California bookstores exempt from autograph authentication law

California state lawmakers have exempted bookstores from a requirement that “sellers of items that carry their creator’s autograph include a certificate guaranteeing that the signature is authentic,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. AB228 passed both houses without a dissenting vote and has been signed by Governor Jerry Brown. The law takes effect immediately.

By way of background: A law passed in 1992 required dealers in autographed sports memorabilia to authenticate the signatures or face financial penalties. With backing from consumer advocates, film studios and police chiefs, who said there was widespread evidence of forged signatures in the memorabilia market, legislators expanded the requirement, as of this year, to all sellers except pawnbrokers and online merchants.

YA Wednesday: M.T. Anderson’s Post-Apocalyptic Favorites

LandscapeInvisible_200M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand is one of the most insightful, funny, and disarming YA novels I’ve read this year.  Set in a near-future dystopian world, seemingly kind aliens–the vuvv–arrive on earth and, for the good of the people, deliver technological advances that rapidly eliminate the need for human workers.  Except, of course, where they can service the vuvv. 

Adam is a young artist who’s family has been severely impacted by the loss of a viable economy and out of desperation he signs on to provide entertainment for the vuvv.  As you might guess, things go horribly, and humorously, wrong. 

This slim volume is plump with both social satire and the indelible nature of hope even where it seems absurd to have any.  If you need something to read on an upcoming plane trip or just want a book to curl up with for an afternoon, Landscape with Invisible Hand is an excellent choice.

As Anderson’s return to speculative fiction in this book, we asked him what science fiction novels are favorites or have influenced him as a writer.  Below he talks about his top five post-Apocalyptic novels…


Usually, we’re blind to how we live our lives. As we grow into adulthood, we forget how strange our own culture is and how its assumptions are taken for granted. Except for the visionary few, most of us gradually stop asking what could be different. That’s what’s so exciting about science fiction: It can show us possibility again. In my own speculative fiction novels (Feed and now Landscape with Invisible Hand), I was really trying to depict our life now on Earth much more than any vision of the future.

A lot of the science fiction that appeals to me and that has influenced me – post-Apocalyptic and otherwise – is a vehicle for the author to explore human situations by transforming them into something strange, dazzling, and alien. Think, for example, about how Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness led the way in challenging concepts of cisgender stability, or how Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, overtly a grim space opera about the Jesuits trying to convert a race of intelligent sloths, is really much more about the difficulties in cultural understanding, and the role of a putative god in incomprehensible ethical situations.

So here are some of my favorite post-Apocalyptic novels that show us in a mirror, however distorted, the world we already live in. 

MartianChron200The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. The striking images in Bradbury’s novel in vignettes – the shattered, crystalline cities and delicate, masked people of Mars, flitting over the dry canals in their insectoid transports – cannot conceal the fact that the book is not so much about an alien landscape as it is about our own. It is, among other things, a parable about the European invasion of North America, and the production of America as an idea. It is deeply sad and retains its strange power even now, in the 21st century. Stereotypical images of Norman Rockwell Americana – picket fences, village band-stands, white clapboards, and old folks on porches – flicker hauntingly across scenes of alien tech, psionic violence, and the sterile wastelands of worlds gone bad.

Genocides200The Genocides, Thomas Disch. This bleak, forgotten sci-fi masterpiece – now available again – has a simple premise: What if the Earth was cultivated by a race of aliens for a monocultural crop, a factory farm, reducing us to the status of field-mice quivering between the cornrows? A single species of giant plants has sprung up all over the world, blocking out all other growth, sucking up nutrients, and destroying human civilization. As horrific as this rank growth is, the period of alien threshing and reaping is even worse. A few Midwestern survivors have turned to barbarism to stay alive. The aliens remain faceless and remote; the horror here is the humans themselves.

WatermelonSugar200In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan. Gonzo sixties experimentalist Richard Brautigan turned the post-apocalyptic genre into something hallucinogenic in this slim, sly novella. A gentle commune called iDEATH (conceived of long before the iPhone – make of that what you will) flourishes by a riverbank after some undescribed disaster. Life is quiet, with the exception of the occasional visitation of genial but homicidal talking tigers, until a moonshine-cooking rebel heads into the Forgotten Works to bring forth tech that will threaten the peace of the whole community.

EngineSummer200Engine Summer, John Crowley. Another rich, luminous vision of an America forever changed and unintelligible is John Crowley’s Engine Summer. Sure, there’s adventure – a quest across a green, forested, post-Apocalyptic landscape – but the real pleasure here is Crowley’s deft creation of different local societies and cultures, each with its own fascinating rituals and traits. An earthling from this quiet, dying world is narrating his story to a visitor. And the more we understand about the circumstances of that visit, the sadder the story becomes.

ThreeBody200The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin. This novel, the first of a trilogy, focuses not so much on human personalities but on mind-bending and quirky scientific concepts taken to their farthest logical conclusion. Just as many of the books above, though overtly about the future, are actually an investigation of the American past, The Three-Body Problem combines its techno-geekism with fascinating echoes of China’s Cultural Revolution. In the present, a nanomaterials expert starts to see an impossible and inexplicable count-down floating in his field of vision. In the past, we hear the story of Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist from a family torn apart by student uprisings, who finds refuge in a secret Communist government project dedicated to contacting alien life-forms – and who takes the future of the Earth into her own hands. One of the real pleasures of this book is the dazzling unfolding of bizarre scientific speculation. These ideas may look goofy in fifty years, when we know more about nanotechnology, but for the moment, this novel will turn your brain inside out – and gives as much insight into the nature of totalitarianism as it does the solution of the three-body problem in physics.

CanticleLeibowitz200A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller. Just as Kurt Vonnegut could only write of his harrowing experiences during the fire-bombing of Dresden in the form of a science fiction novel (Slaughterhouse Five), author Walter Miller refracted his own WWII trauma through the writing of one of the first and most famous post-nuclear fantasies, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller, a Catholic, was involved in the Allied bombing of one of Catholicism’s most sacred sites, the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict a millennium and a half earlier. In response, some twenty years later, Miller wrote this powerful sequence of three novellas in which an order of gormless, curious monks in a blasted, post-atomic wasteland struggle to understand the writings of their great patron saint, a martyred engineer named Isaac Leibowitz. They are, the reader can discern, illuminating with vines and gold leaf what are, in fact, the schematic diagrams for the bomb that destroyed civilization. Unaware, they lead mankind back toward knowledge and self-destruction.

When I first read this novel as a kid, the idea that some huge disaster (in this case, nuclear Armageddon) would be followed by angry anti-scientific mobs destroying all vestiges of technocratic society seemed far-fetched. Now I’m not so sure.

