Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Is a Story?

Note: This week’s post is the first (short) chapter of a small book I’m writing about the pleasures and techniques of writing stories from our lives. In this chapter I begin with the basic definition of a story.

According to Rust Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire and the author of the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, “a short story tells of something that happened to someone.” That’s it, and that’s enough. This simple statement has the two necessary ingredient of any story, true or false, of any length, in any medium: plot (something happened) and character (to someone). For extra credit you can add “somewhere,” so that the terse description of a story would be “something happens to somebody, somewhere.” But scene is optional. Plot and character are musts for a story.
When we talk about the stories we draw from our lives, that “somebody” is us: my memoirs will be about what happened to me. Your life stories will tell what happened to you.
And what it is that happened? What gives any story a plot? The character has to change. Our someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning. Your life stories will tell of the moments you changed somehow, in small, subtle ways or in giant steps.
How does that change come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley ran over your foot, so you were never able to tap dance again); but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice. The choice you made was probably a response to some sort of conflict. Your story will be about how you changed because of an important choice you made to deal with a conflict, and the change you made had consequence of its own.
I realize this is getting technical and maybe boring, but you’ll be in good shape if you remember these Four C’s: Conflict, Choice, Change, and Consequence. A good story needs all four.
Speaking of consequence, here’s another tip about constructing your story. A good story isn’t just a sequence of events: A happens, then B happens, then C, and so forth till The End. Instead, a story is made up of a series of consequences. A, B, C, and the rest are lined up like dominoes: A causes B to happen; B causes C, C causes D, and so on until the story reaches its climax. The climax is where the choice is made, and the change happens as a result of that choice.
What I’ve just described is also called the “narrative arc.” As the story progresses, consequence by consequence, A forcing B, B causing C, and so on till the climax (let’s call it the G spot), the intensity of the story increases, and story becomes more compelling and exciting. The climax is the high point, and what happens after that is a relaxed resolution.
If this description of a story sounds like sex, don’t be surprised or embarrassed. After all, we’re describing the joy of creation here, the creation of a story. Your story. One of your many wonderful stories.
Now that you’ve learned the Four C’s, let me now foist on you four S-words: Structure, Selection, Significance, and Style.
Structure you already know: it’s the narrative arc and the line of toppling dominoes. Add to that the obvious, that the story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. And usually at the end of the middle, the structure of the story calls for a climax. Let your story start off strong, build to a high point, then taper off with the consequence implicit in the ending.
Selection is an important concept. You don’t want to tell your whole life story in each story you tell from your life. Confine your material to what matters to the particular tale you’re telling. Keep it within the time frame of what happened. You don’t need a weather report at the beginning, and you can leave out boring irrelevant details. Include only the characters and events that matter to the choice and the change and the consequence.
Significance is another way of saying importance. A story should matter. The plot will matter to you because it changed your life somehow. Your story should also be significant to the reader, because to some degree, large or small, you’re writing about the human condition.
Style. Ah, style. Style is what gives wings to your words. Your style is your own. It’s as much a part of you as your fingerprints. When you write your stories, you will be writing in a voice that’s all yours. Nobody else would construct or tell those stories in the same fine way you are writing. No one else would use the same words, in the same order.
What else is important about style? Style is fun. Putting down words in your own way is a creative act, and you have a right to enjoy your words, and the way they bring your memories back to life.
So as you recall and retell those conflicts, and the choices you made, and the changes you went through, and the consequences of those changes, construct your stories strongly, focus on what matters to the story when you select what to include, show why your experiences were significant, and make the words of your story sing with style.
That’s what a writer does, and that’s what a story is.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Importance of Writing Our Stories

Note: When I moved to Humboldt County, California ten years ago, I signed on to teach an adult education class called "The Stories of Our Lives." I had been teaching creative writing while I lived in Santa Barbara, and I wanted to keep teaching. The life stories class became popular and was a pleasure for me. Alas, a couple of years ago, when the economy tanked and the funds for frills dried up, Adult Education was canceled, and I retired from teaching. I miss the classroom, but I think I've found a way to stay in the business. I'm planning to write a short book on memoir writing, based on the detailed notes I used for my classes. I plan to post chapters on my blog, as I write them. What follows here is my brief introduction to the subject.

