On writing a short story (part three).

I found living in self-isolation because of quarantine to be very, very difficult. As it’s seemingly coming to an end in the Garden State, I think I can finally articulate why: the lost time. Time continues to pass no matter the circumstances, so even though life was paused, time kept going and it’s lost forever. The more I think about it, the more upset I get and the more I focus on what I’ve been missing out on.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to use the last month to make up for lost time with my older sister, Missy. Our relationship was strained growing up, which is anything but unusual for sisters. The reasons why we treated each other with animosity while growing up are hard to discern. Three is always a bad number socially as someone is usually left out and growing up, that person was usually me. Despite being a twin, I have all the signs and symptoms of being a middle child. I felt left out and like I didn’t belong, especially when my twin and Missy seemed to be so close. Also, the 5-year age difference was just enough to keep us in different stages in life. She moved out of the family home when I was still in high school (and primarily self-involved) and in no time at all, she had a family of her own and moved out of the state.

But now, we’re closer than ever, and it makes me so happy.

And the proof is self-evident. The other night, we watched “Now and Then,” a favorite film of ours from our childhood. It’s kind of like “Sex and the City” for pre-teens. The four young female protagonists allow for audience members to relate to and identify with parts of each character. Sam, played by Gabby Hoffman as a kid and Demi Moore as an adult, is a brooding, emotionally damaged writer working to reconnect with others. She’s reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw.

Tenny, played by Thora Birch as a kid and Melanie Griffith as an adult, is a neglect, imaginative, over-sexed kid who grows into a fabulous, gorgeous movie star. She’s reminiscent of Samantha Jones. Roberta, played by Christina Ricci as a kid and Rosie O’Donnell as an adult, is a tomboy denying her feminine side until her first love comes along (thank YOU, Devon Sawa) and grows into a nurturing, no-nonsense professional woman, obviously reminiscent of Miranda Hobbs. Finally there’s Chrissy, played by Ashleigh Aston Moore as a kid and Rita Wilson as an adult, who tries to be perfect and proper while dealing with being the “chubby one,” and grows to have a full live with a loving family, which is all she’s ever really wanted, and calls the childhood friends back together when she’s about to have her first child. She’s reminiscent of Charlotte York Goldenblatt.

The movie “Now and Then” was beloved by many girls growing up in the 1990s. Hell, I was so enamored with it, I wrote a play for me and my cousins to perform at my grandparents’ house that was essentially just a rip-off. And much like women did with “Sex and the City,” we all argued over which characters we were more like. I was told I was Chrissy because I was heavier and followed the rules, but I always felt more like Sam – a disconnected, disillusioned writer. The other night though, while watching “Now and Then” with my older sister some 25 years later, she told me I was Sam, and it was a beautiful moment, to be so well understood and simultaneously validated by a sister who I assumed didn’t care enough to try. Not only does she know me, but it turns out, she always has. I guess maybe I couldn’t see past my own bullshit for so long, but now I can in this super special season of growth.

So even though I didn’t work on my short story for this post, I did something even more important: reconnect with a loved one. And, for the record, I did decide to have the group kill Madeleine in a weird, satanic ritual. So there’s THAT to look forward to.

Cast of “Sex and the City”
Cast of “Now and Then”

On writing a short story (part two).

So I’m having trouble with this short story, as I often do with short stories. I really struggle conceiving a plot to fit the limited length. My pacing seems off; things happen to quickly or without any authentically developed context. And my characters seem wooden, without depth. I know there’s nothing wrong with lovingly crafting a story (I think John Irving takes years to finish his novels), but short stories serve a specific purpose: deliver powerful prose in a compact space. I should be flooding the market with my short stories the way aspiring musicians offer demos. I want to be quicker, but I’m finding the results to be unsatisfying if I rush through.

And, if I’m being honest (which I always strive to be), I’m in Florida with family and there are a million and one setbacks and interruptions and obligations to be met. It’s frustrating, but as I wrote last time, I need to celebrate the small victories. So though this draft does not advance the plot persay, it does contain enough revisions to develop and deepen the narrative. Changes are marked via underline and change in text color (I switched it from black to red; hopefully it shows up?).

The Story (needs a title…)

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.

The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.

Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.

“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.

Zander started talking about and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group that anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”

Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingerprints had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?” 

The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”

Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”

Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage, given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group inside, to continue on, with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.

Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”

“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I’m not sure where to go from here. I know I want it to end in mayhem and tragedy and chaos, but in an unexpected and engaging way. Do I …

  • have Bryan turn out to be a satanist and kill Madeleine to open the portal to hell in the estate?
  • have Madeleine kill Bryan in self-defense, or because she becomes possessed by entities in the estate?
  • have Zander kill them both in a satanic ritual the group members are in on?

All of these seem melodramatic and uninspired, but what do you think? I’d love, love, LOVE to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!

On writing a short story (part one).

If there’s anything I pride myself on, it’s being authentic while being kind. To that end, I must admit that I did not finish writing my short story. I didn’t post by 5 PM as planned. This is because I’m quarantining in Florida with my three nephews (all under 12 years old) and my niece (under two years old) and a house full of family. It’s been amazing and entertaining, but I am so tired. I’m also trying to finish the school year strong and it’s this kind of juggling that leaves me tired and uninspired. I know it’s critical, non-negotiable even, to make time for writing. Even though I didn’t finish the short story, I need to be proud of myself for what I did complete, which was nearly 1,000 words. And this is a typical part of my writing process, honestly. I’ll stop when I feel like I have to force it. This is where I ended up today:

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. There was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, you don’t want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny 99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at an abandoned lunatic asylum on the other side of town. So in a week, she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thicker liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and the anxious group of paranormal investigators moved closer together and turned in unison to observe her. She released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, was wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. Zander, the self-proclaimed psychic medium leading the investigation, started talking and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine was only half-listening. She was scanning, always scanning, for Bryan. She didn’t see him and loaded up with a digital recorder and an EMF reader. She followed the group inside.

As the group moved through the first floor, a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said. The fluorescent lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.” Everyone nodded, offered a quick, sympathetic smile, and then went back about their business, which at the moment, was following Zander deeper and deeper inside the abandoned lunatic asylum. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” She extended her hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

On planning a short story.

Now that I’ve finished a 21-day creativity challenge (courtesy of Grammarly), it’s time to keep the confidence and creativity going! I thought it’d be a good idea to walk you through how I write a short story step-by-step.

Step 1: Get inspired

For me, inspiration comes from my surroundings. I feel lucky that I’m able to pull from my daily environment and my day-to-day doings. For the past three weeks, I’ve been quarantining in Cape Coral, Florida with my sister, her husband, and FOUR kids (all under the age of 12). It’s been entertaining as hell and while I may be short on sleep, I am definitely not short on inspiration or love or laughter. Surrounded by palm trees, heat and humidity, and unpredictable and fast-moving storms, I had an idea to set a story in the Sunshine State. There’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time about a guy murdering his wife and getting rid of the body at an alligator farm, the kind where they give tourists airboat rides, and the local sheriff works with a beautiful but broken bartender from a honky tonk bar to solve the case. That feels like more of a novel, because it would absolutely take time and space unavailable in the short story format to explain everything concerning the plot, so I hunted for another idea.

My nephew Jonathan LOVES scary movies. It’s all he ever wants to watch and I know I’m mostly responsible. I’ve been forcing them on him since he was about four years old. The other night, he joined me in watching old episodes of “Ghost Adventures.” The episodes in question featured Mark and Debby Constantino, paranormal investigators and EVP experts who died tragically. After several incidents of domestic violence, Mark killed Debby and himself after a standoff with police. You can read more about the tragedy here.

Paranormal investigating, coupled with personal tragedy, makes for engrossing material. It’s been storming a lot here too, so an atmosphere formed in my mind before an actual story did, but everything I needed was there.

Step 2: Create a bare bones outline

Scenes don’t formulate for me until there’s a tangible kind of plan. I love making lists and outlines for this very purpose.

  • Two paranormal investigators meet online during a televised, live investigation
  • They bond over corny, melodramatic personality and technology used (looking at you, Zak Bagans … sorry)
  • They plan to meet in real life for a real ghost hunt
    • Stanley Hotel (and use my real life experience)?
    • Research abandoned lunatic asylums?
  • During the investigation: he kills her? she kills him? they find real ghosts? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!

Step 3: Character sketches

I honestly believe the best stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. It could be the most exciting series of events in the history of literature, but if the characters are flat and do not elicit some kind of visceral response, none of it matters.

My character sketches aren’t too detailed, which is frowned upon, but it works for me. My main character is named Madeleine. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit —> heavily painted lips, a dark crimson; thick, black eyeliner; pitch black hair (dye from the box, drugstore); listening to Screamo(?), heavy metal(?); studio apartment, light beet can beside her at desktop computer?

The above sketch is very visual; I believe imagery is ESSENTIAL to storytelling. The reader NEEDS to have a picture painted in their minds in order to connect to the characters and the story. So as a picture forms, there are more questions to answer: should I set the story ten years earlier? twenty years? And as the picture becomes clearer, it brings me to step 4.

Step 4: Specific scenes

Again with my list-making: I make lists of specific scenes I want to include. So far, I have a scene with walkie talkies and EVPs (a demonic voice coming through, something neither investigator is prepared for), a scene referencing ITC and “white noise” (to build mood and atmosphere), and a Van der Graaff generator (featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” but to be believable and specific, I need to do more research).

Step 5: Research

I’m going to be looking up any technical details I’m not familiar with to give my voice authenticity (an element emphasized in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book, a brilliant memoir on writing). After that, I’ll write a rough draft and post it here.

On an unrelated note… in the past six or seventh months, I’ve become a better woman. I’ve been moving ever closer to the woman I always dreamed I’d be, and that is thanks in part to two very special women. I promised I’d write an entire blog post about them, but they’d be embarrassed and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever be able to put into words how amazing these women are, at least not to my own satisfaction. So the short story will be dedicated to Casey and Kathleen.