“Start with a ‘hook’. It can be an exceptional title. Or a nifty idea. Even a joke, as long as it’s original. That’s where I begin. Then embellish it. Work backwards if you have to. And always, always, keep in mind the primary question – will this keep a reader interested?”
That was the gist of what Enoch Masters had to say about short story writing. He was fond of saying it, although not so much since he’d been on the speaking circuit for the past two years. Still, he easily found attentive audiences willing to pay a considerable sum for his advice.
Enoch had wrapped up his presentation that evening in a concert hall in Pittsburgh and was waiting at the airport for a return flight to his hometown of Toronto. He was passing the time in welcome anonymity at one of the several indistinguishable bars in the arrivals and departures area.
For the non-cognoscenti, it may be hard to believe but Enoch had groupies. They dogged him after his speaking engagements. They’d corral him after lectures to ask questions and bask in the afterglow. Enoch was still living on the fame of his earlier writing success.
That’s why Enoch wasn’t too surprised when a presence quietly approached from the side and said respectfully, “Excuse me, Mr. Masters. That is you, isn’t it?”
Turning slightly but avoiding eye contact, Enoch replied, “Maybe. Maybe not.” Not for the first time he marveled at how even the briefest of conversational gambits can mangle the King’s English. “Depends.”
“I’d like to introduce myself. I’m your biggest fan.”
“I don’t owe you money? Okay then.” Now he looked at the nervous newcomer who offered his hand for shaking. Enoch made a conscious decision not to be rude.
“You apparently know my name. Who are you, may I ask?”
“Of course. That was silly of me. I’m Norbert Pendleton. I attended your lecture.”
Enoch sighed. He’d been through similar experiences in the past, but he still lived in some dread of what might transpire. He could easily envision an unpleasant scenario.
Some crazed fan stalking him in an airport lounge or other public space. Maybe Norbert was going to abduct him and try to assume his identity.
He’d already composed a short piece for later polishing under the title, The How-to Guru’s Come-uppance. What it mostly still needed was the name of the crazed supporting player.
Or maybe his imagination was getting the best of him. Anyway, he’d been run to ground. All he could do now was let the “horseman” have his say.
“I respect you so much,” said Norbert. “And I very much appreciate your offer to delegates to critique one of their stories.”
“An offer I’ve come to rue many times,” said Enoch. His first scotch on the rocks was hitting a sweet spot where his inhibitions were becoming distracted with other matters.
“Have you had a chance to read my story? I sent it to you after you spoke in Denver.”
That wasn’t a good sign. Was Norbert hop-scotching across the country chasing him? Maybe if he could get Norbert to relax a little, he could talk some sense into him.
“Would you like a drink?” asked Enoch.
“I’m not really a drinker. But what the heck, this is a special occasion. Okay, just one. A beer?”
“A draft please, por favor,” said Enoch to the barkeep, well aware of the repetition. “What are you doing at the airport?”
“I flew in for a business meeting tomorrow. My game is upholstery. You know, stuffing sofas and couches. But I write on the side. As I was walking by I noticed you at the bar. I hope you don’t think I’ve been following you.”
Only slightly reassured, Enoch asked the question he knew good form demanded, “What’s the title of your story?”
“Hares Today, Gone Tomorrow.”
Enoch chuckled, more to himself than for Norbert’s sake. “Funnily enough, I do remember that one.” He barely resisted saying it was dreadful drivel.
“And?” inquired Norbert.
“Well let’s just say it has some problems,” said Enoch.
Looking downcast, Norbert was manfully game. “I want to learn. I can take it.”
Norbert’s expression indicated the latter was entirely not the case. Enoch decided to barge ahead regardless.
“Let’s begin with the title. It’s trite. A cliché. I’m always stressing how writers need to avoid the obvious. They should attempt to combine words in new ways. Your title is a hackneyed pun.”
“I do see what you mean, but it’s hard to achieve.”
“If you’re writing the same as everyone else and you use the same old phrases, what’s the point? It’s been done already.”
“You’re right. I couldn’t agree more.” Norbert was at least trying to fake enthusiasm for constructive criticism. “That’s why I stress plot.”