Those of us who are writers must write. We storytellers write stories. Anybody who has lived as long as you have lived has plenty to write about. In the attic of your memory you’ll find a treasury of tales to put on paper. The purpose of this book is to help you mine your past, with all its surprises, narrow escapes, successes, foolish mistakes, your loves and your fights, and all the wisdom you’ve picked up along the way, and turn all that fine material into stories. This book will help you make those stories worth reading.
The stories we tell about our lives form a link between the past and the future. What happened to you when you were a teenager is still important to you, and it will be important to your teen-aged great grandchild some day. How you raised your children will be fascinating to those children’s children when they’re bringing up kids in the future, kids who will share your experiences, just as they will share your DNA.
Believe me, what you write will be important to your family for generations to come. I know I wish I could read a first-hand account of how my father’s grandfather came from Wales to Wisconsin. He didn’t leave me a clue. That’s why I’m making a point of writing stories about my adventures and discoveries, before I forget them. I want to record my personal choices. I want somebody in the future to know what I thought about rock and roll, about civil rights in the 1950s, about the Vietnam war; how I married three very wonderful and very different women; what it was like to work with words as a bookseller, editor, writer, and publisher; what I learned from my own sons; and how I once hitchhiked through Nevada in the snow. For starters.
You have stories to leave for the future, too. Tell the world of today and tomorrow how you felt about your yesterdays. What was you first thought when you stared at the television and watched airplanes crash into the World Trade Center? Were you overjoyed or appalled when a black man was elected president? Do you remember a time when children could explore their neighborhoods safely and unattended? When you could drink out of mountain streams?            
Another reason to write our stories is just for the sheer joy of it. It can be a delight to revisit the past. Yes, it can also be painful, but the writing will turn the pain into valuable truth. The secret is to write with storytelling style. This book has tips on that.
Socrates encouraged us to examine our lives. A good way to examine your life is to write about the stories you’ll find in your memory. And a generous, satisfying thing to do with your stories is to share them.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Meet Madelyn Lorber

This week I’m pleased to welcome to my blog Madelyn Lorber, the author of The Eyes Have It, a remarkable (get this) paranormal love story/suspense thriller/private eye novel set in multicultural New Mexico. I had the pleasure of editing The Eyes Have It, and of working with Madelyn and watching her grow as a storyteller.

When I invited Madelyn Lorber to be a guest on my blog, I asked her to write a piece about what “The Joy of Story” meant to her. She responded with an account of recent high school reunion she attended, where stories were swapped fondly. It comes in the form of a letter to her classmates:

Dear Everyone,

By “everyone” I mean everyone from our class, the Miami Beach High School Class of 1955, and especially those who came to the weekend celebration of our mutual 75th Birthday Party, but also those who couldn’t make it, and even those of you reading this who were never fortunate enough to be part of our class.

This fellow student let the euphoria subside, allowed the real world return, then with proper perspective, hereby shares what became the abundantly clear gift of our gathering: The Joy Of The Story.

Our tales from that yesteryear revealed that as kids, we were nearly perfect. We were almost all nice. We were mostly innocents. And most important, we grew up to be kind, caring, intelligent, wise, courageous, generous, fun-loving real people with pleasures in common: the company of one another, and reminiscing about the youth we shared.

Anecdotes, legends, yarns were told and retold. With each word, life’s big and little bumps only made our early years more precious. Narratives that brought us up to date proved that life’s triumphs and failures only made us more compassionate, with a truer sense of what is really important.

Being together once again, is such a gift. With the wave of a wand—we were kids once more. Through the magic of a long-lost script, familiar cheers, tunes, and our Alma Mater; through the images enlarged on the slide show screen, some loose photos, souvenirs, menus, and numerous memorabilia; and through all those faded tales vividly revived, a precious time was recaptured. The places we went returned to their old locations for the moment. The crushes we had, parties we attended, classes we struggled in, clubs we joined, shows we saw were retrieved. Teachers who either stimulated us to greater achievements or forced us to face our limits were recalled with affection, or angst.

But we, and those we’ve lost along the way, were back again, together, vibrant, in memories reignited, as we embraced one another. Distances shrank, episodes recalled, life relived for a moment, amidst friends looking down and smiling.

We ate, drank and gabbed; we danced, caught up, and gabbed; we reminded one another of our luck to grow up on Miami Beach in the 50’s. How lucky to be us. To you, dear classmates, friends, and pals— here’s to a kind and gentle 2013 and a happily ever after. You see folks, the joy of the story is not just living it, then telling it, it’s in the retelling.

Madelyn’s post was especially meaningful to me, because two years ago I attended the 50th reunion of my boarding school class, an event I went to with grave misgivings but came away from with joy. Why? Because the whole weekend was made up of stories.

I should add that I’ve recently finished writing a novel partially inspired by that weekend and the stories that came out of it. I’m shopping it around and will let you know if anything comes of it.

