Archive for May, 2013

Story Beginnings (13): What Engages You? Article About Writing Better

Saturday, May 18th, 2013
William H. Coles

Below are thirteen story beginnings of less than sixty words all from award-winning stories.  Which engages you the most and makes you want to read on?  Which engages you the least?  Analyze why, to find principles applicable to your own writing.

All stories are available for free at

1. After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days.  The house was dark; his sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks . . . she led him toward an attic room.   Speaking of the Dead

2. His sweet troubled son, alone in his second-floor room, he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music.  They didn't know he had taken a loaded shotgun and while sitting on the bed, placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.  Dilemma

3. My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker.  And never at night.  But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile maker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn't even know I was bearing down on her . . .  Inside the Matryoshka

 4. Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset.  My God.  Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door.  She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts.  The Golden Flute

5. In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March.  By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate.  Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.  The Gift

 6. One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags.  “They’re a danger.  Think of the disease,” Mom said.  The War of the Flies

 7. The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin.  Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.  Father Ryan

 8. My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse.  Aaron, my older brother by two years, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back.  Dr. Greiner's Day in Court

9. I was fifteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate.  The driver’s door opened, and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped, light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything, and I imagined the rest.  The Stonecutter

 10. Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class.  Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”   The Perennial Student

 11. “I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said.  She said this often.  She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn.  Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.  The Activist

 12. In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend.  But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany.  Curse of a Lonely Heart

 13. My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two-lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from.   On the Road to Yazoo City

Becoming an Author Editorial Opinion

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013
William H. Coles

I write scientific papers and textbooks, so I thought my dream of writing a famous fiction story was little more than a modest veering from my career path.  I wrote a few short stories for practice to a point where I was comfortably convinced of publication success. With no expectations of failure, I signed up for a writing course at a college with a credible reputation for publishing a respected literary journal. I workshopped where fellow students critiqued my story with, in retrospect, almost zero insight into creating fiction.  But I meticulously incorporated all the student-workshop comments as corrections into my manuscript, and expectantly sent off my story to the college's literary journal, my workshop attendance dates (in bolded italics) informatively placed at the top of my submission cover letter to assure success.

Five months and twenty-two days later, my response arrived. "Your story does not meet our needs." was printed on a four by three inch slip of buff paper, and on the back hand-scratched in pencil were these words: "You have no concept of what a story is, or what a story can do." I was depressingly discouraged–well, in truth, I was hurt and devastated.  But I soon rallied.  I assumed that my story, indeed my talent and intellect, had been sorely misread. I'd get an agent!

Agents, it turned out, failed to see my potential.  I would do better writing a memoir about my teenage struggle with psoriasis, or a love story with breast-feeling detail.  And true gold was in children’s and YA stories that any editor would buy sight unseen. But why deal with agents?  Unlikeable really.  I needed new direction.  I would deal directly with editors, convince them of my quality and talent, still woefully unappreciated and unrecognized.

I went to a writing meeting where conferences with editors were offered and was amazed at my success. A senior editor at one of the top two publishing houses in the country was assigned to me!  Now we're talking.  He advised me with us both sitting on opposite sides of a three-foot-round overstuffed ottoman in a overcrowded hotel lobby–impossible to sit side-by-side–where we both had to look behind us to carry on a side-mouthed conversation. He said he had read my submission on the elevator on his Android.  "We got to get you published," he said. "Try Anstel Aster Hodman."  Holy Cow!  I'd been on the wrong track for so long.  Agents were the way after all.

Next day, my work went Priority Mail to my new friend, Anstel, who responded by email in no less than fourteen hours–obviously not needing time to craft a carefully worded rejection. Great! He knew of my editor . . . but . . . had never met him . . . and . . . he didn't take on fiction of my type for his "list."  Frequent failure loomed. Anstel would make no recommendations and repeated emails over many months to my most-cherished editor-connection went . . . well . . . unanswered.  I felt spammed.

Twelve months later the yearly electronic alumni newsletter of my Midwest college published my now abridged story (required as being outside the five-hundred word limit) and my church-diocese monthly bulletin did a review.  I wasn't flushed with pride, but that did not stop me from tweeting, "Published at last!" with no specific details.



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