M.T. Anderson

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The Weirdest Mom in the Neighborhood

Paul La Farge recommends Matthew Lansburgh’s story about the happiest unhappy family

vintage: mom with her cat, 1968

Issue №283

Jump to story


It’s been nearly a century and a half since Tolstoy dismissed happy families from the field of literary curiosity, and although I’m reluctant to argue with Tolstoy about anything, I can’t help thinking that stories about unhappy families are now so abundant that they too are becoming hard to tell apart from one another. Who had a happy family, anyway? Who has even met a happy family? Every family’s closets are packed with skeletons; you’ll find the overflow in the spare bedroom, the living room, the basement — don’t look in the basement.

Lansburgh complicates the creaky old opposition between happy families and unhappy ones.

It takes a rare talent to make a story about difficult parents and troubled children stand out against such a backdrop, and I am happy to report that Matthew Lansburgh has that talent in abundance. His collection of linked short stories, Outside Is the Ocean, revolves around one of fiction’s great bad mothers, Heike, a German-American who survived the Second World War only to inflict what seems, at times, to be nearly equivalent terrors on her son and adopted daughter. Self-centered, vain, erratic, and yet passionately convinced of her own righteousness, Heike is the permanent center of her own terrible party, the victim of so many monstrous everyday injustices that she’d be beatified if only anyone knew, or cared.

Heike could be a monster, but Lansburgh — even as his stories draw energy from her wild terribleness — is wise enough to render her as a person. As we see in the following story, “Gunpoint,” he accomplishes this in part by remaining aware, at every turn, that people define each other as much or more than they define themselves. If Heike is terrible to her son, the book’s other protagonist, it’s because he gets some mileage out of his own grievances; if the son betrays Heike constantly, it’s because she sees everything as betrayal. Another reason why the stories succeed in moving — and indeed captivating — the reader is that Lansburgh keeps his emotional palette big. There’s plenty of anger in Outside Is the Ocean, and plenty of thwarted searching for a connection which is perhaps impossible to achieve. But there’s joy also, and humor, intimacy, and relief.

You might find, as I did after finishing the collection, that Lansburgh does much more than write about a monstrous parent in a new way. His great achievement is that he complicates the creaky old opposition between happy families and unhappy ones. Lansburgh shows how much room there is, even in bad circumstances, not only for survival, but for tolerance and even for love.

Paul La Farge
Author of The Night Ocean

You are the Stepson


by Matthew Lansburgh

The summer before I started seventh grade, not long after Patty Hearst was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, my mother married a man who owned a ranch house with a yard full of lemon trees. As far as she was concerned, she’d hit the jackpot. Gerry didn’t drink, he had a job, and, whenever we went out to eat, he always picked up the check. After dating a string of losers, after moving from apartment to apartment at least once a year for nearly a decade, my mother told me — three weeks into her new relationship — that, no matter what, we could not spit on the luck God had given to us. “This chance is once in a lifetime,” she said.

Get the story on your Kindle.

My mother met Gerry on a ski trip organized by Amway. She put the vacation on her credit card and arranged for me to stay with a family that lived down the street. “Bingo,” she announced on the phone, four days after she left. “I met someone perfect. He’s a little tight-lipped and has a tummy, but he’s an accountant, and he owns a condo in Mammoth.” A few months later they got engaged and we moved from Ventana Beach down to L.A.

In retrospect I realize that Gerry had no idea what he was getting himself into. He liked routine, he hated conflict, and he wasn’t used to dealing with difficult people. My mother, who immigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of twenty to work as a maid, has always been the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. Within a week of our move, she’d butted heads with Gerry’s neighbor Sandi Sarconi by borrowing her rake without asking permission. My mother happened to be using the rake just as Sandi drove down the street in her red BMW. The incident probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if my mother had simply apologized, but she tried to justify herself, explaining that Gerry’s rake was too rusty to work properly, then using the discussion as a way to horn in on Sandi’s weekly doubles game with Carol Wallace, a woman who lived up the block, and two other women my mother had been wanting to meet.

It promptly became clear to everyone involved that Sandi and Carol did not like my mother’s style — didn’t like the fact that my mother cut her own hair instead of going to a salon; that she brought wiener schnitzel, rather than lasagna, to Carol’s annual potluck; that she let Gerry’s dog, Goldie, defecate in people’s front yards. In September, Carol called just as we’d sat down to dinner.

“Why hello there,” Gerry said when he picked up the phone. He was wearing the same thing he put on every night after he got home from the office: worn jeans and a flannel shirt. “Is that so? I see. That’s unfortunate. Yes, of course, I’ll have a talk with her.”

My mother, who’d been telling Gerry a story about how the cashier at Vons had tried to overcharge her for a bag of oranges, was wiping up the gravy on her plate with her finger. She had a worried look on her face, a guilty look. I’d seen the expression plenty of times.

“Carol says Patti Schneider saw you laying out in their backyard with your top off,” Gerry said when he hung up.


“Yes, really. Did you go swimming in her pool, Heike?”

“I went for a quick dip. Is that such a crime? I tried to knock, but no one was home.”

“She says she saw you lay out on the deck and take off your top.”

“That’s ridiculous,” my mother said, getting up from the table and clearing the plates. “I simply pulled down the straps a bit. She’s just jealous of my beautiful figure.”

Gerry took off his glasses and studied them, as if he’d been socked in the face.

“Everyone hates me,” my mother complained to him a few weeks later. “You have your job. Stewart goes to school. I have nothing. I need a good friend.” My mother had made Gerry his favorite meal — meatloaf with spätzle and fried onions — and she had tears on her cheeks. Gerry wasn’t stupid. Even before she made the request, he knew what she had in mind. She wanted him to let Sabine, a woman my mother had met at the German bakery in Hawthorne, move in with us. Sabine was from Munich, and, after being evicted from her apartment because she had too many cats, she’d recently moved to a motel that rented rooms by the week.

“No, Heike,” Gerry said. “There’s not enough room.”

“Don’t be such a stick in the mud. We can put a futon in your office. I saw one for sale at the Goodwill — only fifteen dollars, including delivery.” Gerry stared at my mother, using his fingernails to pluck the stray hairs that grew from the edge of his ears. “Wait till you meet her. She has warm eyes and a kind smile. Your heart will go out to her.”

After dinner, when Gerry still hadn’t given in, my mother became semi-hysterical. “You don’t know what it’s like for me here! Sometimes I almost kill myself. Is that what you want? To come home and find your wife hanging from a rope?” I was in my room studying, but I could hear everything. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard my mother trot out the suicide card.

“Enough!” Gerry shouted. I got up from my desk and looked through the crack between my door and the wall in time to see him storming off to the garage.

“Model airplanes,” my mother yelled, still in tears. “My husband loves model airplanes more than his own wife!”

We drove to Inglewood to visit Sabine on a Saturday morning. My mother had gotten up early, made French toast, and put on the halter top she used to wear when she had to take her car in to get fixed.

