In Susan Breen’s mystery novel Maggie Dove, Maggie (a Sunday school teacher in a small town) discovers the dead body of her neighbor in her front yard late at night. Then…
Maggie took off her sweater and put it over his face, thinking to protect him. Then she ran into her house and called the police, except that in her nervousness she accidentally transposed the digits. She wound up with the pizza parlor instead.
“You can’t be wanting a pizza so late, Mrs. Dove,” Joe said. “What’s up?”
“Something terrible’s happened, Joe,” she whispered because it didn’t seem right to speak loudly. “Something’s wrong. Marcus Bender is dead on my lawn.”
This being a small town, Joe knows Maggie, and he calls an ambulance.
It reminds me of a moment in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy (a financier in Manhattan) takes the dog out of for a walk because he wants to call his mistress out of earshot of Judy, his wife. This being the 1980’s, he calls from a payphone:
Three rings, and a woman’s voice: “Hello?”
But it was not Maria’s voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: “May I speak to Maria, please?”
The woman said: “Sherman? Is that you?”
Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialed his own apartment! He’s aghast—paralyzed!
He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He’ll bluff it out. When she asks him, he’ll say she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
I love both these moments not because I’m a fan of misplaced phone calls (interesting as they are), but because they’re the kind of accidental, absurd things that happen in real life. They’re so minor, you might not think to include them in your story, but you should, at least now and then.
These accidental, absurd things bring a smudge of reality to your story. They seem so randomly real that they must have truly happened. Why would someone invent something so silly?
It’s nice to bring reality-smudges to a story heavy on artifice—for example, a cozy mystery like Maggie Dove. And you’ll want life’s randomness to run rampant in a highly naturalistic story—for example, the current TV series The Bear.
Hey, try this: write a scene about a mistaken phone call.
And I’ll leave you with the opening of Raymond Carver’s short story “Whoever Was Using This Bed”:
The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.
“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God, who is it? Answer it!”
Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
You already know that Gotham offers excellent writing classes, as we’ve been doing since 1993, and that we have lots of classes starting up this fall.
A few other things you should know about…
Blog & Newsletter Writing We have a new course that focuses on writing blogs and newsletters. It replaces our Blog Writing and Blog Basics courses, with totally up-to-date info on both blogs and newsletters (the latter being a hot thing in the writing world). With blogs and newsletters, you get to create your very own publication, how you want, when you want. The maiden voyage of this course begins Online on October 10.
Video Game Writing Where can you find a course on writing for Video Games? Gotham is one of the only places. We have Video Game Writing, Part 1 starting Online October 17. Part 2 is coming soon. And—psssst—we allow teens to take this course.
The Razor Gotham’s online literary magazine just released its October edition. Each month we present two flash stories—one fiction, one nonfiction, each with original artwork and a polished audio recording. We want you to be reading The Razor as well as submitting stories to it. If you get picked, we’ll even pay you. (And stay tuned for our new course in flash fiction and nonfiction.)
Gotham Literary/Commercial Fiction Conference Coming up on Saturday November 18 and Sunday November 19, on Zoom, this is the place to be if you’re interested in publishing a literary or commercial novel. Day 1 will feature panels and presentations, including my interview with Ann Napolitano, author of Hello Beautiful (the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club). Day 2 will be the pitching roundtables, where you get to pitch and discuss your book project at a table with two top literary agents and a handful of fellow writers. You can attend Day 1 or Day 2, or both.
Creative Writing Scholarship for Writers of Color Every quarter we offer a new scholarship for writers of color. The current scholarship focuses on creative writing, in all its brilliantly-colored forms. You have until November 15 to apply.
Frightening First Line Contest With a nod to Halloween, our Fall contest invites you to create a frightening first line for a story. You can use more than one sentence, as long as you don’t go over 31 words. Winner gets a free class.
I know, I know, it’s almost too much excitement. But on Sunday November 5, most of us change our clocks and we get an extra hour of sleep.