NVDT #52 – The Story Knows How Long It Is

The graphic is from one of JMW Turner’s sketchbooks. It could become eight feet tall and 15 feet wide hanging on the wall in the Tate, or stay small. Still a great story.

Prompt – “Although I have written a short story collection, the form found me and not the other way around. Don’t write short stories, novels or poems. Just write your truth and your stories will mold into the shapes they need to be.” Have you ever written a piece that became a form, or even a genre, you hadn’t planned on writing in? Or do you choose a form/genre in advance?

I believe the works, the stories, find us. They’re out there, floating around in the cosmic radio waves, waiting for one of us to be receptive instead of all “writerly” or “authorial” and there we are. The story sets its own boundaries for disposition as regards length, tone, setting.

Now, having said that, half or more of my shorts are reworked chapters or scenes plucked from longer works. I’ll have need for a short story submission, and “Oh, look. This’ll work.” You could do that ‘excise a short story from a novel’ with any number of novel artists. Those same artists have short story collections full of things that became novels (or didn’t) much the same as an artist’s sketchbook has impressions that may or may not become paintings. Sometimes, as in the case of Turner, the sketchbooks are works of art in themselves.

A different scenario is when a story will prompt with a line from a dead friend or an experience remembered that, when I sit down with it, will unravel into short form. Maybe. In a recent case, several of an old friend’s stories were the foundation for a caper novel. See, there I am again. The story knows best.

Lifted examples – Gator Bait, Octopus

Came this way examples – Like a Violinist, Chesterfield’s Woman (a personal favorite)

Genre is an activity and topic I shy away from altogether. I don’t think about any of that. I am not a formulaic or spreadsheet writer. I write stream of consciousness. Sort of. An editor once accused me of writing “these slice-of-life things”. It came off like I was an idiot for not writing heroic journey or procedurals or a twist murder walkaway or baking cookies with momma or escaping the trailer park or my alcoholic parents argued all the time memoirs. I was proud of the “slice” tag. Because, even if I’m no genius, that puts me in damn good company.

Point – As the quote for this prompt suggests, let the story find you. Write whatever it turns out to be. What did Hemingway say, paraphrased? Write one true sentence and the rest will follow. Where that sentence comes from is, if we get out of our own way, always a gift that deserves whatever it wants from us, be that 1 page or 3 pages or 300. Or 3 of that 300 that needs some air.

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NVDT #51 – You know, brownish hair, about so tall, energetic…

The graphic is from one of JMW Turner’s sketchbooks. You could tell people it’s a Louisiana swamp, Grand Teton Lake or somewhere in the Alps and they’d go, “Well, yeah. Okay.”

The prompt – Do you draw your main characters so that a forensic sketch artist could put them on the cover, or do they belong to the reader?

No.

Not principal characters, not even more well-drawn peripheral characters. There should be enough information to evoke an image from imagination or exposure in the reader and no more.

I’ve been taking my time getting through Hiaasen’s 2016 Razor Girl, wherein the eponymous character is never detailed. We build what she might look like out of other character’s reactions to her (male and female), suggestions as to size, how she walks, how she talks, how she behaves. But not once does Hiaasen stake out several paragraphs to define her.

I realize description is a given in certain fantasy/Syfy/romance/dystopian genres. I mean dirty angel wings, a lizard tail and feet like a 400-pound duck, or six-two, the color of expensive chocolate, ripped, six-pack abs and Dolly Parton’s hair are iceberg quality in that stuff. For me? That’s plenty. For some who require detailed, in-depth physical descriptions, it is not. Know your audience.

I think it is important that we convey enough to make sure the reader gets it, but no more. In the short story Octopus the story lets us know, through the story, the main character is a 22-year-old professional ballet dancer with an ankle problem. There are word drop descriptions of flexibility and this –

Jackson knelt, thighs wailing, in front of the dead ballerina doll’s color of a slightly over baked biscuit ballet bun.

Now we know what color her hair is, sort of, depending on your version of a slightly overcooked biscuit. Anyone who has seen or known or been or even been around a ballet dancer, or taken or had a child take ballet class or watched the Nutcracker is perfectly capable of rolling their own Logan Bevan-Burns. I believe it’s my job to offer the reader enough to put the characters up on the big screen in their heads, and an opportunity to hang out with their version of her. No two experiences are the same if I keep my writerly self out of the way.

Point – in Writerly Concerns #22 I addressed authenticity. You can read the whole thing, or the Readers Digest version below –

Authenticity does not require 200 pages of Irvine Welsh’s phonetic Scotts, or an accurate down to the nails in the shutters description of a side street in the Bahamas or a page and a half of verdant pastures or a horticulturist’s coffee-table book version of Louisiana garden and potted plant life. Or $20k worth of mics and preamps. Authenticity is a few locations, a few props, carried by the story. All the set decoration and character description in the world isn’t the story. Make me believe the characters and their stories without gumming up getting them around, dressing them up and putting them somewhere. Authenticity is the story.

Takeaway – For me. When I sent out betas of The Hot Girl (parked for edits and a new title) I asked for pictures of what the crew thought she looked like. No two were the same. Even with the description of unruly, dark auburn hair (but then maybe I’d edited that out), I got blondes, brunettes, redheads, all attractive, wholesome, cheerleader-y, class president types. Which she was, only with attitude. Someone we all know, or knew. To a person, all the betas populated the story with their own version of Deanna Collings visuals. Many of them were teachers who said,  “I see her every year. All the promise and brains and idealism and I pray she makes it.” Same story, same girl, a dozen different physical representations. As Deanna would say, “I’m like twelve different people, Jackson. How cool is that?”

That’s exactly what I’m after. A story, a journey, that belongs to the people who read it.

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