20 Favorite Stories for Short Story Month

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While November may be novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), and April is poetry month, thanks to the “Story a Day” project, May is short story month. “Story a Day” challenges writers to write a new short story every day for the whole month of May. While that may sound like a lot of writing—and it is!—the stories can be any length. As short as Twitterature or 50 word stories, or as long as fully-realized narratives.

Though I won’t strictly be participating in “Story a Day,” I do try to dedicate 3-6 hours a day on fiction writing. And when I’m not writing, I’m always looking for new stories to spark my own creative work. So in honor of Short Story Month, I’m sharing links to 20 of my all time favorite short stories!

Some New Favorites:

“State Facts for the New Age” by Amy Sauber — The Rumpus

“Prakt Means Splendor” by David Ebenbach — The Kenyon Review

“Night Garden” by Shruti Swamy — Prairie Schooner

“Ancient Rome” by Kyle McCarthy — American Short Fiction

“The Removal” by Lauren Schenkman — Writer’s Digest

“Joplin and Dickens” by Padgett Powell — Idaho Review

“Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson

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Some All-Time Favorites:

“L. Debard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff — The Atlantic

“The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff — The New Yorker

“Interesting Facts” by Adam Johnson — Harper’s

“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore — The New Yorker

“Caiman” by Brett Anthony Johnston — AGNI

“White Angel” by Michael Cunningham — The New Yorker

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel

“Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff

“Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” by Richard Yates

“The Smoking Room” by Shirley Jackson

“Tenth of December” by George Saunders — The New Yorker

“Lull” by Kelly Link — Conjunctions

“Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell

 

Happy writing, friends! Comment below with other favorites!

Best,

CHM

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Tips on starting a short story

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So you have this great idea for a story. Awesome. But…how do you know you’re starting in the right place?

In workshop and with my high school students, I often see fiction drafts that have “buried” the hook to the story and start with an unnecessary opening (or a less interesting one). Learning where to start your story is a challenge, but studying strong examples can help strengthen your craft.

This week, all of the MFA students in our Scholarships and Publications Methods class had to present a teaching demonstration in front of our fellow students. I decided to teach about story introductions, using Birds of America by Lorrie Moore—which I’m studying on my own to broaden my understanding of narrative structure—as a central text.

So, how do you begin a short story? (Or novel?) You have several options.

1. Begin with narrative summary and move into your scene.

What is narrative summary? It refers to anytime in a story when we are given information about characters or plot that’s not shown through a) dialogue or b) scene.

An example of this comes from “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” by Richard Yates (author of Revolutionary Road) — “When Franklin D. Roosevelt was President-elect there must have been sculptors all over America who wanted a chance to model his head from life, but my mother had connections. One of her closest friends and neighbors, in Greenwich Village courtyard where we lived, was an amiable man named Howard Whitman who had recently lost his job as a reporter on the New York Post.”

Without this necessary information, we as readers would be lost! We’d begin with a poor single mother who is sculpting the president’s bust and we’d think, “How did she get this gig?” Good question. Narrative summary answers it for us.

To decide if you should start this way, ask what background information we as readers absolutely need to know before settling into the central action of your story. Give it to us here, or give the background later if possible.

2. Make an observation about character, place, or an event/occasion before starting your scene.

This is a certain kind of exposition (narrative summary) that’s less about plot points and usually more of a generalized and consistent observation.

Examples:

From “The Brother-in-Law” by Lydia Davis — “He was so quiet, so small and thin, that he was hardly there. The brother-in-law. Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or where he came from, or if he would leave.”

From “Sketches for a Life of Wassily” by Lydia Davis — “Wassilly was a man of many parts, changeable, fickle, at times ambitious, at times stuporous, at times meditative, at times impatient.”

3. Similarly: make an observation about life itself to frame the thematic content.

This is especially helpful when used to indirectly characterize people in your story.

Example from “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” by Lorrie Moore (from Birds of America): “It was a fear greater than death, according to the magazines. Death was number four. After mutilation, three, and divorce, two. Number one, the real fear, the one death could not even approach, was public speaking.” (Moore 26)

This opening frames our reading of the rest of the story, which actually has nothing to do with public speaking, but has everything to do with irrational fears vs. a ruse of bravery.

4. Begin in medias res, in the middle of things.

Sandra Scofield, author of my favorite fiction primer The Scene Book, writes: “It is possible to pull the reader into the heart of the story, beginning in medias res without getting lost, if your opening lines offer enough details of situation, setting, and potential conflict.” (143)

It’s easier said than done. But it can be a way to grip your reader’s attention from the beginning. A few examples from Lorrie Moore’s writing will illustrate how this can be done.

“People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling from Peed Onk”

This story is about a mother who finds out her baby has cancer and must go to the pediatric oncology ward (peed onk). It plays with meta-narrative since the mother is a writer and is collecting “notes” about her experience. And it allows Moore to contrast the woman’s grief with her humor, a coping mechanism in this story.

