers, and a few are both. Is he right? Is there such delineation?

I don’t know, but I will try my hand here at an exercise and see where it leads. The assignment is one I have done often with my students (and will again this summer). The goal is simple: write five to ten opening lines that force the reader (and writer) to ask a question. Simple, right? Just open with a question. So why is short fiction so damned hard?

1) She turned around at the sound of her name and instantly smelled her ex-husband’s cologne.
2) “Why didn’t you answer my call?” Peyton asked him.
3) U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote didn’t believe the man suffering from the ax wound was alive until he opened his eyes and said, “Want to join the party?”
4) How much pain must one nine-year-old endure? U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote wondered, as she walked the boy’s father, shackled, into the courthouse.
5) When the motion sensor was tripped near the Crystal View River, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote looked at the digital clock on the dashboard of her government-issued Chevy Tahoe, knew she had fifteen minutes left in her shift, and cursed the impending overtime, assuming another night-wandering deer triggered the sensor. Then she saw the blood on the white birch tree.

Okay, I cheated on No. 5; it’s two sentences, but the scene came into focus. No. 3 is a part of an actual line of dialogue from a true police story told to me by a state trooper at a cookout last summer. I’ll run with No. 5. There might be something percolating beneath the surface.

I will report back next week.


Rick Blechta said...

Congrats on the sale to AH. I look forward to reading the story, John.

writing professional resume said...

Nice post. Thanks a lot.