Short fiction: Lincoln Dunwoody

Lincoln Dunwoody is a piece of short fiction I wrote in August of 2014 as an exercise for the class Scenes from a Book taught by Candace Denning at the Indiana Writer’s Center.

Lincoln Dunwoody is the guy who opens my cans for me. He likes to tell people he’s my owner, but that’s a bit of a delusion. Lincoln has trouble remembering his briefcase in the morning, and I’m building a weather machine in the spare room while he’s at work, so who owns who in this situation?

I know it seems contradictory that I’m building a weather machine and that I can’t open cans, but you’d be surprised how resourceful I am for a cat, despite the cursed lack of opposable thumbs. I can do a lot of things with my teeth, and I know how to apply basic physics – gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces, friction, tension, air resistance, applied force, spring force. I’ve used them all in my science projects.

It’s just that damned twisting motion of the can opener that defies mastery. I tried meowing loudly near the television when the commercial for cat food that comes in pouches comes on, but Lincoln just pets my head and coos silly stuff at me like “I’m sorry, Truesdale. That is a pretty lady cat, but she’s just on TV. Someday we’ll both meet nice ladies to go out with.” I don’t need a lady, I need food I can fix myself.

Truesdale is the name Lincoln calls me. My actual name is Jake Mortlock, but it’s probably better that Lincoln doesn’t know that, in case I have to go on the lam.

Honestly, Lincoln is a bit of a lily pickle most of the time. He’s sort of round and squishy, and he hasn’t got much hair, except for a bristle of a mustache that he needs to trim more often because it ends up in his mouth when he talks. And he talks to me a lot. He likes to narrate what he’s doing, as if I can’t see it for myself as he fusses around the apartment.

Last night was really odd, though. Lincoln didn’t talk at all when he got home after work. Usually he seems resigned and drops his briefcase obliviously just inside the door, but last night he swung it merrily round in the air and flipped it on the table, did a couple of half-steps like he was dancing, and tried a little whistling. It came out odd, so he switched to humming, which sounded better, although I still couldn’t figure out if there was a tune. He dance-hummed his way into the bedroom and started undressing. I went in to watch, because it was 6 o’clock and not time for bed at all. In his underpants and t-shirt, he pulled a bag from the closet and zipped it open to lay out a black suit I’d never seen on the bed. Then he retrieved a shoebox from the closet shelf, and a square brush, and he dusted off a pair of shiny (stylish!) black shoes that I’d also never laid eyes on before. He foxtrotted into the bathroom, brushed his teeth, combed the few hairs he still had on his head, and to my shock, actually trimmed that silly mustache. He hummed his way into the spiffy duds and even tied a bright red tie, straightening it in the dressing room mirror, brushing off wrinkles and fastening cufflinks. With neatly folded pocket square tucked in, Lincoln Dunwoody looked downright dashing. Of course, then he spritzed on some cologne that made me sneeze, but nobody‚Äôs perfect.

He checked the time – 6:50 p.m. – and danced to the front door, turning to me as he left. “You hold down the fort, Truesdale. I have a date tonight.”

Will wonders never cease? I didn’t want to miss any additional action, so I decided to put my weather machine work on hold and add to my Minions Project in the kitchen instead so I’d be near the door when Lincoln came home. The Minions Project is where I gather up all my cat hairs into a ball under the refrigerator. When I get enough of it together, I’m going to chew through the lamp cord and apply some electricity to the hairball, animating it into a tiny baby cat that I can control with my mind. Eventually I will build a small army and we will take over the world.

I was still absorbed in my cat bath at 9:45 when I heard Lincoln’s heavy tread on the stairs. He was not dancing when he came in the door. He was not humming. Lincoln was sad. His head was down and his shoulders drooped. He didn’t even seem to see me; he just dropped his keys on the table, loosened his tie, and proceeded to the bedroom. He slowly put his happy suit of clothes back into the garment bag and zipped it up as though he was putting it away forever. Back into the closet went the shiny shoes and bright red tie, and Lincoln Dunwoody sat down heavily on the edge of the bed in his underwear, looking much older and more battered than the 45 years that he was.