“That leads to my next observation. Your plot is all over the place. It veers off in weird directions.”
“I’ve heard you talk about inserting sidebars.”
“By which I mean something to make the reader sit up and take notice. In a short story, the narrative can’t slow down. You don’t have pages to waste establishing a mood. Add small detail that makes a character seem more real. Or an interesting anecdote.”
“That’s what I try to do.”
“But it has to have something to do with what’s taking place. As I recall, in the middle of your story, you suddenly have a minister, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.”
“It’s an attempt to add some humor.”
“The notion’s good. But then the bartender turns out to be an Imam and he lectures the others on the evils of drinking. Not many chuckles there. I stopped reading after that.”
“Then you missed the point.” Norbert said this with a degree of passion that surprised both of them.
“What point could there possibly be? The story is about an alien attack on earth by creatures that look like giant flying rabbits. Why rabbits? They’re furry friendly creatures.”
“I want to imply the space visitors breed like mad. That’s why they’re so dangerous.”
Trepidation constricting his throat, Enoch asked “Okay, so what happens next?”
“You should have kept reading.” For all his earlier deference, Norbert couldn’t keep resentment out of his voice. “The plot all comes together. The four clergymen form a justice league and use their super powers to defend the earth.”
“Surely not a justice league. Rather a clergy league,” said Enoch, who was becoming interested despite himself.
“I never thought of that,” said Norbert. “Nice twist.”
“And take a stand. I noticed early on you didn’t seem to be sure whether you were for or against the rabbits. Their culture may have some admirable aspects but you can’t say on the one hand this and on the other, that. Too many qualifications destroy the flow.”
“I was trying to be fair.”
“It comes across as wishy-washy. Remember, it’s a story. If anybody doesn’t like what you write, tell them it’s fiction. It has an existence separate from you.”
Enoch laughed, remembering he had used exactly those words on several occasions to extricate himself from some awkward conversations.
“If you’re ambivalent or uncomfortable about a moral position, you can always write another story that examines things from another side. I’ve done it many times.”
“Okay. Sure, that makes sense” said Norbert.
“Here, have another hair of the dog that bit you,” said Enid.
“Sorry. You’re confusing me,” said Norbert.
“I guess I have a few years on you,” said Enoch. “It’s an old saying that means have another drink. Check it out on Google. You can look anything up on Google. There’s no excuse for not knowing everything anymore.”
Norbert accepted the offer and the bartender brought them the next round. They fought over who would pay and Enoch, reluctant to be in any way indebted, picked up the tab again.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker, “United Airlines flight 646 to Toronto will be delayed until twenty-two hundred hours due to a minor mechanical repair.”
“Great,” said Enoch. “I have another two hours to kill.”
“That’s too bad,” agreed Norbert, although he looked less than sad.
“We might as well discuss your story some more. How do the clergymen get super powers?”
“They make friends with a renegade rabbit and he spreads his aura over them. When he eats carrots and exhales in their direction, he invests them with super powers.”
“You do know that sounds crazy, don’t you?” said Enoch. But maybe just insane enough to work in this modern world of cartoon characters, he thought.
“Here’s another point,” Enoch added. “As a short story writer, you include too much description. You’re not Henry James, you know. Poor Hank would have had a fit dealing with our video culture. Sketch in only the pertinent facts that the reader has to know.”
“Absolutely. Trust your reader. Let him or her fill in the detail. From watching so many movies and so much TV, we’re all capable of supplying a background if needed. And count on your readers being smart enough to understand nuances.” Enoch was warming to the subject.
From across the counter came the words, “One way to cut down on your descriptive passages would be to turn your story into a graphic novel.”
Wondrous words of wisdom. Both men looked up in search of the source. It was the bartender. Enoch and Norbert had been so engrossed in their conversation they’d failed to notice she was eavesdropping.
Enoch looked at her closely. She was the epitome of an anti-Imam – youthful, curvaceous and vivacious. Her name tag read Sunny.
“Say Sunny, that’s an interesting idea.” Turning back to his companion, he posed the obvious question, “Can you draw, Norbert?”
“We’ll have to find someone who’s good at illustrations.”
The use of the word “we” wasn’t lost on Norbert.
