by RK Biswas

Pamela Painter, the adjudicator of the 9th Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, in her
introduction to the prize-winning book, says: “Rosie Forrest’s
Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan evokes a startling, often dark, self-contained world. And each intriguing title sets a new tale into motion, unspooling with a mysterious languid intensity.”

Two points of note here, which immediately give an insight into the chapbook. First, “self-Ghost Boxcontained world,” and second, “intriguing title.” Rosie Forrest’s tightly woven stories are independent microcosms that begin to move from the story titles themselves. Taken as a whole they resemble polished spheres in the firmament. When you draw back, after scrutinizing each (and each story calls for close attention), you can see a larger pattern. Much like an astronomer’s figure of constellations. Or a child’s join-the-dots activity book. The latter comes to mind, because the protagonists of each tale are children and adolescents.

In the first story, Bless This Home, “something is forbidden,” and therefore “the four winds conspire like a pack of wolves.” A young girl at odds with her mother and her mother’s lover defies rules set down (by her mother) both for her and the tenant. But is she really being defiant or is her behavior an imitative response? And who does she really want to share her “brokenness” with?

In the second, the title story in the chapbook, a disquieting scene unfolds where innocence is supposed to run free. Three boys claim three abandoned box stores, creating rules about play, about use of play-space. This “space exceeded them, billowing against cinder blocks. It was hollow inside and this hollowness dwarfed their ruddy boyhood…” Space they create with their boyish imaginations, but end up diminishing their childhood.

The third story, Moonbone, is about siblings, Forrest’s own Hansel and Gretel, except that in hers, it is the girl who tries to show her angry older brother the way. A tender story of two lost children (lost, because of who and also what they have lost), and a grim, but benign mother (as against the evil stepmother of the fairytale) and the woods. Something shines, though, not a white pebble or stone, but a “moon bone,” something they must “never let go.”

In Where We Off To, Lulu Bee? A rather ridiculous scene unfolds around a mother with an age-wise inappropriate gift for her daughter. Except for one thing, the underlying pathos, which bring forth a wince; not a smile. The fifth story We’ll Go No More A Rowing has two friends from two distinctly dysfunctional families hiding away in an abandoned Church, with sinister possibilities.

Unmoored is one of the longer stories with a longer narrative arc. It’s a heartbreaking story, because the protagonist, a little boy, doesn’t know what the reader understands straightaway. The child tries to make sense, create new relationships, but in that still boat, he “feels naked, like a thrift store trinket on display.” Paper /Boy is an unusual story, more for its format than style.  On the surface a boy has written a note to a girl he likes. But the paper knows more about his actual thoughts than she will ever know, and like a mischievous ally lets us have a peak. What Happened On Wednesdays (As Told By Someone Who Probably wasn’t There) is a story about a game, a ghastly game, so cruelly adult that only the wild imaginations of children could think it up and make the rules. The sinister element begins from the title itself and doesn’t let go even after the story is told.

Gun Moll appears to be a make believe game carried over from Halloween, but its effects last far longer than normal. The Field, A Religion is a poignantly beautiful history of two families, one usurped from its home and the other not quite the usurper. Taps is about three adolescents in the snow, in the cold, on the shore of a frozen lake, but three is a crowd. Possum Kingdom is a story of two young girls who are sent to spend a summer with a distant relative and his wife, a couple living in impecunious circumstances, and how they cope with their disappointment. The last story He Showed Us a Road, is a touching, and yet also almost brutal picture of escape. It is at once every child’s nightmare and dream. One cannot help but wonder if our own parents too “had held opposite ends of a rope, and moved about…ensuring a taut line.”

The sentences in this collection are sharp. Chiseled to impale poems. There are recurring motifs and images, like lake and grass, road, and children left to fend for themselves, find their way through or back, which form a subliminal link between stories. One can read a story and then sit down with it and contemplate, at times returning to retrieve a meaning not observed at first. Like poetry, these prose pieces unfurl layer by layer. Projecting pictures in the air between eye and book. The pictures are not always clear. Often I felt the need to peer closely, and came away frustrated. There is an elusive quality to many of the stories, adding to their already weighty mystery. This is not a chapbook one can or should run through. The stories demand keen readers; those who are willing to give back to the narratives, sift them in their heads and make something new of the characters and the situations. And finally I am left with a quiet breathless feeling, as if I have been there and come back with the burrs of certain truths clinging on to me.

