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Tips for Writing the Short Story

(an excerpt from the blog: http://novelreflections.net/guest-post-tom-mach

Some people mistakenly believe that writing a good short story is easy because it is smaller than a novel in length. Not true. It’s not easy. That would be like saying that it’s easier to create a painting on an 8 by 12 inch canvas than on a 3 foot by 5 foot canvas.  A writer has to apply his craft with the same measure of care with a short story than a novel—and in some cases he has to be even more cautious with the short story because each word in description and dialogue must be carefully chosen.

I like to think of a short story as one or two scenes in which something happens to the character or characters in these scenes. Maybe the character is faced with a decision—and will it be the right one? Or the character has trepidation that something terrible will happen. Perhaps the character learns an important lesson. Or, in the case of “The Hen Party,” a story from my collection called Stories to Enjoy, a murder case is finally solved.  But the point is that there is a simple theme in short stories and finding that theme and working it throughout the story is the main thing for a short story writer to consider.

But where to start? Ideas for stories abound everywhere. Perhaps you have met someone over coffee who shared with you an interesting experience. Or maybe you read something intriguing in the newspaper or in a book. Ideas are more prevalent than raindrops. It helps if you can take notes and journal information so that later you can review this and come up with an idea for a short story.

A short story writer needs to start her story with some sort of action—be it a decision to be made, a surprising finding, the beginnings of a conflict, or any of a number of other possibilities. There is neither the time, space, nor patience (from the reader’s perspective) to begin a story with lengthy description of a scene or a character. The reader needs to be drawn immediately into the story itself.

A complex plot has no place in a short story. An author should be able to state his plot in a simple sentence. For instance, in “The Crossword Puzzle Murders” taken from Stories to Enjoy, a one-sentence description would be:

Detective Pulaski, baffled by a clue left at the body of each victim of a mass murderer—a current edition of the newspaper—doesn’t realize who the murderer is until it’s too late.

Any distinguishing feature of a character in a short story should be brought out as soon as possible. But don’t go into needless detail about appearance unless it is germane to the plot. In “The Lead Bird,” Robin McIntyre is described as follows:

Here she was, a 34-year-old single woman who loved birds so much she not only kept a pet canary but belonged to a bird-watching society.

A ploy that I use in most of my short stories is to come up with a bombshell ending. One of my favorite short story authors is O. Henry, who always manages to have a surprising twist to the story. He’s an author I want to emulate.

Above material is copyrighted © Tom Mach 2012

Filed under short story writing tips Stories to Enjoy Tom Mach novel writers

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W. W. Norton: First Lines from New Books Out Today: August 1, 2011

wwnorton:

“Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man.”
Busy Monsters: A Novel by William Giraldi

The Sand Speaks
“I’m fluid and omnivorous, the casual
kiss. I’ll knock up your oysters.
I’ll eat your diamonds. I’m a mutt, no
one…

—————————————————————————————————————

As an aside, I would like to mention that I have six new books out myself and maybe someone from Norton would want to take a look at them. They are Ebooks with the following titles:

Sissy! by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1862-1863) http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74203

An Innocent Murdered by Tom Mach (an unusual mystery whodunnit novel http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74459

All Parts Together by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1863-1865) http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74639

ADVENT by Tom Mach (thriller—with two conflicting scenarios about earth’s final demise  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/75212

STORIES TO ENJOY by Tom Mach (a collection of 16 short stories with O. Henry-like twists) http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/75274

HOMER THE ROAMER by Tom Mach (a delightful story about a cat who got an adventure he didn’t want) http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/76006

Filed under Norton publisher Tom Mach Sissy All Parts Together Homer the Roamer An Innocent Murdered Stories to Enjoy Advent new books books Ebooks

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Engage the Reader—What will your fictional character do NEXT?

One of the things I like to read is a story which leaves me hanging at the end—wondering what will the character do next? What decision will he or she make? I don’t like stories that have a happy ending with all the strings tied up, so to speak. Short stories as well as novels need that extra something that challenges readers to think for themselves.

Here’s an example. It’s a short story of mine called "Breakfast, Over Easy" that was published. Click HERE if you want more information about it.

                                     Breakfast, Over Easy

                   A short story from STORIES TO ENJOY

            ©2010 by Tom Mach (published by Hill Song Press)

 The California Broadway Diner buzzed with conversations from various tables, but I sat at my usual spot, keeping my eyes focused on the entrance, hoping to see Larry Johnson pushing his way through. Any minute now, I’d see an ape of a man, a former San Diego Chargers tackle, looking mean at first, but then a secret smile would creep on his face, like he knew something special but wasn’t about to tell you.

