New Short Story Collection: A Bowl of Pho

A Bowl of Pho: very short stories by [Sara Roberts Jones]

I’ve written some short stories for your reading pleasure. Well, to be honest, I wrote them for my writing pleasure. But I hope you like them too.

A Bowl of Pho is a collection of ten very short stories. When I say “very short,” that’s what I mean. The whole project began with a challenge to write a 300-word story. Since I recently had to shelve my 131,000-word novel, telling any kind of story in 300 words seemed both trivial and impossible. I was half-wrong — and fortunately it was about the impossible part.

It turned out that writing these vignettes was therapeutic. I let myself go beyond the 300-word limit, but I still kept them all short. It was fun, low-pressure, and got me excited about writing again.

As my catalogue of “mini-stories” grew, I wanted to prove to myself that I can still bring an idea to completion, despite the smoking wreckage of a novel behind me. So I did it. I didn’t overthink anything (as in, I’m pretty sure the art on the front is ramen, not pho). I just I wrote the stories, designed a cover, and put the collection up on Kindle Direct Publishing.

The stories are similar in style to Go Right: they’re warm, fun, and perfect to read over a cup of coffee. I didn’t tackle anything very weighty. I wrote what I liked and called it done.

It’s currently available on Amazon for $2.99. A “pocket-book” size paperback will be coming soon. I hope you check it out!

Found Things

I’m still emerging from the long dark tunnel of winter. It’s taking longer than usual because this year, instead of having a completed second novel as I expected, I’ve just got a shambles of a story that I have to rework from the ground up. That isn’t to say that I’m not writing at all. I have another little project in the works that I hope to say more about soon.

Meanwhile, here are a few writing-related things that have crossed my Shire lately.

By the way, I utterly despise inserting links. It’s tedious. So while I’ll link a few of these items, some of them I’ll just trust that you can cut-and-paste search terms.

Possessed by Passion. A friend, Tracy A. Ball, contributed to this collection. Full disclosure, this isn’t a genre I enjoy. Instead of finding the characters and the situations exciting, I just want to recommend counseling to everyone involved. But you might like it. Click through to the site and you’ll know instantly whether it’s the kind of thing that appeals to you. You should check it out.

Half a League Onward Press. I haven’t read This Do in Remembrance by Dave Dentel because, again, it’s not a genre I enjoy. However, Dave is a friend and I’m very excited that he’s putting his work out there. It might be something you like. You should check it out.

The Legend of Zare Caspian by Abigail Cossette is a web serial with adventure, intrigue, romance, and a “strong female character” who actually is strong and female — not just loud and obnoxious, and not just a man with boobs. While I haven’t read every episode, I have seen the behind-the-scenes work she puts into her stories. (As is possibly apparent by now, I happily support friends even when I’m not a dedicated fan of their genres.) Abigail, by the way, also does all her own artwork. You should check it out.

How Not to Write a Novel, Mittelmark and Newman. A friend sent me this book with the caution, “It’s pretty frank in places.” Well, yes. Definitely an adult audience. But said audience should enjoy the book’s ironic angle. It purports to be advice on how to remain an unpublished author, and goes through some of the best ways to derail your story. I’ve had this book for many years, so it didn’t exactly come to my attention “lately” — except that I recently cleaned up my bookshelf and rediscovered my TWO copies of it (one to lend, one to keep). It’s my favorite writing-advice book. You should check it out.

Go On Write. This is the best site I’ve found for pre-made book covers. He also does custom work—in my case, the cover to my short stories, Go Right. I drop in on the site periodically to see what new offerings he has. You should check it out.

Dominic Noble on YouTube. He’s a young Brit in California whose channel compares books-vs-movies. I found him a couple of years ago when he did a long series on Fifty Shades of Grey, which was highly entertaining, informative, and chock-full of profanity because of his passionate objection to the series. He doesn’t just take down books, though; he sometimes dedicates a video to books he loves. His appreciation of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted — one of my all-time favorite books — convinced me that we’d get along. You should check it out.

Bad Movie YouTubers. These channels aren’t specifically related to writing, but it’s informative to discuss why some stories don’t work. That’s my excuse, anyway. The truth is that I just love a good takedown of a bad movie. Jenny Nicholson, Kennie J.D., Fanboy Flicks (Weird Movies with Mark), and Good Bad Flicks — you should check them out.

