Isadora was not willing to renege a lifetime of promise. For years she had planned, scrimped, and saved and now, at last, opportunity was here. She sprinted through the autumn woods, tendrils of silver hair streaming behind her. Every few steps, she let out a delighted laugh. What a sight she must be! An octogenarian in a full-length, black-velvet skirt, with a bulging shoulder purse hammering her titanium hip. And yet, she was dashing along with the agility of an adolescent doe.
As she neared the clearing, she slowed her pace and kept her eyes down. What if the cabin wasn’t there? For a few seconds, her mind flirted with the extermination of hope and her body responded by coming to a standstill. A sense of fragility imbued her and she felt as one with each crisp leaf she had just crushed beneath thoughtless shoes. With heart and hope plummeting, should she go on?
Overhead, the call of bird and whoosh of wing distracted her. Isadora’s lips curved into a smile. Canada geese. Bidding their annual farewell. She took a deep breath. Wood smoke. A comforting aroma. Emboldened, she raised her head and instantly clapped her hands in glee. It was there, all of it: the old, log cabin with its red-brick chimney; the faded, inebriated-looking Adirondack chair; the window boxes with their peeling, green paint and stubborn, pink geraniums. Still blooming. Amazing.
She felt content to linger, to stare, but a blast of cold air slapped her, snaked under her billowing skirt, and caused her whole body to shudder. She clutched her purse to her chest and rushed to the rickety porch steps which whined in protest as she climbed. Sidling up to the door, she knocked. A timid knock. She waited.
As Isadora hovered, another gust of wind sent leaves flying. They swirled and spiralled around her and fell at her feet in a mosaic of ochre, red and brown. Autumn. She grimaced. To some, autumn meant renewal. To her? Her whole life, she had watched as autumn approached, encroached, and retreated, taking all living things with it.
Isadora recalled her first encounter with autumn’s cruelty. She had been playing outside and a single oak leaf, which had magically turned from green to yellow, had fluttered down and landed on her shoe. She snatched it up and ran home, intent on show-and-tell with Mommy, by the fireplace. But an eerie sound emanating from the house caused her to hesitate, to peer through a side window instead of entering. Her eyes widened and flooded as she watched her father fall to his knees, wailing, at her mother’s bedside. Interspersed with his cries, were words of regret and apology. Hard to decipher but, within seconds, the young Isadora understood. Doctors cost money. Her father had no money and, because of that, her mother, like the leaf in her hand, was dead.
That autumn, Isadora watched leaves fall, one by one, until none remained. All winter, she listened as naked trees moaned, echoing her pain. She was alone. Shuffled from one relative to another. Abandoned by a devastated father who knew nothing of raising a three-year-old girl.
Every subsequent autumn, as leaves rained to the ground, regret haemorrhaged through her pores. If only she could have changed things. Doctors cost money. If only she could have given her father money. Somehow, she always felt that she could have done something. Should have done something. But she had failed.
As she stood on the porch now, waiting, Isadora’s hope began to dwindle once again. She repeated the knock. Still no answer. Anxiety crept into her body, causing her to tremble. She let out a sob, formed her fingers into a fist, and pounded the door.
This time the door squeaked open and a tiny girl, a mere waif, stood there. Isadora gasped and recoiled. When she caught her breath, she leaned forward. “Hello,” she said to the bedraggled child who was hugging a filthy, hairless doll.
The little girl was silent.
Isadora held out the purse.
The child’s eyes popped wide. “Mommy’s purse,” she whispered. “That’s Mommy’s purse.”
“Yes.” Isadora opened the purse, displayed its contents, and closed it again. “I kept it all these years, filled it, just for you.” She placed the purse at the child’s feet. “You know what to do?”
The child nodded slowly. “Doctors cost money.”
A tidal wave of realization flooded through Isadora. She had done it. For a few seconds, she stood, frozen. Then, in measured motion, she turned and headed down the steps. At the bottom, she paused and looked back.
The little girl, waif no more, was still standing there. Her dress, new and pink and velvet, matched that of the pristine, porcelain doll she carried and her waist-length, glistening blonde hair was topped with a pink velvet bow.
The two exchanged no words, only smiles.
