Short Stories, Artistic Process, and A New Goal

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I’d like to do a shout out to my husband and best friend, Sean Chappell, and my good friend Donna Stewart, who are not only very dear to me but are betareaders and fans of my work, too. Recently, they both helped me out regarding a short story I’ve been working on since last year, neither of whom have read it… yet.

Since both Sean and Donna are artists (Sean’s a painter and Donna, a printmaker), as artists we often talk about the nature of creativity, the artistic process, and often consult and help one another troubleshoot projects we are working on. Even though my primary passion is writing, I have a second passion for art and have enough knowledge and experience to offer suggestions. And although they are not officially fiction writers, they are both readers and love narrative, and provide feedback on the experience of reading, which I find invaluable

So when I was grappling with a title for this short story, and my uncertainty was bugging me to no end, I decided to get some feedback from them. Thankfully, I had a feel for the theme of the story but not necessarily why I chose certain elements. Often sorting out a title helps me put the story into a finer focus while I’m cleaning up the prose, but for the love of Chthulu, I just couldn’t come up with a damn title.

One night, in a fit of randomness, I jotted down The Arrest in Mannequin Row, laughed and thought it a bit silly as a title. The story is dark, a ghost story, the climax tense and dramatic. So, I went about my business. Then one evening I told Sean about the trouble I was having, mentioned the title I had come up with, which I was certain wasn’t the one.

He agreed, then suggested I look in the story to see if the title was sitting in the text somewhere. Sure enough, I found a line of passage that perfectly reflected the conflict of the main character, the nature of the setting, and the overall theme. I told Sean what I had found, even though in the pit of my stomach, both my Muse and my Inner Critic face-palmed and pretended to snore. (Thanks, guys.)

The new title was Caught In the Back and Forth. Sean thought about it. It was better, but still not quite right for him. I shortened it to In the Back and Forth, and that’s when I got a nod of approval. He really liked that one.

A few days later, while on a bitter winter walk with Donna, I tested this title on her. Silence and a blank look. I started to squirm. I could tell it wasn’t a winner for her. When I told her I had another title, The Arrest in Mannequin Row, she began nodding, perked up, and said that she’d be more likely to read a story with that title than the other. And deep down, I could hear my Muse and Inner Critic both nodding in agreement, saying Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Dawna gets it. Good on Dawna.

Back home, I told Sean my initial feeling about The Arrest in Mannequin Row was changing, that the more I thought about it, the more it felt right and not silly. (Oddly, I had a similar experience at NaNoWriMo last year with the title of another project.) Of the two titles, this one was the more interesting. It was quirky and marketable and expressive in a way that I could stand behind when promoting it.

After discussing the literal and metaphorical meanings of this title, we discovered it touched on the theme of the story but in a different way than the other one did, and Sean agreed that as a title it would work, too. And while I’m still uncertain as to the significance of the mannequins in the story, I’m going with my Muse and Inner Critic on this one. (Gahd! They just high-fived one another… Jerks!)

Thanks to Sean and Donna’s feedback, my struggle with finding a title has come to an end. If I hadn’t asked for a little help, who knows how long it would have taken me to find it.

I hope this glimpse behind the scenes of being a writer helps show that any artistic endeavor doesn’t have to be entirely solitary, if you don’t want. While I’m rather private about my process now (not so much way back when), I have found a way to get the help I need without “telling all of the story”. I tend to pique my betareaders’ curiosities this way, I know, so that’s why I am especially grateful for our tête-à-têtes as well as their confidence and patience.

I hope to finish up The Arrest in Mannequin Row sometime in the next few weeks, because I’ve decided this story is the one I’d like to use to begin pursuing one of my goals for this year, which involves submitting stories to pro markets—magazines, anthologies, et al. And as a way to keep persisting when it comes to rejection, I plan to document this short story and its adventures in the world of traditional publishing.

I’m not a novice to this process. I worked in book distribution for nine years, first with H. B. Fenn and Company and then with National Book Service, and back as a teenager and in my twenties, I submitted stories and poetry whenever I could. I still have the rejection slips, and for nostalgia purposes, I’m going to dig out a few to show everyone in a future post.

Breaking into the short story market is tough. Competition is fierce, there’s a lot of It’s who you know, and that’s why I don’t have any grand expectations about it. Magazines and anthologies will reserve a good portion of their story spots for known writers as a way to draw in buyers, and there may be only a few spots for newer writers. That’s the business side of writing, and I get it, so that’s why I’ve already detached myself from the outcomes of this goal. However, the skills I’ll develop out of pursing this goal, regardless of whether or not any of my stories are published, will be invaluable.

That’s enough for now. More to come on The Arrest in Mannequin Row, as well as the next installment in The Xiinisi Pronunciation Guide, which is half written and will be published sometime next week. If you missed the Introduction to this series, click here to read the first installment.

And that’s all for now. Cheers!

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