Tag Archives: short stories

By Any Other Name

Imagine your Mum’s handwriting was so appalling that you were registered with the wrong name. An embarrassing one. And to get around it you create a whole fantasy existence …

By Any Other Name

by Caroline Sully

By Any Other Name

I was born at the same time we were moving house: from our crowded rented terrace in Glebe to a Federation pile on the lower north shore my Dad’s childless, widowed aunt had left to her only nephew.

From the confines of the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills Mum dazedly gave instructions about the move as Dad and my three older sisters thundered into the ward to congratulate a weary Mum and get their first peek at me.

I was, apparently, a red-faced squawking scrap of a thing with a mop of dark hair. My sisters, expecting a pink and white angelic infant who slept with a Mona Lisa smile on her perfect face, were disappointed and said so while Mum and Dad filled out the paperwork.

I was to be named Denise after the said departed aunt. After a heated discussion about my middle name, which made me howl even louder and brought a starchy nurse to the bedside, Mum scrawled the name Elinor down and sent the family away.

She gave the nurse the completed form for my birth certificate, and went to sleep. Job done.

Nobody thought to question Mum’s writing, which was appalling at the best of times and even worse after a long labour and a good dose of painkillers.

It wasn’t until I was five years old and starting school that we all realised the name on my birth certificate had actually been recorded as Penise.

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A-muse-ment, at last

A visit from the museI haven’t had a visit from the muse in ages; at least a year. Sure, I’ve blogged a lot, and I write copy for websites, but having the mental space and physical and mental time to create fiction just hasn’t been there.

Mainly, I haven’t been able to think of plots. I have plenty of characters noted down but nothing to do with them.

For someone who from childhood until recent years always had a story or novella on the go, in the planning stages or in final editing, I’ve felt bereft and a fraud to myself.

However, my muse sat on my shoulders yesterday, and she was wearing spurs. A couple of weeks ago I found an entry form for a short story competition in my monthly issue of NewsWrite from the NSW Writers’ Centre. The prize money is pretty good – in fact fantastic for someone whose credit card only has $84 left on it.

The muse dug her spurs in. “Plot,” she hissed. “I’ve got one, use this.” And suddenly I had the right plot for two characters who’d been knocking idly around in my subconscious.

All of us write differently. I get scraps of sentences, or entire paragraphs, at odd times. Washing up, weeding the garden, or any other relatively mindless activity. Get enough scraps and I have the basis of my story’s voice. I am almost embarrassed to say my story’s voice came to me in a flow of sentences yesterday morning after breakfast while I was shit-picking in the courtyard (cleaning up my dog’s poo).

I HAD to get upstairs and start writing. I’d envisaged these characters originally in a third person narrative, but my muse, and the story’s voice, said it had to be first person. My main character Don jumped fully fledged from my brain into the computer as if he were relating his story and I merely taking down dictation. Three hours later I’d written about 3,500 words, an entire draft of the story. The muse was giggling her zany head off for the entire process, prodding and suggesting and magically making words flow, and she did a tap-dance on my head when I typed ‘the end‘.

What a cathartic process writing is. I love being able to turn the world off and just get that first draft done, out of my head and into reality. This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing short stories – I’m way too impatient to write an entire novel.

I’d love to share the new story here, as I do think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in years – my husband, who has seen the first draft, agrees. It’s not inanely silly like some of my stories; it’s not cozy either. It’s unlike any story I’ve written before in terms of voice, but I can’t publish it anywhere until the competition has been judged. So…watch this space! Sooner or later it will appear here. Whether it wins a prize or not, I’m proud of it.

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Does one snippet a story make?

How do YOU get your ideas for a story? Do you see an incident you think you could expand on? Is there something in the news that catches your eye? I find both of these work for me, and I immediately start up a conversation between two imaginary characters and see where it leads. Does it have the staying power to make a short story?

snippetsMy mind and my notebooks are full of snippets of ideas. Conversations. Single sentences. Concepts. One in about forty might be worth really turning into something. Gosh, that makes me sound pretentious, but one elegant sentence does not a story make. You should see the In Progress stuff on my computer. Started out well, with that magic first sentence, but fell in a heap a few hundred words later. Plot? What plot?

A snippet of conversation or the perfect sentence is great, but the plot, the whole plot and nothing but the plot is what matters, and the plot has to come in the same blinding moment as that perfect sentence for me or I’m a goner. (This is why I write short stories, not novels. Imagine Margaret Mitchell plotting Gone With the Wind around ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’.)

You can see where this is leading. I had a perfect sentence last week. And I can’t do a damn thing with it. I have half a plot but can’t resolve it. Maybe this weekend, which I’m spending on my own, will turn into a writer’s retreat for me. Bring on the chocolate.

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