Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Category: Fiction

Writing About a Spousal Fight

Guest Post by David S. Atkinson

Intro by Nathaniel Tower

When David S. Atkinson asked if I would read his latest short story collection, I didn’t hesitate. A chance to get a free advanced copy of a book I knew I would like by a great writer and good friend? There was no way I could turn that down. David is a treasured member of the literary community. Aside from being a voracious reader who can somehow read and digest every word of any book within 24 hours of receiving it, he’s one of the nicest and most supportive writers I’ve ever met. And he’s damn funny, which is on display both through his personal interactions and his fiction. Not Quite So Stories is one of the best collections I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I’m saying that because I mean it. Unlike David (who must have some sort of time-freezing device) I don’t have the time or dedication to read every book that gets sent my way, but David’s was one that I read and enjoyed thoroughly. And I probably owed it to him. Of course, after reading it, I feel like I owe him even more. Yup, it’s that good. 

If you haven’t read David’s collection, do so now. But before you do, stick around here and enjoy learning a little more about his process and inspiration for one of my favorite stories in the collection.

 

david atkinson

Writing about people one actually knows is always an uncertain territory. Conflicts with loved ones is particularly fraught with peril. After all, one never knows how the subject will react. Presuming one actually cares, the need to write the story must be weighed against how the person might feel, and what they might do about it.

Writing about a spousal conflict is even more of a minefield, especially if one wants the marriage to continue.

However, I did write about an area of my real life marital strife in my story “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” which is included in my new short story collection Not Quite so Stories. The issue centers on, as one might guess from the title, toilet paper. There are great disagreements in our household over toilet paper.

To explain, my wife is an “under the roll” believer, whereas I maintain that this is blasphemous. I take this quite seriously, which amuses my wife. Also, she doesn’t tend to replace empty rolls unless she herself needs them. Sometimes, she’ll just set a new roll nearby and start using it rather than actually placing it on the roll. This all bothers me much, much more than is reasonable. toilet paper war

So, it all went into the story. I went wild with it, taking things to ridiculously absurd extremes (I have never, I repeat never, glued toilet paper to a roll in order to ensure that there is always toilet paper on the holder, whether usable or not). Still, the core of our “debate” is there and I’m airing our dirty laundry in public.

Is that a good idea? Should I have done it? One school of thought, advocated by Anne Lamott, is to go ahead…but to: “give the character a small penis,” the idea being that the subject would never claim that the character is them. However, I didn’t want to give my wife any kind of penis at all. Further, I wouldn’t worry about my wife claiming the character is her. Rather, I would be concerned with her being hurt and thus damaging our relationship.

So, what did I do?

Well, first of all, I wrote about a relatively insignificant conflict. Arguments about toilet paper may get heated at home, but this is a fairly petty matter that isn’t particularly private. I think that helps. Also, the story is humorous. I’m trying to entertain and make people laugh, not get validation from the reading public regarding my position in the argument (I’m still right). Beyond that, I made sure to make the wife in the story more reasonable whereas the husband is a loveable yet ridiculously over serious about toilet paper protocol. In short, he’s a buffoon. Even if my wife read the story and felt it was an airing of a private marriage matter in public, I’m the one I made look ridiculous. All of those things work together to make me feel more okay in writing about something from my marriage.

david atkinsonNow, am I guaranteed to be okay? Absolutely not. However, I know what I’m comfortable with and I know my wife. I thought about whether or not I should write the story, and I thought about it deeply before I began writing…no matter how innocuous I thought it was. I considered her possible feelings, and considered them again before getting the story published. Whether or not I’m actually okay, I thought about it a great deal and decided I was. Personally, I think the fact that I considered her feelings mattered more than anything I happened to write.

Of course, it also probably helps that my wife doesn’t hang on every word I write. She’s got a lot of important things going in her life and I’m not the center of everything. Nor should I be. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure she’s read “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” yet. We’ll have to see if my advice on this changes when she does.

Wish me luck.

 

David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time (forthcoming 2017), Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.

