Story Starts

“No one wants a history lesson, Meredith,” the marketing project manager said about the copy I’d written—destined for a company newsletter we’d been assigned to create. Our readers would be employees, agents, and clients from around the world. I returned to my digital document and revised the copy, deleting the lead paragraph—the “history lesson.” Job done.

But you know, I adore history. I adore reading a historical setup, a slow build, and an immersion in a new/old world. After all, I did my bachelor’s in history. Perhaps, I’m an outlier.

After I left that company, the project manager produced the newsletter, solo. I opened the first post-Meredith issue, and funny enough, several articles started with history lessons. During my time at the company, the project manager served as an extra pair of eyes on my copy. And for any copy she’d produced, I’d served her in the same way. Missing those extra editing eyes, the newsletter suffered.

Most writers learn sooner or later that it’s easier to edit someone else’s work than your own, which makes hewing to your own exactitudes challenging. In fact, most people find it far easier to edit someone else’s work than to create copy.

An editing case in point: at my former workplace, engineers and salespeople would say to me, “I want this [product or project] covered in the next newsletter.”

“Great,” I’d say. “Let’s meet to discuss what you want.”

The person wouldn’t have time to meet with me.

“Okay, then send me the info you want me to work with.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath. Creating material for an article never made their priority lists. In their minds, I guess, a newsletter piece—informative, accurate, and easy to read—appeared by magic.

Actually, such a situation did call for a magic trick. My magic trick: I’d write bogus copy to send to my engineer/salesperson. They’d read with alarm. Inaccuracies! Missing details! Unnecessary details! Within hours, they’d reply with an edited version of my bogus copy attached.

Inaccuracies? Corrected.

Missing details? Included.

Unnecessary details? Strikethroughs.

Funny enough, many times, an engineer would comment my lead: “Let’s start with some background information about how the [product/project] came into being . . . “ Like, a history lesson? Hahaha! Not happening.

I’d copyedit their marked-up copy, and voilà, the finished article, an impressed engineer/salesperson, and a happy project manager.

Many times, after reading their article in the newsletter, the engineer/salesperson praised me. “Your understanding of this [product/project] is remarkable!” No, but I understand how much people prefer editing copy over producing it.

I’m also someone with enough reading and writing experience to shy away from absolutes such as “No one wants a history lesson.”

With creative writing, absolutes abound: “Show don’t tell,” “Start in medias res,” “Cut the adjectives,” “Always use the active voice,” and their like. I can recall creative-writing professors warning me away from writing stories in the first person. A story in second person? Impossible! Nowadays, first-person stories are more abundant in lit mags than third-person stories, and for a long period, second-person stories trended, hot.

A recent story of mine—which doesn’t start with a history lesson. Read it at Subnivean.

Several years back, I read Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, in which she recounted the number of times she’d give advice to young writers only to immediately read counterexamples in a Chekov story. A brilliant writer always proves exactitudes wrong. Has someone told you recently to cut your adjectives? Send them back to read The Great Gatsby.

My advice is to be elastic. Be open-minded. Write the story that begins with a history lesson—if it fits. But do change-up your methods! And if possible, have someone edit your work or at least give it a critical read. They’ll see your blind spots.


Extreme grief visits my family right now. The loss of a brilliant and loving daughter and sister leaves my brother, his wife, and son reeling. The loss of a kind and inspiring granddaughter and niece leaves a grandmother, grandfather, step-grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins dizzy with heartsick. The loss of a loving and fierce, brave and generous friend and colleague creates endless pain.

Rest in Peace, darling Amy Elizabeth Wadley. You leave behind echoes of laughter and memories of warm hugs. Your wise, supportive words and loving gestures continue to comfort. Each of us privileged to know, meet, work with or be tended by you is left with a broken heart. Too many hearts aching. The love you shared and that shown through you will shine on.

Amy, what you wanna do? I think, I could stay with you for awhile maybe longer if I do . . . (from Pure Prairie League, Amie)

Take a Rest

On Saturday, I sat down to write something for this website, but nothing came. I also felt a tendonitis-like pain in my right wrist. The pain was probably due to weeding I’ve been doing in my yard. My husband kindly wrapped my wrist in bandaging, which had an immediate, beneficial effect. I don’t know what led to my blank mind. What a fool’s day.

Ticket to an entertaining evening with the writer Sybil Schreiber who read from Safranhimmel.

In the evening, we went with my youngest daughter and her partner to a reading by the Swiss-German writer Sybil Schreiber. She delivered one of the best readings I’ve ever attended. Witty, charming, and clever, she worked without a moderator, discussing with ease the premise of her latest collection of short stories, Safranhimmel. She read sections from the collection and answered questions about the work and her writing life. Actually, in recognizing how slow a question session can take to get rolling, who awkward an audience can feel about asking her anything, she wrote out several questions on cards which she pinned to the undersides of random seats in the theater. My daughter got one, “Wieso heisst das Buch, Safranhimmel?” – but a woman behind us asked about her choice of title before my daughter had a chance to. Never mind.