“Do I really have to go?” I asked as I watched my mother put her plate on the carpet so Goldie could lick up the Mrs. Butterworth’s. I hated the fact that my mother let the dog eat off our dishes, and I was convinced we’d end up with worms.

“Have to go? It’ll be fun. Gerry takes us to Marie Callender’s for lunch.”

“But I have homework.”

“Ach! Who does homework on Saturday? Come on now. Behave or you won’t get any pie.”

I reminded her that I didn’t like pie and said something about the science fair project I needed to work on, and then, when I knew I was fighting a losing battle, I went to my room to change out of my pajamas. The truth is I hadn’t wanted to stay home to study. I was hoping that Jason McFarland — a kid who’d moved into the house next to the Wallaces in June — might knock on our door. Jason and I weren’t friends exactly, but sometimes he’d stop by to see whether I wanted to go out to the bushes behind our house and look at a stash of dirty magazines he’d stolen from his father. For some reason, Jason had decided that a place at the back of our yard, behind the lemon trees, was the perfect hiding spot for his dad’s porn: three Penthouse magazines full of lurid photos of Amber Williams and Tonya Lee and Felicity Light and other women whose names I’ve forgotten, in poses that for many years I could recall with surprising clarity, including the one of Tonya next to a fire truck with a bare-chested man in suspenders who had hair leading down to his navel and biceps that looked like the gym teacher’s.

The first few times Jason and I snuck out back, usually after school when my mother was running errands, Jason led the way. I watched, the branches of the lemon trees digging into my back, while he unearthed the mildewed treasures and flipped through their pages. Jason was in eighth grade, only a year ahead of me, but already his voice had changed and he boasted an Adam’s apple. I remember leaning close to him, ostensibly to get a better look at the photos — so close that sometimes my arm grazed his shoulder or forearm or some other part of his body. I studied the blond hairs that had begun to sprout from his cheeks and his upper lip. I remember wondering whether he had a boner.

I stayed still, nervous that we might be caught or that Jason might notice me gazing at him. The dirt was damp and soft, and its earthy smell rose up to meet the scent of the lemons. I imagined my mother coming into the garden and calling out to us. “Stewart!” she yelled once, after getting home from a tennis game and not finding me in the house. “Are you here?” I heard her voice carry across the lawn and the hedges, through the thicket of branches, and I froze.

“Don’t be such a fag,” Jason said, while she was still outside in her yellow Fila skirt, shouting my name. “She’s not gonna find us.” His breath was warm and made my ear tingle.

Sabine’s motel was even more rundown than I expected. It was on a busy intersection, and the office windows were covered in bars. The only parking space was next to a group of guys in tank tops sitting on their motorcycles, and before Gerry had gotten out of the car, one of them called my mother baby and made a loud kissing sound.

“How long is this going to take?” I asked.

“That’s enough! Do you want to ruin the only friendship I have?”

I trailed my mother and Gerry — who walked on the edges of his feet, complaining that his arches hurt — across the parking lot, toward a room with a door that looked like someone had tried to pry the knob off. My mother knocked, and a tall woman in a skimpy robe answered. “Heike, Liebchen,” she exclaimed. “You came after all. Careful the cats do not run outside.”

When I reached out to shake Sabine’s hand, she leaned forward and embraced me. “Heike, you didn’t tell me Stewart was so handsome! I bet all the girls are chasing after him right and left. How wonderful to finally meet you, my little Prince Charming.”

“Likewise,” I said, trying to keep some distance between her chest and mine.

Sabine’s room was small and reeked of urine; the curtains were drawn, and the only light came from a small lamp next to the bed. Two litter boxes covered the carpet next to the dresser, and neither looked like it had been emptied in days. At the foot of her nightstand sat a bowl of dried cat food and a dish of water with something bloated floating on the surface.

“My goodness,” said Gerry, gesturing toward the cats. “Are they all yours?” Two of the creatures were up on the dresser, trying to climb into a box of full of papers.

“Yes, these are my babies,” Sabine said. She stroked one on the back and grinned, exposing a set of teeth that were too large for her mouth.

“Aren’t they cute?” asked my mother, as she picked up a white kitten and cradled it like an infant. “Feel how soft.” Gerry put his hand out tentatively to stroke the cat’s fur. “See, mein Schatz. Gerry takes a liking to you.”

“They are my blessing,” said Sabine. “Without my Bübchen, I would not know how to survive. I do not have such a nice family.” Sabine looked at me and then, before I could pull away, she put her hand on my thigh. I felt the skin of her palm, cool and moist as a raw chicken cutlet. “My ex-husband, Rolf, and I tried to have a child for many years. We wanted a son.” Her robe had come open a bit, and I glimpsed a terrifying expanse of white skin.

Gerry told Sabine that she lucked out finding a hotel that allowed pets.

“Ja. They do not mind die Bübchen. My old landlord was quite cruel. He continually nailed papers to my door demanding that I must move out of my house. I was a good renter. I paid him on time. I was clean, but he insisted I leave. I am sure it was because of the cats. Only in America would such a thing happen. Gerry, do you know if this kind of thing is legal to do?”

Gerry started to respond, but my mother interrupted. “Of course it’s illegal. What one does in one’s own home is no one else’s business. How could he have objected to a few kittens? Does he also throw his wife out if she has twins?” My mother and Gerry sat in plastic chairs while I sat on the bed next to Sabine. The air was thick with dander, and my eyes were watering; I felt like I’d been locked in a bunker. I sneezed twice, insisted I was having an allergic reaction, and asked whether I could wait in the car.

“Fine, Mr. Party Pooper. Just don’t get anything out of these vending machines. We eat lunch soon.”

Outside, the Hells Angels were gone, but two teenage boys were now doing wheelies on their bikes. The boys looked like they were in high school, and they didn’t have shirts on. I tried not to stare but found myself glancing furtively at them, partly out of fear that they might ride over and do something to hurt me, partly because any guy who’d already gone through puberty caught my eye. Their nipples were larger than mine, and I could see veins on their arms. I myself was a late bloomer, and the fact that I hadn’t sprouted as much hair under my arms or around my crotch as other kids in the locker room caused me perpetual angst. I stood next to the car wondering whether I should go back to Sabine’s room to ask for the keys. A minute later one of the guys shouted something in Spanish, and they both laughed. I stared at the fender of Gerry’s Oldsmobile, afraid to look up. I tried to wedge my right foot under one of its tires, pushing the front of my shoe into the space between the rubber and the asphalt until my toes hurt. Then I heard what sounded like a pebble hit the windshield. I looked up and saw the bigger of the two kids throw something else in my direction as they sped away, shouting maricón.

