“Burntime,” beginnings and endings

I’m delighted to announce that my short story “Burntime” has been published in the Jet Fuel Review.

There’s a story behind the story, of course, and because this is my blog, I get to tell it. Back in 2006, I read the guidelines for a contest run by a literary magazine, and although I decided not to enter the contest, I came up with the framework of a story that would fit the magazine. I had several scenes in my head, plus the central question of the main character. The main character carried a lot of guilt, and it was visible and unchanging to him in the form of  harm he’d done to his daughter.

I had the framework, but the story wouldn’t gel, so I filed it off in the back of my head where I keep a lot of stories-in-liquid-form. They’re all jumbled up on a dark shelf, few of them bearing labels.

Two years later, I pulled the story off the mental shelf and found that while it wouldn’t gel in that form, what if we added this and that and moved it to here. Ooh, now we had something! The main character still had the same flavor, but the daughter was a lot younger. They weren’t raking leaves any longer. They were in a public place. In other words, every one of my vivid scenes was now gone, but that’s par for the course in a mental edit.

I wrote the whole story in a couple of days, but then I froze on the ending. The thing wouldn’t resolve. I mean, I tacked on a couple of paragraphs that worked as an ending, but it didn’t have that amazing slam-it-out-of-the-park feel that you get when a story hits the sweet spot.

A year later, I submitted it to a critique group looking for help on the ending. Nothing. I sent it to beta readers. “Well, it’s okay.” I even gave it to my Patient Husband, who said I’d nailed the tone, but he couldn’t tell what was missing in the ending either.  I changed the ending five times. I did some intensive self-psychotherapy to see if I could uncover some hidden meaning where the story pertained to my life, but no. I didn’t need to make a personal realization in order to end the story. I just needed to end the story.

Last fall, for reasons I cannot fathom, I received the ending. Subtle, gentle, perfect. Two paragraphs changed, and the thing went out into the world. And now it’s in print.

If you’ve followed along this far, I also had a poem published in issue 19 of Ruminate Magazine, titled “The Next Lesson.”



  1. Eliza tilton


    1. philangelus


  2. The Sojourner

    I like it.

    1. philangelus

      Thank you. 🙂

  3. Cricket

    Beautiful story and characters we can identify with, and be grateful we don’t have as much need for forgiveness. Great use of little details.

    1. philangelus

      Thanks, Cricket. One of the things that helped me find the ending was where a beta reader pointed out that I was trying to do the impossible: “He’s never going to forgive himself. You get that, right?” And once I stopped trying to force that, I was able to find a trajectory rather than a solution, and this is what we have here.

      (One of the failed ending versions was a lot more complicated, with his daughter handing him a paper flower earlier, and him giving it back at the end, but really–it didn’t need all that. It needed what it has right now.)

      1. Cricket

        Parents rarely forgive themselves. Fortunately, we don’t need to in order for kids to thrive.

        1. philangelus

          I disagree. A parent eaten alive by guilt is going to pass along that sense of shame to the child, only the child won’t understand why. It will impact the child’s sense of self if he detects that the parent feels uncomfortable regarding him. The child will begin to feel guilty for causing the parent to feel bad, or else will begin to feel he himself is a shameful thing.

          1. Cricket

            True, eaten alive by anything, including guilt, is bad for a family. However, moving forward with hope and faith, and concentrating on positive actions, even though he hasn’t forgiven himself, is working. Those steps count. He may never forgive himself for the accident and what happened in those years, but he will never look back and say he didn’t do all he could since then.