*          *          *

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RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. Authorspress, India published her short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—in December. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi is due out in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her storyAhalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs athttp://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.

Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats.  He holds Christopher Owen FFC
a degree in English  from the University of Texas system and has been
writing since childhood.  He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writing Program.  After retiring from a long career in aviation, he now writes full time.  His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Mirror Dance, New Myths and many other places.  Other than writing, his interests include cooking, photography, filmmaking, video editing, homebrewing, playing guitar, world travel, skiing and hanging out with cats.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  To begin: why a cigarette?

 

Cigarettes appear in A Cigarette for Lester because of the story’s origins in reality.  When I was a kid in the 70s my grandfather did live in a nursing home, and there was this old man residing there who always asked you for a cigarette.  That’s as far as the reality goes, though, but when I sat down to write one day, that memory popped into my head, so I decided to turn it into a story.  In the original draft, the story was about nothing more than the kid sneaking off and giving Lester what he wanted, a cigarette.  But through various rewrites the cigarette became a symbol, maybe even a totem representing forbidden fruit to both Lester and the kid.  The kid sort of takes a chance stealing the smokes from his dad, and thus he both pulls himself up into the adult world briefly, and brings a bit of it back for Lester, who is now an outcast from that world.  Initially the kid didn’t get caught and the ending was pretty flat, but through rewrites (via editorial suggestions from Every Day Fiction) I managed to ramp up the dramatic tension by having the nurse catch the kid and Lester smoking.  This also allowed me to bring the father back into the story, first with anger toward his son, but then having him do what possibly no father would do nowadays: give his young son a cigarette.  Thus at the end of the story the cigarette continued to have meaning as a sort of rite of passage between father and son.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  One of my favorite aspects of “A Cigarette for Lester” is the frustration running through the story. The frustration of the other people that Lester only says one word; Lester’s frustration at only wanting one thing in life and being denied it. Was that an intentional goal for the story? Did you have specific things you set out to do?

 
I usually just free write when I begin a story, sort of let it go where it wants to.  Then through rewrites I try to add depth and meaning.  In the initial draft, when the kid gives Lester the cigarette, Lester just spouted a bunch of senile old man gibberish.  But this felt quite flat to me.   Having Lester become coherent while he smoked may be a bit unrealistic, but I believe that such a thing is a possibility–a familiar object drawing out cohesive thoughts for a moment.  It also gave the story a great deal more depth, rounded out Lester as a character, and perhaps emphasized that people like Lester, despite being institutionalized, still have some life to live.  I think institutions like nursing homes have the best of intentions at heart, but in the name of healthy living they deny people things that make such a life bearable.  Some of the things that make life worth living are not always the best things for us, but they can be part of a rich and rewarding life, whether they be a drink and a smoke or the danger of climbing a hazardous mountain.  My own father spent his final months in a cancer hospice where he couldn’t drink or smoke, and I’ve always thought that, with his death immanent and unstoppable, denying him those things was unnecessary.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What is your writing space like? Do you have any habits or rituals that you must do in order to write? What’s your typical process like?

 
I have two writing spaces.  The first is my office, which is cluttered to the gills with books and notepads and files and pictures and a lots of places for one of our cats to hang out.  I’ll straighten it out and that lasts for about a day, then the clutter returns, but I seem to work well with clutter.  I work there in the mornings, and in the afternoons I’ll move to my second space, taking my laptop outside for a change of scenery, and perhaps a cigar now and then while I work.  As to rituals, I really have none, but I have a few techniques that I use to get going when I don’t have a story in mind.  Some of them include taking five random words from the dictionary and seeing how they associate, seeing if by linking them I can form the kernel of a story.  I also sometimes listen to music, and sometimes the words of a certain song or just its music will inspire a story.  I’ve got over ten thousand songs on my iPod, so lots of possibilities there.  I think at least three of my stories up at Every Day Fiction were inspired by songs.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  If you were stuck in an institution, what would you hope someone would bring you?