My mother kept telling me I should be happy she married Gerry. She said that Gerry had saved us from being homeless, but Gerry wasn’t the kind of father I’d hoped for. He didn’t mess up my hair with the palm of his hand when we were standing in line at McDonald’s or tickle me until my stomach hurt. He didn’t take me Boogie Boarding in the summer. Most of the time, he just wanted to sit in his easy chair and be left alone.

Occasionally I wondered what it would feel like to be kidnapped. I imagined men wearing masks driving up in a van and forcing me inside at gunpoint. I pictured them pinning me to the floor and taping my mouth shut, sending my parents a ransom note like I’d seen on TV. I played out various scenarios in my head: my mother calling my father in Colorado, pleading with him to send money; my father flying in to meet the police, then driving around town with my mother, putting up posters with a photo of me; my parents standing next to each other in a house I’d never seen — a two-story house with a nice living room and a pool in the back — surrounded by men in FBI uniforms, wearing headphones and hovering over tape recorders they turned on each time the kidnappers called.

Over the next several days, as I lay in bed at night trying to fall asleep, I heard my mother and Gerry having more sex than usual. My room shared a wall with the master bedroom, and I often heard, if not their exact conversations, then at least the murmur of their voices, punctuated with my mother’s occasional laughter and yelps. I knew what my mother was up to. She’d also been posting fliers at the grocery store and the laundromat advertising “potty-trained” kittens.

“He’s just worried they won’t get along with Goldie,” she’d confided. “If we find them a family, he’ll come around.” She extolled the cats’ beauty to anyone who would listen: people she met when she was hitting against the wall of the tennis courts at the park; the Sarconis’ gardener, Frank Herrera; anyone else who happened to cross her path. Then one afternoon — I remember it was a Wednesday, the day I had to drag the garbage cans out to the street — my mother came into my room while I was cutting out photos of Mayan ruins for a social studies project. “Guess what?” she said, standing in the doorway in her bikini. “This Saturday we have a little surprise.”

She had some kind of heavy cream all over her face, something she put on whenever she went out to the garden to take a sunbath. I asked her what kind of surprise.

“We have your friend Jason over for dinner,” she said, giving me a sheepish grin.

“Jason? What do you mean?”

“Well, I know how much you like him, and I thought I surprise you by inviting his family over for dinner. I called his mother this morning.”

“Are you insane!

My mother insisted that she was just trying to be a good neighbor, but I knew what she was scheming. The thought of having her try to unload some of Sabine’s cats on Jason’s family, of having them watch my mother prance around in her dirndl, trying to yodel and telling the stories she always ended up telling complete strangers — stories about how, during the war, even a potato was a luxury and how the husbands of the women who hired her when she moved to America tried to have sex with her in the pantry or the gazebo or the garage — made me want to throttle her.

That night, I lay awake listening to the ticking of my clock. I heard my mother and Gerry go to bed, and in the distance I heard the sound of a train, like a foghorn out in the ocean. Periodically, I got up and turned on the light to see what time it was. I had a math test the next day, and I kept going over word problems in my head: questions involving the number of ice bricks necessary to build an igloo of a given size, or the quantity of paint required to cover a specified number of walls.

I thought about how my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Wilson, told me I was only allowed to ask her two questions per day and how she’d started making a clucking sound whenever I raised my hand. I remembered how even Jackie Fleischman, the girl with the leg brace, laughed when I asked Mr. Gutierrez whether something he’d said was going to be on the test. Recently I’d seen Jason hanging out with Sam Espinoza, a kid who carried his skateboard around with him all the time and who sometimes threatened to beat me up if I didn’t give him a quarter. I wondered how long it would be until Jason figured out that everyone at school thought I was weird.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait until Saturday for things to unravel. Two days later, I was walking home from school when I saw a police car in front of the Wallaces’ house. Even from the top of the hill I could see the car’s red and blue lights. School had ended an hour before, but I’d gone to the library to check out some books on Andrew Jackson. As I came down the hill, after it was too late to turn around and retrace my steps, I saw my mother and Sabine on the Wallaces’ lawn, in their bikinis, being questioned by the police. Carol Wallace was standing next to them, gesticulating wildly while, to my horror, Jason and his sister stood on their porch, eating ice cream sandwiches and watching the spectacle unfold.

“Stewart!” my mother shouted. “Call Gerry. These men are trying to arrest us!” My mother’s bikini was emergency orange, and the top was so tight the entire world could see her nipples. It was her favorite bikini, the one she called her orange knockout. Immediately I ran down the street, certain that Jason and his sister were watching me flee.

I arrived home out of breath and stormed through the house. Goldie got up from under the table and lumbered over to me, wagging her arthritic tail. “Out of the way, pig!” I yelled as I grabbed the phone to dial Gerry’s number. On the third ring, his secretary picked up and told me he was in a meeting. “Is there a message?” she asked.

“Can you tell him his wife called? She has a question about dinner.”

When I hung up, I stood in the living room wondering what to do. Goldie was standing by the back door, staring at me. I looked at the bowl of lemons that my mother kept on the kitchen counter and the bottle of coconut suntan lotion. I imagined turning Goldie into a dragon and getting on her back and flying away. I wished I could turn the lemons into hand grenades and the suntan lotion into a flamethrower and burn Gerry’s house to a crisp.

Sometimes I wished my mother had never met Gerry. I thought about how, when we first moved to L.A., my mother kept saying that the master bedroom, with its brown shag carpet and embroidered pillows, smelled like Gerry’s wife, Fern, was hidden away in one of the closets, recently deceased. I remembered how my mother took all the sheets and blankets out of the bedrooms and washed them on hot, how she used so much detergent that it smelled like someone had dumped a bottle of perfume into the Maytag, how she kept the windows open all day, even when it was raining. I remembered her asking Gerry whether he appreciated everything she was doing to make his house nicer. More livable was the term she used. I remembered her getting up on the step stool with a bucket of bleach and scrubbing all the cupboards.

At first Gerry thanked her and said the house had needed a good cleaning, that he’d forgotten how dirty things can get if you don’t stay on top of them. Then one day Gerry was in the family room, looking at his bookshelves, and he asked my mother where she’d put all his magazines. “Were you still reading those?” she asked. “I thought you were done with them, they were so full of dust. I put them in a shopping bag by the bikes. There was spider behind them I had to kill.”

Gerry took off his Dodgers cap and rubbed his forehead. He stared down at the carpet and made the whistling sound he made whenever he was trying to act like everything was okay. “Is that where the photos are too? In the garage?”

“What photos?”

