Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Short Stories Page 1 of 2

Where Ideas Come From

Fairly frequently someone will ask where I get my ideas, and like most authors I am at a bit of a loss for a good answer. However, a couple days ago, an FB writer friend asked for reasons a teenager might be laid up for weeks but not cause long term damage.

Their question question made me think this at first:”Not totally related, but an anecdote about how medical research can be fraught. For story purposes, I wanted to know if a teenager with bone cancer might have to have both legs amputated. I called my doctor, and he immediately went into a diagnostic mode. “What symptoms do you have? When did you start experiencing discomfort? How long have you been ignoring this condition?” It took quite a bit of talking to convince him that I wasn’t sick myself. I’m pretty sure he worried about me for years after.”

Amazon - The Radio Magician and Other Stories: Van Pelt, James:  9780982073025: Books

I added, “I have written three stories with bed-ridden young people: “The Radio Magician,” about a boy with polio in the 30s, also the story about a boy who had his legs amputated because of bone cancer, “Roller Derby Dan'” and the piece I’m working on now with a boy in the 60s who has both legs in external fixators after surgery to correct severe bow leggedness. I think the antecedent to my interest in this trope is Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” from THE OCTOBER COUNTRY.”

The FB friend asked why that situation interested me, and I realized I had a partial answer to where I get ideas, at least this idea.”Besides the awesomeness of the Bradbury story, a friend of mine when I was 12 had both legs broken to correct for extreme pigeon toed alignment of his feet. His legs were casted from ankle to hip. He was miserable but suffered gamely. We pushed him in his wheelchair everywhere we went that summer. I’ve often thought since what his experience must have been like. Also, of interest in this situation, H.G. Wells broke his leg when he was eight. He was bedridden while it healed (they were much less into getting patients on their feet at that time). He spent his convalescence reading. He said that’s what made him H.G. Wells. He became devoted to books and writing.”

That’s where the idea came from.

Practice and Theory of Naming Characters

Most stories start small for me and then accrete, like a pearl in a clam. The story I’m working on now has grown to 8,000 words, and I’m still writing the last scene. My challenge is that it’s a teaching story with a large cast: the teacher, a student teacher, a janitor and twenty-four students. I’m working at portraying a class environment. As the story stands now, I’ve named ten of the twenty-four students (and a couple parents).That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air!

The problem is the impact of those names. At what point would readers toss up their hands and say, “I can’t keep the characters straight,” or would readers realize there are quite a few names, but only the characters who keep popping up rise to importance while the others settle into the background?Either reaction is possible. I believe any writing challenge can be overcome with the right collaboration between a careful writer and competent reader. That’s one of writing’s joys: anything is possible.

As I write the last scene, though, I’m deciding which characters to use. Not all of them will appear, and I realized over the course of the couple weeks I’ve been working on this piece that I’ve lost touch myself of everyone in the story, so I inventoried them. Here’s the list I created with the first page the character appears and then how many times total I mentioned the name:

Ms. Milspaugh pg.1—73 mentions

Andrew Tyndale pg. 1—53 mentions

Jed Rote pg.2—40 mentions

Dove Klein pg. 2—38 mentions

Dennis Cho pg. 12—6 mentions

Cassie-Lasila Arms pg. 13—8 mentions

Paisley Lopez-Sang pg. 14—7 mentions

Len and Amelia Tyndale pg. 14—1 mention

Lisa Fromme pg. 15—1 mention

Toby Gwinn pg. 17—1 mention

Harmony Dlamini pg. 19—5 mentions

Jim John pg. 22—3 mentions

Sharon Hann pg. 23—4 mentions

Ryan Bigelow pg. 24—3 mentions

Hot damn! That’s a big list.

A closer look at number of mentions reveals my cast centers on the top four characters: the teacher who is my protagonist, Ms. Milspaugh, her student teacher, Jed Rote, and two students, Andrew Tyndale and Dove Klein.The rest are supporting cast.

I tried to pick names that reflected different origins to show Ms. Milspaugh’s class, like many real-world classes, comes from diverse backgrounds (my default when I don’t think about it is almost always north-western European). I also didn’t want the names to be visually similar. Different first letters help with this, as do names with different shapes. At first glance, Dennis Cho doesn’t look like Ryan Bigelow, so the eye cues help to differentiate them. I notice I have two names that are hyphenated, which might make them hard to distinguish. I’ll give that more thought.

I did choose a few names from my life. “Milspaugh” was the name of one of my junior high teachers who was memorable. I knew a pair of sisters in high school named “Klein.” One of my sisters is a “Sharon.”“Jed Rote” was chosen because of the meaning of his last name in the same spirit as the naming of Han Solo, Truman Burbank, and Willy Loman.

List of Dickensian characters - Wikipedia

I love how Charles Dickens created characters. Part of his genius was in giving them cool names: Seth Pecksniff, Mrs. Jellyby, Samuel Pickwick, Uriah Heep and many others. I’m not doing cool naming the same way he did in my story, although I do like the names I’ve chosen. A classroom of characters all named the way Dickens named characters would be awesome, though. What I do want to borrow from him, is his really well-done pocket characterizations. He could create a character in just a sentence or two.

