My Favorite Short Story Collections (and Cycles)

This month is all about celebrating those little treasures we knows as short stories. I thought this week would be a great opportunity to revisit some of my favorite short story collections from the past few years. These stories cover several genres, from the realistic to the fantastic. First, I thought it might be a good idea to explore the differences between a short story “collection” vs. “cycle.” Did you know they are different? Allow me to elaborate.

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Short Story Collections

A short story collection consists of several stories brought together into one book. Although there may be a common theme throughout the book, each story typically stands alone and is unrelated to any of the others. Collections are either written by the same author or several different ones. Organization can vary in regards to where certain stories are placed in the book. Sometimes it’s chronological, while other times it may be laid out by theme. Many times, the order of the stories is chosen in order to create a certain flow. For example, some publishers put the strongest works in the beginning, middle, and end with lesser known works placed in between. In many ways, a short story collection is like an album with many hit singles. You don’t have to read all of them in a book, you can always pick and choose your favorite ones.

Short Story Cycles

Unlike a collection, a short story cycle is meant to be read together as all the stories share aspects such as characters or set in the same world. This isn’t to say that the individual stories can’t be read separately. However, some things are just better together. As you can see, the differences between collections and cycles are subtle but they are definitely present.

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Joel’s Favorites

As promised, here are some of my favorite examples. Click on the title to read more about each one:

If you love science fiction with heavy doses of philosophy, this is the short story collection for you. It was difficult to choose one or two favorites as all the stories are stellar, but I will mention “Hell is the Absence of God” and “Story of Your Life.”

Saunders is a gifted writer who crafts fantastic stories that focus on the moral dilemmas of living in modern America. This collection is brilliant and will definitely ignite lots of feelings. Notable selections include “Victory Lap” and “Escape from Spiderhead.”

If you want to read high quality urban fantasy, look no further than Charles De Lint. His stories set in Newford are beautifully written and will leave you believing in magic again. This book serves as a great introduction and will leave you wanting more. I refuse to pick any favorites. Read all of it!

There are three types of writers: good, great, and Murakami. Nobody writes like him, as he has one of the most unique voices in fiction. This collection of tales features all manner of bizarre circumstances, from deadly curses to strange creatures. Both “The Second Bakery Attack” and “Sleep” are great, but you should really take time to read the incredibly short but poignant “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” Seriously, it will only take five minutes, and it’s heartbreaking but real.

You can never go wrong with Bradbury as his stories never fail to move me. He was such an important part of my childhood, and his works are etched within my very soul (I’m so poetic). The October Country is a fun read and features my all-time favorite short story “Homecoming.”

I was familiar with Fowler from her phenomenal novel The Jane Austen Book Club. However, this little collection truly showcases Fowler’s storytelling range as many of the selections defy falling into one specific genre. The ease with which she merges the real with the fantastic has instantly propelled her up on my list of favorite authors. The title short story “What I Didn’t See” is the perfect title for the overarching theme of this book as it deals with those viewpoints and details that we might miss at first glance. If nothing else, read the opening story “The Pelican Bar” as it is excellent.

David Mitchell’s first book is quite good as a precursor to his superior Cloud Atlas. Each chapter focuses on one character in a different part of the world, which all connects together in a shocking conclusion. Writing in several different voices is a challenge for any author, but Mitchell makes it look so simple.

This was my first Atwood. The first three stories form a cycle centering around a decades-long love triangle. The remaining ones are stand-alone affairs. Both “Torching the Dusties” and “Stone Mattress” are fantastic. Atwood is a master at blending genres, with many of the stories having a fantasy or science fiction feel.

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What are some of your favorite short stories? Sound off with a comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why the Short Story is the Perfect Art Form

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart.”

This quote by the great Haruki Murakami captures my endearing love for the perfect art form that is the short story. There’s just something wonderful about short stories, so I thought I would examine this literary phenomenon in more detail.