“Don’t play dumb, Heike.” I knew which photos he meant: the photos of Fern sitting in front of the fireplace wearing a New Year’s hat, and Fern throwing a stick for Goldie at the beach, and Fern and Gerry with their sons, David and Rick, in front of Tomorrowland. The photo of everyone at Disneyland was my favorite. When we first moved to Gerry’s house, I looked at that photo a lot. I wondered whether Gerry and Fern were good parents and whether David and Rick were happy growing up. I remembered trying to figure out what David and Rick were like back then, before their mother died. I wondered whether they were into fantasy games, or volleyball and skateboarding. The few times I’d met them, they both seemed quiet. Not nerdy quiet, just distracted, like they wanted to be somewhere else. In the photo they both seemed well-adjusted though. They were smiling and holding hands with Mickey Mouse. Gerry was giving Rick a piggyback ride, and Fern had her arm around David. For some reason I always ended up wondering whether Fern already had cancer growing inside her when that photo was taken. I often wondered whether my mother might have cancer or something else wrong with her; I wondered who would take care of me if she died.

“Did it ever occur to you that those photos might be important to me?” Gerry continued. He spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully, as if his tongue caused him great pain. Then he went out to the garage, got the shopping bags, and brought them inside. I stayed on the couch in the family room, but I wasn’t paying attention to the TV. I was waiting to see what Gerry would do. I was waiting to see whether Gerry would throw something at my mother and tell her to fuck off. That’s what my real father would have done. He would have told my mother not to touch his fucking things ever again. Instead, Gerry got a dishtowel from the kitchen and wiped the photos. He held each frame carefully and ran the towel over the surface of the glass.

“I’m sorry,” my mother finally said, starting to cry. “I shouldn’t have put them away. I just couldn’t stand it anymore, seeing Fern there every day, judging all the time from the grave.”

Standing in the living room, I could tell Goldie wanted me to pet her. She was looking up at me, wagging her partially bald tail. I decided that, instead of going back to check on my mother, I would scoop up Goldie’s droppings. It was the chore I hated most, the chore Gerry always had to remind me to do before I got my allowance. I opened the door to the yard, and Goldie followed me outside; even though she was old, she still liked to make her way over to the lemon trees and give them a sniff.

I walked to the grass with my plastic bag and the shovel, and I remember wanting to cry. The grass was brown, and some of the turds were so old that they looked like little pieces of wood. I retrieved the droppings with the utmost care, making the task last as long as possible. At one point, Goldie stood next to me, panting. Ten minutes later my mother and Sabine returned home.

“There you are,” my mother yelled. “How dare you leave us stranded there on our own. Did you see the police? We could have been imprisoned!”

I told her I’d tried to call Gerry but that he was busy, and I was waiting for him to call back. I showed her what a good job I’d done cleaning the lawn. Sabine, whose hair was still damp, kept saying she wanted to be driven back to the motel.

That evening, Gerry laid into my mother. “I’ve had it, Heike! I can’t live like this anymore!”

“How was I to know Carol would get home so early? We just went for a quick dip.”

“By the way,” I announced in the middle of their fight, “I’m not going to be here for dinner on Saturday.”

“What do you mean?” asked my mother.

“I’m just not. I’m not going to sit here in front of Jason and his sister and act like everything is normal. They probably think you’re a total retard.”

“How dare you!” She lunged toward me, but I was too fast. I ran into my room and locked the door.

“Open this door and apologize to me!” she screamed. “I am your mother!” The more she pounded, the louder I turned up the radio. I sat at my desk trying to concentrate until, eventually, I put on my shoes. I emptied everything out of my backpack, took my life savings — $56.23 — from the box I kept under my bed, and folded up three of my favorite T-shirts. I put the shirts in my backpack, along with the Dungeons & Dragons characters I’d painted by hand and a piece of turquoise my father had given to me as a present, and climbed out the window.

I moved fast, past house after house, afraid someone would catch me. When I reached the intersection at the top of the hill, I headed to Vons. I thought that, at a minimum, I’d need cereal for my trip. I walked to the aisle with the Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms and the other cereals my mother always said were too expensive, and as I studied the choices, I wondered whether I should have told Gerry and my mother where I was going. I imagined them pounding on my door, then picking the lock. I pictured my mother going berserk. I considered sneaking back to leave a note so she wouldn’t worry. I’ll be okay. I’m going to Mrs. Moy’s. Love, Stewart

Mrs. Moy was the woman who’d taught me Sunday school in Ventana Beach. She’d always told me that if I ever needed anything or if I was ever in trouble, I could give her a call. I didn’t know her address, but I knew her number by heart. I went up to the cashier, gave her a box of Frosted Flakes, and handed her a ten-dollar bill.

“Do you mind giving me my change in quarters?” I asked.

“You bet, sweetie. You going to Vegas?”

I smiled, not sure what she meant, then headed to one of the payphones, where I picked up the receiver and dialed Mrs. Moy’s number. An automated voice told me I needed to put in ninety-five cents for the first three minutes, and after I deposited the coins, I listened to the phone ring. I let the phone ring at least twenty times before I finally hung up.

I watched the people in the parking lot put bags of groceries into the trunks of their cars. I wondered whether my mom and Gerry were watching the ABC Thursday Night Movie, something about a woman who claimed her family was abducted by aliens. Eventually, I decided to walk to the beach. I’d walked to the ocean lots of times with my mother, and I remembered how each time we passed a particularly nice house, one of us would say that was the kind of home we wished we could live in. Some of the houses had elaborate gardens and pools and huge windows that allowed you to see into the living rooms and kitchens and dens. I thought about the children on the milk cartons. Every morning, when I was eating my Cheerios, I always stared at the black-and-white photo of whatever child was featured in that week’s advertisement. The caption was always the same — Missing Child — but the details were different:

Melinda Ramirez, Age 9. Last seen in El Cerrito Mall (June 23, 1975)
Peter Yates, Age 7. Last Seen at Pismo Beach (March 13, 1973)

When I arrived at the bike path along the edge of the beach, I headed toward the pier. Occasionally I saw someone go by on roller skates or a bike, but for the most part the beach was deserted. The air on the pier felt cooler than I expected, and below me I heard the sound of the water. I sat at the end of the pier, letting my legs dangle over the edge and studying the oil derricks in the distance. I kept looking at my watch, wondering whether my mother and Gerry had figured out I was gone. I wished I’d brought a jacket along, instead of just my sweatshirt, and I tried to keep my legs as still as possible so I wouldn’t get any splinters.

Eventually, a homeless guy with a sleeping bag and a fishing pole sat down on the pier and smiled at me. “How’s it going, buddy?” he said. His teeth were brown and crooked, and he wore a shaggy beard. There’d been stories in the news about a man who strangled women in the Hollywood Hills and about a retired dentist in Arcadia who kept a twelve-year-old girl locked up in his cellar for ninety-six days, until she finally escaped when he went to the movies. I imagined the principal of my school telling everyone at Friday’s assembly that my dismembered body had been found in a dumpster.

“What brings you out to these parts?” the drifter asked.