Here’s how the text begins:

“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain. A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s diaper. What is the story? Who put this here? It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks fine—so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?”

What makes this work?

Note the meta-narrative opening, anchoring us in a sense of timelessness. We also have several unanswerable, almost rhetorical questions that represent denial: “What is the story? Who put this here?” She uses strong and grotesque imagery to illustrate the emotional depth. Finally, notice the simile at the end: “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow”.

This is an excellent example of how to start with the conflict, foregrounding the emotional trauma instead of ending with a climatic penultimate scene.

“Terrific Mother”

Watch how this story uses long winding sentences to, well, distract the reader from the oncoming disaster. (Sorry for the spoiler.)

“…when she was at the Spearsons’ Labor Day picnic, and when Sally Spearson handed her the baby, Adrienne had burbled at it as she would a pet, had jostled the child gently, made clicking noises with her tongue, affectionately cooing, ‘Hello, pumpkinhead, hello, my little pumpkinhead,’ had reached to shoo a fly away and, amid the smells of old grass and the fatty crackle of the barbecue, lost her balance when the picnic bench, the dowels rotting in the joints, wobbled and began to topple her—the bench, the wobbly picnic bench, was toppling her! And when she fell backward, wrenching her spine—in the slowed quickness of this flipping world, she saw the clayey clouds, some frozen faces, one lone star like the nose of a jet—and when the baby’s head hit the stone retaining wall of the Spearsons’ newly terraced yard and bled fatally into the brain, Adrienne went home shortly thereafter…”

Note the repetition throughout this passage (“pumpkinhead” and “wobbly”). We also have another simile (“like the nose of a jet”) and the shocking directness of the conflict line, “the baby’s head…bled fatally into the brain” is told very matter-of-factly, in an almost callous way. We then directly leave this scene and follow Adrienne to her home, illustrating the fact that this story will follow her aftermath of the trauma.

“Real Estate”

“It must be, Ruth thought, that she was going to die in the spring. She felt such inexplicable desolation then, such sludge in the heart, felt the season’s mockery, all that chartreuse humidity in her throat like a gag. How else to explain such a feeling? She could almost burst—could one burst with joylessness? What she was feeling was too strange, too contrary, too isolated for a mere emotion. It had to be a premonition—one of being finally whisked away after much boring flailing and flapping and the pained, purposeless work that constituted life. And in spring, no less: a premonition of death. A rehearsal. A secretary’s call to remind of the appointment.

Of course, it had always been in the spring that she discovered her husband’s affairs.”

Notice how we build up to the line that informs us of her husband’s affairs. Very clever, and it still situates us firmly in Ruth’s emotional state and conflict all the way through.

Do you see how Lorrie Moore foregrounds the conflict at the beginning of these stories? It’s not the usual story format, but it works well in these examples.

Your Turn! Try your hand at these prompts:

Compose the beginning to a short story that immediately foregrounds conflict. Introduce the problem within the first few sentences and try to focus on one character’s relationship to that conflict. Choose your own conflict/trauma but perhaps consider: a car crash, a medical emergency, an animal attack, a break-in etc.

Start a scene in the middle of a family drama.

Consider a book you enjoy that starts in medias res. Examine how the writer structures the beginning. Using your own words/characters/setting, imitate the structure in your own writing.

————

Do you enjoy writing in medias res? What are your favorite examples?

-Ciera

Tips on Applying to an MFA Program

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Since beginning my Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Central Florida, I’ve received a lot of questions from friends and former classmates about how to go about applying. As a first year student, I do not pretend to have all the answers. But there are a few things I’ve learned along the way which (hopefully) may be helpful to future applicants.

What is an MFA? 

An MFA is a terminal degree in the creative arts. For creative writing, you can receive an MFA in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.

Is it the same as an MA in Creative Writing?

No! An MFA is a terminal degree and your thesis is a creative project. An MA (Masters) is not a terminal degree and would require a PhD to teach at the college level. It is also more focused on critical research and scholarly writing instead of creative writing.

What is the difference between full-residency and low-residency?

Full residency MFA programs have you taking classes full or part-time on campus at the institution. Low residency allow you to have classes online and then attend residency weeks on campus at specific times throughout the year. There are pros and cons to both formats. But do consider that there are usually not as many funding opportunities/graduate assistantships with low residency models since you won’t have the chance to work on campus as a GTA (graduate teaching assistant.)

What are the components of an application?

Typically, you will need: GRE scores (General, not subject test), transcripts, letters of recommendation, a creative writing sample (the most important part!), a personal statement, a resume or CV.

  • Letters of Recommendation: Ideally, most letters of recommendation should come from someone well acquainted with your creative writing, such as a professor who ran your undergraduate workshops. You can also ask writing mentors, editors, or other leaders in your life. For my application, I asked two professors and also an editor who could speak to my work experience and journalism.
  • The Personal Statement: The personal statement allows you to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. You have the opportunity to tell them 1) about your writing and 2) why you want to attend their MFA program. (This is easier said than done and was, in my experience, the most challenging part of the application process.)
  • The Creative Sample: Should be your strongest example of work and should (ideally) reflect the style of writing you hope to include in your thesis.