Defining”short story”

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How does one define a short story? Merriam-Webster provides the following definition:

an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot

Sounds accurate but exactly how many words constitute a short story? As with a great many topics, there are various opinions. According to Writing World, a ‘regular’ short story should be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. This number falls in between the shorter word count of micro or flash fiction and the much longer novelette. On another note, I have used the word novella but never novelette. That word just sounds like a book that is supposed to look really cute. Over at Bookfox, I learned some interesting information. Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently knew a thing or two about the short story, said that it had to be something readable in a single sitting. No disrespect Mr. Poe, but I know of lots of short stories that took me several sittings to finish. Bookfox does compare the average word counts of some of the most famous short stories in history. It does appear that Poe did keep his word count fairly short.

A short story is so much more than figuring out the word count. While a novel provides a through examination in characters’ lives with significant buildup, short stories serve as mere glimpses that have to convey a certain atmosphere. In many ways, the creation of a short story is more challenging than a longer work as there is not as much time to build the mood. You really have to get right to business. Poe stated that “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” This leaves little room for wasted words.

Growing up on short stories

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Typically, we are introduced to the world of short fiction in high school. While we would be assigned the occasional novel or play to read, most of the fodder of English courses consisted of reading short stories. I may not have a lot of joyous memories of high school, but it was the setting that sparked my love of literature. This affair did begin with the short stories I read in my younger days. Some of favorite works included Ray Bradbury’s hauntingly beautiful “Homecoming,” the delightfully frightening world of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and the exquisite “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin. Stephen King once said that “a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” I remember falling in love with these authors through these short little love affairs. After all, you never forget your first!

The power (and challenges) in short fiction

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Neil Gaiman once said that “the short story is still like the novel’s wayward younger brother, we know that it’s not respectable – but I think that can also add to the glory of it.” I think Gaiman makes an excellent point. Most writers are not considered true masters of the craft until they have published a novel. However, some of my favorite authors have made their living from publishing short stories. Kelly Link is a perfect example. She writes some of the most magical tales I have ever read, and she has never published a single novel. Although he has been immortalized with his novels about futuristic firemen and dark carnivals, Ray Bradbury spent the majority of his career mastering the art of the short prose. In fact, his advice to writers was to write one short story a week for a year, believing that it’s impossible to create 52 bad short stories. His incredible work ethic is definitely an inspiration!

A recent short story that has become popular is “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. This tale of a very bad date went viral, launching Roupenian into literary stardom. Of course, writing one great short story does not equal overnight fame. Most authors of the short story go through countless rejections before finally getting published. In his early days, Stephen King would hold on to every single one of his rejection slips as reminders to keep churning tales. He ended up doing alright I suppose.

A short story has to accomplish the same goals as a novel: grab your attention, make you feel emotions, and arouse your curiosity about what comes next. This can be much harder to achieve with fewer words. It’s almost like going out on a first date. You have very little time to make a good impression so you better bring everything you have to the game in order to land a second one. Novels are like marriages or long-term relationships where you have a lot of time together, see the ups and downs, and truly know every little detail. Short fiction is more of the “love at first sight” variety, as you want your breath taken away. When done properly, a good short story can be just as enduing as your favorite novel.

Short stories are everywhere!

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How does one get a hold of some short stories. Fortunately, they are everywhere! My advice is to look up some of your favorite authors and see what short fiction they have published as a collection. Some of my personal favorites include Haruki MurakamiKelly Link, and Neil Gaiman. Most likely, many of your favorite authors have penned a short story collection or two. There is also a wide selection, in every genre you can imagine!Speaking of variety, you can purchase books that have several short stories from many different authors. You can even find several short stories online for free! Classic Shorts has dozens of stories you can peruse from the masters. You can even find free contemporary fiction on the web. I found several short stories from Murakami just be searching.

I read a great article the other day about an invention in France that is coming to America. Short Story Dispensers are special kiosks that will print a very short story for free. This is so cool! I hope someday I come across one in my wanderings.

