Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

The other day, a story of mine was accepted for publication. The editor with whom I was paired came back with a couple suggestions on my story. The suggestions, rather than stripping my voice or taking away from my story, showed me that she got my vision and had some ideas to make it richer. It was such a delightful experience that the end story, with maybe twelve words difference from the original, is 100 times better than the original. She was that good.

I’ve actually been lucky the past few times I’ve submitted to end up paired with phenomenal editors. When I was accepted into The Selkie’s “Very Much Alive” journal, I was blessed to work with a professional and talented writer. And when I took my WIP to a recent critique group through the Herstry Blog, I got some incredibly valuable feedback. And as I noted in a previous blog, I’m taking a flash fiction workshop where the instructor and the other participants give insightful advice to me and each other.

On the opposite side, I recently had someone look over a couple pages of my work and come back with such general, offhand feedback that I couldn’t even be sure they had actually read my work. Instead of giving me actionable feedback, they made a few general comments, threw out a couple links to articles, and said, “Read up on these craft elements. And buy my book on writing.”

It could be a matter of different editing styles or it could be that some of my pieces are closer to publishing-ready than the others. But it’s a good lesson that choosing an editor or a beta reader or even something like a writing group is kind of like dating. Sometimes, you just know it’s right (or wrong) from the first date. And when it’s right–you find a way to hang on to that person if you can. And when it’s wrong, just let it go.

If you are just starting to work with an editor, remember you don’t have to stick with someone if they aren’t working out for you. Check out the sample and take the time to really look at their feedback and see if it’s helped make your work tighter and or/richer. If it hasn’t, or if you feel they just aren’t getting you, it’s okay to look for someone else. After all, your manuscripts and your stories are your babies. You wouldn’t trust them with just anyone.

I am thrilled to have had one of my stories accepted to be performed on the podcast, Stories Less Spoken. The performer, Megan Greenwood did an amazing job bringing “Pennask Summit” to life.

If you’re interested in hearing it, please click here to listen to the episode. And listen to past episodes by pressing the “click here to listen” button on their homepage!

If you’d rather just read it, please feel free.

Content note: Suicide, self-harm.


Pennask Summit

The logging truck in the right lane chugs up the hill with hazards on. I wonder if the driver is relaxed or terrified. Does his face look like mine—haggard, pale, tight with tension?

Herman shifts in the passenger seat. “You should have stayed behind him. You’re driving too fast.”

The transport truck’s lights have disappeared already and I’m alone in a blanket of blinding snow. Alone except for Herm. I try to pick out his features from the side of my eye. He seems, as always, impossibly large. One leg splays across the center console, long and muscled, the other is crushed against the side of the door. His arms are thick, so big I’ve often wondered how he didn’t burst from his flannel shirts like the Hulk or Popeye.

Eyes line the side of the road. Pinpoints of glaring light watching my slow progress through the snow. I can feel the weight of them staring at me, sizing me up. Wolves, maybe. Coyotes. 

A squalling gust of wind knocks into the side of the vehicle, blowing me slightly off course. My fingers grip the steering wheel so hard the knuckles are white. I blink into the blowing snow. The guard rails have almost disappeared. The road curves around another bend. If I lose the road here, I won’t be visible from the side of the road, even if I should somehow survive the fall. I grip the wheel tighter, fighting against the almost constant desire to let go.

Herman shifts in his seat, peering through the windshield. The seatbelt strains against his broad shoulders. I bought the CRV specifically for the legroom and it still couldn’t contain this man. He touches my arm. “You look good, Scout.”

His voice, as always, thrills through my body. It’s gruff, not like a lifelong smoker, but like someone who feels too much emotion to contain it. I remember taking him to the university once so he could speak to my students on mental health and wellness. For weeks after, students would tell me, “It wasn’t what he said. It was the way he said it.”

I focus on the road again, peering ahead of me, keeping a steady foot on the gas. Slow and steady. The wind has picked up, and the blowing snow makes it impossible to see. If I come across another transport truck, I’m going to stay behind it and hope it can lead me over the pass.