I’d watch him lumber toward my table, his dark hair, uncombed, wrapped about his forehead like a wreath. He’d be smiling as he extended his giant arm at me like he was going to shake my hand. Then he’d pull it back, laugh, and say, “Hey Chuckie boy, you’re readin’ that paper like there is somethin’ worth readin’.”

After gazing about as if he owned the place, he’d plop down across the table from me and start talking about anything—his motorcycle, his trip to Michigan where he bagged a deer, or his karate lessons—until the waitress came for our order. We went through this routine every Monday morning at eight for the past fifty Mondays. He even showed up the Monday it was Christmas Eve, wearing a Santa Claus cap and telling me he was going to propose to Norma that evening. When I quizzed him about her, he clammed up which was quite unusual for Larry. He had an opinion on everything and everyone.

 “Great gal,” he said. “Been to Hollywood, played a bit part in a movie with Brad Pitt but couldn’t get into the big leagues. She was quite devastated.” But that’s all he told me about her.

According to the large clock on the diner wall it was already nine o’clock. Where the hell was Larry today? I tossed my paper on the table and managed to spill the coffee I had left in my cup. I ignored everyone’s fixed gaze at my clumsiness. I didn’t give a crap about what they thought. Larry Johnson never missed our Monday breakfast meetings.

I wiped the mess I made on the table with as many napkins as my hand could hold. Who the hell did he think he was that he could just one day not show up?

I left the table and shot my ball of coffee-soaked napkins into the waste container. Somehow I sensed someone staring at me. Sure enough, a twentyish blond-haired woman in a white blouse and red gabardine skirt was staring back at me. She held a tray containing a small tea pot, a tea cup, and a walnut rolled strudel. Her face reddened when our eyes met.

 “I’m terribly sorry,” she said, searching his face, “but aren’t you Larry’s friend?”

 I blinked in surprise. “Why, yes, but how did you know?”

“He told me all about you. I just knew, that’s all”

“Who are you?”

 She glanced down toward her tray and then back at me. “If you don’t mind, let’s sit over there.”

I nodded and followed her back to the same table where I had been. Damn, she was beautiful! Blond, soft blue eyes, small nose, lips with only a touch of lipstick, her firm bosom pressing tightly against her blouse. She was a naughty but nice Snow White.

Our eyes met briefly and this time I was the one who was embarrassed. I instinctively busied myself by rolling up my coffee-stained newspaper and setting it aside.

“Hi,” she began, “Larry told me you enjoyed reading the newspaper during breakfast.”

“That’s true. But he talked a lot so I really never got to read it while he was here.”

I didn’t notice the sadness in her eyes before, but it was there. It was the kind of sadness you’d see in a woman who wrestles with trying to be brave in the face of calamity. She had the fresh young features of a woman who didn’t overdo makeup and let her natural beauty speak for itself.

 “How do you know about Larry and me?” I asked

 “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Norma, Larry’s fiancée.” She moved her hand toward me but took it back as if reconsidering that it might not be proper. “He told me how you two would always meet here at this very table every Monday morning. He always enjoyed the visit. It made his day. He’d be gone most of the week but he always kept Monday open for you.”

 “I’m disappointed he didn’t make it today.”

“He told me you’d feel that way, and he’s awfully sorry he couldn’t make it.”

She looked out the window to gaze at the passers-by. “Look at all those people going to work. I bet they can’t wait till they get home and relax.”

When she turned back toward me, I noticed her moist eyes. “Larry’s in the hospital. He has pancreatic cancer. He knew about it a while ago but he didn’t want to undertake chemo.”

I felt as if the ceiling had collapsed on me “Oh God, no! He didn’t even give me a hint.”

“I’m not surprised he didn’t tell you. That’s the way he is,” she said, grabbing a napkin to dry her eyes.

“I’ve got to see him. What hospital is he at?”

“He doesn’t want you to visit him there. Just remember him the way he was. That’s what he told me to tell you—remember him the way he was.”

 “Oh God,” I said, placing my elbows on the table and resting my forehead in my hands.

I felt her slender, delicate fingers. They were warm, reassuring. “Will you be okay?” she asked.

“It’ll take time to sink in.”