Even smaller-than-average tuxedo cats with nefarious plans to rule the world have compassion. Who could look at this scene and not feel some sympathy? I don’t have a white heart shape on my chest for nothing. I curled myself around Lincoln’s ankles and purred, swishing my tail back and forth to pet him. Happily, he brightened up and leaned over to pet me. “At least I’ll always have you, won’t I, Truesdale?” Of course you will, you big silly billy. I need you to open my cans. And when I finish that Longevity Mechanism, we’ll both be immortal and I’ll need you to carry my sacks of money to the bank.

But for now I needed to work on a different plan.

The next morning when Lincoln opened the door to head out to work, I squeezed past his ankles and zipped down the hall. Lincoln came running after me, because he also suffers under the delusion that I never leave the apartment (I have a strategic hole in the bathroom screen) and would get lost if I were out (I have personally mapped half of Prospect Park). At the end of the hall, Apartment 5G belonged to Alice Coddington, owner of Eagle Magnetics, a company that does sheet metal fabrication for magnetic shielding. She inherited the company from her father, and she’s a looker, let me tell you. I heard about Alice from the Gerrold the Beagle in 5B, who said that Alice also inherited a fluffy white cat I should get to know. I heard her door opening at about this same time every morning, so I took a chance. Normally I like to think things through, but sometimes you have to roll the dice, and that morning I was in luck.

Alice came into the hall at precisely the right time. I immediately rubbed my head against her pretty ankles and then flopped on the floor at her feet, purring loudly. She bent over to pet me, and Gerrold was right, she was really pretty. I shamelessly curled up on her toes just as Lincoln arrived to fetch me. “I’m sorry. He never tries to get out; I don’t know what got into him.”

Normally I’d correct that nonsense, but I was pouring on the charm. “What’s his name?” Alice asked.

“Truesdale.”

“That’s so sweet. Aren’t you a sweet kitty, Truesy?” Alice cooed at me, and I made a mental note to steal some extra treats from Lincoln later. I deserved them for this performance.

“I’m sorry; I’ve got to get to work.” Lincoln said, scooping me up.

“Oh, me too. Maybe you could bring Truesdale over this evening and he could meet my Sasha? She’s a sweetheart, too. I’ll bet they’d get along.”

Even from my perch in his arms I could see Lincoln’s face light up like a Christmas tree. I just kept purring like a jet engine.

Nobody puts a plan together like Jake Mortlock.

1,342 words.

Word Counts of Famous Short Stories (organized)

Shamelessly cribbed from Classic Short Stories and re-organized by word count from shortest to longest for comparison purposes. We’re discussing short stories with the Indy NaNoWriMo group this afternoon, and I thought it might help to have a word count chart similar to the one I did for Famous Novels back in November.

Of the 161 stories listed, 3081 is the median word count (number in the middle) and 4052 is the average word count. Duotrope (a free writers’ resource listing over 3950 current fiction and poetry publications) caps their search for short story publishers at 7,500 words, which means most publishers are looking for stories of less than that length.