About Madelyn

Madelyn Lorber, forever a daughter, is first and foremost a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, sister-in-law, and friend who has also always written, from teenage diaries to grown-up journals; from letters, poetry, essays and short stories to novels, all the while honing her craft.

She is a member of South Florida Writer’s Association and Florida Freelance Writers’ Association, and attended several of their writer’s conferences; won writing awards from the Florida Freelance Writers’ Contest, 1996, and the Tallahassee Writer’s Association Annual Fiction contest and was published in that organization’s Seven Hills Fiction Review, 1997. Several of her short stories were published in Full Circle, a Collection under the auspices of the University of Miami’s Institute of Retired Professionals from their Lifescripts© class. She also had numerous non-fiction articles published in their Focus Newsletter, 1995-7. She won an award for the Writing’s 2005 contest.

Her debut novel, The Eyes Have It, is the first of a trilogy starring Triplet Private Investigators. While the second of that series, You Have No Idea, is under construction, her collection of short stories is nearing completion with the working title, Talking To Myself.

About The Eyes Have It

A New Mexican business woman faces ridicule, danger, and ruin when long held secrets with metaphysical overtones are revealed in The Eyes Have It.

When a desperate woman hires a private investigator, they discover secrets about her birth that force her to choose between two shocking possibilities. About to become a no one with nothing, she suddenly finds her life is in great peril. Set in a contemporary southwest rich in ethnic diversity, The Eyes Have It takes the reader on a page turning journey involving prejudice, ridicule, and the search for both a missing person and the answers to controversial age-old questions.

for more information:

Saturday, March 9, 2013

OZ Lives On

Susan and I went to the movies yesterday and saw Oz the Great and Powerful. We went to a late matinee on “opening night,” and we sat surrounded by parents and small children who were audibly awed. As were we, wearing our 3D glasses and abandoning our disbelief. It really is a whiz of a movie, because, because, because of the wonderful things it does with special effects on steroids. Its special effects are just as spectacular to today’s audience of children and their parents as I’m sure the innovative effects of the Judy Garland movie were for their time.

I consider myself an expert on the Wizard of Oz. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first book I ever read on my own, so it introduced me to the wonder of reading. I have reread the novel more than a dozen times as an adult, each time refreshing my memories of its wisdom. I read the sequels too when I was a child, and enjoyed them, but haven’t reread them. Of course I’ve seen the 1939 MGM musical version a number of times, although I’m one of the few who don’t think it holds a candle to the novel. (If you want to know my views on this, my essay on the subject was published in Black Lamb and can be read at

The new movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, is inspired more by the MGM movie than by the L. Frank Baum novel. It contains a number of clear tributes to the 1939 movie. Like the earlier movie, this new one opens in Kansas, in black and white. In both movies, the main character is transported to the colorful land of Oz by a tornado. (Somehow Judy’s Dorothy was able to sleep for most of the trip; Oscar in the new movie is in abject terror the whole way, and his inside view of the tornado is a Freudian nightmare.) In both movies the good witch Glinda travels by bubble, and the Wicked Witch of the West speeds around on a broomstick that emits filthy exhaust. The new version of that awful witch is a wonderful tribute to Margaret Hamilton, the original green-skinned, hawk-nosed villainess. As in the earlier movie, this new prequel doubles up on actors who play characters in the Kansas sequence and reappear in major roles in the Oz story.

I’m pleased to say, however, that this new movie does not succumb to the cornball cop-out of calling the whole plot a dream. That horrid device greatly damaged the Judy Garland movie for me, even when I was a child; it seemed to say the story and it’s charm and wisdom were too beautiful to be taken at face value. (Sorry, kids, there’s nowhere over the rainbow.) I’m also pleased that Oz the Great and Powerful found a way to use one of my favorite chapters from the original novel, “The Dainty China Country.” Another small point: the Cowardly Lion makes a brief cameo appearance in Oz the Great and Powerful, and I thank somebody at Disney that this time he’s a real lion, not Bert Lahr in a cheap vaudeville act. (Lahr was good, but that Lion was a dignified character in the novel.)

Here’s an interesting point about Oz the Great and Powerful: the opening Kansas scenes establish the date of the plot to be 1905. That alarmed me, because the original novel was published in 1900, and this new prequel clearly predates the story by some decades, when the Wizard and the Witches were young. Then it occurred to me that this prequel is meant to take place 34 years before the MGM movie, which—I have just realized for the first time—was meant to depict Kansas in the dust-bowl, depression year of 1939, not the similarly sad Kansas of the turn of the twentieth century.

