Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

Advertisements

Thoughts on: The Problem of Susan – Neil Gaiman

Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.

Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit. Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

Mad Scientist Journal Spring Anthology

Announcement time! The latest anthology of Mad Scientist Journal is now available for download at Smashwords and Amazon. This edition is particularly exciting for me as it includes my story Mabel’s Mission–along with number of other great stories including some exclusive fiction not previously published on the MSJ website.

If you like a fun read from the slightly-weird side of the sci fi world (or if you just want to support me as a writer 😉 ) check it out.

Mad Scientish Journal Anthology: Spring 2013

Find Mad Scientist Journal on Amazon!!

As I have previously posted, Mad Scientist Journal is an ezine that publishes new fiction weekly on its website–that you can read for free. They also amalgamate their stories into quarterly anthologies and add some exclusive content to give more bang for your 99-cent download.

Initially published through smashwords in a number of formats, these anthologies are now available in kindle editions on Amazon. Links to all four, currently available, anthologies are on the MSJ website. My own contribution in the form of a classified ad, Experienced Osteo-transplant Specialist Seeks Work, from Dr. Coccymandible, can be found in the Autumn 2012 Anthology.

Feel free to write a review of one (or all) of these anthologies on Amazon, your own blog, or elsewhere. Help MSJ expand its audience.

An upcoming anthology (Spring 2013, I expect) will also include my short story, Mabel’s Mission, which was published by MSJ on Apr 1st.

Mabel’s Mission Published by Mad Scientist Journal

…imagine a world where capricious scientists, such as yourselves, have free reign. I just so happen to come from such a world. Honestly…

…Hamish was the epitome of science gone wrong. About four and half feet tall, with wildly disproportionate, beefy limbs, he had tiny insectile eyes that were especially out of place in his large, somewhat bulbous head. His scattered patches of coarse hair were interspersed between a disturbing assortment of tubes coming out of his scalp…

Read about the Mabel’s adventures in a world where human experimentation is as common as getting a haircut…but–like haircuts– sometimes it goes horribly wrong. You can read Mabel’s Mission now  (free, no log-in or other effort required) at Mad Scientist Journal.  

And thanks to Shannon Legler for the awesome art.

Almost Time for Mabel’s Mission

…imagine a world where capricious scientists, such as yourselves, have free reign. I just so happen to come from such a world. Honestly…

…Hamish was the epitome of science gone wrong. About four and half feet tall, with wildly disproportionate, beefy limbs, he had tiny insectile eyes that were especially out of place in his large, somewhat bulbous head. His scattered patches of coarse hair were interspersed between a disturbing assortment of tubes coming out of his scalp…

The crazy adventure of Mabel, a mad scientist’s assistant (written by yours truly) is scheduled to appear on Mad Scientist Journal April 1st 2013. This unique online magazine publishes a new essay every week from the world of mad science. You can view these stories for free on the website–always a fun and unusual read–and/or download their quarterly anthologies for 99 cents on smashwords, with some exclusive fiction added, well worth the 99 cents. The anthologies include variety of short stories (from more than the mad scientists’ realm) and quirky classified ads including my own Osteo-transplant Specialist published in the latest anthology.

So head on over to Mad Scientist Journal or smashwords and mark your calendars for April 1st!