Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds
Rules (the sixth of July)
by Jane Renaud
| About Jane Renaud
How do you teach writing?" asks Jane Renaud. "It's such a
subjective process. I just don't think absolute rules exist
that can guide you."
it turned out, her short story "Rules (the Sixth of July),"
tests exactly the kind of fault between the universal rule
and an individual mind. Jane, 17, admits that she was befuddled
by the irony of "teaching writing" and decided to exploit
it in her own writing.
"I was doing a story for my creative writing class," Jane
recalls. "And I hit a writer's block. I was sitting there
and couldn't think of anything interesting. So I punched in
all the 'rules' I learned that were supposed to make a good
There are eight rules that Jane eventually came up with,
regulating a story from start to finish and prescribing formulas
regarding various aspects of writing such as narrative, dialogue,
plotting, use of flashback, choice of sad ending versus happy
ending and so on.
Then, she interposed one day's life of Miriam--an insecure
teenager fantasizing a world of love and companionship--within
the physical spaces of her "Rules." The story deriving from
those pedagogical axioms seems almost parodic.
"Miriam lives in an altered universe, and she has schizophrenia,"
Jane says. "I'm just showing (the reader) a slice of her life."
The result is a moody revelation of her wild fantasies in
a harsh reality.
Jane, a senior at Castilleja School likes books, films and
music. Impressed by films with twisted plots, she says she
plans to apply to New York University's film school and pursue
a career in filmmaking.
1. Because a story should open with, above all else, a strong
atmosphere. Character and action are secondary; the overall essence
of the story is crucial. The audience should not enter the pool
through the shallow end, but rather take a flying leap, plunging
into the story with no goggles, earplugs, or flippers.
Below the cherry blossom tree (it was wilting and not so pink)
and above the pavement (it was colored orange and red and green
by chalk and not so new) was Miriam (she was crying). Miriam had
a large nose and a run in her panty hose, but her tears had long
run dry for these sorts of problems; today was the sixth of July
and seemed to Miriam as good a day as any other to cry on a sidewalk
for no apparent reason at all.
It was hard, however, to cry on the corner of Orange and Cardenas.
The air was thick with moisture and cilantro and strains of Vivaldi
and Enrique Iglesias wafting from windows. In fact, all of the windows
on Cardenas were open, except one, which was stuck, and Miriam tried
to cry for that tenant.
2. Because a story should follow with some action (guns, grief,
and giggling are favorites). If you are writing about nature, tree
sap caressing a young green twig is action enough. It should be
noted that action and plot are not synonymous, although the two
Four people walked by Miriam the first half hour that she sat under
the cherry blossom tree, crosslegged and quivering. The fifth stopped.
She had red frizzy hair and creamy cocoa skin, clear brown eyes
and a funny little smile. She squatted in front of Miriam and squinted,
left hand fanning the flies with an accordion-folded tabloid newspaper
and right hand shielding her eyes from the sun. Miriam was transfixed,
never having been looked at in quite this way before, as if the
girl could see right through her on this, the sixth of July. Suddenly
the girl leaned forward, almost birdlike, and kissed Miriam's left
cheek, leaving a trace of cinnamon sugar atop Miriam's white skin.
And then, she was gone.
3. Because a story should revolve around a character with a
strong voice. If multiple characters have strong voices, and they
talk amongst themselves (also known as dialogue), this is better.
So the girl was gone and Miriam was left sitting there, a little
bit in love. And so, as Miriam always did when she was a little
bit in love, she hummed. "Oooh, baby, I love your ways.. .," she
"I wanna be with you night and day...," continued a voice, higher
and slightly more on key. And since Miriam was a little bit in love,
the second voice, coming from directly above her head, was not strange
on this, the sixth of July.
"You know," said Miriam, "I came here to cry."
"And I came here to pick cherries like I always do, but the cherries
are gone, yes they are. They been gone since Thursday, but I still
come, I still come."
"Do you want to know," said Miriam, "why I was crying?"
"You were crying because there are no more cherries, and I understand,
you don't have to explain anything. I would cry too, but that isn't
my nature, I just keep looking, since Thursday I've been looking.
This tree is comfortable and I could just stay here looking for
more cherries forever, I could."
"How did you know?" said Miriam. "I suppose that is why I was crying,
no more cherries. And I didn't even know it. Do you want to know
why I stopped crying?"
"Her name's Karen and I don't blame you, but she can't bring no
cherries back. She told me to use fertilizer and I been fertilizing.
I listened because everyone says she's the smart one, she's the
smart one on Cardenas, she's the one that's in school, in a school
with the riches. But she can't bring no cherries back. So I just
sit in my tree and leave the kissing to Karen."
And so Miriam sat on the sidewalk and stared straight ahead, left
hand fanning the flies and right hand shielding her eyes from the
sun, and talked with this voice from the cherry tree, wondering
whether it was possible to be a little bit in love with two people
at once on this, the sixth of July.
4. Because a story should, sadly, have a plot. This requires
a middle. A beginning may take on many forms, but the middle must
be solid. It is Act II, the meat, the backbone, the time when the
audience decides whether or not to stay or go buy more peanuts.
In the best possible scenario, no decision is made, no choice, and
a trip to the concession stand is inconceivable. The audience and
the story are one, inseparable.