Beyond Anecdote: How to Write Flash Fiction That Means Something

When an editor finds your flash submission anecdotal, you can typically expect to receive a rejection letter. But what does “anecdote” mean, anyway? Some say that an anecdote has flat characters, or an underdeveloped narrative, or that it lacks an intrinsic logic or natural progression. An anecdote can mean all of these things, but for me it mainly means that the story doesn’t delve beyond the surface, that it lacks staying power and emotional impact.

I’ve selected five of my favorite flashes to demonstrate how a story can carry weight and meaning in 1,000 words or less. The five stories I’ve highlighted are very different, but each goes beyond their surface narrative, creating something potent and universal.

Before you read what I have to say about the stories, read them for yourself and think about how they make you feel, what elements evoke your response. Then think about how some of the tools the authors use—language, structure, voice—could be developed in your own work. This, more than anything, will teach you how to write flash that means something.

“Egg Toss, August 1989” by Meagan Cass, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

This story has it all—vivid characters, rich setting, poetic prose—all of which add up to create a sense of loss for something that never really was. I love the sense of honesty here. Cass refuses to package things into a neat dichotomy—a glorified past and childhood versus a less enchanting present.  Here the past is more complex, as often is the case in real life, earning our trust in the story’s emotional truth.

Body language creates a sense of movement and adds to the story’s authenticity—we can see the aunts curling away from the father, the way the mother drinks her beer too fast.  Every detail counts, deepening our understanding of the characters.  And while the language is lovely, there are no throwaway symbols or metaphors. Instead, Cass focuses on the image of the egg—“whole, opaque, blessed”—to convey the narrator’s desire for his family to be whole.

“Out There” by Lindsay Hunter; published in the author’s short story collection Daddy’s and in The Nervous Breakdown  

You’d be hard-pressed to find a flowery phrase in this story, but isn’t the language brilliant just the same? Read it aloud to see what I mean—there is a rhythm here, a kind of music, with each sentence luring us more deeply in. Hunter begins with a declaration: “People burn cars out there.” Then we have a longer sentence that contrasts with the staccato of the first, grabbing our attention with the image of a father shaking lighter fluid over a car “like he was seasoning it.” What kind of father does that? we wonder. And what does “out there” mean?

The reader suspects that “out there” could be a metaphor for abandonment. It’s a place where things are left behind, like an old car or the narrator’s dog Jinx, who is abandoned by Pop and left to join a pack of wild dogs. Or like the child narrator herself, who also finds herself abandoned. Perhaps “out there” doesn’t mean just one thing—it also seems to embody the chaos of the narrator’s father, the danger of becoming like him.

What makes the story great is that Hunter doesn’t draw these parallels in a heavy-handed way—if anything, the deeper meaning of the story is an afterthought. Instead, Hunter focuses on evoking a sense of place through imagery—the choir of dogs with their “brutal chorus,” “God’s bloody iris” —which seem sprung from the language of dreams.

Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady” by Robert Swartwood, published in PANK

I love the way that Swartwood uses objects to tell a story, the way the structure of the piece leads you down the rabbit hole of the narrative. The mystery of Jason Reynolds builds with each found object—a plastic compass, a pack of gum, photographs held together by a paperclip. The ordinariness of the objects act as a foil to the complex character that emerges, a character Swartwood manages to make us like in spite of what we learnthat he’s a killer.

Swartwood accomplishes this by giving Jason multiple dimensions, by having him take a beating for his brother, by layering the character with each discovered object. The ending, which could have been a gimmicky twist in a weaker story, is a gut-puncher. While surprising, it also flows from the progression of the narrative. By the time we finish reading, we wonder if we knew who the “FOURTH” would be all along.

“Run for Your Life” by Kate Wisel, published in Bartleby Snopes

This was love at first read. In fact, I loved this story so much I couldn’t stop to think about why I loved it—it hit me on a visceral level, much like the moments of impact the narrator observes and experiences in the piece.

Part of why I couldn’t stop to think is because Wisel doesn’t let me. She grabs me with her first sentence, sweeping me along with her narrator as we run down Comm. Ave., until I feel that I too have glistening calves, “like nylon.”  Here, language mimics content—the pace of the prose is breathless, picking up momentum as we watch the bike thief from the narrator’s eyes, the way he springs free from men who try to restrain him “like he was dribbling a basketball through their legs.”