“You were amazing tonight,” he says, so softly I can barely hear him over the howling wind.

The eyes are everywhere now, lining the side of the road. In the dark and the snow, they’re the only thing I can see now. Black shadows and stars of light. Guiderails, maybe. The SUV fishtails just a bit and I take my foot off the gas.

Herman taps on the side window as if saying hello to the animals watching us in the dark. At least he sees them, too. Or maybe they came with him. “Scout.” My name sounds bigger on his mouth, more real. I want to look at him, touch him. A yearning to abandon the wheel and wrap my arms around him shudders through me.

He reaches over and strokes my arm, running his fingers over the web of scars crisscrossing the canvas of my skin. I want to point out how old the scars are, how faded some of them have gotten since he saw them last, but the words die on my mouth.

The eyes outside never disappear. What kind of animal never blinks?

“You’re still mad at me,” Herman says.

“You had an affair,” I finally snap and instantly regret it. Why were those my first words? I could have said hello. I could have told him he looks exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him. I could have explained how desperately I wanted to crank the wheel and take us both over the cliff just to see if dying hurts as much as losing him. The affair is tangible. It’s easy to be angry about something that doesn’t really matter.

He laughs. “An affair? Thirty years ago. Is that where we’re starting the accounting?”

Thirty years of life, heartache, bliss, lovemaking, meals, cats, dogs, and houses between then and now and the affair is the safest thing we can talk about. “Would you rather start with last November?”

He doesn’t respond, staring instead at the eyes. The unblinking eyes. There are more now, shining so brightly I can see the highway lines through the snow. I can’t help but sneak peeks at him as I drive. He looks more alive than I’ve ever seen him.

Letting go of the wheel with one hand, I fumble in my purse, looking, I realize after a moment, for the pack of cigarettes that hasn’t been there for sixteen years. Herman presses his hand over my fumbling fingers. It’s warm and solid. He feels alive, for god’s sake. There’s a pulse throbbing between our hands. My long, thick fingers disappear into the warmth. As a child and into my teens, I felt like a giant. Tall, cumbersome, prone to knocking things over. Outsized, loud, too talkative. When I met Herman, I was dwarfed, protected. He loved the sound of my voice, loved the way I told stories. His depression mirrored mine, but he was stronger, safer, bigger. He was a fireplace in a snowstorm.

I glance away from the road for a moment to take in his face. He’s so vibrant and real. The eyes on the side of the road distract me from Herman. I’m compelled to turn to them. The car drifts toward the side of the road.

“Watch your lane,” Herman says.

I snap back to attention and let the car come back to the middle of the road. My foot eases off the gas and the car steadies. The eyes blink shut all at once for just a moment before coming to life again.

Herman’s voice pulls my attention. “You lied to the audience tonight,” he says, squeezing my hand gently.

“Suicide affects everyone,” I snap. “I told them that.”

“You said it wasn’t my fault, but you don’t believe it. You said my depression lied to me, stole my ability to choose. You said it didn’t change the love I had for you.”

“You were supposed to be my safe space.”

“You need to be your own safe space,” he replies.

Ignoring him and the eyes, I reach for the radio and press a button. Air Supply. Herman laughs. It’s one of his favorite bands. Was one of his favorite bands. He knows I could never stand them.  I press the button and another Air Supply song comes on. “God dammit, Herman.”

He chuckles softly, that deep, rumbling laugh that could turn me on and piss me off all at once.

“You left me.” Tears choke my voice and I blink furiously against them. “You swore you wouldn’t, and you did.”

“I’m here now, Scout.” His hand is so warm, so real wrapped around mine. “Keep driving and I’ll stay with you.”

The eyes outside are brighter. They’re calling me. You’ll be warm again, they say. Safe again. Small again.

I yank my hand from Herman and let go of the wheel. “They want me. They want to keep me safe.”

