This last week as I buckled down to some actual writing again, I rediscovered a story I’d started and abandoned a couple of years ago, before I ever figured out how to end it — or even decided whether it was a short story, and not something longer. (It’s already at over 5,000 words.)
Here’s how it (currently) begins:
Photographs don’t lie, I was a beautiful baby. Of course, there are plenty of beautiful babies, but they don’t all get entered into baby beauty contests. Especially not boys. But not only did I win the award, my achievement made it up on the sign in front of both our stores: JOHN BLUETT, 6 MOS. OLD, WINNER, MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY.
The way I figure it, Mom got a taste of fame in her high school production of Pygmalion and never adjusted to the way it didn’t bring her money and success for the rest of her life. Or maybe she thought it actually did, since it wasn’t long after that she married my dad, Harry Bluett, heir of the Bluett Furniture Warehouse home furnishings empire. In a city like ours Harry must have been considered quite the catch – not handsome or smart, but rich. Famous, too.
That’s because the Bluett family always appeared in their own commercials. Especially the kids. “You might not be able to show a lady the exact piece she wants in her dining room,” Grandpa Bluett often said, “But you can always win her heart with your cute kids!”
So I spent my childhood as a minor celebrity. I was the oldest son, and the only kid in the family to win the Most Beautiful Baby Award (not that the others didn’t get entered). So I was in every commercial they ever made except for that time I had the chicken pox.
“Come schee what my daddy has on special this week!” I’d say. It was the same line every time. People watched me grow up saying it at the beginning or the end of some new commercial every month or so. Some people thought my sibilant s’s were really cute. Not the other boys at school, who liked to say, “Hey, Johnny, what you got on schpecial this week?” When I finally got old enough to demand that I not have to say the word “daddy” on television, they got my sister Gloria to do it. But I still had to stand around and point at furniture.
Now, I like this guy. I like his voice. I also like the problem he soon encounters with a young lady named Palmyra, who has a unique approach to men.
But damned if I know how to get him through it all in a way that satisfies in less than 12,000 words. Maybe even 60,000 words. Do I really have to write a whole novel just to find out how these guys are going to end up? I’m not sure I like him THAT much.
Ending short stories has got to be the single most difficult task I ever face as a writer. Most of the “complete” stories I have just sit around on my hard drive, where I periodically read them and think, “Yeah, okay… but that ending isn’t quite right yet.”
I don’t have that issue with the novels, so far. Even the third one, which is not finished, already has an ending I love. I just haven’t written the novel all the way to it yet. (Yes, I usually skip ahead and write endings when I’m about three quarters of the way through. At that point I need reassurance that I know where I’m going. Then when I really get there I have to rewrite it, of course, but at least I’m confident in the meantime.)
Why is it so much easier to end a novel than a story?
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this. I’m an English major who studied fiction writing in both college and grad school, so I’ve read plenty of classic short stories. In my classes at HVCC I have taught short stories that have lovely, perfect endings. Through Media Bistro I took an online course with John Rowell, whose stories in The Music of Your Life really impressed me. My friend Lucia Nevai is a real master at ending short stories well (and everything else about them, too — and I’m not just saying this; she won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize). Anyway, Lucia’s been kind enough to read my stuff and give me feedback.
Feedback like, on one of my stories, “you haven’t quite earned that ending yet.” (Though she probably put it more diplomatically than that.)
I’m thinking about this because I’d like to clean out the hard drive of all that work and put a volume of stories out. So I’m just kind of whining, now, about how hard it is to write good short stories, and how there’s also no market for them, really, outside of literary journals that almost no one reads except people who somehow managed to get published in them, which they have only done after collecting hundreds of little rejection slips or rejection emails, or knowing somebody, or somehow being so incredibly talented or awesomely cool that the potential of bright literary notoriety rises off their prose in little clouds.
Even when you’re a real author who has arrived and won awards and such, publishers tend to think of publishing a volume of short stories as a vanity move, something to win some good notices for an author (and publishing house) rather than something they expect to generate serious revenue.
I doubt there’s a single author in the US today who makes a good living purely from writing literary short stories. (Maybe Alice Munro manages, but she’s Canadian.)
But short stories as a genre are experiencing a bit of a revival thanks to ebooks and indie publishing. And the reason I’m interested in putting together a collection is that on Amazon I could give them away, or charge 99 cents (which is still more than I’d get in a literary journal) and then people who like them might actually buy my other books.
(Also, it’s a way of putting off The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire just a tad, because I expect that one to encounter some push back. Traditionally published writers are a little more insulated from controversy than indie writers, for whom a few ill-timed one-star reviews can spell disaster.)
Anyway, this week I decided I’d share a little work in progress with you. I thought it would be an economical solution to the time writing this blog takes, but of course it took just as long to write as it ever does, or maybe even longer.
If you’d like to hear more about John Bluett, let me know. I could use a little motivation to help me finish his story!
Speaking of problems with endings…
This weekend a firestorm has erupted over J.K. Rowling saying that she thinks she should have had Hermione Granger end up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. I happen to totally agree with her, but oh my there’s a lot of condemnation going on out there among Potter fans.
Apparently authors need to just learn to live with whatever we’ve published, and leave any regrets for journals or autobiographies published after we’re dead.
For indies, this offers advantages and benefits.
Advantage: So few people read our early books at first that we can often go in and fix them without anyone ever really knowing.
Disadvantage: We don’t have an experienced publishing team guiding us in the first place, especially pulling us back when we head straight for a cliff.
Then again, experienced publishing professionals can and do push pretty hard for what they think the market wants rather than what the author wants. They are often particularly interested in slotting us into just the slice of the market they think we have the best potential to claim, rather than allowing us to explore the questions that most interest us.
And if you ask me, that’s another good reason to go indie.