Isadora walked away, gradually picking up her pace until she was skipping along the woodland path. Deep within her, sad memories began to disperse, dropping away one by one, like the falling leaves around her. Soon those recollections were gone, replaced by images of a happy little girl, learning, laughing, and singing, at her mother’s side.
Isadora returned to the starting point of her journey—the funeral parlour—and slid through the front door. She entered the viewing room and floated for a while, staring at her body, resting in its mahogany coffin. She sighed in contentment and slipped back into place. Cradle issues resolved, she was ready for the grave.
The term “literary canon” refers to a collection of works considered representative of a period or genre.
Having studied English Literature (Renaissance, 19th century, Canadian Lit., and Shakespeare), I was familiar with the term, but it was not until I read “Speaking of the Canon” , a post by agent/blogger Janet Reid, that I gave serious thought to the idea of a personal literary canon.
Janet Reid begins her post as follows: “The canon is what one must have read to be considered well-educated. There is the canon for Western civilization which is largely books that are non-fiction. There is the canon of English literature (the books you’d see in an English Lit survey class in college.) There is the canon for literature of the American West.” She goes on to say that there is also a canon for whatever genre you write in.
I write historical suspense set in Newfoundland, modern day suspense set in Vancouver, and short stories with… you guessed it, suspense. I read a lot, nonfiction and fiction (literary and commercial.) When I started writing, my reading became studying. And I found my influences, my personal literary canon. These are books from writers I admire, books which sit on my shelves (not just in my Kindle) so I can go back to them frequently, riffle through the pages, find sections or paragraphs or sentences or phrases that moved me, and get transported all over again. These books make me want to write better.
My literary canon is listed below, alphabetically by author (no affiliates here, by the way.) This list is fluid in that it changes as I learn and grow.
What follows is a seasonal story, flash fiction, originally written for a 24-hour writing contest for Writers Weekly and currently published in Passages A Collection of Short Stories. It is definitely one of my favorites…
The little boy stands at the log cabin’s rear window, peering out at us. The corn stalks rustle in the brisk breeze, waving at him. Laughing, he returns their greeting. I want to wave at him too, but my limbs are shrivelled now, useless appendages. I sigh. I observe the boy.
He seems happy. Does he know? Has he heard the news about the baby brother that his mom promised him? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he is too young to be told.
But I know.
His mom, my caregiver, whispered many secrets as she planted the fields. When my seed sprouted and breached the surface of the rich soil, she stooped and told me about the life that was developing inside her own body. She promised that she would create siblings for me just as she was doing for her little boy. I beamed with pleasure for I did not want to live a solitary life.
In a short time, her truth became evident: I was surrounded by an abundance of relatives—long and green, round and yellow, plump and orange. So strong was my appreciation of my caregiver, so great was my loyalty to her that I tolerated without question the summer heat and the frequent watering and the incessant buzzing of the hordes that swarmed around, flitting from flower to flower. Without complaint, I obliged when she redirected the growth of my rapidly spreading arms. ‘Not here, but there’, was her mantra, as she donned kid gloves and shifted my limbs around. So much attention. So much care. I noticed that the bodies of both my caregiver and me were becoming spherical, and that hers seemed to achieve the desired shape more easily than mine. Obviously aware of that, she added regular rotation to my fitness regime. I responded by becoming corpulent and carroty.
The summer lazed away and autumn slid in to replace it. The rains came. And the mud. And the children, bus loads of children, laughing and trampling and squelching through the muck. Choosing and plucking and stumbling away with their heavy bundles. One by one, my brothers and sisters and cousins disappeared. I wondered how it was that so many school children whirled around me, brushed against me, slid past me, and yet, none chose me. My caregiver explained that she had great plans for me, that I was the chosen one, the one who would light her doorway on that important night—All Hallows’ Eve. I would be the first to welcome the newborn child she would carry to the door that very day. I would witness the smile on her little boy’s face when he first saw his new brother. All this she promised me.
But sometimes promises are broken.
When I had grown to the size of a soccer ball, I looked to compare my shape with hers and realized that her spherical form had vanished. Her body had flattened, returned to its former size. Her spirit, too, had vacated, leaving only sadness, which bled through her pores. Empty in both body and spirit, she had no words, no whisperings. On most days, she just stayed away.
