In February I asked my father, a very smart, retired English professor, if he would help me study literature so I may become a better writer. He may have been thinking of my writing a story like "Pride and Prejudice," while I was thinking more like, "Bridget Jones." He started me out on short stories. I came up short (no pun intended) on every question in the first story I read. He explained to me the art of writing short stories. The secret is in using few words, but words that describe without telling. There is more beyond the surface. I was just reading the stories, I wasn't knowing them intimately the way the author intended. Everything has a reason for existing in a short story. Every word is the glue holding it together. Which brings us to last Wednesday.
I was out on the Writer's Digest website looking for a poetry contest for my sister Kathryn to enter. (I am not a poet. I'll write a poem and post it one day and you will understand why that is not my calling.) I found a short story contest in which the deadline was this past Saturday. I thought that trying my hand at a short story in three days time, would be a challenge and a quick way to accomplish a goal. The prompt was "Boat Trip Murder: Seven people board a small boat for a tour of the islands, but when the boat returns to the dock, only six people remain on board."
I've never written about a murder before and wasn't sure how I would do it. Then a great idea hit me! I decided first to write it from the boat's perspective. I spent two days working my regular job and writing little notes, ideas that I would use in my masterpiece. I spent seven hours on Saturday writing and editing it. The story had to be 750 words or less and I wrote 921. Kathryn and I spent about an hour whittling it down to 747. Then I sent it to my father on the e-mail for his editing expertise.
He called me and said he had made changes. Not only had he seriously helped my punctuation (by the way, I am not very good at punctuation, so please forgive any errors you come across on this blog), but he said he changed some words and sentences. I thought it would be okay; I trusted him. But when I saw what he did, I balked. He, thankfully, changed some words I didn't use in the right context (by the way, I am not very good at finding the word I am looking for, so if I happen to use a word that does not define what I meant to say, please forgive me), but he also took words out I had carefully and purposely (according to my newfound short story knowledge) placed in the story.
Then...he told me it was a stupid story and no one would believe it. I just laughed and said, "I thought it was very creative. I bet no one else writes it from the boat's perspective." He said, "You're right about that!" and went on to tell me twice more that it was a stupid story. I was not insulted. He's my dad. I love him. I know him. I also know he might have been looking for Agatha Christie, not Dave Berry. I enjoyed my story so I felt no shame in submitting it for the contest.
Since then, I have received several rave reviews. "Clever." "Creative." "Original." My adoring fans want more.
Critics provide a challenge to your self esteem and to your craft. When they are your father, well, you can rest in the knowledge that he will love you no matter what.