I pictured a hiding place under the pier where he forced people to have sex with him before he suffocated them. I wondered whether anyone would hear me if I screamed.

“Want a swig?” He offered me a bottle inside a paper bag.

I shook my head, looking down. My body felt light; suddenly I had to go to the bathroom. Without thinking, I leapt up, grabbed my backpack, and sprinted down the pier, toward the houses along the shore. I ran until I was sweating hard and my lungs felt raw and I reached a group of teenagers sitting on the strand smoking and laughing together. They looked at me and smiled, but I didn’t stop. I climbed the huge hill leading from the train tracks to Sepulveda in record time. I pictured my mother on the couch, holding her wooden spoon, waiting. I decided to tell her that I’d snuck out of the house in order to buy her a gift.

Finally, when Gerry’s house came into view, I saw that all of the lights were off except the one in my room. I hurried down the block and peered into my window. Miraculously, my room was exactly as I’d left it: the door was still locked, the folders and books I’d taken out of my backpack on the carpet next to my bed. I climbed back inside, my heart like a drum. A few minutes later, I turned out the light and got into bed. I held my breath, listening, but the house was perfectly quiet.

The next morning, when my alarm clock went off, I got dressed and went out to the living room like nothing had happened. “Thank you for saying goodnight,” my mother called from the kitchen. “That was very nice of you.”

I apologized, saying I’d fallen asleep while I was studying. “We don’t have any more apples,” she said, as she was making my lunch. “Is a banana okay? They’re a little brown.”

That afternoon, after I got home from school, I was in my room when Jason’s mom, Mrs. McFarland, called to say they’d come down with the flu. “Are you happy?” my mother hollered. “Your friend cancelled! They’re not coming over.”

During the following weeks, I went out of my way to avoid Jason. I changed my route to and from school, and I spent as little time as possible in the hallways between classes. I took solace in the fact that next year Jason would be going to Tres Caminos High. As for Sabine, my mother’s plan to have her move in never came to fruition. Two weeks after my mother and Sabine were almost arrested, as I was coming home from school, I saw my mother sweeping leaves in the driveway. She was wearing sunglasses, but I could tell she’d been crying. When I asked her how she was, she refused to look at me. “Fine,” she replied.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“Nothing. Nothing happened.” She kept sweeping the leaves, and I stood there looking at her. Finally she said, “Sabine is moving to Ohio. She decided to move back East to be closer to her cousin.”

“Gosh. When did you find that out?”

“Little while ago.”


“Yes, really. Stop pretending like you care about me. I know you don’t give a damn.” My mother started sobbing. “I just can’t take it anymore.” She let the broom fall onto the driveway. “One of these days I move back to Germany.”

I tried to calm her down. I asked her to tell me what Sabine had said, and then she told me the story. She said that Sabine never agreed to let her give any of the cats away and that, when my mother told her what she had in mind, she flipped out. “She accused me of trying to steal these pets from her. I told her this was not the case at all, but she wouldn’t listen. I drove over there and tried to talk to her, but she was like a different person — so cold and icy. Her eyes were like rocks. Afterwards, I couldn’t even drive I was so upset. I had to pull over into a gas station.”

I stood under the huge willow tree outside Gerry’s house, looking at my mother, wondering whether I should give her a hug. I knew she wanted me to cry with her, to tell her I loved her and no matter what, I would always be there for her. I knew she wanted me to reassure her that it didn’t matter what Sandi Sarconi or Carol Wallace or Jason’s mother thought of her. But I couldn’t bring myself to say any of these things.

That December, amidst continuing news stories about Stockholm syndrome and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Hotel California hit the charts and Rocky and King Kong were released. The few times that I saw Jason over Christmas break, he was walking on the street with a girl who wore lots of lip gloss. By that point, I already knew that he’d climbed over the fence to retrieve his magazines. I’d gone out back one afternoon when my mother wasn’t home, and all I found amidst the thicket of lemon trees were a few torn pages with part of an article about trout fishing and some photos of a woman sitting on the hood of a green Porsche. The paper was wet and discolored, and when I shook the leaves and dirt from the pages, a pill bug fell to the ground.

I brushed the dirt off the paper as carefully as possible and folded the pages. I surveyed the area to make sure I hadn’t accidentally missed any remnants of the other magazines, then crept out of the tangle of branches and went back to my room. I closed my door, spreading the pages out on top of my desk and examining them, as if I were looking for some kind of clue. I knew that soon enough my mother would come home and start making dinner and that she would expect me to peel potatoes or make fruit salad or stir something on the stove so she would have someone to talk to.


About the Author

Matthew Lansburgh’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly, Guernica, Ecotone, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Joyland, and has won awards from Columbia Journal and The Florida Review. He earned an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellowship, and he lives in New York with his partner.

About the Guest Editor

Paul La Farge is the author of four novels: The Night Ocean (The Penguin Press, 2017); The Artist of the Missing (FSG, 1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction(FSG, 2001), and Luminous Airplanes (FSG, 2011); and a book of imaginary dreams, The Facts of Winter(McSweeney’s Books, 2005). He is the grateful recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Bard Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2013–14. He lives in a subterranean ‘annex’ in upstate New York, where he is almost certainly up to no good.

About Recommended Reading

Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. Follow Recommended Reading on Medium and never miss the latest issue, or become a member for full access to the archives. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.

The Weirdest Mom in the Neighborhood was originally published in Electric Literature on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

An Exquisite Collection of Paper Pop-Ups Designed by Peter Dahmen

From commercial packaging to artistic creations fused with geometry, paper designer Peter Dahmen is a true master of the pop-up. This new video titled Most Satisfying Video of Pop-Up Cards is a portfolio of sorts spanning the last several years of his work engineering elaborate objects that unfold from the pages of books or the confines of tiny boxes. You can go behind the scenes a bit more in this 2014 film on Dahmen from Christopher Helkey, and you can also try building some of his original designs with these free online tutorials. (via The Kid Should See This)

Book Ban News: Florida School Board Issues Comprehensive Directive

Every time you turn around, it seems a school somewhere is banning a book after parental complaints. What we should or shouldn’t be allowing–or requiring–students to read is a topic of constant, heated debate.

But, according to this blog post from the National Council of Teachers of English, an Administrative Directive issued by the Superintendent of Florida’s Dixie District School’s has taken things a step further. The directive states:

“As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community.

However, I do realize that AP and Dual Enrollment classes may have set reading requirements that requirements that contain questionable materials that the local district does not have control over. These will be the only materials allowed to be used in our district, provided they do not substantially violate community standards” (Text from Millie Davis’ post on the National Council of Teachers of English blog).

Let’s break this down for a moment, shall we?

