Behind the Short Story: “First of a Fine Spectacle”

I’m honored that my short story / high farce “First of a Fine Spectacle” was selected for Pure Slush No. 7, Catherine refracted.

I’m a history buff. But I’ve not had much interest writing historical fiction. Or flash fiction. So historical flash?

What drew me was the collection’s theme: Catherine the Great. A canvas rife with legend, some deserved, others warped by time. If ever a life was writ large, it was Sophie/Katherina, Empress and Plutocrat of All the Russians.

Writing gold.

Nothing about the horse legends or string of lovers  grabbed me. I went for a Continue reading “Behind the Short Story: “First of a Fine Spectacle””

Masters of Voice: Donald E. Westlake

I wish I had discovered Donald E. Westlake years earlier than I did. He is a writing hero for his ability to tell a story and to make it zing. His The Ax is as terrifying a novel as I’ve ever read. His Parker character is legendary, but it’s the Dortmunder crew I love most.

Here are some favorite examples of his distinctive wit:

They, all of them, the men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy was no longer an option. In short, the place looked like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.

– Watch Your Back (2005) Continue reading “Masters of Voice: Donald E. Westlake”

Behind the Short Story: “The Transcendence of Pi”

This March I had the thrill beyond thrill (thrilled2?) of my short story “The Transcendence of Pi” taking first place in On The Premises’ writing contest #19.  I tried to write a good story well — lots of literary inner workings, if you will — and it was a humbling and an honor that the editors thought “Pi” pulled off the trick.

As background, “Pi” wasn’t my first try in their contests. An entry in 2012 bombed out somewhere outside their top 10. I paid the critique fee, advice always worth a few bucks. For me, independent feedback about weaknesses isn’t the time to cheap out. I strive to leverage such stuff across everything I write, not just the piece at hand. Oh, and that flameout story later became “The Carcassonne Dream.”

Maybe the thing that humbles me most about “Pi” is it almost didn’t happen.

PI IN THE FACE

For some time I’d had an idea–okay, a premise, the idea’s ne’er-do-well sibling–about a family having May Day – in the Communist sense – and the accompanying dictatorial ideology thrust upon them. I plowed into the idea but found the ground all stone and clay. I never could grab an ending, or even a climax, a narrative voice or a theme. It never rose above being a “bit” to become a story.

Hemingway said we writers should bleed on the page; me, I had circulation problems. Eventually some deep reservoir of maturity emerged, I saved the file and moved on. As far as readying a worthy contest entry went, it was early January and I faced a yawning creative bubkus.

The good news: the creative energy had stacked up. I needed only to step back and brainstorm deeper (i.e. not preconceived) story ideas. After a few minutes listing out quirky holidays from various lists, one day in particular stuck out: International Pi Day, March 14 every year (3.14, get it? Also, it’s Einstein’s birthday.).

Pi was in the oven. No, I am not above puns.

A RECIPE FOR PI

One word triggered the whole thing: “transcendent,” as in Pi the first transcendental number (that which can’t be broken down into algebraic roots). I had wanted an obstacle, and there it was: a battle for transcendence, or in real life, primacy. I crammed on research and still probably got some of the science wrong. I hope the reader will forgive any such lapses for the greater good of humor.

Pi is of course famously the math inherent to circles, and a circle to me implied relationship, rotation, completion, enclosure. As perfect a circle is, inside it is a prison. So. I had something like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan where the student outshines the master. But student/teacher needs more to make it fresh. Make it an improper romance, layer on his priggish personality, sprinkle in an unspoken power dynamic, and now there’s dramatic potential. Add in Pi Day, a celebration Jon co-opts to stroke his ego which in the story becomes his public drop to second best. A circle makes a nice, fat target to hit.

Next I needed ambience. In this case, math nerds ready to party. Jon and sidekick Roger having something to hide (and Roger there to catch Jon). A big tent and flashy software execs.

I consider “Pi” satire at its core. Successful and roguish Jon is in need of a takedown before he can be redeemed. The axis that topples him is his student/lover Izaka–besting him by rooting out connections among his math that he overlooked. Jon is so preoccupied with himself he can’t see the budding equal/superior mind she is. For the transcendency thread, I needed him as unable to decipher her as he can readily decode Pi. So I tried to make her a mystery: blasé, foreign, flirtatious but unwilling to commit, and a shiny object to keep everyone’s attention.

The fact she might be more into Jon if he were truly into her a mystery he never quite solves. But the story leaves him as shifted as he can in an afternoon, and when things end on the page, his real story begins. Losing Izaka in its way shows him the looping path back to us here on the human plane.

OPTIONAL READING: STRUCTURE AND PROSE

The story is circles within circles, with a parade of pi references either for irony/scene or symbolic effect. I present this outline here as a guide that maybe helps other writers execute similar ideas.

  1. IT BEGINS: We start with Jon at the height of his arrogance: wanting fanfare,  thinking himself above the mountains, standing (trapped) inside his gold circle.
  2. INTRODUCE STORY PROBLEM: Izaka is spoiling his Pi Day groove and threatening to his need for validation and his complete underestimation (& near objectification) of her.
  3. THICKEN/TWIST PLOT: Bring in sidekick Roger to drop the real story problem.  Jon is too self-absorbed to find it on his own, and having Izaka do it spoils her mystery. On with Roger to present the real story problem: she’s a threat to Jon’s place atop the mathematics perch.
  4. AWKWARD SITUATION TO IGNITE THE PROBLEM: Jon heads off to the party, unable to revel in his success because Izaka, the apparent traitor, is in conversation with a serious potential rival (whether Jon would admit it aloud or not).
  5. LET HIM STEW: His misaimed anger grows until he can’t stand it. He tries to upstage her, and when the spotlight dashes back twice to her, he does the worst possible thing – call her out for his own misunderstanding.
  6. CLIMAX & BIG CONFRONTATION:  They fight. Jon loses, stripped of his misconception and the outer layer of his pride.
  7. ROCK BOTTOM: He sees his foolishness and has to watch her walk away, and become the star of Pi Day.
  8. THE CIRCLE CLOSES: Izaka steps forward and Jon backward. But it’s a liberating step back to reality if he takes the lesson to heart.
  9. WE END AS WE BEGAN: Jon has come full circle, from the master to the transcended. He reflects on Pi and his place in the math world in a very changed way, understanding the crowd is ready for him to make it quick and bring on the party.

There you go. Jerk to humbled jerk in 9 steps.