 
Like most people, I hope to never end up in a nursing home or similar, but I guess if I were there, I’d want what the kid and the dad brought the grandfather, a visit.  I wouldn’t turn down the beer and smokes, though.
 
 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What are you reading? Who are some of your influences/favorite authors?

 

Reading is very important to me, and I try to read for at least an hour every morning before I start my writing day.  If you read any book on writing, or listen to a successful writer speak, they’ll tell you that reading is very important to the craft of writing; you really can’t write well without reading a lot.  Luckily, I love to read and my reading interests are all across the board.  I read a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy because I like it and also because I write a great deal in that genre.  Some of my favorites of that ilk are Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Tad Williams, Anne McCaffrey, Theodora Goss, George R.R. Martin, Pat Cadigan, Robert V.S. Redick, Tim Powers (particularly The Anubis Gates and Last Call), and of course my favorite writer, John Crowley (Little, Big, The Aegypt Cycle, etc) who I was fortunate enough to have as a writing teacher at Yale.  Some of my mainstream favorites include Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Coastliners, Holy Fools, etc), Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Raymond Carver and many others.  I also revisit the classics a great deal.  Hemingway is one of my favorites (and one of my heroes), as is Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aristophanes and Homer.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  On your blog and in your bio you mention attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop. What were some of your favorite aspects of the workshop? How did it help you improve your writing? Would you recommend Odyssey or other workshops to beginning writers?

 
Odyssey was at times a grueling, soul-crushing experience, but it was well worth it.  I would recommend it for anyone who has been writing for a while and seriously wants to take things to the next level.  It’s sort of a six week long writing boot camp, but it is amazing to spend that much time dedicating yourself solely to your craft.  It features a rotating staff of top flight writers and editors (some past instructors have included George R.R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Elizabeth Bear, Gary Braunbeck, John Joseph Adams) that bring a great deal to the experience, but the heart and soul of Odyssey is its director, Jeanne Cavelos.  Jeanne is a writer but she is also an editor (she won the World Fantasy Award for her work at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and is nominated for another this year for the Odyssey Workshop itself).  Being taught writing by an editor is an immensely valuable experience, and Jeanne knows more about the craft of writing and storytelling than anyone I’ve ever met.   I learned more about the nuts and bolts of writing in those six weeks than I did in the thirty some-odd years I’d been trying to write beforehand.  As for beginners, Odyssey really isn’t a beginner workshop.  It is, like the Clarion Workshop, highly competitive to get in, based upon writing samples and an interview, but for intermediate writers, it is often a fast track to success.  Odyssey graduates have gone on to win or be nominated for Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards, and some have ended up on the New York Times Best Sellers List.  You’ll also end up being a part of an ongoing writing community that offers lots of support and encouragement.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published?

 
I’ve got almost forty stories published, from short flash fiction like my stories at Every Day Fiction to longer works, including a few Novelettes and Novellas.  My blog has a publications page with links to many of them.  I’m currently working on a few different novels, and I sort of switch back and forth between which one I’m working on to keep from getting burnt out.  These include Faith, a mainstream novel about the romantic relationship between an atheist and the very religious daughter of a televangelist; a science fiction novel,Behavior, about an unorthodox rehabilitation method in the future; and a fantasy novel, The Fairies of Maine, which follows the supernatural exploits of a group of people at an inn in Maine during the week of Midsummer’s Eve.  Finally I’ve got a Civil War novel called Fentress that is based on some of my own ancestors that I learned about during genealogical research.  So, obviously I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while.  I still try to write short fiction as well, and I’m deeply in love with flash fiction.  I think I’ll always write flash, as I love the format, and the way one can craft an entire tale in a single sitting.   I’m infinitely grateful to Every Day Fiction for providing a venue to feature so much of it.

