10th Anniversary: Set alight by the short story

This essay was originally published on May 14, 2012. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

This is what I wanted to do with my own stories: line up the right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation so that the reader got pulled in and involved in the story and wouldn’t be able to turn away his eyes from the text unless the house caught fire.

Raymond Carver, author’s 1991 forward to Where I’m Calling From

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver in 1984 (Photo: Bob Adelman)

I’m not always comfortable writing about writing. For me, it’s sort of like talking about what I want to write instead of actually doing it. However, since May is National Short Story Month, I decided (at the urging of a friend) to jot down a few words about fiction in general and the short story in particular.

There’s talk about short stories being out of favor, short story collections being hard to sell and so on. I’m not too worried about that. The market is both fickle and cyclical. I believe that short fiction will make a comeback any day now. Even if it doesn’t capture the public’s attention the way it once did, the form is significant and merits reading and writing and perpetuating through literary journals.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 13: Doubt. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/13-winter-2013/

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Little Patuxent Review Reading at The Writer’s Center

WCSqPlease join contributors, editors, and staff of the Little Patuxent Review (LPR) for a reading at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland on Sunday, August 21st from 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM. Readers will include Steven Leyva, Emily Rich, Lisa Lynn Biggar, Jen Grow, Joseph Ross, and Desirée Magney. The reading will be followed by a reception to celebrate LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Steven Leyva is editor of Little Patuxent Review. He is the co-creator of the poetry reading series, Kick Assonance, which was named a “critic’s pick” by Time Out New York in 2011. His poems have appeared in Welter, The Light Ekphrastic, and The Cobalt Review, and his first collection, Low Parish, was published earlier this year. His poem “Rare in the East” won the 2012 Cobalt Review Poetry Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Baltimore, where he teaches in the undergraduate writing program.

Emily Rich is the current deputy editor and former non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review and an Editorial Advisor at Delmarva Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of small presses including Little Patuxent Review, r.kv.r.y, Delmarva Review and the Pinch. Her essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. Her story “Black Market Pall Malls” won the Biostories 2015 War and Peace essay contest.

Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, was the winner of the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She’s received a Rubys Award for the project “My Father’s House” from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance; two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council; and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore. You can reach her on Twitter @Jen_Grow or through her website: www.jengrow.com.

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry, Ache (forthcoming 2017), Gospel of Dust (2013), and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including Collective Brightness, Poetic Voices without Borders 1 and 2, Full Moon on K Street, and Come Together: Imagine Peace. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington DC. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem “If Mamie Till was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review poetry prize.

Desirée Magney is a former practicing attorney who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry.  Her nonfiction work has been published in bioStoriesBethesda Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine (Washington Voices column), and The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story. Another nonfiction piece will be published in the upcoming issue of The Delmarva Review. Her poetry has appeared in Jellyfish Whispers and was included in the anthology, Storm Cycle 2015:  The Best of Kind of a Hurricane Press. She was honored with a “Best in Workshop” reading at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is a Board member for Little Patuxent Review, contributes to their blog, and has been one of their fiction readers. She has two adult children, Daniel and Nicole, and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband, John, and their dog, Tucker.

Lisa Lynn Biggar is pleased to be the new fiction editor for LPR. She received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is currently working on a short story collection set on the eastern shore of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Little Patuxent Review, Main Street Rag, Bluestem Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Kentucky Review and Newfound. She currently teaches English at Chesapeake College and co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and four cats.

The Writer’s Center is located at:

4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815

 

The Lightning Bug versus the Lightning: Thoughts on Word Choice

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Please meet author Matt Tompkins, whose story “The World on Fire” appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. The ebook version of Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) goes on sale today. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate). And now, Matt Tompkins:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 1888

I think the sentiment is as applicable to our daily communications as it is to literature: word choice matters; precision and specificity of meaning are important (if frequently overlooked). In a text-heavy culture, words are often all we have to connect with one another. But it also begs the question: how do we select the right word, rather than the almost-right? I don’t claim to succeed every time, but there are some things I keep in mind, while writing and revising, to increase my odds. Here’s a sampling:

Deny the existence of synonyms

No two words are the same. No two words are interchangeable. Whether the difference is one of denotation, or connotation, or simply one of syllables or sounds, no two words are equal. This point is fundamental in recognizing the importance of mindful word choice.