The directive precludes material that contains profanity, cursing, or subjective “inappropriate subject matter” from being used by the school district. Depending on who’s doing the interpreting, “inappropriate subject matter” could mean a lot of things. Such phrasing could easily be used to ban subject matter including LGBTQ characters, characters of particular religious persuasions, and really anything that offends those enforcing this directive.

In addition, the blanket statement against “profanity” and “cursing” in books could cripple the English department’s ability to teach a well-rounded curriculum. This could leave students ill-prepared for the types of texts they’ll likely encounter should they choose to pursue higher education

Finally, the apparent exception for “AP and Dual Enrollment” courses with preset subject matter is potentially problematic. Given that such English courses teach literary classics that contain cursing, profanity, and probably “inappropriate subject matter,” it makes sense that this clause was included.

However, allowing only students in AP or Dual Enrollment courses access to these texts is unfair to students who may not enroll in AP courses. Non-AP and Dual Enrollment students should still be given access to a robust literary education,including subject matter that will challenge them to encounter new perspectives and ways of thinking.

Individually, none of these reasons for banning books in schools are new, but this directive seems to be uniquely comprehensive. In fact, while most book bannings have been pointed towards the literary texts found in the English classroom, this directive includes “textbooks” and “etc’ meaning that, if it stays in place, it could be used to justify removing pretty much any course content (science textbooks including certain theories, for instance, come to mind).

NCTE and others have already expressed concerns about the directive. You can read more about this here.

The 27 Best Books on Writing

Writing is, as a general rule, hard. Defining yourself as a writer can be even harder. Sure, there are other difficult practices like law and medicine out there, but a person becomes a lawyer or a doctor when he or she passes a series of exams and graduates from a certain school. Writing doesn’t always work that way. There aren’t tests to study for and facts to memorize. Where are we supposed to learn how to write?

From grammar rules to publishing advice to personal narratives, these books on writing reveal in intimate detail the ins and outs of what it means to call yourself a writer. Sometimes harsh, sometimes funny, but always honest, they can be thought of as a kind of syllabus for writing. Whether you’re an aspiring artist working on your first drafts or a seasoned veteran in the publishing world, these are some of the best books on writing with insight and wisdom that can support you at all stages of your writing process.

The post The 27 Best Books on Writing appeared first on Signature Reads.

10 Critical Mistakes Writers Make in Writing Contests

You work hard to write your best story—and if you’re honest, you’re pretty sure it’s amazing. You share it with other writers to get their feedback, and they agree. You work up your courage and hit the “Submit” button, sending it off to a mysterious panel of writing contest judges.

This Judge Reveals 10 Steps to Win Writing Contests

And then . . . you wait. What will the judges think? Will they agree your story deserves to win it all? Did you write the kind of story that will catch the judges’ eye? What kind of story is that, anyway?

I’m going to take you behind the scenes and reveal exactly what judges are looking for when they choose the winners of writing contests.

The Bewildering Challenge of Judging a Writing Contest

In the final round of our writing contests, the judges are tasked with an almost impossible challenge: how will they decide which of a small group of excellent stories will win a prize?

For a story to have made it this far, it’s already undergone careful scrutiny by the entire panel. Every single judge has read and considered it, and enough have advocated for it so strongly that it’s moved forward to join an elite selection of stories.

We all know it has fans among the judges. We all know it has great merit. The problem is . . . so do the other ten, or fifteen, or twenty stories that were selected for the ultimate consideration.

How do the judges choose? What sets the winning story apart? And if a story that made it this far doesn’t win (and mathematically, that’s always the case), what’s the fatal flaw that knocks it out?

10 Storytelling Essentials That Wow Judges and Win Writing Contests

I’ve judged four writing contests with The Write Practice, and I’m gearing up for my fifth. (Want in on the fun? Join our next writing contest here!) My favorite part of every contest is the discussion amongst the judges. I love hearing what they see in their top picks, what stands out about the strongest contenders.

Throughout these contests, I’ve picked up on some patterns. A handful of critical mistakes appear again and again—and in the final round, it’s these mistakes the judges consider as they make the toughest decisions.

I’ve distilled long hours of judges’ discussion into ten elements the winning stories must include. I’ve seen every single one of these essentials become the deciding factor about whether a story will take home a prize or not.

Want your story to not just make the final round, but win the whole contest? Take a careful look at these ten elements and make sure your story includes each one.

1. Get inspired by the theme.

If the contest has a theme, make sure you adhere to it. You might write a brilliant story—but if you ignore the theme, skip part of it, or in any way disobey the contest guidelines, that’s a quick way to get your story disqualified.

2. Focus on a bite-sized story.

Here’s the thing: a short story is not a novel. You can’t tell an epic fantasy tale in under 1,500 words.

Choose a story idea whose scope fits within the word count requirements. The life story of a 103-year-old might be too long, but an unexpected detour on the way home from the grocery store might be just the right length.

3. Structure your story with clarity in mind.

This goes along with step #2. Yes, you can write a short story set across two time periods with five scene changes and three point-of-view characters, and fit it all in just 1,500 words. But should you? Maybe, maybe not.

When you’re working within a tiny word count, overcomplicating your story can quickly confuse your readers. Make sure that transitions are clear, and that each new element you introduce—a new scene, a new character, a new plot twist—moves the story forward rather than cluttering it up.

It can be hard to judge what’s confusing in your own writing, so have someone read your story before you submit.

4. Hook your readers (and the judges!) with a brilliant first line.

The first sentence of your story is your chance to make an amazing first impression. A powerful, surprising, and intriguing first line will capture the judges’ interest at the start and make them look forward to reading the rest.

Writing contest judges read hundreds of stories in a short amount of time. Make sure your first line gets them excited to stumble across yours.

5. Get straight to the action.

In a 1,500 word story, you don’t have space to write long passages of world building or pages of backstory. And the truth is, that’s not the interesting part anyway.

Don’t open the story with three paragraphs setting the scene. Instead, start your story at the moment when “normal” ends.

What’s the first sign of trouble? The first indication that something will be different about today? Skip the descriptive introduction and start your story there.

6. Give your character a goal.

“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” —Kurt Vonnegut

Everyone wants something. It might be as small as another hour of sleep or as profound as one more day with their terminally ill grandfather.

Whatever it is, their want—and the things they do to get it—drive the story.

Make sure your character has a goal they’re pursuing. Stories about characters without goals ramble on, leaving readers confused about why they’re reading at all. Stories about characters who have clear goals and make decisions to pursue them keep us hooked, turning the pages to see what happens next.

Pro tip: everyone needs something, too. Sometimes what they want and what they need aren’t the same thing. If your character achieves their goal, will that actually make them happy? Or will they have to deal with some unwanted consequences?

