Being a writer is like being a student. I am constantly learning, sometimes, even when I don’t mean to. I decided a long time ago that in order to be good at something, you need to study the best. The best writer is a subjective thing. Your favorite writer may not be my favorite writer and that’s okay. Because being different is more interesting than being the same, isn’t it? Another aspect of writing, of course, is reading. In order to improve I would read books, stories, whatever, with the conscious intent of looking at it and thinking, does this story work? What devices were used to create this world? What did I think was poorly done? What did I think was exceptionally done. I have notes on all this scattered everywhere: notes on my phone, notes in a notebook, notes on a scrap of paper. I’m sure you get it. I took notes. This blog is going to be about stories that I couldn’t really find a significant fault with (not every story is perfect but I’m also not the one to judge it based on another subjective metric: like what I think perfect is). I’m going to write about these stories. I’m going to write about why I think they are awesome and the lessons I learned from these exceptional and wonderful writers. This helps me categorize what tools were utilized and to measure the effectiveness of said tools. If you’re a writer, you may find this helpful. If you’re a reader, you too may find this helpful. And I also hope to learn from you. There might be something in this story that you loved, that you found effective and that I might have missed. So let’s get to it!
SPOILER ALERT– If you haven’t read this story, I encourage you to do so before reading this.
POP ART by Joe Hill
This is a short story from Twentieth Century Ghosts, a short story collection. Joe Hill has earned two Bram Stoker Awards (a big deal) for his work. After I read this story, I have read everything he has written since. He also happens to be the son of Stephen King. It would appear that hard work and talent can be genetic.
“My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.”
That is the first line. How excellent is that? In this one nine-word sentence you learn the narrator is no longer twelve, that the inflatable friend is no longer his best friend and that this tale is presented in the first person (although more restrictive in other areas than the third person, this perspective allows more connection to the narrator through their personal emotion). I was hooked. I was not skipping this short story. Not after that opening.
The narrator was a lonely boy (you never learn the narrator’s name). He had a dad who suffered from migraines and ignored him. His mother, who suffered from mental health issues, left the family when he was three years old. He had no one. His bitterness leads him to cultivate a bad-ass image. He walked and talked tough. He carried a switchblade and let the other kids at school know it. He didn’t like other people. They had continually proven unreliable and cruel. The shell he constructed was for self-protection. And then Arthur Roth showed up at his school.
Meet Arthur Roth. A Jewish inflatable boy who cannot talk because he has no mouth. He communicates by writing on a pad that is tied with twine around his neck. He writes on this pad with crayon. He doesn’t carry a pencil. A pencil is sharp and life-threatening to Art. On his first day of school, he was paraded in front of the class. The teacher made it clear to the children that sharp objects, such as scissors, were not allowed around Art. The teacher gave a reassuring squeeze of Art’s shoulder before sending him to his chair. His vinyl skin squeaked. He float-stepped to his chair. And some of the kids in the class saw a new target.
Note: These small details, cumulatively, they are so good. They make Arthur more real. They stall your potential criticism concerning the reality of an inflatable boy. Little details, big impact.
These bullies went after Art real quick. They chased him around the playground with a bat. They wanted to see how far they could launch him into the air. The narrator was busy ignoring this until Art was hit towards him and got stuck against some bars. He wrote on his pad to the narrator, asking him to leave because he didn’t want witnesses to his embarrassment. The key point here is that Art didn’t ask for help. He wanted to preserve the illusion of his integrity. So of course, the narrator intervened. They became friends. The narrator had someone to talk to and Art had someone to protect him. A mutually beneficial arrangement, like most friendships, are. From this moment, we learn that the narrator kept all of the notes Art ever wrote to him. Even then, from that first note passed to him, he knew Art was special. Even then he knew Art would come to an end sooner rather than later and wanted something to remember him by.
Note: I love this building up of the relationship. It allows the reader to learn why the narrator cared for Art even though he didn’t care for much else. There was also foreshadowing, hinting about a sad end. How could I stop reading this? Impossible.
The author continued to build this relationship. The narrator and Art became closer and closer. There was always a tinge of sadness to the writing, as though the narrator was reliving the pain this relationship caused him. At the same time, it was easy to gauge how much Art meant to him. The narrator described Art as “all heart” and that all he ever wanted was to “be liked by someone.” To the narrator, Art was this pure soul and this only exemplified his bad opinion of other people, the bullies in his life. He wrote about Art, “That kind of person, they’re never around long. Losers and jerks put nails in them and watch the air run out.” What a fantastic, poetic line. He likened Art to Jesus there and you also got a sense of the self-disgust, as though the narrator thought even he wasn’t good enough to be Art’s friend. Art was a beautiful inflatable being that other, dirty people couldn’t tolerate because his purity reminded them of how ugly, petty and cruel they could be. This is such good writing and one day, I hope I write a line as good as that.
This story ends on a sad note. This was foreshadowed throughout and even then you knew it was coming, it was still powerful. But Art’s end was not the end of it. This was a nice surprise and I found myself smiling when I finally did close the book. I love this story. I still think about it. I tell other readers I know to read it. My wife, who is not a big reader of the fantastic, after me pestering her, read this story and she enjoyed it (I asked her about this story again as I was trying to get one of my daughters to read it and my wife said she didn’t remember it. Broke my heart a bit, to be honest). But I remember her reaction and I remember her liking it. Now, if you can get a reader who doesn’t generally like the topic you’re writing about to enjoy your tale, you’ve done something exceptional and should pat yourself on the back, put your feet up, and enjoy whatever beverage you choose to enjoy.
On a side note, my preferred weekend beverage is mico-brewed beer. If any of you know of a beer I should try, please, please let me know.
WHAT I LEARNED:
- Small details have a big impact. Utilize them strategically to build on characters (Art’s vulnerability), storyline and themes.
- Every snippet or snapshot of remembrance was only as long as it needed to be. Poignant points were told with economy. The author wrote short sentences and used commas sparingly. This is a style I’ve seen used by countless other great authors, Hemingway was one of them.
- In fiction, there is nothing that is too incredible or too “out there.” Write whatever the hell you want but be very cognizant of how you present it. Presentation is what matters. How it is written determines the reader’s immersion in the story and their suspension of disbelief.
Have you read this? What did you think? What did you learn?
I can’t wait to hear from you. Have a great week. Be kind to everyone.