The Orange Street bus came at one o'clock and Miriam remembered
her life. She was due on Dove Boulevard at one-thirty, and she could
not be late. But the voice from the tree spoke on and Miriam longed
for a cherry and another kiss from Karen. The bus paused for fifteen
seconds and in the sixteenth, as exhaust puffed onto the street
corner and the wheels gripped the blacktop, Miriam's life beat Cardenas
Street and she pulled herself onto the bus.
What Miriam faced, of course, on Dove Boulevard, was more than
just her life, but her death. Miriam laughed to herself, as she
always did when she was a little bit crazy. Melodramatic thoughts
like this one always made her laugh. The hospital on Dove Boulevard
specialized in oncology, and Miriam's left breast was lumpy, like
Mama's mashed potatoes.
Miriam stared out the window and sighed. She couldn't really cry
about her breasts, she hated her breasts, and she didn't mind losing
them; it was just that she knew she should be sad or she would be
branded crazy again. She imagined the stuck window and tried to
make her mascara run, for fear of frightening the doctor.
5. Because a story should, at some point, make use of the flashback.
If not an actual scene from the past, an allusion to a prior event
or stage in a character's life is necessary. Omitted, your character
is simply that, and not a real person. Ambiguity is both acceptable
and a useful device.
"Feliz Navidad, Miriam! Feliz Navidad!" The bra was a big size,
big enough to fit a cantaloupe in each of the cups. "Feliz Navidad!"
"Miriam can't see past her nose!" yelled Carly. "Her nose is too
big!" Miriam stopped squinting, and instead stared wide-eyed at
the bra. The music was too loud, and the tree was too small, and
this bra was too big.
"Don't worry, Miriam, you'll grow into it! Come on, take it! It's
your present." Aunt Bea thrust it in Miriam's face.
"Hang it on her nose! Hang it on her nose!" Carly began the chant
and Tommy picked it up. Aunt Bea giggled and hung the pink strap
across Miriam's face.
Miriam screamed and the music turned off.
Aunt Claudia came to Miriam's room ten minutes later to talk and
Miriam cried. "Don't be silly, Miriam. It was only a joke. Do you
know why you're crying? You're crying because of your hormones.
You have a lot of them now, and as soon as that bra fits you won't
cry as much. Now don't be silly." So Miriam cried some more and
Aunt Claudia talked some more and ten minutes later she said, "You
know, Miriam, you're crazy."
6. Because a story must have a turning point, a twist, an unexpected
shock. Above all, do not cheat. Unexpected in no way means illogical
or impossible. For the turning point to be fair, enough clues must
have been scattered for the audience to at least have a chance at
guessing the surprise. Cheating results not in a delighted audience,
but a disgruntled one.
The Orange Street bus arrived at the hospital at one-twenty and
Miriam stood in front of the revolving doors and tried, for the
last time, to be frightened and teary-eyed. But Cardenas Street
had left her with cinnamon on her cheek, and the receptionist was
wary of Miriam and her Peter Frampton warbling.
When the doctor came, at one-thirty, Miriam had been sitting in
the exam room for twenty minutes in a paper gown. He examined her
breast, performed a mammogram, and arranged for a biopsy. When the
psych consult (a med student) from the fourth floor arrived, he
advised Miriam to talk freely with her.
Before the psychiatrist met with Miriam, however, the doctor spoke
with her behind a curtain. "This is a good learning case for you,
Karen. Diagnosed schizophrenic, gender issues, cancer." So Karen
smoothed her frizzy red hair and walked past the curtain.
7. Because a story must have a climax.
So Cardenas Street met Dove Boulevard in exam room four. Karen
stood frozen as the girl who kissed strangers ran headlong into
the woman who practiced medicine, and Miriam's grin spread wide
across her face. Cinnamon left from the kiss burrowed into Miriam's
dimples and Karen began to cry.
"Do you know," said Miriam, "why you're crying?" Karen nodded and
Miriam held out her arms. "I know," she said. "Love is hard." Karen
screamed as the grasp grew tighter, but the noise was muffled and
absorbed by Miriam's breast. Karen gasped and tried to breathe,
tears catching in her throat.
Miriam stroked the frizzy red curls and sighed. "Don't be crazy,
Karen," she whispered. "It's okay."
8. Because a story must end. Do not, under any circumstances,
cheat (see # 6). A choice as to whether or not a sequel is in order
must be made. Sad endings are overrated; happy endings are underrated.
Both can be awful; both can be sublime. And never, never, never
reveal your entire story to be a dream. You will never be trusted
"You know you shouldn't do this here, you should make a date. That's
what I always did, make a date, this is the wrong place, wrong time
for this loving," said a voice.
"Yes," said Miriam. Because she was a little bit in love, she didn't
think anything much of the voice, a little bit higher and a little
bit sensible, coming from straight above her head in the light fixture.
"I know this is the wrong time. But I just can't help it today."
"You should let Karen go now, you should let her go or else who
knows, who knows."
"Do you," said Miriam, "know what will happen if I don't let go?"
"Yes." The doctor wore white and he burst through the curtain,
and Miriam cried as her first love was pried away from her arms.
From the judges
"The writer shows great creativity and invention by both writing
a story and playing with the rules of writing a story. I love to
see young writers challenge the form of the story--this writer knows
how to have fun while writing."
"A well-crafted work of experimental fiction whose major concern
is the nature of fiction itself."
--Kim Silveira Wolterbeek
"It's one thing to write intelligently about craft, quite another
to write craftily. The writer of "Rules (the sixth of July)" manages
to combine both in this intelligent and well-constructed story that
at once instructs us in the rules of fiction and moves us
as a piece of fiction. Good work!"