Mr. Ayresleigh (Pickwick Papers) “A middle aged man in a very old suit of black, who looked pale and haggard, and paced up and down the room incessantly: stopping now and then to look with great anxiety out of the window as if he expected somebody, and then resuming his walk.”

Miss Barbary (Bleak House) “She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel–but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.”

Ned Beadwood (David Copperfield) “It won’t do to be like long Ned Beadwood, when they took him to church “to marry him to somebody”, as he says, and left the bride behind. Ha! ha! ha! A wicked rascal, Ned, but droll!”

Here’s a quick dive into Dickens’ characterizations and also a revelation in how many characters he created.

At any rate, this longish post came from me pausing to create the list of characters in my current project and got me thinking about names and characters. I’m not looking for advice about this ill-advised story problem I’ve written myself into. Writing into story problems is half the fun of creating fiction.

Training Critique Partners


I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).


But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:


First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.


Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?


Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?


Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?


Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?


What did you think about the characters?


Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.


Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.


You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.


The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.


Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?


I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

A New Horror Story Anthology!

A cool thing about writing is that I get to check off boxes for the stories I’ve always wanted to write (and I can write variations too–checking off the box doesn’t mean I’m done!).


My story in Alternative Deathiness is a haunted house story, but it’s also about the impulse to scare, the trail of trauma an effective horror writer leaves behind, and how the wheel goes round and round.

Alternative Deathiness: Publication Announcement

I have a story in this one entitled “The Thing Underneath.” The first editor to read it said, “It’s slam-dunk Stoker material.”

The publisher says, As the cover to Alternative Deathiness suggests, life is but a dance with death. A topic all of us are familiar with and too often want to avoid. This is not a volume to avoid. Alternative Deathiness is a fantastic selection of short stories and poetry that includes veteran writers such as best selling author Alicia Hilton, James Van Pelt, Larry Hodges and more, as well as up and coming voices such as Jim Wright and K.G. Anderson.

Paperback ($13.13 USD)

Colorado Public Radio Interviews James Van Pelt about Covid-19

Actually, what they wanted was a science fiction writer’s angle on possible impacts of the pandemic, and since I’d written a pandemic novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, they chose me. I suggested that a short story of mine, “Friday, After the Game,” was a better fit for the topic, so we talked about that instead.

Here is the interview.

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

Experience Arcade Cover Reveal

My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).

 

Marketing Short Stories

LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.

Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:

Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.

First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.

I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.

As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:

– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.

CONCLUSIONS:
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.

Sunday Writing: Every “Rule” has Exceptions

marqueeOne of the many fascinating aspects of English and writing is that anything that sounds like a rule has exceptions.  The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK.  If it works, it’s good.  I’ve written stories in the past just to show that a “rule” can be broken.  My latest story at Daily Science Fiction does exactly that.  It’s called “Writing Advice.”

So, a lot of the standard wisdom writing teachers hand out is challengable, if you know what you are doing.

–    Write what you know.  This is intuitively wrong, or at least poorly stated.  I prefer “Don’t write what you don’t know,” because that implies you can find out stuff (and should).  Too vigorously applied, “write what you know,” produces a lot of belly button gazing.  At the college that means I get a ton of dorm stories, filled with drinking and teen angst.  Maybe an even better way to phrase this might be, “Write what you can imagine, and imagine with gusto (and detail).”  At least for science fiction and fantasy writers.

–   Don’t shift point of view.   In general, this is good advice.  A writer who slips around willy nilly with point of view just confuses the heck out of the reader.  I responded to a story the other day that dipped into the cat’s point of view for a sentence, and then, catastrophically, into a house plant on the fireplace mantle for another sentence.  The better advice, at least to stronger writers, is Control point of view.  If you know what you are doing, a story that shifts point of view can be the only way to tell the story, if it works.

–   Show, don’t tell.  This rule is what I had in mind when I started this post because yesterday I said the weakest way to reveal character is by the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is.  What I had in mind was the writer who puts something like this down on the page: “Leslie was witty and clever,” and then Leslie never does a single witty or clever thing.  That’s telling without confirming showing.  But some of the most memorable characters in fiction are revealed partly through the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is like.

For example, here is one of the most famous character introductions in all of English literature:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

I think that nice bit of telling works, don’t you?  All right, it’s a bit of a cheat as an example, because there is some effective showing in there too, but the mode is mostly telling.  Look at how much milage Dickens gets out of mixing showing and telling.  Remember, too, that the very first time we see Scrooge in the story, his character is revealed through dialogue:

“A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you!” cried a cheerful voice.  It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

So, for me, the better advice is “Show, don’t tell, unless you earn the right to tell by doing a lot of showing.”  It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the first piece of advice, but it seems closer to the truth.

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