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A Correspondence Course in the Short Story
Dr. Hilary Johnson of the Author's Advisory Service
Short Story Writing Course -My Best Decision As a Writer
In 1989, when I began my diploma correspondence course in The Advanced Short Story with Dr. Hilary Johnson whose critique service is regularly recommended to writers by editors, agents and tutors of university creative writing courses, I had already published twenty pieces of fiction in the leading newspapers of Karnataka. I was a copywriter then at Ogilvy & Mather Direct, Bangalore and I was hungry for professional feedback on my short stories.
It was the wisest move I’ve made as a writer of fiction. In those days there was no Internet and part of the charm of the course was waiting for the letters with their lessons and feedback. I owe much to Dr. Hilary Johnson. She urged me to move on to writing longer pieces such as novellas and novels.
The letters we exchanged will say more than I can in this foreword, so, on to the letters and the stories I sent Hilary. I believe writers like you will learn a lot from this correspondence.
A Correspondence Course in the Short Story
The First Exchange between Hilary and Me
Here is my first letter to Hilary along with two of my published short stories – ‘Glooked Up’ and ‘Christabel.’.
10. 9. 89
Dear Mrs. Johnson,
I learned about the correspondence course you offer in the short story and science fiction from a friend. I have published about 20 stories in the newspapers here – humour, children’s and fantasy. My true strength though, I feel, really lies in fantasy. I find it more challenging than writing realistic stuff. I’d also love to enrol for your Science Fiction Course. I am fascinated by the universe and its potential for stories. Therefore I’ve been studying science on my own. Planets, time travel, black holes, etc.
I find it necessary to send you two of my stories because the styles are so different. Please do let me know if I have the makings of a great author. I have been a copywriter now fr almost 10 years but my ambition is really to become a famous author. Luckily, the first story I ever sent out was published and most of them still bring me acceptance slips, but I’m hungry for professional criticism.
I read a lot. I admire the short stories of Garcia Marquez, Singer, Du Maurier, O Henry, Robert Silverberg and Peter S. Beagle, a rather new author. I also write a lot. If I don’t have some story brewing in my head, I feel I’m not achieving enough.
Hoping to hear from you soon,
P.S: Please find my two stories attached.
Sloop had circled Stonehenge seven times when he spied this old man,very Merlin-like,slouching about the legendary,mysterious stones. His silvery beard almost reached the ground and he lifted it often to avoid stepping on it. He was,in fact,more hair than man. His midnight blue robe was pierced by stars and his crimson cloak splattered with crescent moons. He was chewing on the dog - eared tip of his tall wizard's hat because he was deeply perplexed. In all his long life he had never been quite sure of what Stonehenge was all about. You could barely see his sparkling eyes that hid beneath his bushy brows as though they wanted to get away from this unmagical world.
Sloop heard the old man mutter,"What are you,what on earth are you?" to the stones, and sneaking up behind him,his head sticking out from behind one of the ancient,pock-marked stones, cried,"Cuckoo!" Then he hastily hid his head for fear of being transformed into a toad. But there was no effect on the old man who kept muttering distractedly to himself,an insane gleam in his grey? blue? brown? green? eyes.
"I say,Merlin!"shouted Sloop. The old man stumbled and somersaulted over his beard. Sloop picked him up,put the beard out of the way and tried desperately to swallow the giggle that was trying to escape through his nose.
"Berlin?"said the wizard,"Berlin's in a bad way these days."
"I said Merlin!"Sloop shouted into his hairy ear,"You're Merlin, aren't you? Got away from your crystal cave where the conniving Nimue trapped you, what?"
"Not at all,not at all. I'm Merlino. Merlin,if you recall,kept growing younger by the day and the last I saw him was when he was a babe. By now,I'm sure,he's ceased to exist. The doddering old fool,getting taken in by a woman like that!"
"Imagine!"said Sloop who couldn't. Merlino extracted a crooked wand from the confused depths of his robes. Sloop drew back a bit.
"I'm going to show you some magic that would turn Merlin green with anger."
"Green with anger?" Sloop scratched his head.