His warmth is next to me somehow, pressing against me. His hands wrap around mine, positioning them back onto the steering wheel. The car straightens out. “I’ll keep you safe, Scout.”

I glance at him. “I don’t know if I want you to.”

“You do. Whatever you’re feeling now will pass.”

I hate him. I love him and I hate him, and I am still so fucking angry at him. He has no right to want to keep me alive when he didn’t bother to do the same for himself.  The last big curve before home is approaching. It’s now or never. My hands shake on the wheel as the eyes on the side of the road get brighter and brighter. The road curves but my tires don’t. Herman’s voice booms. “No, Scout. Not now.”

His breath on my face is hot and real.

“God damn it, Herman,” I yell before turning the wheel to hug the curve of the road. My tires slip for a moment before finding safe purchase. Before I can change my mind, I’m on the last straight stretch of my journey. The road dips and I’m nestled between the pine trees, safe in a tunnel of woods from here until home.

Herman is gone. The thought of a long, empty life without him is exhausting. I make a promise to myself to call someone, anyone tomorrow. Glancing into the rearview mirror, I see the eyes turning to watch me go. They stare for just a moment before blinking into darkness.

I recently had the good fortune to take a flash fiction workshop with an excellent author and writing-facilitator, Grace Palmer. I take a lot of writing workshops and I tend to be critical of the value of the presentation. Since I teach and give my own workshops and presentations, I’m hyper-sensitive to the possibility of wasting time that could be better spent writing, grading papers, or, I don’t know, playing solitaire or petting my cat.

And workshops can be hard to truly love. I like a workshop experience that’s a good mix of learning, analyzing stories that have already been published, free-writing, and workshopping our own materials. It’s a big ask. You never know if the other participants are going to jibe with your style. And I need to be engaged. Even if I’ve heard much of the material before, I need to learn something new. I need to feel inspired. I need to feel as if my work is understood. I don’t want critique partners who say, “I wish the ending wrapped things up more tidily” because I personally don’t want to create tidy endings.

In my quest for community, I’ve taken a ton of workshops and gone to a lot of presentations and to be honest, some of them were not worth the time or money I put into them.

This workshop, however, was everything I want in a workshop. I think that’s probably why most of the people from this workshop have signed up for Ms. Palmer’s next. First, she is a phenomenal teacher – she manages to corral a diverse group of personalities and bring us all together to give each other fantastic writing advice. She gives personal feedback on all the stories and it’s good. I have yet to disregard any of her comments on my stories. And she creates a safe space where we all feel we can share these deeply personal stories without being shamed or shunned.

My 2021 writing goal was to write more, submit more, and work on honing my writing from something great into something stunning. Occasionally, I manage to touch on something stunning, though I’d like to be more consistent at doing so. Still, in this five week workshop, I crafted and revised three excellent stories that are all ready for submission and I have several snippets of free-writing that could feasibly become something more with a little work. As far as I’m concerned, this workshop helped me hit all three points of my writing resolution.

In the meantime, as I start to submit the pieces from this workshop, I’ve had another story accepted to be performed on the upcoming Stories Less Spoken podcast, episode five.

And my SUPER MICRO little 50 word story was “Story of the Week” on 50 Word Stories.

I wrote both of the above pieces while having a planned writing date with my wife. I completed my most recent novel on video writing dates with my dear friend author Kimberly Cooper Griffin.

Community matters. It matters so much to me that I run an online Writing Academy to help connect other writers with each other.

It matters so much to me that I wrote another recent blog post about it on The GCLS Writing Academy blog.

It matters because creative energy shared is creative energy multiplied and because, when left to my own devices, I am far more likely to find ten million other things to do than to sit and face my blank screen and my fear that the quality of writing I desire is not the quality of writing I can produce.

That’s why, despite teaching for an MFA program, running a writing academy, and while in what I consider the middle of my writing career, I still keep taking workshops and attending writing classes. Community is important. And so is striving for excellence.