Words: 710 – Virginia Woolf – A Haunted House
Words: 762 – Fielding Dawson – The Vertical Fields
Words: 810 – Mark Twain – A Telephonic Conversation
Words: 994 – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One of These Days
Words: 1274 – Saki (H H Munro) – The Open Window
Words: 1354 – Guy de Maupassant – The Kiss
Words: 1377 – Saki (H H Munro) – Mrs Packletide’s Tiger
Words: 1411 – Guy de Maupassant – A Dead Woman’s Secret
Words: 1429 – Guy de Maupassant – Indiscretion
Words: 1464 – Guy de Maupassant – Moonlight
Words: 1472 – Guy de Maupassant – Coco
Words: 1503 – Anton Pavlovich Checkhov – A Slander
Words: 1520 – Saki (H H Munro) – The Mouse
Words: 1552 – Guy de Maupassant – Yvette
Words: 1564 – William Carlos Williams – The Use of Force
Words: 1618 – Liam O’Flaherty – The Sniper
Words: 1624 – Guy de Maupassant – Farewell
Words: 1657 – Guy de Maupassant – Friend Patience
Words: 1691 – Guy de Maupassant – The Drunkard
Words: 1720 – Guy de Maupassant – The Christening
Words: 1764 – Guy de Maupassant – A Vendetta
Words: 1797 – Mark Twain – Luck
Words: 1830 – Saki (H H Munro) – Sredni Vashtar
Words: 1831 – Ambrose Bierce – The Boarded Window
Words: 1857 – Guy de Maupassant – Bellflower
Words: 1862 – Guy de Maupassant – In the Wood
Words: 1870 – Guy de Maupassant – The Dowry
Words: 1896 – Guy de Maupassant – The Unknown
Words: 1914 – Guy de Maupassant – A Family
Words: 1921 – Guy de Maupassant – Misti–Recollections of a Bachelor
Words: 1944 – Guy de Maupassant – Confessing
Words: 1978 – Anton Pavlovich Checkhov – The Lottery Ticket
Words: 2023 – Guy de Maupassant – A Humble Drama
Words: 2071 – Guy de Maupassant – Two Little Soldiers
Words: 2073 – E B White – The Door
Words: 2083 – Guy de Maupassant – Humiliation
Words: 2093 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Tell-Tale Heart
Words: 2098 – Rudyard Kipling – How the Leopard Got His Spots
Words: 2098 – Guy de Maupassant – The Hand
Words: 2106 – Guy de Maupassant – Old Mongilet
Words: 2109 – Saki (H H Munro) – The Storyteller (Saki)
Words: 2112 – Patrick Waddington – The Street That Got Mislaid
Words: 2149 – Mark Twain – A Burlesque Biography
Words: 2163 – O Henry – The Gift of the Magi
Words: 2208 – Guy de Maupassant – The Hairpin
Words: 2256 – O Henry – The Whirligig of Life
Words: 2284 – Guy de Maupassant – Denis
Words: 2350 – Mark Twain – Italian without a Master
Words: 2383 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Masque of the Red Death
Words: 2384 – Herman Melville – The Fiddler
Words: 2385 – Anton Pavlovich Checkhov – A Day in the Country
Words: 2385 – Guy de Maupassant – Waiter
Words: 2399 – James Joyce – Araby
Words: 2414 – O Henry – The Princess and the Puma
Words: 2421 – Dorothy Parker – A Telephone Call
Words: 2434 – Guy de Maupassant – Madame Parisse
Words: 2457 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Imp of the Perverse
Words: 2479 – Guy de Maupassant – Timbuctoo
Words: 2495 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Cask of Amontillado
Words: 2500 – O Henry – The Last Leaf
Words: 2530 – Guy de Maupassant – The Piece of String
Words: 2543 – Ambrose Bierce – A Horseman in the Sky
Words: 2544 – Rudyard Kipling – The Elephant’s Child
Words: 2555 – O Henry – The Coming-Out of Maggie
Words: 2623 – Mark Twain – Italian with Grammar
Words: 2631 – Mark Twain – The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Words: 2637 – Guy de Maupassant – Theodule Sabot’s Confession
Words: 2649 – James Joyce – Clay
Words: 2652 – Guy de Maupassant – The Marquis de Fumerol
Words: 2720 – Herman Melville – The Lightning-Rod Man
Words: 2731 – Guy de Maupassant – The Devil
Words: 2747 – Frank Stockton – The Lady or the Tiger?
Words: 2768 – Guy de Maupassant – Julie Romain
Words: 2797 – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Eyes of a Blue Dog
Words: 2811 – Edgar Allan Poe – Von Kempelen and His Discovery
Words: 2871 – Anton Pavlovich Checkhov – The Bet
Words: 2901 – Evan Hunter – The Last Spin
Words: 2989 – Guy de Maupassant – The Donkey
Words: 3016 – Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Words: 3056 – Guy de Maupassant – Toine
Words: 3081 – Guy de Maupassant – The Father
Words: 3091 – Guy de Maupassant – The Necklace
Words: 3159 – Guy de Maupassant – A Coward
Words: 3208 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Wedding-Knell
Words: 3211 – Irwin Shaw – The Girls in Their Summer Dresses
Words: 3283 – George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant
Words: 3343 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Ambitious Guest
Words: 3400 – Graham Greene – The End of the Party