"No,purple with envy,"said Merlino,staring at his wand,"now,will you like me to show you?" Sloop thought he spoke like a wizard
who missed an audience.
"Er....",he said,being one of those skeptical types.
"Her? I can't see her," Merlino squinted like an agitated rabbit.
"We're about to travel to a planet in the system of Frosty
Flakes," said Merlino pompously.
"Without a spaceship?"
"Without a spacesuit even?"
"Without!" cried Merlino,his grey? blue? brown? green? eyes trying to twinkle forth from the hairy abyss. Then waving his wand wildly,he cried,"Kazzaampooo!" There was a flash,Sloop saw stars and suddenly they were somewhere else.
"It worked! It worked!" said Merlino,looking about them. However,he'd waved his wand so violently that his ruby ring had flown off his finger to hide beneath a stone in Stonehenge.
"Gazooks!"he said,noticing the loss,"My ring,where's my ring? It was given to me by my pappy!" He began to weep noisily,wiping his tears with his beard.
"There,there,don't cry,"said Sloop,"there's something on that rock that's crying too."
Merlino opened his eyes,took off his hat and began to chew on it. The thing on the rock looked like a humanoid in a bodysuit. It was bald,very short and skinny,with one weeping eye in its forehead.
"What's your name?" said Sloop,sidling up to it.
"I don't know my name. My Wok Wok didn't give me one because we've run out of names here." The creature wiped its brimming eye with the back of its hand on which the veins stood out true and blue.
"I'll tell you where to find your name if you show us around here,"said Merlino,suddenly waking up.
Oh really? I'll be so cloopful,I will show you anywhere you like!" said the creature.
"Why are you larking?" it said,indignant.
"If I could lark around I wouldn't be here,"said Sloop,puzzled.
"Well,stop larking then,there's no need to. Are you feeling vroom?" it patted its chest.
"No,certainly not!" said Merlino,indignant,although he had not the faintest idea about what was meant. Sloop giggled and glanced around him,frowning with interest. He could see clouds as on earth,trees as on earth. Buildings and flyways of glass like nothing on earth. Creatures moved inside glass houses on their daily chores.
"Must they have glass loos too?" he said to Merlino.
"This will be their Waterloo. One must have secrets."
"Don't zark!" cried Anonymous,its one eye glaring.
"Bark?" said Merlino,starting and nearly upsetting himself on his beard again,"I'm no dog!"
"I can get you doink mizooks...are you vroom?" he patted his chest again. For the first time Merlino noticed that the creature had tiny holes in the side of his bald head instead of ears. He felt certain that he had been magically transported to a planet in the system of Frosty Flakes. That accounted for the strange language Anonymous spoke.
"You...er...eat the doinks?"said Sloop,horrified.
"Half half. They are half doinks,half pigs. We eat the dog half. Twackly,we've got a lot many glooked up things here like centaurs and mermaids,"it said proudly. "Shall I mooch you?"
"Oh no,please don't!" said Merlino,blushing.
"Oh please do!" said Sloop.
"How could you?" said Merlino,aghast.
"With pleazpoo,with pleazpoo!" Anonymous began to walk at a fast pace,gesturing to them to follow. Merlino sighed with relief.
"I told you there's nothing O about Berlin!" said the wizard,irritably.
"MERLINO!" shouted Sloop into his hairy ear,"IT SEEMS OUR EARTHLY MYTHS HAVE COME ALIVE ON THIS PLANET!"
"They were never mere myths,boy. Anything made in our image is sure to mess around with genes and chromosomes."
"I have a funny feeling we are not where or what we think we are."
"How beautifully put,my dear boy. Sunny feeling!"
"We're there,"said Anonymous,its eye shining with anticipation,"Tell me where to find my name and then you may
"Your name lies waiting beyond yonder hill,"Merlino pointed at a purple hill. Very kind of you to show us around your interesting planet."
"Zack you,zack you,zack you!" the creature called over its shoulder, running as fast as its short legs could carry it.
"How obscene," said Merlino. "It's a strange kind of English they speak. Wonder where they picked it up."