Alright, so maybe I have convinced you that short stories are fabulous. Go out an find some now. Maybe reading a few will inspire you to create some of your own. I will be posting some blogs throughout the month of April centered around the perfect gift that is known as the short story.

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”-George Saunders

What are some of your favorite short stories? Are you a writer of short fiction yourself? Sound off with a comment below!

My Favorite Female Writers

Did you know that March is Women’s History Month? Originating out of a small-town school event in California, it has now been recognized annually in the United States since 1987. This celebration is all about honoring the significant contributions by women in history, culture, and society.

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Look out Darcy, this blog is about the ladies!

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are some of my favorite female writers. These women serve as inspirations for knocking down doors. Click the link to view all of my posts featuring that particular author.

Jane Austen

It would be wrong to not include Lady Jane on this list, since I’ve read the majority of her works. Selecting a favorite Austen novel is quite complicated, as my favorite typically shifts depending on which one I last read. Pride and Prejudice is a must, but I do love the maturity and growth of Persuasion. Her Gothic satire Northanger Abbey is a lot of fun too.

Shirley Jackson

You never forget your first! I fell in love with Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and discovered there is so much more terrific fiction out there. I highly recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Her short fiction is quite insane but in a good way.

Jeanette Winterson

Nobody writes like Jeanette Winterson! Her words flow so smoothly, and her narratives are beautifully constructed. She comes up with some truly unique ideas. I think Written on the Body is one the best love stories ever crafted with such a brilliant premise as the reader is kept clueless as to the narrator’s actual gender. I also recommend The Gap of Time, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale.”

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Girl Power!

Jean Rhys

If you disliked Rochester, this prequel to Jane Eyre will make you downright loathe him. This novel tells the story of Antoinette, the lady who becomes the “mad woman in the attic.” I enjoyed this novel immensely as it explored issues of both racial inequality as well as power relations in marriage. Wide Sargasso Sea works as a postcolonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. Now that the character of Bertha has been fleshed out for me, I’m willing to give Jane Eyre another read.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I recently finished rereading the original Earthsea novels. Le Guin showed that women can write fantasy and science fiction just as well as any male writer (in fact, better in many cases). Like Shirley Jackson, I fell in love with Le Guin’s writing after reading her incredible short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I plan on reading more of her fiction in the near future.

Kelly Link

I’ve read a couple of short story collections from this author, and I loved her style. Link combines fantasy and horror into reality and creates something truly memorable. Pretty Monsters is Link’s first short story collection targeted towards young adults. These nine short stories are as charming as they are mind-bending. Attempting to guess how any of these stories will end is an act of futility as Link always takes you in unexpected directions. Although this book is aimed at young adults, the stories certainly do appeal to a larger audience as grown-ups will find a lot to enjoy here.

Ali Smith

Smith is another author I’m curious about exploring further. I really enjoyed her stream-of-consciousness style of writing in The Accidental. I’ve read the synopsis for There But For The so hopefully will be able to read that one soon.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a nineteenth-century writer whose work is extremely powerful. She explores sociological and feminist issues in her writing, making some bold statements in regards to equality. Her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a chilling psychological study of a mind driven to madness. I have a copy her novel Herland about a utopian colony entirely populated by women. I hope to get that read this year as well.

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What women writers would you recommend? Sound off with a comment below!

 

The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing

Writing and therapy: two art forms that are dear to my heart. I practice one on a daily basis (gotta pay those bills) while I don’t do nearly enough of the other.

I recently finished Natalie Goldberg’s excellent book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer WithinWhile she makes some truly outstanding points about writing, I couldn’t help but reflect on how many times she mentions the importance of writing for writing’s sake. No matter if we consider it good or bad, it’s just important for our own physical and emotional selves to write. In fact, did you know that writing is one of the best forms of therapy out there?

