Short Fiction Banes

I just started writing these short stories and they’re already kicking my ass. The blank page has never been scarier. I feel like I’m not a real writer when I write these and when I do fulfill it, it feels like crap. Well, not crap per se, but unpublishable stuff. Who’s going to read a dwarf detective story?

Every day I come to the blank page and do everything I can to avoid writing. And now I’ve got to come to the blank page once a week. I realize I’ve got no plot for any of these concepts. No story. Nothing that’s going to get published anywhere. I don’t know what makes good short stories today, but so far, I haven’t read one that shows me what to do. So how am I supposed to gain credits to show to publishers that I’ve got the chops? I’m an outliner, I’ve got to engineer these stories from the ground up. I’ve got to uncover them like a fossil, delicately brushing away grains of sand to reveal the story inside.

And each story needs research — its own research. I can’t write about a kid with cancer without knowing what the chemo experience is like. And then 5,000 words later I’m on a totally different topic. That takes time, so I feel like 50% of the story writing time is taken up with watching YouTube and I’m not really getting any writing done. Nothing productive at least.

I feel like if I took the time to sit down and just kinda… think… I could develop plots for them, mine out the flesh that turns a concept into a story. But would they be good? Would I be screwing it up? These stories exist so perfect in my head, but that’s because they’re intangible at that point. Concepts have no flaws, because they exist behind the dark matter of the mind. Once they’re committed to the real world, they contain all the flaws.

And these literary short stories I’m reading are awful. They all have the same theme: “men are terrible and women are victims”. They have no plot whatsoever. They’re just postmodern literary bullshit. Woman has affair, women dating emotionally unavailable man, TWO stories about women dating hunters. Men who don’t listen, men in unhappy marriages, men with toxic masculinity. And everyone’s doing drugs. There’s not one story in here where someone doesn’t smoke a joint.

Just by the selection, you can tell two things: the curators were women and they grew up in the seventies. This book was published in 1995 and there’s nothing from Hemingway, Roald Dahl, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Anton Chekhov, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore. I could go on and on.

For those curious, here is the list of “curated” short stories in my book “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter”.

  • Margaret Atwood “Happy Endings” – Metafiction about a man cheating
  • Toni Cade Bambara “Christmas at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” – Little girl is scared of rich woman’s fur coat
  • Charles Baxter “Gryphon” – Substitute teacher is supposed to be whimsical and magical by telling them fantastic stories and tarot readings instead of teaching them. She says things like “well, sometimes 6 times 11 does equal 68, but only in this class”. She calls them “substitute facts”. This teaches kids to grow up and believe “fake news”.
  • Ann Beattie “Happy” – Woman thinks she’s in a good marriage but I guess she’s wrong because she has to do the laundry. Men are terrible.
  • T. Coraghessan Boyle “Heart of a Champion” – What if Lassie was a douchebag? (Does anyone remember Lassie?)
  • Raymond Carver “Cathedral” – Ignorant man learns to really “see” thanks to a blind man.
  • Deborah Joy Corey “Sister” – Trailer trash women get in a Jerry Springer fight with her baby daddy
  • Michael Cunningham “White Angel” – Hippie older brother gives his little brother drugs, then dies for no reason
  • Richard Ford “Communist” – Stepdad takes son hunting/poaching geese, Mom protests then worries about whether she’s pretty.
  • Ellen Gilchrist “Crazy, Crazy, Now Showing Everywhere” – Crazy old woman doesn’t take her meds and does crazy things. Oh, but she’s not crazy, she’s just eccentric. She’s a free woman, but it’s SOCIETY that calls her crazy. It’s MEN.
  • Pam Houston “How to Talk to a Hunter” – Woman in unhappy relationship with emotionally unavailable man. Another “hunting is wrong” story.
  • Bobbie Ann Mason “Shiloh” – Man breaks his hip and is unable to work, woman is working to improve herself and apparently the man is wrong to act surprised when she says she wants a divorce
  • Alice Munro “Five Points” – Woman has affair with younger man. Something about sex and how men are evil and it’s the woman who’s the victim here.
  • Tim O’Brien “On the Rainy River” – Finally something decent about Vietnam and being draft, but still illustrates how all men are terrible. In this case, crybaby cowards
  • Sharon Sheehe Stark “May Angels Lead You Home” – Asshole lawyer spends the day after his father’s funeral drinking.
  • Kate Wheeler “Under the Roof” – Kind of a romance about an American Buddhist Monk in Thailand with a Chinese ex-patriot and her evil Muslim step-uncle who probably shoots them at the end? I don’t know, it ends weird with no resolution.
  • Tobias Wolff “The Liar” – At least it’s readable, but again, men are terrible. In this case, liars who should get punished for acting out after their father’s death by their helicopter mothers.

So all these stories taught me is that you have to write about assholes having tragedies. The Post-Modern Literary snobs would probably say “these stories are about human nature”, like “feminism” or “big brother relationships” and it doesn’t matter whether the story makes sense or not. I disagree–that would mean the stories have anything they’re “about”.

For Christ’s sake, there’s one where a teenager just barrels through a plate glass door for no reason and dies. There’s nothing about WHY he ran through the door. Was it drugs? Was it paranoia? Was it a stunt gone wrong? He just dies and that makes the story important I guess. He could have died in a car accident or from a disease or a sudden heart attack. At least that would have made sense. But nope, he just runs headlong through the patio door and cuts his neck on some glass with no motivation. And that’s tragic after he’s been feeding his nine-year-old brother Southern Comfort and acid.

Seems like “post-modern literature” is all about showing the worst of humanity. Ourselves at our lowest. Maybe that’s why I hate it so much. There are no heroes in post-modern literature. These characters have no hope, no redemption. They’re in unhappy marriages, having affairs, doing drugs, being abused, doing crimes, dealing with grief, loss, and all kinds of negative emotions and nothing gets better. And why would I want to read about the bad guys? I read about heroes, people who tell me the dragon can be killed.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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