They entered the forest,not knowing what they were looking for exactly. Merlino tripped over his beard,and fell face down into the rotting leaves. He cursed.
"Why don't you chop it off?" said Sloop,laughing openly.
"Silly,dear boy,how can I? My soul is in my beard," Merlino picked it up,all muddy and tattered and flung it across a shoulder.
"Do you really mean the soul bit?"
"Yes,dear boy. Wizards don't leave their souls lying around where anyone can find it. No soul and you're dead."
They heard the gallop of horse hooves and out of the bushes rushed a real centaur with bow and arrow poised to shoot.
"Who goes in the Forbidden Forest?" said the living legend in booming tones. Merlino swooned into the rotting leaves again with the excitement.
"Er...er...did you really say forbidden forest and are you a real centaur or off to some fancy dress ball?"
"I said Forbidden Forest. Forbidden to all but to the really glooked up!" The arrow trembled as he held it.
"We're glooked up too," Sloop began to back away,"we're not where and what we think we are."
"You do sound it," said the centaur,putting away the bow and arrow,horse muscles rippling, "To tell you the greep,I'm not just glooked up,I'm misferable too."
"You shouldn't be,you know,misferable,I mean. You have the legs of a horse and the intellect of a sage,think of the miracles you could do!"
"Neigh!" snorted the centaur,"I am completely glooked up. When my horse half wants to run,my man half wants to rest. My one half wants to eat grass and the other longs for goolagung."
"What's goolagung?" said Merlino,surfacing.
"Who are you?" said the centaur,"you look marky."
"Stop calling me names. My name is Merlino and I can see what you are. It's an awful pleasure to meet you. I thought you were extinct."
"Who's calling who names?" said the centaur with an injured air.
"All right,I'm marky,marky,marky!" cried Merlino with an exasperated air.
"Fine. If you're so marky,maybe you could answer some questions that have been hotching me for a while."
"Shoot? Are you sure?" said the centaur lifting his great bow.
"Noooooo!" shouted Sloop,"he means that you may go ahead,ask your questions!"
"Very well,then. Are men's heels luckier than horse shoes?"
"All men are heels."
"You bruggle me. Should I train for the races or race for the trainer's job?"
"All races are rat races,"Merlino stroked his beard,"it's just the question of top or bottom rat."
"One more question,is the truth truer from a horse's mouth or a man's mouth?"
"That depends on who brushes his teeth three times a day." Sloop gave Merlino a quizzical look. Merlino saw it and blushed.
"You bruggle me," said the centaur.
"Question time over,now tell me is there a mermaid in these parts?"
"Oh yes,shall I mooch you?"
"We'll be very cloopful if you do," Sloop said hastily before Merlino could open his mouth.
"Follow me," said the centaur trotting ahead.
"I'd bet his horse half chases mares and the other,nymphs," said Sloop between his teeth.
"He's very mixed up."
"Glooked up,as they say here," said Sloop.
A mermaid was sunning herself on a rock in the middle of a lake. The big pink jar in her hand was labeled: JOHNSON'S SCALE REMOVING LOTION WITH NEW FISH REPELLENT. She wanted no fish scales on her tail and no fish nibbling at it either. She stared at the jar,put it away,stared at it again and almost dropped it when she saw Sloop. He looked like her prince charming. Surely he wouldn't mind her tail.
"Ahoy there!" called the centaur to the mermaid,"I've got some hacklebums here who want to meet you!" There was a splash as she,very beautiful,neared the shore on which Merlino,Sloop and the centaur stood like soldiers at attention.
"And you,Mr. Centaur are the biggest hacklebum of all!" said Sloop angrily.
"Zack you,zack you,zack you!" the centaur grinned horsily.
"I didn't think you could stoop to such rudeness!" said Sloop.
"Hold your horses," said Merlino wearily when the centaur showed signs of retaliation.
"I'm not a horse,I'm a man!" he stamped his hooves to drive home the point.
Suddenly,there was a big splash and a surprised yowl from Sloop. The mermaid had pulled him in.