My own books. Okay, this isn’t something I just “found lately.” But maybe it’s a discovery waiting for you! I’ve written a novel, The Fellowship, and short stories, Go Right. Both are linked to the right and also under the “Writing” heading at the top. I, too, am supported by friends who very possibly haven’t read the books — but you should because they’re really good. As mentioned above, as I mourn at the graveside of my ruined second novel, I’m also working on a new project which I’ll definitely update you on. You should… well, you know by now.

People I Used to Know

Today on Facebook, I saw multiple instances reminding me why I had to put aside my novel until the end of the year at least.

When I write stories, I work hard to present all of my characters as real people. In the case of my current novel, that meant that my progressive characters run over boundaries in their zeal to do the right thing. And it means that the characters who are blind to racist realities are also hospitable, helpful, and intelligent.

In fact, I was deeply invested presenting good down-home Christians as flawed but good-hearted people. After all, I came from them and I love them. I see big problems in their history and current perspectives, but at the same time, I could write them sympathetically because I know them.

At least, I thought I did.

But these are the people who are cluttering up my newsfeed with things like this:

This isn’t about whether Trump or Biden wins. I haven’t liked any of the options for two elections running. This hits me on a much more personal level.

Four years ago, I saw my people turn out in droves to vote for someone I thought they’d never ally themselves with. They traded principle for political power. That was a year of grief and disillusionment for me, yet I thought I still understood them. Then came this year, when I became aware of the ugly voices of conspiracy. The whispered lies have led people to spread fear and threats of violence as if it’s undisputable truth. My heart broke again. I don’t know my own people.

So my novel remains on a (digital) shelf for now. I hope that sometime soon I might once again know the people I came from.

A 2020 Planner

At the end of last year, I bought a 2020 Planner. Isn’t it lovely?

I had a good reason to buy one. And no, it wasn’t so I could schedule my days, track my goals, and do all that other weird organizer stuff that people usually use planners for. (Note: I tend to be friends with weird organizer people. Also, I marry them.)

No, I liked the idea of filling in a planner for a fictional character. This one promised lots of space for that.

I mean, you could even rate each day, track your goals, write to-do lists, track your water intake… It was perfect for developing an entirely different person in an entirely different life!

But of course, this the year that things went so haywire that even the phrase “2020 Planner” is a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out this planner and flipped through the few pages where I’d jotted down some initial thoughts. The planner fell open to December 2019, and I wrote at the top, “This month I saw one article on Facebook about a new virus in China.”

My fictional character faded from view as I paged through the blank calendars and began to write notes. Everything began shutting down this week. It was hard to get toilet paper. I made masks for the family and felt a little sheepish, but figured it was a good policy.

And then came June, when our old national sin of racism flamed to the surface again after George Floyd’s death. DJ and I attended our first protest, and I saw white friends finally see truths that the black community has been saying for generations.

But I also saw other friends repeating the same old defenses — the same ones I wrote about in my current novel. Many claim to be Christian, who insist that we must repent as soon as the Holy Spirit shows us sin, and our entire duty is to obey God and let him handle the consequences, Yet when it comes to the hard work of repenting of a history of racism, they can’t manage to let go of their political loyalties enough to do so.

I ended in August, when homeschooling is suddenly mainstream, masks still political statement, and the presidential elections looming.

I also noted that I’ve decided to set my novel aside until the end of the year. 2020 threw me off-balance. I feel like I need to reconsider everything from my setting to my characters to the scope that my story takes in. I hope to fill in the rest of the planner at the end of the year, and maybe I’ll be ready to engage with the novel again.

As I look at this accidental journal, I’m glad I took a couple of hours to fill it in. I didn’t set out to write an overview of this year; it just happened. And I think that’s a fitting theme for a 2020 Planner.

Gift Ideas For Your Writer Friend Who Just Got Edited

Do you have a writer friend who has recently received feedback from a professional editor about her manuscript? You’ll know because of her stunned expression and eyes filled with silent pain. Naturally you want to support your friend through this harrowing process, but what can you do? Well, lucky for you, I’ve got ideas!