We only slow down to learn about the narrator.  Her backstory about stalking her ex is brief but potent. In fact, the narrator’s choices—both past and present—are what make this more than a well-written anecdote. Her final choice—delivered in a wallop of a last line—hits the reader with nuanced meaning and resonance.

“It’s End of the World Karaoke” by Ashley Inguanta, published in PANK  

Inguanta manages to build a world in only 663 words, creating a vivid moment in time before that world goes silent. The premise—hanging out in a bar and belting out karaoke until the Earth burns down—is a surprising take on apocalypse. The lighthearted details—nachos, taking a photo for Facebook—stand in contrast to the doom and gloom narrative we expect to see.

But Inguanta takes it a step further by creating Javier, the main character we see her world through.  Javier is what elevates this piece from a unique premise to a memorable story. He wants so much—to be kissed, to connect, to not be alone. The details about his past—namely that he only ever kissed one girl, and that she had a small breathing problem— make his story feel vivid, authentic.

It’s specifics like these that make a character universally resonant, not broad, general brushstrokes. While the world Inguanta creates is fantastical, the emotions she evokes—desire and loneliness—are our own.

The Hit Man by J.F. Smith

At Bartleby Snopes, we receive thousands of submissions a year. As you might expect, things can get a bit redundant in the so-called slush pile. A few weeks ago, Managing Editor Nathaniel Tower published some controversial thoughts as a guest post on the freeze frame fiction blog. In the post, Tower ranted against a few things he’s tired of seeing in submissions. While most writers seemed to enjoy Tower’s frankness, a few thought his opinions were a bit too strongly stated. We won’t get into the different interpretations of Tower’s words. That’s not why we’re here. Instead, we want to share a wonderful story we received in response to the post.

A talented writer decided to take Tower’s post as a challenge. Rather than avoiding the tired topics Tower mentioned, J.F Smith chose to incorporate much of the forbidden subject matter. The result was an amusing and charming story that we just had to share with the world.

So, without further ado, here is J.F. Smith’s wonderful story that violates all the rules:

The Hit Man

by J.F. Smith

It was cloudy outside, so no artfully depicted light shone through the windows in this story. Instead, discs of recessed lighting lit the doctor’s kitchen.

The doctor sipped a cup of warmed-over coffee. He sat on a banquet stool and stared out the kitchen window, waiting for the food delivery truck. It was Wednesday, which meant that it was food delivery day. Although the ingredients came attractively packaged in a cooler, the doctor liked to store it in his refrigerator before leaving for his morning rounds, because you couldn’t be too careful with food poisoning.

The doctor lived on the side of the hill, which bears almost no weight on the plot, except for the part when the doctor wondered whether one must set the emergency brake if one parks his car nose-down. This, of course, he mused when a low black car came to a rest just across the street in this very manner. The doctor poured himself another cup of coffee in a small half-cup sized mug purchased by his wife.

Just as he considered the practicality of the e-brake on a hill (or not), the doorbell rang. On the stoop stood a man in gray trousers. He was bald, or nearly so. It was hard to tell.

“Yes?” the doctor asked.

“Oh good! It’s you,” the man said.

“Can I help you?”

“Sure,” the man said. “I’m here to talk to you about that research project of yours.”

The doctor shifted his weight. “I’m sorry. I’m not permitted to talk about it quite yet.” He allowed himself a brief moment to think about his upcoming media circuit. His goal was an interview with Sanjay Gupta, as he thought of himself as a slightly shorter and older version of the famous physician. He imagined their likenesses side-by-side on a noontime program, and warm, smug joy crackled through him. They could be brothers, the cameraman might joke. The doctor composed himself for the sake of this gray-pallored reporter in front of him. “Who are you? How did you get this address?”

“From my boss,” the man said. “And, I’m the Hit Man.” With that, he reared back and slapped the doctor across the face.

The doctor recoiled. “Hey!”

“May I?” the Hit Man asked. He scuffed his feet on the mat and stepped through the threshold into the doctor’s house. “Will my car be okay out there?”

The doctor braced himself against the hall table and did not answer. A vase that held a bouquet of artificial flowers fell to the wood floor, but did not break.

The Hit Man squinted at him. “Hoo, boy. That’s a five-fingered cheek, all right.” He bent down and picked up the vase, stepping close to the doctor and reaching around him to replace it.