So now I lie here—alone. Leading a solitary life after all, the very life I did not want. But what of the boy? Is he still waiting for his new brother?
The dusk deepens on this, All Hallows’ Eve. The wind picks up and the front gate swings and creaks. Puffs of blue smoke rise from the kitchen chimney. The house is well-lit now, but here, in my resting place, it is dark and lonely. As night falls, my body sinks and just sits, marinating in mud.
Suddenly, the cabin door opens and she emerges. She dons her heavy boots and, with her head low, trudges through the mud toward me. Nearer and nearer. As she stoops, I long to console her, to slide my arms up her back and embrace her. But my arms are just flaccid vines and it is she who comforts me, talks to me, apologizes for leaving me alone for so long. I want to tell her that I understand. She reaches into her pocket, retrieves a knife and frees me from my vines. Then, she hefts me into her arms and straightens her back.
On the way to the cabin, my caregiver explains that there is a new plan—that she wants me to smile for her young son. This evening, she will carve a grin on my face and, while she is doing that, she will tell her son that he will always be a solitary child. We reach the porch and hover there, waiting for her body to stop trembling and her tears to abate.
Despite her distress, I am pleased with this new plan. I want her to carve me a ridiculous grin, tooth-filled or toothless, whatever it takes to ease a lonely boy’s acceptance of unwelcome news. I know of the difficulty of the solitary life. Unlike the boy, I have experienced the joy of siblings; however, many died before maturity and all the others were taken away. Like the boy, I represent the end of the harvest. I am the very last pumpkin from the pumpkin patch. Together, the boy and I—and our mutual caregiver—will face the night.
The Book Nook
A while back, I shared my designated working place in a post called My Write Space. Now I am sharing my designated place to read. From humble beginnings as a child when I hid beneath the covers with a flashlight to cherish my books, I have graduated to the perfect reading space. Ta dah! It includes:
A buttery soft chair, swivel, rocker-recliner.
A sculptured side table which I am sure is the envy of all avid readers. (It’s mine: eat your heart out!)
A storage bench which holds treasured books that used to be stacked on the dresser, the night stand, the floor.
A lush throw, the color of sea foam, a perfect match for the scheme of the room.
A discreetly-covered armchair caddy which holds so many crucial comforts: reading glasses, notebook, post-its, Kindle, pens.
The Book Choices With reading, as with most things, I plan ahead; I prefer to have a stack of books at the ready as the lack of same prompts me to use the BUY button on my Kindle far too often. I prefer print copy and usually borrow the book first; if I love it, I buy it. I read more fiction than nonfiction (most nonfiction choices are about the art of writing.) I choose fiction based on author, content, style, sometimes even the cover. I search for Giller winners and Booker winners and Pulitzer winners and Indie BRAG winners. I also seek recommendations from Goodreads. But my favorite way of meeting a new book is word-of-mouth.
Thank you, Shirley from Tai Chi who suggested My Reading Life . In it, author Pat Conroy listed the books that influenced his writing (if you want to know what those were, check out this Pinterest Board by Liz Whittaker.) I am now reading a book from his list, Look Homeward, Angel which I first borrowed. Then I bought it from The Book Man. From Shirley also came The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, one of my favorite books of all time.
Thank you to the staff of the aforementioned Book Man: Sara for White Oleander by Janet Fitch, David for The Timetraveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Linda forThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. (If you are an avid reader, you will love this video-gone-viral parody by The Book Man: All About Them Books.)
Thank you to critique partner, Mary, for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. What a surprise and a connection it created last spring when I went via float plane Victoria to meet up with my sister and three nieces, and discovered we had all read and loved that same book.
Thank you to former fearless writing group leader, Ken, for literary novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and suspense novel, The Neighbor by Lisa Gardner. I refer to the former when I need a lesson in historical fiction and to the latter when I want to create just the right mood for a dark scene.
Thank you, Jeannette who, in email response to my post Favorite Reads of 2014, suggested Room by Emma Donaghue. That one haunted me and jumped onto my favorite list for 2015.
Thank you, Paula, for your comment on that same post, wherein you recommended Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen. I have since read another of Quindlen’s novels and am seeking more.
