The January/February Analog contains my short story, “Party On.” Check the table of contents for the other stories and authors. This will be my 19th appearance in the magazine since 1997. I think I received my Analog MAFIA pin after my second story, which didn’t really seem “frequent” to me, but Making Appearances Frequently in Analog felt awesome. Analog was the first magazine I read regularly, starting in junior high.
Category: Short Stories Page 1 of 3
The paperback and e-book version of THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT are available now.
Many thanks to those who bought the hardbound, signed and numbered limited edition. If you are interested in that version of the book, a few are still available through Fairwood Press.
If you were waiting for the less-expensive release, now is your chance. The $5.99 Kindle book I think is a real bargain: 300,000 words contained in 63 of my best stories from 30 years (so far) of publishing. The paperback features the same glorious cover art as the collector’s edition.
Remember that reviews matter. If you leave a review at Amazon, or mention the book on social media, that’s how other possibly interested readers will discover the book.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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.
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.
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).