"C-c -crocodile!" yelled Sloop,panic written all over him, "Help! Help!"
"Do I look like a crocodile?" said the mermaid,twining her tail around the struggling Sloop.
"You sure do behave like one,sneaking up the bank and dragging me in by my foot!"
"Ummm, just what I've been tobkin for all these years!"
"Let go,I'm allergic to fish!"
"I'm a woman,not a fish. Look,no scales!" she did a pirouette and the tail stuck out of the water like some strange white worm. Then seeing Sloop grimace, she added,"I'm just a little glooked up,that's all. And I'm not going to stay wet all my life. I'm going to get myself a credit card!"
Sloop was beginning to shiver and look very blotchy.
"You there,with the long hair!" she called out to Merlino,"You look marky. Do you think I've found my prince charming at last? And do you have a cure for fish allergy?"
"Thanks for the compliment but I know this is not your man. He's too blotchy and for that I have no cure," said Merlino.
She let Sloop go and burst into tears.
“Caught you chinking, “ said the centaur, who had never seen the mermaid cry.
“I’m not chinking. It’s the water,” she said.
But Merlino was “marky” and he knew the truth. To cheer her up he said,
“Eeeeeeep!” waved his wand and lo and behold! The mermaid had acquired a pair of legs.
She was ecstatic. “I have a feeling he’s on his way. Oh! Zack you! Zack you! Zack you!” she exclaimed, caressing her legs.
Merlino blushed. Coming from her lovely lips,it did not sound too obscene. Sloop sniffed and sneezed and scratched and slooped. His face looked bloated.
"Hee,hee,hee," said Merlino,rubbing an evil smelling balm upon it.
The centaur,neighing loudly was about to chase the mermaid round the trees when his legs kicked up a great fuss.
"Hee,hee,hee!" Merlino fell face down again. The centaur gave him an injured look. Sloop picked Merlino up with a sigh and dragged him, still laughing through the trees.
"Karamba!" said Merlino,bumping blindly into a massive standing stone. He stared. The stone stood among others in a circle,mostly hidden by a tangle of vines. Feeling mysteriously drawn to the place,he sat down on the ground and leaned his head against the stone. And this is what he heard :
"What am I? Am I larky or am I marky? Should I become an altar when I grow up or a love seat? Am I glooked up?" Merlino was startled to say the least. But before he could analyse it,something poked him in the behind. He sprang up with an "OUCH!" There on the ground lay his ruby ring! He felt extremely foolish. It was the earth he was standing upon,the good old earth of the far future where everyone spoke funny English and houses were made of glass.
A note here before you read ‘Christabel’ which was published in The Deccan Herald in October 1987. The mention of the wild orange blossom in the forest is a hark back to a beautiful novel I read as a teenager ‘Nicolette’ by Emile Zola. But it was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who inspired me to write this story after I read Coleridge’s poem of the same name. I had been haunted by the line in the poem about the maiden with the serpent eyes. Said Solzehenitsyn in his Nobel Prize speech: “Not everything has a name. Some things lead us into a realm beyond words. . . . it is like that small mirror in the fairy tales. You glance in it and what you see is not yourself ; for an instant you glimpse the inaccessible where no horse or magic carpet can take you. And the soul cries for it.”
Through the green and yellow woods it rushed, brightening the misty light of dawn, lighting up the tall, rich trees. Opaque and quivering, it stopped to hover over the sleeping Christabel. Over her bed of soft heather and flowers whose crushed scent rose in the waiting air.
Beneath the great oak where the mistletoe grows unbidden, the lovely nymph stirred. Upon her eyelids pulsed the sphere of light like the beat of a heart. The tender doe beside her woke first, wide-eyed and trembling, to cower beneath the flowers. Christabel rose, she fled after the light as it began to glide through the woods. Joy and wonder on her face, gold hair flying and curling about her naked marble body. The birds, the very air grew still.
At last, above a bare, steep cliff it came to rest. She saw, slowly forming within it, the perfect figure of a young god. The pale sky was fast deepening into rose. Closer she drew to it, breath stopping in her throat. She heard him speak in a voice powerful and elemental, yet soft with kindness.