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Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she buildsJessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150 costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.

by April Bradley

Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement. A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [1]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[2]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [3]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:

Pact:
His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.
Hope:
My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[4]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[5]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.

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[1] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[2] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/kathyfish22.asp
[3] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[4] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/251
[5] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.

 

April Bradley is a native of Goodlettsville, Tennessee and lives with her family on the Connecticut shoreline. Her fiction and creative nonfiction has or will appear in Thrice Fiction, Narratively, Southern Women’s Review, Hermeneutic Chaos and other publications. April serves as the Senior Assistant Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine.

by Jessi Cole Jackson

Steven L. Peck

Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including  A Short Stay in Hell and the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press and named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book).  He has been published in Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article), Daily Science Fiction, Journal of Unlikely EntomologyNature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “Tales from Pleasant Grove”? 

Pleasant Grove is the small town in central Utah where I live, and it is so ordinary as to be rather unexciting sometimes. I began to imagine short vignettes about a much stranger city. I wanted a Pleasant Grove that was weirder and more exciting. I started writing these down, and soon I had an entire collection of Pleasant Grove stories that portrayed a world where anything could happen. I tried to keep the small town feel, but mixed it with far more magic and adventure.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What is your typical writing process look like? How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have any rituals or superstitions attached to your writing sessions? 

That’s a great question. I usually try to write at night at a given time, but I have to admit I’m not very consistent. Sometimes, though, especially when I’m really excited about a story, it takes over my life and I can’t put it down. Usually, so much that I’ll lay awake at night running through the story in my head. Several times this has produced new characters or even new plot lines.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I love the details of your story. They are specific and telling, making each moment feel real and immediate. At the same time, your protagonist is an everyman who could stand in for any one of us. Do you think most people would swap out their fears, or be like Hal, comfortable with the devil(s) they know?

Steven L. Peck: I think I’d be more the Hal type. I like the devils I know. And there is a slight streak of superstition that runs through me whenever there is a change, for example when I have to change seats on an airplane there’s always this discomfort that I’m not where I was supposed to be. I don’t take it too seriously (I’m a scientist after all), but it’s still there putting a little pressure on something that really is silly to worry about.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Is there a fear you would get rid of? Which jar would you choose to take its place? 

Steven L. Peck:  I wish I could lose the fear of pickpockets. I travel a lot, and I have this irrational fear I’ll get pickpocketed. I never have been, but I’m always on the lookout. It’s completely crazy. It’s almost as if I think pickpockets are magical beings that can get through any defense and that I’m helpless to their tricks. I’d take a jar with some fear I was absolutely sure that I was never going to run into, like a fear of deep sea angel fish that live so far down in the ocean depths that my chances of ever running into one are almost non-existent! (But as the story shows, these things have a way of backfiring).

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  The voice of your protagonist is very distinct. Did you work on cultivating his voice or did it come to you? Do you do anything to ‘find’ your characters? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems to me that it’s almost as if my characters find me. They just appear whole-cloth as if we meet by accident. One of my novels (The Scholar of Moab) was about an ordinary kid working in the mountains for a geology company. I didn’t expect it, but one day in my mind’s eye a conjoined-twin cowboy road up and started talking to my main character. It changed the entire book, and I never saw it coming. Characters are like that when I write. They seem to exist almost independently of me and I am only a kind of medium that encourages their visit from another world.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not writing. You’re a scientist, philosopher, and professor, correct? Where’s the intersection between those passions and fiction for you? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems funny to say, but in being a scientist and a philosopher of science I’ve found that my imagination the most critical talent I have. I’ve always loved discovering things, and I’ve found that the real art of good science is the ability to ask the right questions. The hard part of science is looking at the world and trying to discover what’s the next question to ask. Answering them is usually the easier part. Find good questions and discoveries follow. I think it is the same in fiction. Asking questions of our characters and settings are what set up the magic that follows. Trying to see what motivates them and what situations will best draw out the question you are exploring in your fiction, I think are the hardest parts of all. I honestly believe that my being a fiction writer and a scientist really play on the same strength.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published? 