Determine your prime directive

In attempting to choose the right word, I find it especially helpful to consider my primary goal–the one thing I most hope to accomplish with a piece of writing. Ask yourself: Do you intend, above all, to create sweet music for your readers’ ears? Do you want to evoke the richest possible multisensory landscape? Are you trying to compose a picture of your narrator by an accumulation of consistent (or inconsistent, or idiosyncratic, or regional) diction and dialect? Do you want to tell your story in the fewest (and perhaps shortest) words possible, or do you want to pack as much detail as possible into each passage? Chances are, you’re trying to do more than one thing. But being clear about your primary purpose can be especially helpful in breaking ties–in choosing between two otherwise seemingly equivalent words.

Assonance, consonance, and alliteration

Consider this sentence:

The reluctant child shuffled her feet.

This example displays assonance in the short “u” sounds of “reluctant” and “shuffle.” But to what end? These guttural u’s might be better used in a sentence like this: “The glutton gulped down the mussels with gusto.” You can hear (and feel, if you read aloud) the repeated, fulsome dropping of the throat muscles. While this example may be overdone, I think it illustrates the point.

How about this instead:

The shy child shuffled her feet.

With “shy” and “shuffle” working in tandem, alliteration draws the reader’s attention to the soft gliding of the “sh-” sound, and to the onomatopoeic effect that’s heightened in the sound’s redoubling.

Onomatopoeia and “mouth-feel”

You might have guessed from the examples above: I like onomatopoeia. It makes my heart thump and my toes tingle. I can’t get over how it manages to transcend the adage “show, don’t tell” by simultaneously doing both–by performing its own linguistic content. A good, albeit common, example is “whisper.” There are other choices that get at the same effect: “susurrate” or simply “speak softly.” But I’d argue you’re working at cross purposes if, in describing murmurs, you choose instead to use the sharp angles and hard consonants of “talking quietly.”

Another, related quality is something I like to call “mouth-feel.” It’s a term borrowed from the culinary world, but I think it serves nicely as a writing concept. For an illustration, imagine you’re describing a piece of a broken plate. You could call it a “fragment,” which, to my mind, places emphasis on angularity (I chalk the effect up to the strongly opposed stresses on the two syllables). You could use “shard,” which foregrounds sharpness (in the same way that Schick is an evocative name for a razor). Of course, you could use “portion” or “piece.” Either of those would be accurate, but I personally find them ill-suited, as they feel significantly softer. Consider the qualities you wish to highlight, and choose a word that fits–a word that feels right.

Scansion, syllables, and stresses

I wouldn’t advocate for using formal meter extensively, or rigidly, in prose. But I do find it useful, when applied sparingly, in matching the cadence of a sentence to the activity it describes. Consider an example:

The little dog cavorted down the hill.

This is good old iambic pentameter. It’s bouncy: you can feel yourself rollicking along. If you chose instead, “The small dog frolicked down the hillside,” the basic meaning of the words would be retained but the effect would be lost. Here’s another:

The old woman tip-toed along the care-worn garden path.

In this sentence, the stresses are irregular and frequently opposed, which gives the line a mincing, hesitant feel–almost forcing the reader herself to tiptoe through it. Again, choosing words with different stresses or syllable counts would alter the effect, if not the basic meaning.

