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April 17, 2013

Michael Frissore: Humor in the Craft

Puppet Shows, my humorous collection of absurdist short stories from Writers AMuse Me Publishing, might not be the type of book one thinks of when discussing “the Craft.” The stories are there to make the reader laugh. Nonetheless, Puppet Shows is crafty, even if it’s more witchcraft or spacecraft than actual “Craft.”

Here, I’ll prove it. “Heckle,” the story of a boy named after a cartoon magpie whose father literally explodes one evening then is later adopted by an organ grinder and his performing monkey, was very carefully crafted. “Heckle” began as two flash fictions, “Carole Lombard is Dead” and “Frances the Monkey,” that no literary journal would touch because they didn’t “go anywhere” or “mean anything.” So what did your humble Wednesday Writer do? Weep? Well, yes, but he also combined the two pieces, did a little research on organ grinding, and BOOM! “Heckle” was born.

I did the same with “Grandpa & Me,” the heart-wrenching tale of a boy whose grandfather elopes with the Bogeyman. That story was originally just 200 words until I decided it needed more meat on its bones if anyone was to take it seriously. I did, however, refuse to do this with the first story in Puppet Shows, “Dinner with Reginald,” which I considered perfect as a small flash piece.

Take another gem from Puppet Shows, “Q.Q.’s Barbershop,” the story of a man who lives and cuts hair inside a whiskey bottle. All that took was combining the usable parts of a story I wrote in college after seeing a W.C. Fields short with a couple of other flash pieces I wrote later, including one about a man wanting to give his deceased pet squirrel a haircut, and KAPOW! We have Q.Q.

I used a similar formula for “The Seven Stages of Sorrow” (which was just one of seven titles I used for that story, one of which was “The Girl in the Ultimate Warrior Jacket”). I had separate, very brief stories about a desert caravan, a teacup ride coming loose at a state fair, two friends wrestling each other as Chris Jericho and Yoshihiro Tajiri, plus three other shorts. Threw them all into the same pot and Bozdee bozdee bop zitty bop! I had my story.

It was the same deal with “The Rise and Fall of the Sockdolagers,” a cute tale about flying sock puppets, and “The Adventures of Root Beer Float Man.” Both of those date back more than ten years when I created the characters in a writers’ forum on Yahoo! Groups and serialized them. People kind of dug both series. So those ideas were in storage for a while, but I never completely forgot them. How could you forget Root Beer Float Man?

I guess the part of “the Craft” I’m talking about is editing, some of which includes taking a little of this and a little of that, and ramming them together, kind of like what Lennon and McCartney did with “A Day in the Life” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Not that I’m Lennon or McCartney, or even Ringo. If I’m any type of beetle, I’ve always seen myself as a kabutomushi, the Japanese ninja beetle.

Anyway, another type of editing is what some writers call “killing your baby.” Now, don’t worry. They don’t mean in an Andrea Yates or Susan Smith kind of way. I’m referring to something like what I did with another story in Puppet Shows, “Treasure of the Urinal Cake,” which was to take 5,000 words, cut them in half, say hello to the first 2,500, and so long to the other 2,500, never to be heard from again. Services will be held for them tomorrow.

Some other tidbits about “Treasure,” you ask? Well, I, of course, had the novel and Humphrey Bogart film Treasure of the Sierra Madre in mind while penning this story, but I initially wrote the two main characters as silly college students who tear through Boston Common and Faneuil Hall looking for treasure. Then an editor of some journal whose name I can’t remember suggested I change it into a hard-boiled detective story a la Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. I did so, and he still rejected it, but it was later accepted by a U.K. journal and included in Puppet Shows.

“Treasure,” by the way, brought me my two favorite rejections of all time. The first one can’t even be printed here because this is a family site. So contact me if you want to hear that one. The other said, “You’re hilarious, but you treat your characters like puppets.” Ergo, Puppet Shows.

But perhaps no story in Puppet Shows is as obsessively crafted as “Dinner at Wither Port,” the tale of an awards banquet at a mental institution. I wrote the first version of DWP nearly twenty years ago. It helped me win an award for fiction at my college. I later tried to shoehorn the story into a screenplay I was writing until two films came out that had the same plot as mine, one of which starred Zack from Saved by the Bell, for Pete’s sake!

I toyed with DWP in every possible way after that. It was a musical, a radio drama, a children’s nursery rhyme. Then I turned it back into a short story and submitted it to journals until it was accepted by one whose name I can’t even mention. The editor of this now-defunct e-zine asked me not to mention the journal’s name in Puppet Shows, or anywhere, because it “was snapped up by a pornographic group.”

So, dear reader, that is my take on the Craft, at least as far as Puppet Shows is concerned. Now, writing my first novel, I find it gets a little more complicated after twenty years of penning short prose and poems. Onward and upward.

About the Author:
Prior to Puppet Shows, Michael Frissore published two poetry chapbooks and an ebook called The Thief. He has recently had new work appear in Unlikely Stories, Zygote in My Coffee, Untoward Magazine, and Revolt Daily. He’s currently writing the greatest professional wrestling novel in modern history. Mike grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Oro Valley, Arizona with his wife and two children.

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