(Note: I’ll be using the pronoun “her” because English doesn’t give us a neutral pronoun. It’s just for convenience. Not because “she” who runs this site might also be undergoing said harrowing process.)

Gifts for a Writer Undergoing Editing

  1. Send her a text or email to reassure her, “You are a good writer!”
  2. Remind her of the heart of her story and why she wrote it to start with.
  3. Write her a note reassuring her, “You’re going to make something great out of this novel!”
  4. Enclose a gift card to her favorite coffee shop.
  5. Oh, wait, unless it’s 2020 and her favorite coffee shop is open for curbside service only. 2020 sucks.
  6. Make a gift basket for her, filled with writer-friendly treats like new pens, a crisp blank notebook, and a bottle of glue for her shattered ego.
  7. Play a version of Monopoly where all you do is draw Chance cards that say things like, “My editor completely misunderstood how I drew this character,” and the editor has to go directly to jail every time.
  8. Give her suction darts and a target with one big bullseye that has Editors written on it.
  9. Reassure her, “You are a good writer” by engraving it on a brass plaque and mounting it on a stone pillar next to her front door.
  10. Remind her that this is a necessary part of the process; that she’s survived it before and she will again; and didn’t she pay her editor to find everything wrong with her manuscript? And then you should run.

These are just a few ideas. Be creative! After all, your friend is throwing a big ol’ pity party for herself. You’ll have time to think of something.

A Visit from the Story Fairy

The Story Fairy bounced onto my bed. “Okay,” she gushed. “While you’re waiting for your novel to be edited, I have the best idea!”

“How much of an idea?” I asked warily. “That novel was supposed to be a novella. 70K words, not 130K.”

“No, this one is definitely shorter. It won’t take you two years. So what I’m thinking is…” She launched into a story pitch.

“Wow,” I said. “I think that will work!” I catapulted to my laptop. “I need to get this down! I might have a draft written in a month!”

“Right? I told you it wasn’t going to be as involved as the last one.”

About halfway through, however, my fevered typing slowed down. I wrote a paragraph and then deleted it. I sat back and stared at the screen. Finally, I said, “I’m stuck. Where do we go from here?”

The Story Fairy didn’t meet my gaze. “Hm? Oh. I didn’t really work out that part.”

“What do you mean that part? This is the entire second half!”

“Hey, sorry, I have to go. Other authors to inspire, you know!”

“You can’t just leave me hanging halfway through!” I shouted, but the Story Fairy was already gone.

A moment later, she stuck her head back into my room. “Um, have you considered an explosion?”

I threw my coffee cup at her.

Racism Is Bigger Than Me

The recent Amy Cooper incident snagged something in my brain.

Amy Cooper is a white woman who was approached by Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, and asked to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park. She protested (although the rules clearly stated that dogs should be leashed), so Christian said, “You won’t like what I’m going to do.” He took out a dog treat — apparently he carries them because owners will leash their dogs to prevent them from eating a treat from a stranger’s hand.

This made Amy angry. As her words grew heated, Christian began filming her. Furious, she called 911 to report that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” While on the phone, she finally leashed her dog. Christian said, “Thank you,” and ended the video.

Once the video was posted, Amy caught hell from the internet. She lost her job. She did apologize, and she said, “I’m not a racist.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I watched the video. Because, see, I’m not a sadistic officer who gorges on power to the point that I kill a man. I’m not a belligerent, trigger-happy vigilante who shoots a jogger in my neighborhood. But an ordinary white woman, frustrated by quarantine that’s kept my dog housebound, embarrassed and alarmed and angry by a strange man filming me — I saw myself in Amy Cooper.

She says she isn’t a racist. I seriously doubt she’d get in a truck with a gun and track down a black jogger. In fact, I thought it was interesting that in the video, she uses the term “African American,” not even “black.” In everyday life, Amy Cooper probably isn’t racist.

But she didn’t like it when someone pointed out that she wasn’t following the rules. In fact, she took great offense to it, to the point that she was willing to lie to the authorities about being threatened. And while Amy Cooper might not personally be a racist, she knew how to leverage a racist system against Christian.

She says — twice — “I’m going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening me.”

It’s not even so much that she identified him as African American. That’s necessary in some contexts: “He threatened me. He’s African American, about 35, clean-shaven, wearing a blue shirt.”