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Healing through Narrative

Writing can be such a beneficial way of helping us to move through difficult life events. There have been numerous studies conducted on the healing process from telling our individual stories. In my work, I often use writing exercises as tools to help my clients face their difficult pasts, identify their strengths, and help process those life events. Writing has so much power. It’s liberating.

When I first started practicing counseling, I was introduced to the wonderful world of narrative therapy. This particular type of therapy helps people separate themselves from their problems. Often we internalize our inner struggles, eventually believing those problems represent the totality of our existence. Through narrative therapy, clients can get some distance from the problem, view it in a different way, and become empowered to make changes in their thought patterns. You can “rewrite” your life story to reflect the person you truly are inside rather than as a product of the problems.

I love using narrative therapy in my practice. It’s so wonderful to see clients recognize their own individual strengths. The best part of all is that this type of therapy can be used with adults, children, and families.

Expressing Inner Thoughts and Emotions

Writing down your thoughts and emotions can have such an impact on self-healing. In this excellent article titled “The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing a Novel” Jessica Lourey talks about how fiction writing helped her through the loss of her husband. Through channeling her emotions onto paper, Lourey not only started the healing process but also published a novel. I love this quote from her:

“Through the gentle but challenging exercise of writing a novel, I was learning how to control stories, which is what our lives are—stories.”

Are inner lives can become a tangled mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions. The physical act of writing helps in establishing that sense of control, allowing us to shift our perceptions into something meaningful. I love how Lourey talks about famous novels which served as vehicles for authors to express their inner selves, such as Charles Dickens with David Copperfield. 

Writing is for everyone, not just for those that have struggled with trauma or a difficult life transition. Everyone can benefit from expressive writing. Goldberg stresses that everyone has something meaningful to say. Whether you are working on a novel, writing a short story, or just keeping a journal, remember the importance of expressing yourself.

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Increasing Self-Motivation

Writing can be such a gift to increasing motivation. Last week, I talked about How Writing is Like Exercise. I stressed the importance of taking pride in making baby steps. Maybe your initial goal is to write for just 15 minutes each day or to create one page of prose no matter how awful. Think about how great it will feel to be able to look down at something you created with your own mind, heart, and hands.

Whenever I do finish a short story or some other piece of writing, it never ceases to amaze me to think wow I actually created something. Whenever I do get rolling on a project, I seem to find this additional creative energy that I never knew I possessed. I like to think of creative force as something that flows stronger the more you do it. When you are first sitting down to write, the ideas may not come all fast and furious. However, there are numerous writing prompts out there, you can use to kick start the creative process.

I have a writing book I bought a long time ago with hundreds of small writing exercises. This book has been an invaluable resource for me to find great fiction ideas. If nothing else, then just sit and write about your day. Trust me when I say the excitement you feel at finishing a piece of writing, even a paragraph, will pay huge dividends on your creative output for the rest of the day. Come on people, time to blow that dam up and get words out there into the world.

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Increasing Gratitude

In addition to helping your motivation, writing can also have wonderful effects on your gratitude. In an article called 6 Unexpected Ways Writing Can Transform Your Health, Amanda L. Chan discusses among its many benefits how writing can help with happiness. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Davis and the University of Miami, people who kept a gratitude journal were more optimistic about life than those who did not keep one.

This study makes so much sense when we think about our own struggles to stay positive in this weary world. Yes, we will have those days where we are late to work, or spill a drink, or just struggle to feel like we are achieving anything. When we have bad days, we tend to overlook the things that did go right. Often, I will challenge my clients and families to tell me three positives that happened this week. These moments don’t have to be anything earth-shattering. Maybe, someone told you “Hey nice shoes” or you were able to get the kids to school on time. Find those moments.

Take some time and keep a gratitude journal. If not, then just jot down three good things that happened today.