P.S. If you’re looking for workshops and presentations and you aren’t sure where to start – 2021 is a great year for this! So many things are online. I love EventBrite – I search for things such as “Creative writing” or “short story” and see if anything interesting comes up. I’ll also just Google “Online writing workshops” or “Writing conference.” This year, since so many of the writing conferences are staying online, there are a lot of opportunities to see some great presentations that many of us might not have been able to see otherwise.

According to Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Marriages are like that, too. Relationships of all kinds. I could have written dozens of novels based on past unhappy relationships but my relationship with my wife, a happy, healthy, respectful relationship, leaves me with a decided lack of drama to filter into my fiction. Is that why I’ve struggled to complete a novel lately? Still, we’ve had some pretty dramatic exchanges and I think I might be ready to write a romance novel.

My wife walks into the kitchen, winking slightly at me as she reaches into the fridge. “I’m going to make some barbecue beans.”

I glance back at her, my attention still half-focused on the bowl of potatoes in front of me. “That will go well with the smashers and ribs.”

She’s wearing her rust-coloured hoodie, the one that goes so well with her warm, autumn complexion. “Do you think I should use maple syrup instead of honey?”

“Absolutely.”

“I mean, maple syrup instead of sugar.”

“I still say yes.”

She rustles in the refrigerator, grabbing jars of ketchup, mustard, and apple cider vinegar.

I finish cutting spots off the potatoes and put them into the instapot bowl. Gordo, our 17 pound cat, saunters into the room and jumps on top of the chest freezer.

I hold the bowl of potatoes toward my wife, frowning slightly. “Does this look like enough potatoes or should I put another…?” The cat meows and I interrupt myself. “He wants a treat.”

“That’s enough. We don’t have to have massive leftovers with every meal.” She takes a piece of cat kibble from the giant container on the floor and carries it to the cat. Placing it in front of him, she turns back to me, smiling as he eats it. “He knows it’s his own kibble, but he doesn’t care. He just wants to feel special.”

I add a potato to the pot and set the timer. “If we have leftovers, we can make potato pancakes or something.”

She’s still petting the cat. I wipe my hands on a towel and slide past her. “I’m going to go to the bathroom and when I come back, maybe the coffee will be done.”

She looks up. “Are you going to poop?”

“No, I just have to pee.”

“Then the coffee won’t be done when you get back.”

“It might.”

“It won’t.”

Crushed by our argument, I shuffle into the bathroom. Despite my fastidious care in washing my hands after I pee, the coffee isn’t done when I get back. She pats my hand and doesn’t say I told you so.

The End

And there you have it. A real-life romance story – with sexual tension, dramatic tension, and a cat. I’m going to start outlining chapter two.

I wanted to submit this to a webpage but since I had already posted it on my blog, I couldn’t, even though I had deleted it previously. So, I’m posting it here with love.

Martin’s War

Martin swore as a screw fell between the arm of the chair and the wall. He groped for it with one hand. The piece of wood in his other hand threatened to disengage from the rest of the unit. It was usually easy. Slot A into slot B. Piece C to piece D.

A ship had landed earlier. He’d heard it while working on the previous chair. His fingers closed on the screw and he held it against his chest for a moment, eyes closed. There would be people in that ship. They might want chairs.

A woman approached him. “It’s time to go, son.”

“I just need to finish assembling…”

She touched his shoulder. “You’re needed.”

 Martin looked up. “I need to finish putting this chair together. People need chairs.”

The woman’s face was kind; she was smiling. “You’ve been alone for a long time. If you come with me, I can get you help.”

“My father…”

“Your father,” she said, stressing the word father, “has been dead for eighty-three years.”

A memory, his father yelling at him. I didn’t create a robot to assemble furniture, Martin. I built you to win this war.

“I won the war,” he whispered.

“I know. I saw your father’s video logs. We can correct the error that eliminated your ability to distinguish the enemy from the allies.” The woman put her arm around his shoulders and helped him stand. “This is important. We need your help with our war.”

Martin looked out over the rows and rows of empty chairs. “I was created to win.”