So. I recommend Oz the Great and Powerful as a highly entertaining and quite meaningful movie. Then, after you check out that movie, read (or reread) the hugely rewarding novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has remained a Great American Novel since it was first published 113 years ago.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


As usual, I’m turning the first Saturday of the month (and the week following) over to writers of 99-word stories. This stormy month of March the challenge I issued was the theme “Storm Warning.” We have quite a variety of fierce weather in this batch, so bundle up and have a good read.
At the end of this post I’m giving you the challenge for April. Please send me your stories. All writers welcome!

by Chester J. Punicki

She’s a mess.
She’s a buzz saw.
She turns you into a raging sea.
She defeats you on every level.
Her head is full of debris spinning at the speed of light.
Her head is always turbulent.
Talk to her and she consumes you.
Listen to her and she will change you.
She cannot hear you.
She cannot see you.
Her purpose is to challenge every aspect of your being.
Her very presents will change the thoughts in your mind.
To avoid her is futile.
To convince her is impossible.
She is the storm.
See her the storm warning.


by John F. Nolan

Red fingernails, tapping on granite and cigarette smoke in the air.
 “Sit down. We have to talk.”

Storm Warning!

She spreads $10k across the counter like a Vegas poker dealer.
My gambling stash!  “Where did you get that?”
 “Empty paint can.”
Think fast. “That’s for a cruise to Rio.
 “Where are the tickets and passports?”
 “I have them at work.”
 “Get them now.”
Her mind and tongue zigzag like the funnel on a tornado. No escape.
“You got me. Can I have the money back? It’s for a rainy day.”
 “Here’s $100. Take a slow boat to China.”


by Jerry Giammatteo

Despite the blizzard, I took the railroad to the basketball tournament at the Garden. My wife didn’t tell me not to go, but was clearly unhappy that I left her and my six-month-old son alone.
The forecast was dire. Naturally I got stranded. My wife was ticked off. I couldn’t blame her. When even your friends side with your wife, you know you’ve screwed up.
Fortunately, the weather didn’t worsen and I returned home at 3 a.m. Relieved that she didn’t change the locks, I realized that I had learned an early, valuable husband and father lesson.


by Madelyn Lorber

Full from fine food, and good wine, draped in cashmere, we are warm.
Shirtless, he winces while he counts out crumpled bills. “Why’d you hit me, man?” he whimpers.
We walk past, hearing thuds as punches land, through our worlds-away cushioning.
He’s sprawled on the sidewalk’s cold, rough surface. His legs ward off kicks. His arms shield blurred eyes, bloody nose, broken teeth from fists and feet.
We put distance between us and the darkness lying on gum wads, discarded butts, windblown ads; rolled from the faded curb into the gutter by teachers who refuse to stop their lesson.


by Phyllis Povell

Hurricane warnings had been issued. Martha gazed out the window watching the bending palm trees. The coconuts were now on the ground and would soon be missiles in the wind, but Jimmy had promised he would be there by three o’clock. How could she evacuate without seeing him?
She was breathing very hard; her breath came in short pants. Jimmy was already two hours late. Martha envisioned him stuck in the line of evacuees. She knew he would be there if he could. She needed him.
At nine o’clock the doorbell rang. At last Jimmy arrived with her inhaler.


by John M. Daniel

The morning of my twenty-second birthday, I drove to class, groggy from last night’s jug wine.
Ahead, a pickup was loaded high with scrap lumber for that night’s football bonfire. Boys rode on top, grinning, shouting, tossing beercans onto lawns.
“We interrupt this program.…”
My radio gave me the news, establishing a universe far more complex and frightful than the one I’d known at twenty-one.
The boys on the truck were singing, shaking cans, squirting foam at each other. Their program would be interrupted soon. Thereafter they would always remember the November morning they heard the news, learned things fall apart.


by Christine Viscuso

I saw it coming.  While sitting at my desk, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tornado of anxiety and depression coming.  I couldn't stop it.  My heart kept skipping beats. It hit me.
For two years, medical tests would prove me physically sound. Then came talk therapy and a psychiatrist for drugs.  I resisted pharmaceuticals; my psychiatrist told my husband I drove her nuts and then resigned.
Suddenly, one day, things clicked.  My new psychiatrist convinced me to try a new medication which helped.  Thanks to medication and a great therapist, the sun came out again!


Now for the 99-word story challenge for the foolish, taxing month of April. The theme: “The Joke’s On Me.” I’ll say no more. Get busy!
The rules, again:
Stories must be 99 words long. Exactly.
Stories must be stories: something has to happen to somebody.
Stories need conflict.
Deadline: April Fools Day!