She leaned forward and her eyes searched my face. “How about joining me for breakfast?” she asked.

“Okay,” I said quietly. We talked for the next hour. As I told her about my having been a Hollywood writer for five years, with important contacts such as director Ron Howard or actors like Kate Winslet or Bruce Willis, her face brightened. I wanted to learn more about her, but she never gave me the chance.

Before we parted company at the entrance door, she brushed herself against me and widened her smile. “I can make it here every Monday morning from now on if you’d like. It’d be just you and me. What do you say?”

I looked back at the empty table and stared at it for a long while. Then I returned my gaze to her. Damn, she was pretty.

“What do you say?” she asked again, this time with a hint of desperation in her voice.

Read E-Books? Click on: tom mach on your device when you shop for a book and get a list of his superbly enjoyable stories.

Filed under Stories to Enjoy Tom Mach author characters fiction novels short story writing short stories

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“Frozen History” by author Tom Mach (from STORIES TO ENJOY)


As a change of pace, I thought I’d treat you to a short story that I had published and which was included in my latest collection called STORIES TO ENJOY. I hope you will be surprised by the O. Henry twist I gave this one. There are 15 other stories in this book which will capture your imagination.

                                      Frozen History

                                       by Tom Mach

                                    ©2010 Tom Mach

Frozen History

 

Dante Lamprey heard the buzz of an excited announcer and saw colors flicker on his television set. He felt electricity in the air and inhaled the anxiety of the moment as he thought to himself, “What’s the difference? If it’s true, we’ll all die anyway.” But it was a matter-of-fact consideration, not one steeped in self-pity or fear. He wished his non-engineer wife would share his same logical thought process, but she didn’t. Helen’s young face was a stone carving of dread, and she would have been the perfect model for a museum exhibit depicting what people looked like when informed they might be under nuclear attack.

Dante told Helen to relax as she sat with the fingers of her hand clawing the arms of a newly upholstered living room chair. “Sh-sh-sh,” she hissed, cupping her ear to listen to the announcer on TV. “I think they’re telling us not to panic.”

“Well, you’re off to a good start,” Dante said. With a simple click on his TV remote, he muted broadcaster Steve Larson, but the faces of an angry Ayatollah as well as Iran’s President Massoud Shahjahan flashed on the screen behind Larson. “Their missiles can’t possibly reach us,” Dante added. “Those people are bluffing.”

But Dante wasn’t sure. He turned the volume back just as Larson, turning away from the camera, his grey hair in disarray, pressed the palm of his hand against his ear. “I have just received confirmation from the State Department,” Larson said. “Eight missiles have been tracked, all heading across the Atlantic toward our country. We are unable to determine at this point whether our interceptor missiles have been launched, but our president is set to make a nationwide address in a matter of moments.”

Helen dropped her head and sobbed. “This is the end of everything, of us, of our plans to raise a family. Everything.”

There was no point in consoling her; nothing he could say would alleviate her pain. She was right. If an attack were underway, this would be the end of everything. Or maybe just the end of this particular civilization. If his father Allan were alive today, he would have said all civilizations eventually perish and ours would be no exception. His dad, Allan Lamprey, was only one of a team of archaeologists who had discovered the lost continent of Atlantis near the Azores. But the public initially ridiculed him when he claimed Atlantis had a civilization far advanced above our own. Further exploration proved him right.

As Dante walked toward the door leading to a balcony overlooking Manhattan, he wished he could be alone. Too bad his dad was not here to put everything in proper perspective. “History,” Allan once said, “is nothing but the present, frozen in time. You see, objects like King Tut’s tomb and the pyramids are still with us. They remind us we can always preserve memories of bygone times, but the people of Atlantis intended to preserve time itself.” His father explained that the Atlanteans were actually able to communicate telepathically and travel from place to place by engineering a reversal of gravity. He believed they were on the verge of an even greater discovery: how to actually slow time to a virtual standstill. Unfortunately, a great shift of the earth’s poles caused Atlantis to sink beneath the ocean.

“Dad, if we could stop time at certain events in our history,” Dante argued, “we would have prevented great tragedies, such as the Nazi holocaust or the assassination of presidents.”

“Yes, but at great cost,” his dad cautioned. “I think the Atlanteans knew they were treading on dangerous ground and would never have used that power.”

“Why not?”

But his father never gave him a reason, and Dante soon lost interest in the matter. Until now, he had never thought of his father’s conversation again. As he surveyed the view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty across the harbor, he wished his dad were alive because he still had questions.