The doctor trembled. “Take anything you want,” he said. “Just, please. Don’t hurt me.” He paused. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Me?” the Hit Man thumbed his chest. “Of course not. The boss said no deaths.” Whistling, he walked down the doctor’s hallway and into the kitchen.

The doctor thought about calling the police, but his only house phone was in the kitchen, where from the sounds of it, the Hit Man was heating himself a cup of coffee. He was dreaming, the doctor decided, and said as much.

“Come on,” the Hit Man said. “You know the answer to that one.”

The doctor followed him into the kitchen, where the Hit Man drank from the doctor’s own small mug. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“I already did,” the Hit Man said. “You know, you have a lovely home, but the light in here is awfully harsh, yeah?”

“What?”

“Anyhow,” the Hit Man said. “The research project.”

“What about it?”

“Time to trash it, Doc.”

The doctor laughed. “Hardly. We’re one isolated variable away from a cure for cancer.”

The Hit Man sighed. He put down the coffee, flexed his fingers, and slapped the doctor’s other cheek.

“What was that for?” the doctor cried.

The Hit Man looked annoyed. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. “Boss wants me here until you agree to back off.” His eyes brightened. “’Til you say ‘oncle!’ Get it? Because you’re an oncologist?”

Goddamn pharmaceutical companies, the doctor thought.

The doorbell rang in two quick bursts, and they heard a thump against the door. The doctor excused himself and found the food delivery cooler on the stoop. He retrieved it and brought it back to the kitchen. “Look, you can tell your medicine man boss to tackle some other monster. Go after Alzheimer’s, for Chrissake.”

The Hit Man looked surprised. He sat down on the banquet stool. “My boss isn’t Big Pharma, Doc.”

The doctor opened the cooler and began unpacking it. He set wrapped and labeled meats and fish out first, followed by earthy root vegetables, ripe fruit, and small brown paper bags full of spices and mustard. “Who, then?”

The Hit Man put down the coffee and leaned toward the doctor. “The Editor,” he said. His tone was low.

It was the doctor’s turn to be surprised. “Who?”

The Hit Man shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me, Doc. Just know that your research project really stomps his brakes.”

“I think you mean ‘grinds his gears.’”

“Didn’t quit my day job for nothing, yeah?”

“Your day job?”

“I was a lousy teacher.”

The doctor removed two ice packs from the cooler. He opened the freezer and added one to a row of twenty-six of them (two for each week since he signed up for the service). He put the other against his cheek.

“I got you pretty good, didn’t I?” the Hit Man said. He wiped his hands on his trousers and reached for the recipe sheet. Together, they read the label. Filet with Fruit Medley for Two.

The Hit Man pointed to the For Two. “Your wife like this?”

“It’s a bit of a delicate situation. We’re… separated.”

The Hit Man nodded in sympathy. “So’re we. She run around on you, or you on her? When the cat’s away, the dog just may, am I right, Doc?”

The doctor told him it was nothing like that. Long hours for him at work, longer for her at home. They grew apart. The details didn’t matter. He tapped the recipe sheet in front of the Hit Man. “Who would eat fruit with meat, anyway?” the doctor asked.

“Nietzsche ate fruit with beef for lunch every day,” the Hit Man said.

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know. It was in a textbook I taught to my students.”

The doctor put the ingredients in the refrigerator. “So now you’re a hit man? Shouldn’t you have a black overcoat and a gun?”

“Now you sound like my wife. Plus, I told you. I don’t kill people.”

“Sounds like you might be a lousy hit man,” the doctor said.

“Ouch,” the Hit Man said. “So. The research project?”

“I probably won’t give it up,” the doctor said.

“Suit yourself,” the Hit Man said. He drained the coffee and wiped his hands on his trousers again. “Now, I gotta figure out what to tell the boss.”

 

BIO: J.F. Smith writes, dances, teaches, and occasionally blogs at http://www.jfsmithbooks.com/blog. She is a Faculty Professor of Creative Writing at SNHU, where she teaches graduate students online while sitting in her Boston-area office. J.F. has most recently been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Boston Literary Review, Thought Catalog, and Möbius. She lives with her husband and their infant daughter, Lucy.