Category: writing (Page 1 of 8)

My Favorite Stories: Heart Transplant

A dramatic, gender-swapped reenactment of my reading this story for the first time.

I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.

Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.

Begins in Media Res

The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”

It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.

Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”

And then he reveals the thrust of the story.

An Imaginative, Emotional Plot

“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”

Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.

Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”

After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?

The Language

Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:

He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.

Ray Bradbury, heart transplant

This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.

The Meaning

The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.

“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”

Ray bradbury, heart transplant

At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.

And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.

Ray bradbury, heart transplant

It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.

***

To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.

GHOST STORY: Structure and Style

This is the movie logo, but it’s not that far off from the book’s aesthetic.

Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.

Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?

In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.

The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.

There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.

The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.

All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.

The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.

The Simple Complexity of a Writing Career

On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Write something good.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Be published.

Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.

Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.

Write something good

This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.

That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.

It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.

So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:

  • Develop deep, complex characters.
  • Drop them into an interesting situation.
  • Layer in conflict.
  • ???
  • Profit.

Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?

Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?

Get an agent

Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.

How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?

That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.

Oh but it is.

And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.

Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?

Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.

Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…

… and that’s another ten rejections.

But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.

Be published

Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.

Until then, best of luck.

Six Months Later

Maybe I should just publish my personal journal. Everyone wants to know the thoughts of a privileged white man, right?

I’m a planner. Wasn’t always. When I was younger, due to age and circumstance I just did things without a ton of thought toward long-term goals. Back then, I didn’t have any. I was too busy surviving.

Over the past few years, though, I’ve become increasingly concerned with my and my wife’s futures. I’m in a better position to feel that concern, as our day-to-day survival isn’t as suspect as it once was. So, last year, when I was going through a particular vicious bout with existential dread, she and I sat down and made a three-year plan. In three years, I wanted to be making enough money off of my writing to do it full time, in addition to my wife’s day job, should I wish.

It’s been just over six months since I enacted the first parts of the plan (this website, a set writing schedule). How’s it coming?

Writing Discipline

On a good day, when I have a plan for what I want to write, I can knock out 1,000 words in an hour. This is good, because I usually only have an hour to write in the morning. Most days aren’t good days. That said, I only count my word count when it applies to my fiction writing. I don’t count the words written for this blog.

To maintain the presence I know is imperative to success online, I’ve set a personal record for most on-time updates, publishing two blogs per week (Tuesday and Friday morning, if you haven’t kept track) and one vignette per month. This is my 45th blog post in six months (or thereabouts), which isn’t super impressive on its own but means I’ve been disciplined and my planning ahead for many of these has been successful.

Two years ago I wrapped up my first novel, last year I wrote a novella (still being posted a chapter at a time at Wattpad, for those interested), and this year I’ve done the planning for and gotten a few thousand words into my next novel, in addition to focusing more on short stories. I’ve completed five short stories (between 1,500 and 4,500 words a piece) plus the number of vignettes I’ve done.

In terms of pure productivity (and considering the circumstances of, well, gestures broadly), I’ve done a good job of maintaining a certain pace. There have been lulls (I’m in one now!), but that’ll happen in the best of times, which these certainly are not.

Publishing

Because my focus has been on actual writing, attempts to get published haven’t been as successful. In fact, it’s been mostly rejections. Earlier in the year I was longlisted for a flash fiction contest, but wasn’t selected. Otherwise, it’s been a only rejections for short stories and in querying my novel.

Sounds dire, I know, but the numbers don’t play out in my favor. I’ve only attempted to publish short stories twice this year, which isn’t a large enough sample size to draw any conclusions.

The same goes with querying. I realized late last year that I may have been querying my novel to the wrong agents in the wrong genre. I’ve always thought of it as a science fiction story, but the more research I did into genre classification and the more feedback I got from people, the more I realized it falls into literary fiction with speculative elements. In other words, strictly in terms of language and style and not quality it has more in common with David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami than it does Ray Bradbury or Orson Scott Card. This required a change in approach. I researched a different set of agents and started to query again, all of which has led to more rejections, but it’s once again a fairly small sample size (five rejections of eight submissions, so far).

I’ve also dabbled in self-publishing. Obviously, my vignettes are self-published on this website, but I’ve also used Wattpad to start publishing my novella and a couple of short stories. And that brings me to…

Readership

My main goal over the next few years is to build an audience. How’s that coming? Here’s a graph that shows page views for this website:

Looks like the stock market somewhere around March 20th…

I know that’s kind of small and hard to read, but I essentially average between 0-3 page views per day. Those big spikes are the times I or someone I know has promoted the site on social media. In other words, I have a few dedicated readers that will check in on me frequently, otherwise most people only visit when I explicitly ask.

That’s to be expected.

I don’t really like promoting myself on social media. I really don’t like social media, in general, but that’s a subject for a rant sometime. And the best way to build your readership is to continually remind people that you exist. I had a three-pronged plan for building an audience:

  1. Online Community: Join and participate in forums, build relationships with other aspirings, and generally be active enough that people find my work organically.
  2. Writer’s Groups: Again, this is about being active. Get out in the world, join some writer’s groups, give and get feedback, and hope that the community gravitates toward my work.
  3. Social Media: Use Facebook, Twitter, and Wattpad to promote myself and drive people toward this site.

The online community, especially around Wattpad, seemed to show a little bit of promise, but I haven’t been consistent in hanging around the forums lately. It takes a lot of time that I don’t really have. Social media is good for short-term spikes, especially if I’m sharing something provocative, but not long-term readers. Writer’s groups was put to bed with Covid-19.

Promoting yourself is difficult, but necessary. How else will anyone find you?

What’s Next?

Initially, I had a plan to self-publish my novella by next month. I was going to use it as a test run in hiring and editor, going through the process for Kindle Direct Publishing, all that fun stuff. Considering I’m publishing it chapter-by-chapter on Wattpad right now, that plan has changed. I may still do all that, but it’ll be a different timeline.

I’d also like to self-publish a collection of short stories this year. By December I’ll have 12 vignettes published on this site that I’ll collect, put with a bunch of new short stories and visuals, and put online. Then I’ll swap out the vignettes for new ones every month until I’ve collected enough to do another collection.

Otherwise, I’ll continue trying to build an audience through participating in the writer’s community and (maybe) promoting myself on social media. Hell, maybe one day I’ll write something actually good and it’ll catch fire.

Then I’ll have it made in the shade.

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

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