Thank you to a long-time friend, Gini, for a long-time-ago mention of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. This was a powerful story that stayed with me for a long time, but also a Masterclass in writing: each family member had a point of view and each voice was remarkably distinct.
Thank you Margaret at Tai Chi, for Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. And thank you for warning me that it is challenging and it’s worth if you stick with it. I have since read everything that Kate Atkinson has written.
I am always seeking a great read and a good excuse to spend time in my Book Nook. Any reading suggestions? Please send them along in comments or by email.
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Have you noticed the prevalence of threes in writing?
I was reminded of it last week during a beginning course in photography when the instructor explained the rule of thirds in the composition of a picture. Instantly, I thought of creating a blog post about the rule of three in writing (defined by Wikipedia as a principle that suggests that threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying or more effective than other numbers of things.)
When a smattering of research on my part revealed an abundance of readily-available info, I chose to share rather than reinvent. What follows are posts (three, of course) related to the rule of three in the writing of speeches, blogs, and stories.
1. How to Use the “Rule of Three” to Create Engaging Content by Brian Clark “…Think in terms of three when crafting your content, and you’ll likely end up with a more engaging outcome. If at first you don’t succeed, remember—the third time’s the charm…”Read More
2. How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches by Andrew Dlugan “The rule of three is powerful speech-writing technique that you should learn, practice, and master. Using the Rule of Three allows you to express concepts more completely, emphasize your points, and increase the memorability of your message. That’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.What is the rule of three? What are some famous examples? How do you use it in speeches?” Read More
3. Omne Trium Perfectum by L.G. Smith “Omne trium perfectum! No, it’s not an incantation lifted from Harry Potter, but it could be considered a magic spell for crafting effective stories. Literally it means everything that comes in threes is perfect. In writing it is referred to as the Rule of Three.”Read More
Many thanks to bloggers Brian Clark, Andrew Dlugan, and L.G Smith.
My favorite post from above? As a lover of Latin, I have to tell the the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The third one’s a charm. 🙂
Amo, amas, amat… From my past: three Latin textbooks that have been in my library for more than three decades.
Are you about to publish a collection of your short stories? I have done that once and am considering a second. Here are six suggestions based on hindsight:
Go for a ‘sense of book.’Group stories around one theme, one character, one setting. My first collection is varied: most of its stories were written, not with the idea of a book in mind, but for contests based on prompts. It was long after their completion that I chose a theme.
Give thought to the title.
Take time to examine your collection. Perhaps, as book title, you might choose the title of one story or the name of a place that is common to all stories. After I read through my stories, I realized there was indeed a thread: the choices we make and the paths we take. Thus the title: Passages.
Consider, as title/subtitle, “a collection of short fiction,” not “a collection of short stories.”
I used stories in the subtitle of Passages and wished I had used fiction, especially after I dropped a narrative poem into the mix. (Yes, I know: could have eliminated the poem. Sigh.)
Acknowledge previous publications.
List the stories that have been previously published, and include publisher, publication, and date of same. In Passages, in acknowledgements, I thanked creators, administrators, and judges of writing contests, and named a couple of specifics. There was no ill intent in my lack of a list of previous publications; I was simply unaware of the courtesy.
Share background of story.
Many of the short stories in Passages were written for contests. In retrospect, I could have enhanced the reader experience by writing a paragraph or two before each short, revealing the prompt or inspiration for the story.
Give thought to the placement of stories.
You might consider placing your best story first and your second-best last. I went a different route: I put an award-winning short story first because I wanted to draw attention to the fact that it had grown into an award-winning novel. As for the last story in Passages, it is a very short piece called Final Passage, a piece that is more than appropriate for its position in the book. The only thing I would have done differently with it is listed above: I would have revealed the inspiration for the piece.
Why do I love story contests? Click on image to link to “Why Enter Story Contests.”
Are these suggestions helpful to you? If you have already published a book of short fiction, what were the steps that worked best for you? What, if anything, would you do differently the next time?
Are you looking for ways to get your short stories and poems published?
I recently received an email from a writer who was seeking ways to do that. What follows is what I offered her, what I thought could be shared here as well.
I have used two avenues for publication of short stories: Story Contests and Literary Journals.