Words: 3448 – Ambrose Bierce – Beyond the Wall
Words: 3620 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar
Words: 3624 – Bret Harte – Tennessee’s Partner
Words: 3642 – Guy de Maupassant – An Affair of State
Words: 3690 – Paul Bowles – In the Red Room
Words: 3772 – Charles Dickens – The Baron of Grogzwig
Words: 3773 – Shirley Jackson – The Lottery
Words: 3801 – George Saunders – The Falls
Words: 3804 – Ambrose Bierce – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Words: 3878 – Edgar Allan Poe – 7 Mesmeric Revelation
Words: 3899 – Roald Dahl – Lamb to the Slaughter
Words: 3998 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Black Cat
Words: 4058 – Guy de Maupassant – The Wreck
Words: 4134 – W W Jacobs – The Monkey’s Paw
Words: 4190 – Bret Harte – The Luck of Roaring Camp
Words: 4279 – Guy de Maupassant – That Pig of a Morin
Words: 4309 – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Eva Is Inside Her Cat
Words: 4356 – Charles Dickens – The Poor Relation’s Story
Words: 4372 – O Henry – The Ransom of Red Chief
Words: 4490 – Guy de Maupassant – A Vagabond
Words: 4492 – James O’Keefe – Death Makes a Comeback
Words: 4618 – Guy de Maupassant – Mademoiselle Fifi
Words: 4625 – Roald Dahl – Man From the South
Words: 4722 – Katherine Mansfield – The Stranger
Words: 5028 – Anton Pavlovich Checkhov – The Darling
Words: 5046 – Ring Lardner – Haircut
Words: 5072 – Roald Dahl – Beware of the Dog
Words: 5114 – Guy de Maupassant – The Inn
Words: 5215 – James Joyce – A Little Cloud
Words: 5231 – Stuart Cloete – The Soldier’s Peaches
Words: 5285 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Minister’s Black Veil
Words: 5387 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – Young Goodman Brown
Words: 5505 – George Orwell – Politics and the English Language
Words: 5547 – Jesse Stuart – Split Cherry Tree
Words: 5557 – Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party
Words: 5565 – Honore de Balzac – A Passion in the Desert
Words: 5637 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Premature Burial
Words: 5672 – O Henry – A Blackjack Bargainer
Words: 5703 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Great Carbuncle
Words: 5704 – Bret Harte – How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar
Words: 5707 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Thousand-And-Second Tale of Scheherazade
Words: 5751 – Guy de Maupassant – Mademoiselle Pearl
Words: 5896 – Rudyard Kipling – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book
Words: 5952 – Tobias Wolff – Hunters in the Snow
Words: 6015 – D H Lawrence – The Rocking-Horse Winner
Words: 6078 – Frank Stockton – The Griffin and the Minor Canon
Words: 6155 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Pit and the Pendulum
Words: 6366 – Ambrose Flack – The Strangers That Came to Town
Words: 6758 – Ring Lardner – The Golden Honeymoon
Words: 6776 – Guy de Maupassant – Useless Beauty
Words: 6815 – Robert Louis Stevenson – Markheim
Words: 6826 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – Ethan Brand
Words: 6934 – Washington Irving – Rip Van Winkle (A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker)
Words: 7053 – H G Wells – The Door in the Wall
Words: 7120 – Henry Van Dyke – The First Christmas Tree
Words: 7176 – Jack London – To Build a Fire
Words: 7178 – Mark Twain – Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
Words: 7181 – Edgar Allan Poe – A Descent Into the Maelstrom
Words: 7226 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher
Words: 7396 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Purloined Letter
Words: 7419 – Thomas Bailey Aldrich – Marjorie Daw
Words: 7446 – Richard Harding Davis – The Consul
Words: 7805 – Jack London – A Piece of Steak
Words: 7876 – Guy de Maupassant – Miss Harriet
Words: 8080 – Mark Twain – The Private History of a Campaign That Failed
Words: 8426 – Richard Connell – The Most Dangerous Game
Words: 8881 – Carl Stephenson – Leiningen versus the Ants
Words: 8970 – Willa Cather – Paul’s Case
Words: 9601 – Thomas Nelson Page – The Burial of the Guns
Words: 10669 – Edith Wharton – Souls Belated
Words: 11870 – Edith Wharton – Afterward
Words: 12261 – Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rappaccini’s Daughter
Words: 33015 – H G Wells – The Time Machine

Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story

Cribbed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Wikipedia entry:

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O’Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.

Also via kottke.org, How to Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut.