Sunday, January 23, 2011

Short Story Challenge

Today I learned about a short story contest that NPR is having. Don't get too excited, the deadline is tonight at midnight.

I know, day late, dollar short. But I tried it anyway, because as you know, I can't resist challenges that I'm bound to fail. The criteria for this short short story is simple: 1) It has to have a joke in it. 2) It has to have someone crying. 3) It has to be 600 words long (about 3 minutes of radio time) . That's about three pages double spaced. I wrote and edited and made two words into contractions and the lowest I could get to was 830.

I don't write short stories because I'm not a good enough writer. Lots of writing teachers start newbies off reading short stories and writing short stories. I get the reason why, it's easier to manage in a crit class, it's easier to get the word count in, etc. But a short story is, I think, the Achilles heel of any writer who isn't a genius or experienced in the craft.  AKA, me.

My favorite all time short story collection is Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' This book made me want to be a writer and at the same time be very afraid to be a writer. A great combination.
So - the story I wrote, while complete on it's own, I think, is a sort of 'extended' scene from the book I'm writing now. It wouldn't be include in the book, but it's sort of a behind the scene look at some of the main characters. I could be completely fooling myself in thinking it stands on it's own, but it was invigorating to do. It helped me think about my story in a parallel way, instead of forward and backwards, which is usually where I'm stuck. A good exercise. I recommend it.

My short story, called, The White Tea Pot continues after the jump. All rights reserved A.Villasante , yada yada.

“Would you like more tea, Mrs. Turner?
Mrs. Turner had forgotten to take her gloves off. She watched in horror as a small tea stain spread on her glove. Pressing the offending hand against her side she said, “Thank you, M’am. I’d enjoy a touch more.”
“The pot’s gone a bit cold, I’ll just fetch Lucy to freshen it. Won’t be a moment.”
Hero hefted the large brown teapot and stepped out of the parlor into the kitchen. Lucy was waiting for her.
“Is she all right then, M’am?” Lucy always hoped Hero’s special cases would turn out to be salvageable. They rarely were.
“Oh, Lucy. Why does Court send me these disastrous people? She’s a mess! I can practically see the seams where she was put together. And she has the most appalling manners. Whichever composer put her together, his shoddy construction gives us all a bad name. You’d best prepare the white teapot.” Hero gave her the brown teapot and sat down. Lucy began silently pulling jars of herbs from the pantry shelves. If Lucy began to cry, Hero would be seriously annoyed, more so than she already was. She had proper work to do that didn’t include patching up Court’s damaged people. She could hardly refuse to try, though it drained her and upset Lucy. Just when she’d gotten to a good place in Lucy’s training, this could set a Quasi-Real like Lucy back. Not that Lucy was anywhere near as badly constructed as Mrs. Turner. Hero had gotten Lucy from a respectable auction. While she wasn’t perfect, she was a solid worker. Still, the girl was sensitive, prone to excessive emotion. Hero had rewritten her, lightly and delicately. It had improved the girl immensely. But emotion was difficult to cull.

Hero entered the parlor holding a folio with the Court seal. Mrs. Turner eyed the book with suspicion and fear.
     “I do hope you can help me M’am. I’ve tried ever so hard to please my mistress.” She trailed off, as if realizing that the time for trying was over. Left alone, Mrs. Turner had agonized over the problem of her gloves. Had her hostess noticed the stain? Which was more correct, leaving them on or taking them off? She had rubbed at the stain in an effort to lighten it. In the end she decided to leave her gloves on and cover the stain with her other hand. Any armor was worth having when fighting for your life.
     “Now, my dear. I’m just going to ask you a few more questions and record your answers here.” Hero slid her glasses onto her nose.
     “Do you know any jokes?” Mrs. Turner was alarmed by the question.
     “I never had cause to know any jokes, M’am. My mistress did not require it of me.”
     “Yes, but did you ever hear any? A footman or court messenger may have told you one, perhaps?” Mrs. Turner’s alarm grew. Hero wondered if she could salvage any of the leftover pieces after she took Mrs. Turner apart. Perhaps Court wouldn’t require all the pieces back?
     There was a knock and Lucy entered with a tray bearing the white teapot and two small cakes. Hidden in the pocket of her apron were needle nose pliers for picking apart seams and a small folding saw. Hidden inside the cakes was enough sedative to fell a horse. Lucy’s nose and eyes were red.

     “That’s fine, my dear.” Hero said to Mrs. Turner.  “Let’s see. Now I’ll tell you a joke, all right? Why did little Tommy throw butter out the window?”
     “I don’t know anyone named Tommy, M’am.”
      “Try to think, Mrs. Turner. Why would Tommy throw butter out of the window?”
     “I can’t imagine why a boy would do such a wicked thing.” Mrs. Turner looked hopeful that this was the right answer.
     “That’s fine. Let’s have some of these nice cakes Lucy made for us, shall we?”
  Lucy was looking at Mrs. Turner as if she couldn’t look away.
     “To see a butter-fly, Mrs. Turner. That’s why Tommy threw butter out the window. To see a butterfly.” Lucy began to cry.
      “Thank you, Lucy. That’s all. Mrs. Turner. Would you pour?” It was clear Hero would have to do more work on Lucy. The crying was unacceptable.
     Mrs. Turner picked up the white teapot and began to pour. She stopped mid pour, her face suddenly blank. She laughed suddenly, so hard she shook the pot, spilling more tea on her gloves and on the tea things on the tray. She laughed until tears poured out of her eyes. Lucy began laughing too.
     Hero took the white teapot from Mrs. Turner’s hands and picked up the tea tray. She left Lucy and Mrs. Turner embracing on the settee. In the kitchen, she poured out all the tea in the pot and scraped the wet teacakes into the garbage. She put the kettle to boil again. She needed a fresh cup of tea.


  1. So jealous. I saw this contest and outlined an idea, but I've been so tangled up in personal problems I couldn't clear my mind long enough to concentrate. For the love of God, life needs to stop interfering with my creative process, damnit.

    I really liked this little excerpt into Aunt Hero's job. I can understand why you wouldn't want to include it in the novel (not Finn-centered), although it does provide interesting background. This is a great way to understand your characters more and really get to the essence of their motivation in the story. Just this scene told me more about Aunt Hero's no nonsense personality and constant need to revise. I'm curious to know what happens if she revises too much. I certainly hope I never end up with shoddy characters like Mrs. Turner.

    I would like to know what happens to Mrs. Turner. I'm fascinated with Hero's revision process and would love to see it. Is the questioning to help her decide which parts can be salvaged and where to send them?


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