7. Cut excess words so you can focus on the story.

Are you 500 words over the limit and stumped about what to cut? Look for:

Backstory. Yes, you need to know everything about your character—but your readers don’t. It’s tempting to include every detail of their history that led them to this moment, but that will actually slow down your story and burden readers with unnecessary information. Get it all out on the page in the first draft. Then, as you edit, challenge yourself to cut as much backstory as possible. Pro tip: if there’s an important piece of information readers (and characters) need to know, use it as a surprising revelation to fuel the plot.

Florid description. Does a detail move the story forward? Does it show us something about the character or the plot that we need to know? If so, great! If not, cut it. Unless your story is about rogue painters vandalizing the neighborhood waste collection route, we don’t need to know what color your character’s trash cans are.

Adverbs. Cut them ruthlessly. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” writes Stephen King, and that’s especially true when you’re limited to just 1,500 words. While you’re at it, cut these seven words, too. Save your space for words that will move the plot forward, not weigh the reader down with clunky prose.

(Did you catch all the adverbs I used in that paragraph? Ouch. We all fall short of editorial perfection.)

8. Make your characters choose.

This is the crux of the story, the crucial moment to focus on. At some point in the story, your character must make a decision.

Throughout the story, the tension is building. The plot is thickening, the stakes are rising, and the risks are becoming greater and greater.

As the story approaches the climax, bring your character to a point of crisis where they must choose how they’re going to respond.

If your character limps along without making a choice, or if they let the people around them choose for them, the story will feel dissatisfying and incomplete.

But as they choose something and then face the consequences of their decision, we’ll be riveted, wondering, how will they handle what happens next?

9. Make sure something changes.

That moment of crisis, the decision your character makes, has consequences. Maybe they took a risk and it paid off—or maybe they crash and burn. Whatever the case, something must be different as a result of their choice.

Remember, stories are about change. If your character finishes the story in the same place they began, you’ll leave readers wondering why they bothered to read it in the first place.

Make sure the trials your character experiences and the decisions they make leave someone or something irreversibly changed by the end of the story.

On that note, beware of writing a story where the main plot is a dream sequence. Unless the waking world is somehow different as a result of the dream, it feels disingenuous. Any change in the dream world is erased when the character wakes up. Why read a story where nothing changes?

And yes, this applies to daydreams, too. Make sure the story isn’t all in the character’s head.

10. Nail the ending.

The first 1,450 words of your 1,500-word story are riveting. You don’t have a ton of space to wrap it up, but surely if you just tack on some kind of closing, it’ll be fine, right?


It’s very, very hard to write the perfect ending to a short story, the conclusion that will tie up the loose ends neatly but not too neatly, leaving the story feeling resolved and also a bit mysterious. The judges know this.

They’re still looking for the perfect ending.

What does this story need in order to reach closure? What will resolve the conflict? What will allow us to walk away satisfied that we’ve truly reached “The End”?

Remember, a short story is complete in and of itself. It’s not the first chapter of a novel, or a teaser into something larger. Make sure your story stands alone, and that when it ends, this tiny glimpse into your character’s life is truly done.

An otherwise excellent story that fails to nail the ending won’t take the top spot. But a surprising but inevitable climax that leads to a satisfying resolution will amaze the judges and make your story a strong contender to win it all.

Take the time to get your ending right.

Two More Notes About These “Essentials”

I’ve looked at all these elements from the perspective of a writing contest judge—what does our panel look for when we’re challenged to select a handful of winners from an abundance of engaging stories?

But there are two more ways you can read this list.

1. Feedback from the judges. One of the things that makes our writing contests special is the opportunity to get feedback directly from the judges on why your story did or didn’t win. I’ll let you in on a secret: 85 percent of the feedback judges write relates back to these ten elements. If you can master this list, they’ll find it a real challenge to give you any critical feedback.

(Want specific feedback on how your story did or didn’t fulfill these ten essentials? Join one of our writing contests and sign up for feedback from the judges!)

2. The secrets of great storytelling. A list like this can feel contrived: “Oh, you mean if I just sprinkle these ten arbitrary things into my story, it’ll be twisted so the judges like it?” But here’s the thing: the judges want to see these elements because they are fundamental skills of great storytelling. You don’t need a writing contest to apply them—master these skills, and you’ll become a better storyteller for any story.

Of course, writing contests are a great forum to practice them. Why not join our next one?

Sign Up for the Winter Writing Contest

Registration for our Winter Writing Contest closes on Monday! If you want to practice these tips and try your hand at writing a story that wows the judges, why not join the fun?

Our writing contests are like a mini writing course: you’ll get feedback along the way to help you write your best story. Plus, EVERY writer who enters will have the option of getting published by our partner literary magazine, Short Fiction Break. Whether you win or not, you’ll grow as a writer and have a published story at the end!

You can sign up for the Winter Writing Contest here.

We’d love to see you inside!

Which of these essentials do you find the most challenging? Let us know in the comments!


Try your hand at writing a story for the Winter Writing Contest! The theme is “Countdown”: Your character has a deadline. It might be a cancer prognosis giving him six months to live, a blackmailer giving her twenty-four hours to comply before a secret is revealed, a few more minutes until the clock strikes midnight and his one true love vanishes, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, your character is racing against the clock.

For the next fifteen minutes, draft a story based on the contest theme. Focus on essentials four and five: hook your readers with a great opening line, and get straight to the action.

When you’re done, share your story in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers. And why not enter the Winter Writing Contest to share your story with the judges, too?

The post 10 Critical Mistakes Writers Make in Writing Contests appeared first on The Write Practice.

Wolf Speak: A Short Howl-by-Howl Guide Inspired by American Wolf

Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

I’ve betrayed Nate Blakeslee. He’s written a careful, detailed book about the life of a wolf in Yellowstone Park as she navigates the intricacies of rival wolf territories, fearsome predators, and motherhood. And to mark the release of the book, I’ve made a silly cartoon about wolf howls.

But I couldn’t help it. American Wolf is not only the story of O-Six, named by Yellowstone wolf-watchers for the year of her birth, but a complex study of the history of wolves and their culture, from near-extinction to reemergence in the Rockies. Blakeslee’s narrative about O-Six is like an excellent documentary that makes you wonder how the footage you’re seeing is even possible. And so the book’s qualities are compounded by the way that Blakeslee also tells the story of wolves and the battles that have been fought both against them (hunters and ranchers) and on their behalf (conservationists and park organizers).

I couldn’t really do all that justice. But I could seize on one thing I liked and make some fun drawings, so that’s what I tried to do. Peppered throughout American Wolf are details of wolf life that make for my personal favorite parts of the book. Wolfpacks are something like gangs, with carefully delineated territories that lone wolves must not traverse on their own. Roles of siblings are clearly defined based on birth order, and different kinds of howls have different meanings.

And so, while my short illustrated guide to these howl meanings is cartoonish in a way that Blakeslee’s book most certainly is not, it’s my tribute to the book and its wealth of information about O-Six and her species.

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