“Do not follow further, foolish Christabel! Beyond this lies the dark domain of Hades and I must go to it.” His voice echoed in the entombed silence of the forest.
“Are you a god to lure me so? Am I not beautiful? Stay with me before you go.” Christabel moved closer and held out a hand.
He did not take it. Anger clouded hi lovely brow. “Beauty! Is that all you live for? Then you shall die for it. Go. Someday perhaps, you shall understand beauty.”
The light began to fade. With steps heavy with fear and regret, Christabel turned away. The red sun rose slowly – a beacon of hope or despair?
The doe did not return to Christabel. She saw her from afar, an ugly creature covered with green scales and fled startled from her bower.
Weary Christabel, sitting beside a clear pool, saw herself and raised trembling fingers to her face. Her lips, her eyes were the same. The symmetry of her limbs unchanged. She held herself tight, as though she could prevent the intrusion of the green scales creeping along her belly and thighs. Startled and grief stricken, she watched her transformation.
“I have been beautiful,” she cried, running fingers through her long gold hair.
Claws were growing from her fingers, bursting through the pale flesh. Sadly she sank to the earth and the squirrels, in surprise, flitted away from her. Birds flew away on terrified wings.
“I am Christabel. Do you not know me?” she cried to them.
Into this enchanted forest rode Silvadore on his pale stallion with fiery eyes and mane. Far had he ridden on his quest for beauty that is truth. In purple breeches, he rode through the whispering trees, crimson cloak billowing behind him like a ripe cloud. His tawny head was bare and he was beautiful to behold. It was twilight and in the indigo sky glimpsed through the silver beeches, pale stars anticipated the moon.
A sweet song drifted through the trees like a soft summer breeze. It was lovely and sad and he began to follow in its direction, moving in a trance.
“I was beautiful once
Why do you hide from me?
Can you not see I am the same?
Far forsaken I lie
Come to me softly gain
For on the morrow
The petals will fall
And only the soul remain.”
Silvadore saw Christabel leaning against the old oak. Her glorious hair, her ethereal voice bewitched him. She turned to look at him. He was both repulsed and drawn by her terrible beauty. It was as if he had suffered a terrible blow and reeled under it.
“Turn back, turn back,” said his heart, but he steeled himself to look full upon her.
Deep violet eyes, lovely beneath their lids of green. Red lips that bloomed upon the serpent skin. Gently, he soothed the rearing horse, never ceasing to gaze at Christabel.
“Must you journey into this forest when it is too late? How beautiful you seem with your steadfast eyes. How can you gaze upon my ugliness? I cannot even welcome you with a smile, though I dreamed of you often,” thought Christabel, hiding her face in her hands. Slowly, like a creature of mist in a dream, she turned away from him to walk into the wild orange blossom, there to hide, to mourn.
A multitude of gem-like eyes peered at Silvadore through the leaves as he sipped warm ine by the fire he had kindled. A sadness, a longing filled him. Who was she, so beautiful beneath her scaly skin? He imagined her terrible face smouldering in the flames. Lulled by the horse’s breath warm on the nape of his neck and the music of the wind in the trees, he was about to close his eyes when he saw her. She was walking towards him, a large mirror in his hands, a hideous goddess. Unmoving, he watched as she sat down beside the fire with a kind of hope lifting her slender, drooping neck. Then she vanished in the gloom. But in the mirror she was beautiful, beckoning him with the sure smile of a woman who is aware of her beauty.
“Am I beautiful?” she asked of him, shyly, softly.
“Beautiful beyond any dream,” he answered, thinking the moment of truth had dawned at last.
“Then you will do this for me. Kill me when the dawn arrives. If you love me.”
He searched for sorrow in her face. Instead, he found great joy radiating from it. Yet he flinched at her words.
“I cannot kill my beloved. Ask me anything besides,” said Silvadore, pale.
“There is nothing else. If you love me, do as I ask. I beseech you. There is no other way. “
Her long hair was a shower of gold. Fireflies gathered into its richness, the doe nuzzled her hand. She laughed up at him. In her violet eyes, a pleading and something else he could not understand.