Dante shrugged off his dad’s insight about an Atlantean quest for time control. It was not possible to prevent calamities. Events beyond our reach have happened before and would happen again.

Nonetheless, he felt guilty about disobeying his father’s wish for him never to carry an ancient bronze ring which carried the image of concentric circles like that of an atom. This ring came from one of his father’s archeological digs. Allan hid it in a safe with specific instructions forbidding anyone to wear it. “While I generally don’t believe in superstition,” his father wrote, “the incantation an Atlantean priest gave to this object bothers me. Its hieroglyphic message claimed that anyone who wore this ring while reciting the words associated with it would possess tremendous power to change human history.”

After his father died, Dante discovered the ring but not the incantation, although he searched all over for it. The ring fit his finger perfectly and the design was flawless, despite its antiquity. Since he did not also have the Atlantean chant he saw no harm in wearing it.

 

 “Dante!” Helen called out in a shriek of despair. “Why are you sitting out here alone? You and I ought to be spending our—” She choked on her words. “—our last day together.”

“Sorry, honey. I wanted to be alone right now with my thoughts. That’s all.”

She cradled a photo album on her lap as she sat next to him. Dante felt her goose bumps with the tips of his fingers, but she moved her arm away. “The President’s news conference is over,” she said, her voice wavering. “Of the eight Iranian missiles sighted, we destroyed only two of them. Congress is in emergency session and—”

A sonic boom overhead prevented her from talking further. Three F-15 fighter jets streaked across the light blue sky and toward the Atlantic.

Helen’s eyes swelled with tears, and her hands shook as she handed Dante the photo album. “Here, honey, I found this on the closet floor, hidden by a stack of books. I thought maybe we could go through these pictures together.”

Dante wished he could tell her he wanted to be alone as she flipped through the photo album. “I almost forgot about this one,” she said. “You fell into the river when a water skier came a bit too close to our boat. And look at this one. I recall you were about to say you could handle a triple-deck ice cream cone when the top scoop fell off into your lap.”

Dante nodded with a polite smile, but a million thoughts assaulted him. What were other people doing right now? Waiting for the inevitable? Running to a church for redemption? Trying to escape—somehow, somewhere?

Helen held out a yellowed piece of paper about four inches square. “This was stuck in the album. I’ve never seen this before. What is it?”

As a slight morning breeze caressed his face, Dante inspected the note. There was something written on it. “It’s my dad’s handwriting.” He sighed deeply. “It looks like gibberish to me. Wonder why he wrote it.”

Suddenly, the shrill blast of an emergency siren sliced through the air. Dante dropped the note as he pressed his hands against his ears.

Helen bent down, picked up the note, and handed it to him. Her lips were moving, and he uncovered his ears to ask her what she had just said.

 “I said, read to me what’s written on that goddamn piece if paper,” she screamed above the blare of the siren.

Dante reared back in surprise. It was the first time he had ever heard her curse. He wanted to tell her to relax, but he knew he couldn’t compete with the siren.

A helicopter approached the roof of Century Bank a half-mile away. On the side of the Metro Life Building, red, white, and blue lights of a Pepsi sign flashed in rapid succession.

 “Okay, I’ll read it to you,” he shouted back at her, “but it’s utter nonsense. After he blared out each of the apparently meaningless words, he shook his head. “See, I told you it was all pure baloney.”

The siren stopped. So did the street noises below.

“Helen, imagine that. Everything suddenly got quiet. Isn’t that—” He turned toward her and instantly shivered. There was a deathlike stillness in her eyes. Her mouth was slightly ajar as if she were going to speak. But she didn’t.

 “Helen!” he yelled, shaking her shoulders. “What’s wrong with you? Helen!”

Is she in a coma? He shot up from his chair, but his gaze caught the sky first. The blades of the helicopter, still in midair, had stopped swirling. The lights of the Pepsi sign were no longer dancing about. The morning breeze disappeared. His world was frozen.

It was then he noticed he still held the note and his ring finger hurt like hell.

 

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If you’d like a summary of all 16 stories in STORIES TO ENJOY, simply click on http://www.tommach.com/short_stories.htm  Enjoy!  

Read E-Books? Click on: tom mach on your device when you shop for a book and get a list of his superbly enjoyable stories.

#Prose  #Lit #sci fi

  

Filed under Frozen History short story fiction Stories to Enjoy O. Henry lit