While in observation mode, I find myself peeping into other’s shopping carts at the grocery store. Like the cart of the young woman with a shopping list extra long. In my writer’s mind, I imagine that she’ll be hosting a dinner for her in-laws and has prepared an exact list of ingredients for the three courses she plans to serve. Not exactly a Martha Stewart in the kitchen, she has bitten off way more than she can chew, but everything HAS to be perfect ― she tries so hard in the life as a rookie wife.
Obviously, things cannot run smoothly, otherwise there is no conflict, no story. She knows that her wannabe something brother-in-law will boast about the food in the classy restaurant he claims to frequent. Her mother-in-law will give a lecture on how she would prepare the same dishes.
So what should our girl with the long shopping list do?
Should we let her fail royally? Or let her think, “Screw them,” and make her drain her credit card and order in from that classy restaurant? The SoB brother-in-law will not even notice, and the bitch-in-law will go on bragging about her own cooking skills. Will she — our protagonist, that is — tell them? Gloat inside? Or, even better: Save it for later and throw it in their faces at an appropriate time, when she has built the courage to announce that she has had it with them?
And where the hell is her husband? Maybe we should just have her serve hot dogs or order pizzas.
I groan to myself and pick up a carton of milk.
“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.
— John le Carré
“Checked tie. Striped jacket. White cane.”* You can say a lot in 6 words. Or 100, 200 or 300 words. Or 140 characters. Short shorts are a quick read, a perfect companion to a cup of coffee. No detailed backstories or character descriptions, just a story about one particular situation or one single moment, like a photograph. The readers fill in the empty spaces, the unsaid, themselves. They become co-authors.
While easy to read, stories this short are not always easy to write. Despite the limited numbers of words, the story has to be complete. There has to be a movement, something must happen, otherwise it’s not a story, but merely a description. The readers shouldn’t be left wondering “what happens then” when they are done reading.
Maybe over a cup of coffee yourself, you choose and cut out words to create the precise word-pictures that tell the story and nothing but the story. It’s like chiseling a block of marble until all the redundant stone is chipped off and the face of a Roman god emerges. Kind of.
*A 6-word story from the Norwegian book “Du trenger ikke mer enn 6” (which means: You don’t need more than 6).
Short stories are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
— Neil Gaiman
I woke up in the middle of the night, all excited over this brilliant literary phrase I came up with in my dream. Must remember it in the morning, I thought, and I did. My excitement was short-lived when I realized that my new phrase was: Happy-go-lucky.
I looked up some definitions to find ideas for a short story:
Urban Dictionary: “To be happy go lucky, is to be cheerful about most all things. To have a positive view on life. To annoy the shit out of your friends.”
Cambridge Dictionary: “A happy-go-lucky person does not plan much and accepts what happens without becoming worried.”
So, a story about a guy who walks through life cheerfully unconcerned about the future until he, um … doesn’t?
Synonyms: easy-going, carefree, casual, free and easy, devil-may-care, blithe, nonchalant, insouciant, blasé, unconcerned, untroubled, unworried, light-hearted…
Night changes many thoughts.
— Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings” (the movie), commenting on Eowyn’s dream
We’re all been there, staring at an empty screen with absolutely nothing to write about. Maybe we scream, first to the blank screen, then to our mirror image, then from the street corner and the rooftop, from the top of the Eiffel Tower and on to Kilimanjaro, higher and higher, and then back to the freaking screen. It’s like sending letters of distress that are all returned unanswered. Eventually, we run out of places to scream from. Then it’s time for a new approach, like start writing.
When you don’t know what to write about, then write a piece about not knowing what to write about. It might become a meaningful story about a lot of things, as opposed to nothingness that raises nothing more than a shrug.
When words don’t come easy, I make do with silence and find something in nothing.
— Strider Marcus Jones, Poet
Libraries and bookstores! Shelves upon shelves and books all over the place, full of stories that take you here and there and back again. Some people allow themselves to get lost between the shelves. Others know exactly what they want and head straight for the crime or romance or sci-fi section — or to books on how to make a stellar bird house or knit a pair of striped socks. Such a variety of genres, yet the books have one thing in common: Someone wrote them, word for word. With pencil or pen on paper in an English manor, on a portable Royal typewriter somewhere in Spain or Italy, or on a 2017 laptop in the coffee shop just around the corner. Fact: Someone has to write the stories. Did you hear that, you reluctant writer? Yes.
I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.
— Mark Twain
Streets are made to be walked and observed. Every once in a while we should adopt a modern flâneur’s attitude and stroll the streets. Walk down this street, look around that corner, say hello to a stranger. Sit ourselves down in a coffee shop and watch people passing by. Then go home and write about it.
Requirements: good shoes, a notebook, open eyes.
What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.
— Charles Baudelaire
If you have read The Little Prince, you know what the box below contains. If not, take a guess.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince (1943) to his good friend Léon Werth, but because the book was a children’s book and Werth was a grown-up, he dedicated it “To Léon Werth, when he was a little boy.” Small details like that make me a happy reader. He doesn’t stop there, of course, but quickly sets the tone for the book: In the opening chapter, the little prince asks the narrator to draw a sheep. The prince is not satisfied with the first drafts, but when the narrator draws a box and explains that the sheep is inside it, he is content. “That’s just the kind I wanted!” he says. Delightfully carved out details — what a gift to the readers.
The Little Prince is 74 years old this week. It was first published April 6, 1943.
Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The Little Prince”
If you noticed the lights in the top windows of an otherwise dark house at 3 a.m. this morning, you might have been looking at a writer’s cave, where R, standing outside his childhood home, decides it’s revenge time, all on page 187. On the next page, agitated and with a black look in his eyes, he crosses the point-of-no-return line. The End.
Words matter immensely. My philosophy is that they have been traveling alongside us since the dawn of the human race, telling our history. They have inspired writers, been meticulously stated in ink: guilty or not guilty, been used in declarations of war and peace: hate you, love you. They can entertain, inform, and make power-hungry small minds tremble. Through our pens, they pass on the stories of the past, comment on the times in which we live, and leave a mark for tomorrow. If we fail to catch the words as they pass by, they quickly fade away and move on, from writer to writer, always traveling.
Meanwhile, somewhere else, a writer is staring at a blank screen…
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
— John Greenleaf Whittier, “Maud Muller”
That feeling when seemingly out of nothing, the words emerge, one after another to form a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a story… Slowly at first, then the pace quickens until it seems like the story is writing itself, as if you are just a transcriber of events. A city rises in front of you, fills with people and life, it’s the future or the 1960’s or a world war trench. Then the specifics, a yellow dress, red lips, and a gallant lift of the hat as the two meet. If you ever invented a world that didn’t exist until you wrote it into life, then you know what I’m talking about.
Facts will never move the human heart like storytelling can. Highly creative people, especially artists, know this and weave stories into everything they do. It takes longer for them to explain something, explaining isn’t the point. The experience is.
— Kevin Kaiser, 20 Things Only Highly Creative People Would Understand