We left, happy to have attended the reading and discovered a new voice to follow. Her trick with the question cards delighted us. How clever! Someone in the audience asked if Safranhimmel would be out in English, which got me thinking about trying my hand at translating fiction from German to English. I’m experienced with translating work-related copy. Wouldn’t it be fun to explore applying my creative-writing skills to translating creative copy?

Here, I’ll stop. My wrist demands I take a rest from typing, which is all right. Of course, all sorts of ideas about what to share today came flooding in as soon as I decided not to think about what to write—so here we are. I didn’t intended to muse this month, but I have. And I’m pleased. Creativity thrives on a clear running source of ideas. Although I may experience a few obstacles in the flow of my creativity, I’ve never stayed blocked for long.

A local beaver dam. As long a there’s flow, a few obstacles to writing simply alters the terrain.

The Zinger Still Zinging

We all know the fun of collective nouns. A murder of crows! A parliament of owls! A lying of pardoners!

Kathy Fish, seasoned teacher and writer of brilliant flash fiction, lures us into her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” (which appeared in Jellyfish Review in 2017) with what reads like an innocent vocabulary romp. Some romps are pure fun, some combine fun with a lesson. Kathy Fish’s 135–word romp is a lesson in social commentary.

The story ends with a zinger. Not a twist, which once was the aim of most flash-fiction writers. No, it ends with one of the art form’s best ever zingers. Where Kathy Fish ends her story will send shock waves through your marrow. I don’t exaggerate and I won’t elaborate. Read it.

Read it for its impact. Once you recover, go back and look at the rhythm she creates by using a simple switching of nouns and noun phrases. One precedes the other; switch. Note her use of single-sentence paragraphs. For punch. And how, once she’s lured us into the fun complete, and mesmerized us wither her use of rhythm, she lands the ending. Whomp.

Grass is Grass

Whenever I think of point of view and details, I think of grass.

Grass is grass—right? We may find it more attractive when it thrives in a proper place, like a suburban lawn rather than between slabs of sidewalk. And perhaps more attractive still, when it’s carefully tended to, watered, mowed, and fertilized.

Growing up in a military family, I moved around a lot. From place to place, lawns changed. In Texas, their trimmed blades were scratchy. Lawns resembled green pot-scrubbers. In Arizona, our base-housing lawns looked inviting, but run barefoot across one, and you might hit a thorn as sharp as a dagger. Ow! In North Carolina, our grass struggled to thrive in the clay soil. In Ohio, it grew lush and soft.

But when I was fourteen, Dad hung up his uniform, and we moved to the Oregon countryside. We bought horses, and the world of grasses really transformed. From ornamentation to food. Our horses rushed to lush blades, their teeth cropping them with vigor.

I began to gauge a pasture’s appeal from a horse’s perspective. Mmm, well-watered and fetlock-high grasses. Spring grasses grew rich and inviting—but too much, too fast, could produce an aching belly. And, oh, dear, how heartbreaking; anything nibbled to dust levels or dried to hay or worse, dried to brittle, seedless stalks.

Names grew in fields—meadow fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and sweet timothy. Complexity grew, too. The best pastures offered grazers a mix of grasses and herbs. The suburban gardener might detest clover, yarrow, and dandelions but not the grazing horse.

I could go on and on about pastures—and don’t get me started about horses—but you might be asking what grass has to do with writing. It’s about learning to take a detail and detailing it.

Grass. You can allude to a season in a story by whether the grass is frost-covered, new-growth lush, or sun withered. You can describe its setting—city, suburbs, countryside—and its color and texture. And what about metaphor? What does grass mean from the perspective of suburban child, growing in friendly or unfriendly soils? A picked-over monoculture, chock full of weeds, or a bounty of nutritious and healing herbs?

Take a detail you think you know. View your “grass” from a fresh perspective. Get down on your knees and dig deeper. What’s there? Strawberries? Primroses? An orchid or mushroom? Stinging nettles or poison ivy? You may think you understand your lawns or pastures, but worlds of wildlife live below the blades of grasses and herbs, mammals, insects, spiders. Mosses, fungi, bacteria, microbes, viruses, and more. How can a fresh perspective impact your story? Its setting, conflict, or characters?

Stories of the Mid-Month

This is the tale of sister stories. They share a mother, me, and a father, an Italian idiom that’d been translated into English. Both stories were born in a global pandemic.

If you’ve never come across idioms translated from their native language into your own, go search for some. What seems to make sense (until you think about them) rarely translates well. Several years ago, I found a website of idioms from around the world translated into English and colorfully illustrated. Reading through the list felt like reading flash fiction prompts.

It was.