“Are you going to help me with this? That would be fantastic!” Norbert’s emotions did a forward flip.
“I might as well. For a while, at least. What else have I got to do?” The latter sounded ungracious and Enoch felt a pang of remorse. Success at the podium was one thing but, truth to tell, he’d hit a dry spell in his own writing. Maybe a graphic novel was the ticket to jump-start a comeback.
“I can draw,” said Sunny. “I’m an art major. I tend bar to earn tuition money.” She rummaged around in a bag, extracted a pad of paper and a pen and came over to huddle with the other two. By this time, patronage elsewhere down the countertop had all but disappeared.
“So how does your story get resolved?” asked Enoch.
“The rabbits take over the world, but they still have to deal with the locals. That’s us, the human population. At the highest levels of government, we’re represented by the Clergy League, as you’ve renamed them.”
“So far so good. Then what?”
“I don’t know. That’s where I’m having the most trouble. I haven’t been able to figure out a satisfactory conclusion.”
Sunny was drawing a religious-looking figure in a cape. He was taking on the ominous appearance of the Pope in launch mode.
After a few moments of thought, Enoch ventured, “How’s this? The priest insists the rabbits confess their sins to him. The Imam is adamant the rabbits stop everything they’re doing three times a day and pray. And the rabbi keeps chasing after them with a knife demanding they let him perform a sacred ritual on their privates.”
“What does the minister do?
“He tells the rabbits to ignore the other three.”
“This leads to good news how?”
“The rabbits get fed up with the lecturing and leave.”
“Wow, I love it,” said Norbert.
“Once again religion saves the world.” Enoch said this with only a trace of irony.
“It’s a story with mass appeal,” said Norbert. With a couple of drinks occupying some low rent space in their personal histories, the emphasis on the word “mass” caused both of the men to giggle. Norbert was surprised by his own scatological comment, since he remained a staunch Catholic.
“Here, want some?” Enoch pulled out a pack of cashews he’d saved from his flight to Pittsburgh that morning.
“Thanks,” said Norbert. Only at the last second did he remember. Wrapped in a spell of joint authorship and not wanting to seem ungrateful, he’d almost crossed a dangerous line.
Norbert was deathly allergic to nuts. A single peanut could send him into anaphylactic shock. His heart started to race at the near miss.
“We still need a title,” said Norbert.
“I’ve got something I think you’ll like,” said Enoch. “It’s also a play on words, making similar use of the rabbit-hare synonym you were going for, but maybe with a little more oomph.”
Whether due to the drink or the expenditure of creative energy, Enoch’s mood had driven around the block and was now much more appreciative of the view. He was feeling charitable towards Norbert and wanted to stroke his ego if he could.
As interested as Norbert was in everything that was happening, he found he was losing concentration. The whole evening was turning off-kilter. The combination of close call with the nuts, excitement at collaborating with his idol and dangerous sacrilege against his religious upbringing was making his heart do cart wheels.
Norbert’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head, his breathing stopped and he slumped off his bar stool.
What the hell’s going on now? thought Enoch. But his St. John’s ambulance training kicked in. Quickly he knelt beside Norbert’s prostrate form and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while also pressing down on the unfortunate man’s chest at regular intervals.
Sunny placed a hurried phone call for the assistance of paramedics.
The next twenty minutes were chaos. By the time Norbert was placed on a stretcher for transport to a local hospital some color had returned to his cheeks. The medics credited Enoch for taking quick action that might have saved Norbert’s life.
One of the attending health care professionals gave Enoch a card with a phone number so he could follow up on how Norbert was making out.
Enoch was eventually left with Sunny to commiserate in what was now a largely abandoned airport. “I never even had a chance to let him know the title I’ve come up with for our story,” he said.
“Tell me,” said Sunny.
“I’m reluctant to do that until we know whether or not he’s going to be okay. I have a feeling it would be inappropriate. Call me superstitious.”
“Sure. I understand,” said Sunny. “By the way, I was meaning to tell you guys. Great ending.”
Next, you may want to read a pure science fiction tale, with a truly far-out-there bent, The Grief Machine. Confused about your life? It explains everything!