Okay, so that’s great and all. But how do you DO it?

Write multiple versions of your personal statement.

I cannot overstate this. You will undoubtedly change your mind many, many times as you go through the drafts. Why? Because it’s 100% impossible to completely describe your interests, your background, your professionalism, your plans for creative work, your authorial inspirations etc. all in about 800 words. The word limit means you need to pick an angle for your personal statement. For me, this was tricky. I wrote one version of my personal statement about sociology (my undergraduate minor) and how my study of gender/marriage/family shaped my writing. In another version, I talked about travel writing; in another, I framed the essay around great or famous people I’d met who had shaped my work. Finally, I settled on a personal statement that discussed how working as a reporter shaped my editorial vision as a fiction writer. This allowed me to 1) explain why I had way more publications in journalism than fiction, 2) discuss an angle to my application which made me unique. I also directly tied it into fiction writing by discussing the transferable techniques I learned from journalism, and using that to describe my fiction style of lyrical realism.

Also, make sure you tailor the personal statement to the particular university. Describe what aspects of their MFA program/school/community/city interest you. (And make sure you submit the right statement to the right school – mistakes happen.)

Emphasize how you want to grow.

It’s true that universities are looking for students to foster. So tell them how you want to grow as a writer. This doesn’t mean you need to list all of your flaws with craft and style, but it does mean you can talk about what you hope to learn in your MFA program and how you can learn these things at this particular institution.

Don’t tell the program what you can offer them. Explain what they can offer you.

The admissions committee wants to know why you are interested in their program. (And no, your answer should not simply be: FUNDING!) Are you excited about studying with any particular faculty member? Are you interested in the literary community in this city? Do you have connections to the university? Are there specifics opportunities that interest you?

I was particularly interested in MFA programs with strong literary journals, which is part of what first interested me in UCF since they publish The Florida Review. Now I have an internship as an editorial reader for the Review. 🙂

EDIT, EDIT, EDIT your creative sample. 

You do not want to find a typo later on your second page. Most of all, make sure your creative sample fits within the parameters of the application: every institution has different page limits, so make sure you triple check that you abide by their guidelines.

Generally speaking, if you’re a fiction writer you do have a better chance with a strong short story than with a novel excerpt. This is not a universal rule. But because most MFA students in fiction are writing short stories or novellas and not novels, this is often the preferred format for admissions. (Again, not always true.)

Also—it can be wise to present the admissions committee with a range of work instead of one long story. If you have strong pieces of flash fiction that display a variety of style, form or voice, this demonstrates dynamic strengths and flexibility. Your creative sample does not need to be a collection of unified pieces that go together.

Do talk about your literary inspirations.

If you’re not reading and reading widely, then why are you pursuing an MFA in the first place? One of the best ways you can flex your literary muscles to the admissions committee is by describing the books that have influenced you as a writer. In my letter, I talked about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a series of interconnected short stories which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Like Strout, I am interested in short stories about ordinary people, everyday losses and joys.

Do not add “fluff” to your CV.

It’s gratuitous and an admissions committee can see right through it. If you don’t have publications/readings on your CV, that’s okay. Be honest, not excessive.

Note: some applications will ask for a resume and some will ask for a CV. In my experience, a CV is often preferred, as it showcases and prioritizes academic work/publications/readings/editorial work etc.

Be realistic in your job goals.

DO NOT WRITE THIS IN YOUR STATEMENT: “I plan to publish my MFA thesis with Simon and Schuster and, upon graduation, become a tenure-track professor at NYU.”

Yeah, no. The job market is oversaturated and this makes you sound unknowledgeable about the literary community. This doesn’t mean you can’t aim for tenure-track jobs, just recognize that it probably won’t be your immediate after-graduation job. So, would you teach high school? Adjunct? Take an editing job? Work as a journalist? Try to get a literary fellowship? Apply to PhD programs? Whatever your answer, be realistic. I recommend researching the job market and the AWP job listing.

A few things to avoid in your personal statement:

  • Convincing the reader why writing/literature is important. They already know.
  • Recounting a “literary conversion” moment like: “I used to hate books but now, ever since ___ happened, I have discovered writing.” (Unless you have a really great story for the ___.)
  • Recounting how you’ve been writing since, like, kindergarten. Join the club.
  • Listing off obscure literary journals no one has heard of (which are really just blogs) to show your “extensive publishing experience.”
  • Comparing yourself to Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders—really anyone who’s too excellent. (You’re just not there, pal.)

Resource:

Poets and Writers (http://www.pw.org) was very helpful to me as I was searching for an MFA program. They list all of the programs, full-residency and low-residency.

Overall, do not be overwhelmed!

If you are thinking about applying to an MFA program, comment below — I’d love to hear from you! Pursuing your graduate education is a great opportunity to devote time and energy to your craft.

Best of luck, writers.

-Ciera