I use story contests to hone my craft; therefore, I’ve researched them and have entered many, including 24-hour story contests. This has resulted in having many stories published, both online and in journals in Canada and the United States.
The most comprehensive resource for contests in Canada is the Canadian Writers’ Contest Calendar. This calendar is published in the fall of each year, usually by November. All contests are listed by deadline. Everything you need to know—submission guidelines, eligibility, word count limits, etc. — are given for each contest and, yes, poetry contests are included.
The best site I’ve found for information on contests and journals in the U.S. is Poets & Writers, “the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers.” On the right hand side of the landing page, under Tools for Writers, you will find an impressive list of databases for literary magazines, contests, agents, etc.
I know how much time and energy go into the pursuit of publication. I hope the above is helpful to you.
Do you have any suggestions to share? Please send them along.
Annie Daylon reading short story “Buryin’ Day” at launch of Freefall Literary Magazine (Vol XIX, Number 1) in Calgary. (First contest entry, second place!)
Good luck on your journey.
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I love to enter short story contests (see previous post: Why Enter Story Contests?) In my 2014 goals, I listed that I would enter a few. (One done in January, one in October. Yay!) I enter to learn, not to win. I enter for the fun and for the feeling of accomplishment that the marathon of the novel does not provide.
Here is an entry that did manage to land second place this year:
Bittersweet memories float past, memories of emerging from the womb, hoping to fly, flailing like a nestling, disillusioned by gravity. Childhood slips by in a blur of fairy stories and bluebirds and magic carpets and angels’ wings. Deeds of derring-do slide in: toppling from tree branches, leaping from monkey bars, jumping from a second-floor balcony. Echoes of painful cries ring out as I recall dropping like Icarus to broken bones and harsh reality.
Footfall (not free flight) was to be my transportation.
Grounded, literally, yet one day I fluttered with hope when I spotted a skein of Canada Geese scissoring the sky. Hope is the thing with feathers, Dickinson’s apposite metaphor, instantly flitted in. I stared at my bony arms which were peppered with freckles and wisps of hair, nary a feather in sight. Juxtaposed with tears of frustration was dissolution of hope. Knowing that I could never soar with birds, I shelved the dream and faced the future, determined to live my life to the fullest.
Love tapped on my door and I ushered it in.
Marriage followed and, with it, the free flowing joy of motherhood.
Never planned for divorce, but there it was and there I was.
On my own.
Quickly, so as not to dissolve in a puddle of loneliness, I found a platonic partner with whom I happily shared more than two decades of living expenses, childrearing, and world travels.
Retirement years loomed, yet I, still committed to living large, never gave them, nor money, a thought.
“Save for your golden years,” warned my adult daughter, “else you’ll end up residing in my den.”
“The truth of the matter,” I replied, “is that life is short and I intend to experience all the joys of this earth, and that I will continue to travel until…”
“Until death do you part this mortal coil?” she grinned.
Vibrations shook me momentarily, a cold shiver passing through.
Was it really days later, after a minor surgical procedure, that doctors told me I had mere hours left? X-rays confirmed their diagnosis and soon I was gone, my body cremated, my ashes residing in an urn, in my daughter’s den, just as she had predicted.
Yes, my earthbound life was over and my loving daughter, knowing my deepest desire, chose a blustery day, this very day, to fling my ashes into the wind. Zillions of tiny particles, the remains of me, now sweep through the air like a murmuration of starlings, joyous, soaring, and I, after a lifetime of longing, am airborne at last.
The above story was written in January for an Alphabet Acrostic contest. The opening, “Airborne at last,” was given. The criteria? “Complete your story in 26 sentences, each beginning with words in the sequence of the English alphabet.”
The learning? I have entered this contest before, each time loving the experience of reading the dictionary to search for words. (Yes, X is limiting, but there are ways around it.) The fun? Love it! (This particular contest is available annually throughThe Brucedale Press. The sixteenth annual Alphabet Acrostic contest will be announced sometime this month (October, 2014.) Check their website!
*The Thing with Feathers was first published by The Brucedale Press in The Leaf #34, Spring 2014.
My questions for you: Did you notice as you read the story that I was progressing through the alphabet? If not, did you go back to check? 🙂
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