But no, she was using his race as a weapon against him. She knew that by saying an “African American man” was threatening her, she had ratcheted up the alarm level. The confrontation was no longer between two people; it became a scared white woman vs. an angry black man. And history can tell you how that story usually turns out.

I doubt Amy wanted Christian arrested, and I doubt she revels in the idea of injustice. She was just angry, affronted, and wanted to punish him for making her uncomfortable. She reached for the closest and easiest way to do that — a little lie, a little reminder of his vulnerability, and Christian would regret that he ever approached her and her dog.

So yeah. I see myself in Amy Cooper, caught publicly behaving in a way she’s not really proud of. Like Amy, I’m not a racist. But this entire incident highlighted to me that there’s more to racism than me. There’s an entire power system that I can draw on as a white woman. That’s the racism that oppresses and kills black people, while exonerating and benefiting white people.

And that system is too big for me to dismantle. In fact, I’m not even sure how to identify what needs to change. I might even be reluctant to change it because it would impact the comfortable life I’m used to. That’s a slow, difficult revelation, an ongoing conversation I have with God and myself.

But I can see what five years ago I didn’t believe actually existed: that I can punish a person for being black and making me uncomfortable.

Christian Cooper, thanks for your poise and civility — and presence of mind to capture an encounter for the rest of us to see and understand. Amy Cooper, I hope this life disaster becomes something redemptive in your life. I’ve learned from it. Let’s both become better people.

Not Just One Square

“I know it sounds like I’m just making it all about race, but if you see it as part of a bigger pattern…”

She waved a hand at the quilt spread out under the light.

“Just one square of cloth isn’t anything. But you put a lot of them together, and over time you see the big picture. … You look at the big picture over the last forty to fifty years, you can see that it wasn’t that Larsen didn’t know JJ. He knew him well enough to see he was black.”

I wrote these words in my novel long before the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. In fact, my character, Carondellay, isn’t even talking about murder; she’s talking about much more ordinary, everyday injustices.

Yet, sadly, the words ring true.

It’s a pattern, it’s a problem, and white people need to acknowledge it. The heritage that was handed down to us — our heroes, our ideals, that which we hold sacred — is mixed with injustice and oppression.

Fortunately, all is not hopeless. We can work to make it right. And we should.

The Best Name Book Ever

But not, surprisingly, by Richard Scarry! (Parents of small kids will probably get that joke.)

The Baby Name Wizard, 2019 Revised 4th Edition: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby by [Laura Wattenberg]

When I was a teenager, some of my favorite reading was baby name books. Not only did I have characters to name, but my family shared a general interest in names and naming trends. It took me a while to figure out that not every dinner table perked up at the mention an odd or trendy name you came across last week. That, in fact, some people didn’t even care about the difference in spelling a name Michaela or Makayla.

I also learned that I needed couch my hobby in the proper terms. An 18-year-old reading a baby-name book gave rise to two immediate assumptions:

  1. I was pregnant.
  2. I was not pregnant, but so looking forward to having babies that I was already thinking of names for them.

Neither was accurate.

I grew up, got married, and for a while I read baby names books with actual babies in mind. (Although I found our third child’s name long before I got pregnant with her — I just thought of it one afternoon, called DJ at work and asked if he liked the name, and it went on the list.) Yet it was also simply because I love the subject. It was during these years that I first discovered The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg… only the best name book ever.

The Baby Name Wizard was a revolution in the world of baby-name books. Most of them tended to just be a list of names with dubious definitions attached to them. (Many name meanings are uncertain or irrelevant anyway; our culture doesn’t generally choose names for their meanings. And in a world where you can build names like Abralyn and Jaycee, name meanings don’t even exist.) Some of the better books would give you a short commentary about a name, or list famous people who have the name.

TBNW does way more than that. In one small entry, you get:

  1. Name pronunciation
  2. Variations in spelling
  3. Common nicknames
  4. “Brother” and “sister” names. These are names that the author has decided match the name in style and association.
  5. A graph to show its popularity trend, especially which year it was the most popular
  6. A short blurb about the name — its sound, its origin, its associations
  7. A brief mention of well-known people who have the name

Here’s the entry* for my name:

And it sure doesn’t hurt my feelings that she gives “Sara” its own entry, separate from “Sarah.” When I was 13, my very first stories featured a character named Sarah Robsin who was not in any way a fantasy version of myself, since Sarah is such a different name from Sara.

