One of the most surprising things to me about aspiring short story writers is how few of them actually read short stories on a regular basis. Outside of a subscription to the New Yorker, it’s not uncommon for people in my workshops and classes to admit that they don’t really read a lot of lit mags, story collections or even the annual anthologies like the O’Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes and Best American Short Stories.
I love anthology season, and I just finished the latest edition of the O’Henry Awards. As usual, there were a few that weren’t for me and many more I absolutely loved. Lionel Shriver’s “Kilifi Creek” made my jaw drop. But I was a little surprised by how many endings left me hanging. Some confused me to the point that I thought the copy I bought had an error in cutting off the final pages of stories (perhaps the Sycamore Review made me sensitive to that sort of thing…).
I’ve found this to be a common complaint about modern short fiction: the stories just end with no resolution, or I have to really go digging to explain the reasons behind how a story wraps up. Students of my writing classes will attest to how much stress I put on narrative arc, identifying climaxes, inciting incidents, focusing on causality and connectivity between the beats in a short story’s plot. When I manage to get personalized rejections on my own submissions, the most common feedback I get from the editors is that the ending just wasn’t right. Believe me, I take that to heart.
I’ve been focusing on endings a lot lately. I just changed one for a story that I’ve been tinkering with for a couple of years now. It’s a story I love, but it’s one of those that readers say “feels like the first chapter in a novel.” That’s a sure sign that the end failed.
Another story I’m working on has an ending I love, but I haven’t earned it yet. Sometimes, that means the end of the story isn’t wrong, but the path I’ve taken to get there is. I sometimes equate it to finding a route. If you know where you’re going to finish up, it’s easy to chart the course. If the ending turns out to be the place where you eventually wind up, then perhaps the way you got there is full of wrong turns, detours and side trips. Time to straighten out the directions.
So I’ll make you a promise: When one of my stories finally appears in BASS or O’Henry or the Pushcart Prizes, it’ll have an ending that feels like a real ending.
Speaking of endings, my friend Angela Taylor Hylland is coming to the end of her journey as she gets ready to release her children’s book “The Denim Jungle.” She wrote a blog post today on the mixed feelings she has about setting her book free at her My Castle Heart website that’s worth a look. I never considered the idea that one might feel anything but relief at finishing a book, but there’s something to ponder about putting your heart and soul into something for so many years, then letting it go out and take on a life of its own out of your control.