Several idioms popped like a gun fired at the start of a race, my imagination off the blocks and adrenaline fueled. Each Friday, I’d work with one to create a piece of flash fiction. My intent was to teach myself flash-fiction techniques—strong imagery, tight prose, use of in medias res, alliteration, repetition, metaphor, and similes—and to improve my general writing skills.

In the meantime, the COVID pandemic ravaged Northern Italy, wiping out families, neighborhoods, and even villages. The news reported military vehicles transporting stacks of coffins and neighbors singing from the safety of their balconies. Once the pandemic seemed to be taking a breather, my husband and I drove down to Venice. When I came upon the Italian idiom, “fuori come un balcone” (outside as a balcony), which relates to the English idiom “you’re off your rocker,” I felt prompted to write a piece about the pandemic’s impact on a Venetian neighborhood.

I reworked and submitted “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)” several times before Bandit Fiction accepted it. Happy days!

Two years later, Mediterranean Poetry contacted me, the editor apologizing for reaching out so long after I’d submitted “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)” for consideration. Apparently, my submission had landed and languished in his Spam folder—but he wished to publish it.

At first, I panicked—had I not withdrawn my submission from his publication?

(I had.)

I also checked his submission guidelines. The publication accepted previously published work. So, why not say yes? I responded, mentioning the piece’s publication in Bandit Fiction and that if he was fine with publishing it again (two years, after all, had passed), I’d be happy to see it in Mediterranean Poetry.

But apparently, the Bandit Fiction story wasn’t the story I’d submitted to Mediterranean Poetry (I’d deleted my submission email and had no idea what I’d actually submitted. The editor kindly sent me the copy I’d submitted to him. The two stories read like two sides of a moon. Since I liked both, I gave the editor permission to run the piece he loved.

They’re great examples of what a difference strong edits and a changing approach to repetition can make. Should you wish to compare them, here they are:

Bandit Fiction: “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)

Mediterranean Poetry: “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)

What do you think?

Wrestling with a Rogue Sentence

Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.

Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.

Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.

Identifying the rogue sentence, a “darling” that has to go.

There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.

If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.

I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.

For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.

Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?

I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.

Fly Like Evel Knievel

One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.

I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.

(Source: Davey Cooms, “CW Classics: The Sum of All Evel – First Look”, Cycle World, December 10, 2007. )

I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.

Oh boy, did I fly.

This is the beginning of story: in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?

I will fly.

A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?

(Source: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.

Right. Over. My handlebars.

Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:

What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and  ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .

Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.

Making Plans

Reading lit mags is a great way to spend time in the sun.

Several years ago, the Switzerland-based novelist and translator Michelle Bailat-Jones offered an in-person novel-writing course in Lausanne, on the Lake of Geneva. Participating would have meant a six-hour commute to each session. For six months. I just couldn’t swing it. When she offered a weekend writers getaway, I immediately booked myself a round-trip train ticket and two nights in a quirky hotel close to Lausanne’s main station.

On that retreat, I met a great group of writers and read excerpts from brilliant works-in-progress. Michelle gave tips, support, and resonating feedback. As we packed up to head home, she asked a parting question: “What are your writing plans for the year?” Thunder roiled, but no lightning struck: I didn’t have plan: Why didn’t I have a plan?

My long train ride home gave me time to think. I should have a plan. I already practiced two beneficial writing habits, showing up to my desk every weekday morning at five o’clock and writing flash fiction.

Getting up early gives me two hours of quiet before the house wakes up, before it’s time to get ready for work. Okay, weekends, I sleep in. Until six. (What can I say? I’m a person who’s awake when she wakes up, and I generally stir—as in, Oh, boy! It’s morning!—between four-thirty and five.) I make myself a cup of coffee, and on winter mornings, I build a fire in our Kachelofen, the tiled stove.

At the time of the retreat, I’d only recently turned to writing flash fiction—as a craft exercise. Keeping works lean, purposeful. Cutting flabbiness. I’d keep my short pieces to five hundred words.

My new plan took form. Every day, I’d continue to show up. On Mondays, I’d submit two stories—longform or flash—to publications. Tuesdays, I’d research publications. It’s vital to find a good fit for what I do and how I do it. To seek a shared aesthetic. It’s also vital to know when publications accept submissions. Some have specific reading periods, which I now plug into my calendar along with word-count limits and site links. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’d write and/or edit. And Fridays I’d dedicate to flash fiction.

My list of publications has been growing because I joined that retreat. So, thanks, Michelle, I’m indebted to you! My plans are growing, too. They now include showing up on social media and keeping this website current. And as for my musing here, I’ve got a switch in mind.

Starting next year, I plan to focus on writing, processes, and techniques. What do you think? Care to join me? Do you have a topic you’d like see discussed—or one of my publications? Let me know. I’ve also got an idea for a mid-month bonus. But I’ll leave that for you to unpack in January.

Thank you for your visit. For joining my Meredith Writes journey. I wish you a joyful holiday season and an easy and safe slide into 2023. May your plans take root and yield great pleasures. And treasures.