Beyond the actual name listings, you also get sections that group names according to certain styles — African-American, Brisk & Breezy, Mythological, Nicknames… Y’all. It’s just good reading.

I’ve used this book extensively while writing my current novel. I needed to know what a woman would be named in the 60s (so, naming trends from the 40s). This book lets me find a name, then follow it to other, similar, names. I can see from the graph whether the name “Brittany” would have been cutting-edge, trendy, or passe depending on how old the character is. For someone who finds it jarring when a contemporary teenager is named “Judy”(and nobody remarks on it as unusual) or 35-year-old man in 2011 is named “Tristan” (and he wasn’t tormented in middle school in 1991?) — or, heck, who thinks it’s wildly convenient that all of the Twilight Cullens have trendy old-fashioned names like Edward and Rosalie and none of them are named Herbert or Flossie — this book has been an enormously helpful resource.

The 2019 (fourth) edition just came out, and I just got my copy. It’s familiar and fun, and good quarantine reading. You should pick one up! Just be prepared to explain to people that you aren’t actually pregnant.

*(Not the whole entry, just in case, and here’s hoping Laura Wattenberg doesn’t object to me posting this. Or maybe she’ll track it down, realize I’m a longtime loyal fan, and become pen pals with me.)

Tragically Current

It takes a long time for a story to get from seed-of-inspiration to bloom-of-book. I’m always worried that by the time I finish, my chosen subject will be outdated and I’ll have wasted two to three years of my life.

And in the case of my current novel, I didn’t even set out to write a book. I wanted to write a short story about two present-day women who discover an old quilt, and each thinks it belongs to her grandmother.

For diversity’s sake, I decided that one of the women would be black. Instantly, my story tangled up with complications.

There was no way I could write a story about their grandmothers — a white woman and a black woman in the 1960s — without taking race into account. No story would be simple. I could always say that the two women had crossed racial lines and became good friends; but that came with its own problems. Not necessarily because they wouldn’t want to, but because existing society had ways of punishing people who tried to cross that line — violence for blacks, social ostracism for whites.

And then I realized how recently that society had existed. It was within living memory. I myself was born in the late 70s when the great Civil Rights battles were still raging. I was thirteen years old before I realized that it wasn’t morally wrong for a white person to marry a black person. I was stunned at how we white people treat this heavy history as long past, when I now could see how it still oozes like toxic waste in our culture even today.

I pondered my newly-complicated story and was faced with two options:

  1. Embrace the challenge, face the wrongs and injustices that my people perpetrated, and commit myself to honest research about what life was then, and how it affects life now.
  2. Change the black character back to a white one.

I’ve spent two and a half years writing — and being — a “friendly white girl” who has to come to terms with the existence and effects of racism. I have nothing new to add to the black voices who have spoken up about their realities. But, it turns out, I have a lot to say to white people, especially Christians, who consistently downplay, deny, or vilify those who bring up this “old history” or “won’t move on.” I have, in fact, a whole novel.

And just in case I wondered if the subject was passe… Two months ago, in Georgia, an unarmed black man was killed by two white men. According to available evidence, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when accosted by a father-and-son duo who say they thought he was responsible for recent burglaries in the area. It’s unclear exactly what happened, or whether their suspicions were justified, or really anything except that Arbery was shot. That’s because, until now, no arrests had been made, and no investigation had been launched.

It’s that last part that rips the wound wide. It’s part of a pattern that was pieced together a hundred and fifty years ago and is still intact today, even if (thank God) we’re tearing at the seams now. These men weren’t immediately arrested and investigated because they had connections and friends among authorities. That’s an old, tired story. It was true for my fictional grandmothers in the 60s, and it’s apparently still true now.

In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, nor do I really know what it’s like to actively oppress. But I thought, institutional racism is kind of like being in an abusive family. What would be like to be the victim of blatant abuse, but have the rest of the family downplay, deny, or vilify me for speaking up?

And then I realized that, against the backdrop of that quilt of mysterious origins, I had my story and my protagonist.

I’m just sorry that the concept isn’t outdated by now.