Considering diction

Perhaps most important of all, context is key. I find it helpful to consider not just who is speaking, but to whom, and when, and for what purpose. Some questions I ask myself:

      • Does the occasion call for a flashier word (like “syncopation”) or something more understated (like “rhythm”)?
      • Is the speaker steeped in, or an authority on, a certain subject? Maybe there’s reason to use medical terminology or industry jargon.

What is the time period? If it’s not contemporary, it’s probably wise to avoid slang and modern vernacular. I realize this advice, to be mindful of time period and modes of speech, may seem to some too obvious to mention, but I’m mentioning it anyway so as not to be held responsible when someone, somewhere, writes a piece of historical fiction that contains a line of dialogue such as “Verily, bro, I shall join you anon.” Or, “Prithee, what is, like, her problem?”

If you know who’s speaking and why, you can be more intentional about how that person speaks, and more successful in capturing and conveying nuances of character.

And finally

I’ll close with a disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive, or authoritative. These are simply some things I think about while writing. I’d be glad to hear, by way of the comments section below, what factors others consider when trying to choose the right word–when attempting to bottle lightning, rather than just catching bugs.

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Online Editor’s Note: You can read Matt Tompkins’ in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. In addition to Souvenirs and Other Stories, he authored Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press, 2016). Matt’s stories have also appeared in New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. 

LPR’s fiction editor, Jen Grow says “In Souvenirs and Other Stories, Matt Tompkins creates a compelling universe that normalizes the bizarre . . . Souvenirs is thoroughly entertaining, a smart and funny collection from a wildly imaginative writer.”

You can follow Matt Tompkins on Tumbler: http://needsrevision.com/.

Unveiling summer: LPR’s 20th edition

Summer 2016 cover

Summer 2016 cover. Photography by Lynn Silverman.

Raise the banners, strike up the up the band, call down the (purple) rain, rejoice and be glad, because in this issue Little Patuxent Review celebrates ten years of publishing literature and art. What a milestone for a labor of love, born from the attentive care of Mike Clark and Tim Singleton along with a host of others committed to supporting literary and visual arts in Maryland. While many journals have chosen to move to a solely online presence, LPR’s perseverance in publishing a high-quality, knock-your-socks-off, run-and-tell-your-mama print journal speaks to the ethos that runs deep in the consciousness of the editors, staff, board, and volunteers. It’s a part of our “Inscape,” to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins and something I recognized years ago when I was grad student looking for literary journals that might publish my poems. LPR had a good reputation, albeit a quiet one, and no one could deny that the physical, printed journal lived as an art object in the world. Little may be a part of the name, but there is nothing small about what this journal accomplishes twice a year.

I am humbled to be the editor during this tenth anniversary, and I am equally humbled by the stories, essays, and poems that have found a home in the following pages. Perhaps with a bit of unintended irony, since LPR is named after a river, readers will find that many of the pieces circle around the presence of water, not unlike the way Maryland envelopes its portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Origins have a way of insisting, it seems. Many of the pieces here call back to various themed issues LPR has published in the past. There are stories of doubt and audacity, poems that evoke social justice and childhood. Nature has its way even on the tongues of a “Roustabout.” And above all there is fine, fine music in the language and lines. Lynn Silverman’s art work is such a fine capstone to that fine music, with its hints at transcendence.

I want to personally thank Laura Shovan, Jen Grow, Michael Salcman, Deb Dulin, Lynn Weber, Debby Kevin, Evan Lesavoy, and Emily Rich who have all been a part of the editorial staff. If I were Lorca, I’d say they have so much duende. If I was Stevie Wonder, I’d say they create in the Key of Life. They make LPR shine. I would also like to thank the board members, new and old, who have never let go of that initial vision of lifting up the arts. They have been a lighthouse on the edge of troubled sea. I am beyond grateful. Lastly all thanks to the contributors, readers, and community who have trusted me with their work, time, and attention. Let’s celebrate turning what Billy Collins calls the first big number. Here’s to ten glorious years and a hundred more if the fates be kind.

~Steven Leyva, Editor