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Improving Sleep

Is sleeping a problem for you? Sometimes our brains will not shut up! Try writing. Sometimes just spending a few minutes at night channeling those rapid thoughts on paper will free your mind. The physical act of writing gives your mind permission to think about all those thoughts you are trying to lock away, allowing it to finally shutdown so you can have a decent night’s sleep. It is so amazing how many health problems can be eliminated with sufficient sleep.

There’s a common misconception in the world that if we face those ugly inner thoughts, then we can never be free of them. We try to force them down deep into our psyche where they actually will do more harm than good. Write them down and allow yourself the time to process them. The Sandman will reward you for it.

I hope you found something meaningful in this post. This entry was fun for me to write and served as a reminder of some valuable life lessons. Now it’s your turn. Go write. Remember if it happened to you, then it’s important.

 

Has writing been beneficial to your mental health? What did you find meaningful in today’s post? I would love to know your thoughts!

 

 

 

 

How Writing is Like Exercise

Recently, I made a commitment to start exercising daily. As most of you who read my blog know, I have also promised to write on a more consistent basis. As I moan and groan about my lack of energy in both of these enterprises, I am reminded of a chapter from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones where she compares writing to physical exercise. Motivation can be difficult to find at first. Once you get going, both can become part of a daily routine.

Here are five pieces of advice to inspire you in both writing and in exercise.

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1. Self-motivation is key

When it comes down to it, we call the shots for ourselves. In order for writing or exercise to be successful, we have to be self-motivated. There will always be that voice in your head that says “Hey it’s been a long day, just write tomorrow” or “You’re tired, don’t bother with the gym tonight.” Self-sabotage has always gotten the better of me. No more! Find quotes that inspire you. Write yourself motivational notes. Remember that tired is often a state of mind.

2. Start slow

I have met a lot of people who approach huge goals with lots of energy, only to burn out within the first month. In fact, I’m one of those people! While there’s nothing wrong with having long-term goals, sometimes it’s best to break the journey down into smaller steps. Wasn’t there a famous quote about Rome and taking your time? You know the one. Maybe your exercise goal is to eventually lose 30 pounds. Perhaps you want to complete the great American novel. There’s no shame in starting slow. My plan for this month is to write two short stories. I also plan on committing to 15 minutes of exercise a day. The point is make the goals doable for you and build off of them.

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3. Schedule time

People that know me have learned that I can be quite the scatter-brain. I’m not putting myself down, it’s just that I’ve come to realize that I’m a disorganized mess. When it comes to my job or just getting anything done in general, I function much better when I have scheduled time. Take this little blog of mine for instance. Typically, I schedule two posts each week, one review and one general post. This has helped me to keep the blog updated on a consistent basis. In order to be more successful at exercise and writing, I will have to do the same. They say once you’ve done something for three weeks, it becomes routine (not sure who “they” are but I remember hearing that somewhere). So get out those planners and plan dammit!

4. If you want to do it, then it’s important

Another obstacle to success is the guilt we feel. You are ready to go work on yourself, when all of a sudden you remember something important that you forgot to do. Don’t avoid responsibilities, but also remember that your personal goals are important. A friend once said “It all gets done in time.” If being a writer is something you want to do, then it’s no silly. If training so you can run a marathon is your fitness goal, this is not ridiculous. Do it!

5. Take pride in the small victories

The first time you went running, you probably didn’t make it very far. The second time maybe a little further. Next thing you know, you’ve run a full mile. As I said earlier, baby steps are important. Writing and exercise are alike because you have to start small and build towards those bigger goals. When you get one page written, take pride in that. Maybe just getting 500 words done was your starting goal. Don’t judge what you have written right away. Just feel good that you did it. This is exactly the same with exercising, just be happy that you managed to survive for two minutes on that treadmill before falling down. You were able to do 10 jumping jacks today, when before all you could do was half that number. There’s no shame in being pleased with yourself. Even if you only made it one step on the right path, that path is not going anywhere.

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I hope this post provides a little motivation today. Whether it’s writing or exercise (or both), you can accomplish anything. Just don’t rush it. You got this!