“You wish to die,” he said.
“I wish to live. Oh, kill me or this will never end. No one, no, not even you could live with this ugliness.”
Her eyes shone with tears. He wanted to touch her. She was fading away. He held out his hand and touchéd warm glass. He looked for Christabel, but the kind, gentle night hid her from his eyes brimming with unshed tears. He closed them, stilling his raging soul.
He dreamed. He felt her soothing, exciting embrace. He smelled the orange blossom in her soft hair and woke with an anguished cry. Wildly he looked for the sun. It slumbered still. Christabel was asleep on the other side of the smoking fire. Terrible to behold. “No, it cannot be Christabel,’ he thought, fighting fear and disgust. ‘Yet there’s no time to be lost. Better she perish than exist in such ugliness. Stay still my heart. The moment has come. There is no turning back.”
She did not stir when he crept up behind her, sword in steady hand. He raised it and she opened her violet eyes full of joy. Her fingers reached for him, claws unsheathed, her hair like sunlight spread around her.
He stabbed her in the heart. Warm blood spurted on his hands. Her arms quivered, then sank to the earth. There was a smile upon her lips. He threw down his sword and wept. He despised himself. What was beauty to love?
He heard a soft, tinkling laugh and turned in disbelief.
“Beauty is the truth that never dies,” whispered Christabel, more beautiful than the lady in the mirror.
Below is Hilary’s reply to my letter above.
September 30, 1989
Dear Ms. Saran,
I have read your short stories with interest. I enjoyed your stories which are extremely imaginative, neatly structured and altogether well-written. They are, as you say, very different stories. ‘Glooked Up’ is tremendous fun, while ‘Christabel’ is a more serious and disturbing fantasy. Certainly they demonstrate versatility of range. The fun with language in ‘Glooked Up’ is delightful, reminding me a little of the Irish writer Brian O’ Nolan and the newspaper columns he wrote under another name. The sharpness of the interchanges between Sloop and Merlino are a joy, too.
Mind you, it is probably harder to place this type of story than it is ‘Christabel’ and its like, stories full of atmosphere and the undercurrents of sexuality and violence which we associate with fairy tales. This is a powerful story, thick with associations and interpretations, as well as being strong simply read at face value.
You undoubtedly have talent. The fact that you have had twenty stories published is a confirmation of that – and it was not just luck which caused your very first story to be accepted. Whether or not you can become a famous author, I cannot tell you, but I think you have it within your power.
The route to fame is less through stories than through novels. True, in the science fiction and fantasy genres, there are some very highly regarded magazines. Authors who have stories published in these might expect to be noticed. But the number of magazines is fairly restricted. (Probably the best markets exist in the United States.) On the other hand, the demand for novels in these genres is consistently good and this is something you should consider working towards.
What you are going to need, certainly if you get to the novel-writing stage, is an agent. Most agents have no interest in short stories, since their percentage of the usual payment for a story makes the exercise uneconomic, but there are some agents who would be interested in an author’s potential on the strengths of his/her short stories. Looking through my copy of ‘The Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book’, I don’t see any agents listed in India, and probably in any event, you would do better to use a U.K. organisation. I know I’m jumping the gun rather, but this is the direction in which you need to be thinking. Certainly, you need to aim to get your stories published outside India.
You are already doing very well and I am sure that a study of the Advanced Course would just add the finishing touches. The Science Fiction Course is a very short one, only two lessons which are normally taken in conjunction with one of the other story writing courses.
In addition, you need to read plenty of the kind of books which you see yourself writing and familiarise yourself with what particular publishers want. (I need hardly stress to a copywriter the importance of market study!) There is a nice collection by Isaac Asimov of his article s on writing science fiction and Stephen King’s ‘Danse Macabre’ is an interesting consideration of the horror form – though I imagine that isn’t quite your scene.
As I say, you have talent and we need to maximise this and consider how best to present it to the world. A study of the course would be a first step.
I shall look forward to hearing from you soon,
H. Johnson, M.A., Ph.D.