 Steven L. Peck:  A lot of my previously published short fiction can be found on my website, including my Daily Science Fiction short story and myNature Futures story, including a number of others. In addition to the collection of Pleasant Grove stories I’m working on (and my hope to find a publisher soon!), I have a book of short stories coming out later this summer, called Wandering Realities, published by Zarahemla Press, which I’m very excited about. It’s about one half speculative fiction and half literary fiction. My most popular book is A Short Stay in Hell and a volume of short stories set in the Hell of this novel is going to be published soon as well (with one by me, too!). It’s got some best selling horror writers contributing (I’d name them but contracts have not been finalized—watch my website for news). The book also is going to be made into a full-length feature film by David Spaltro (Director of the just released horror film, In the Dark) and filming starts at the end of this year. I’ve also got a couple of novels I’m putting the final touches on and hope to start shopping them soon. One is a follow-up to my book, The Scholar of Moab, called Gilda Trillim: The Shepherdess of Rats, and the other a young adult fantasy called, The Airships of Gumpta.

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Jessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150

Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.

by Glenn Mori

I am chagrined when I critique someone’s writing and point out a lack of tension and emotion (the grit under interactions, the differences in perspectives, the micro-tension on the small scale, crisis and conflicts on the larger scale, and ask ‘where’s the anxiety, worry, irritation, miscommunication?’), then discover the same failing in my own fiction.

The source of the problem (for me at least; I’m not sure about my writing partners) is usually multifaceted.

Writing from plot. I don’t always write from plot, but when I do, I can be in a hurry to move up the story ladder. Quantity of description falls, line-by-line writing quality drops, characters become inconsistent or cardboard or boring. I’m not putting myself in my character’s skin to look around and experience their world.

I’ve failed to communicate what I intended. When I proofread my writing, I read between the lines and don’t realize it.  Instead of seeing what’s written, I re-experience what I was thinking when I wrote it. This kind of writing is useful only if no one else reads it; a diary, for example, or a personal blog.

These problems can occur simultaneously. I might design characters around a plot and believe that I’m ready to write, but in reality I have flimsy character sketches zap-strapped to my plot skeleton and I don’t see weaknesses because I sense more in my words than I’ve actually written. I suspect this happens often with beginning writers who try to patch it with “interesting traits” or “examples of conflict” from a website to fill the story out.

Also,

Some of my characters are close friends.  They have similar values, similar goals, get along well. But if there are no differences, they are essentially a single character. I’ve swapped internal narrative and solitary ventures for conversation and a wingman.  Without diversity it can be boring to read. A sidekick has to have more reason to exist than to replace introspection with dialogue.

These are not uncommon issues for a first draft, but it may require the comments or questions of an experienced reader to point out the weaknesses, and then self-evaluation to determine the reason.

And something I’ve discovered recently,

I write like a reader, not a writer.

As a reader, I may be looking for adventure and excitement. If I carry that into my writing, then I’m fine.

Other times I become too attached to the characters to enjoy the ride. When I’ve identified closely with them, then difficulties or dangers worry me. Conflicts and misunderstandings stress me. It’s uncomfortable to read a scene where two friends disagree. Obvious bad decisions are frustrating. Foreboding circumstances and increasing tension distress me. Inescapable positions generate claustrophobia. Occasionally I’ll find myself speed-reading through passages of high anxiety.

As a writer I can avoid stress by skipping the sources. Husband and wife don’t have to have underlying resentments. A friend doesn’t need misgivings about the heroine’s date. Partners can be in full agreement about the next step in the investigation. Everyone interprets the information or data exactly the same. No one argues, feels lazy, is naïve, makes mistakes, acts condescendingly, is irritable because of a cold, or loses things.

In real life, when the bulk of our interactions with family, co-workers, and fellow transit passengers doesn’t get our heart rate up, we live a comfortable life. I’m certain there are portions of some genres where this is common, but it’s pretty hard to make interesting reading from untroubled characters leading a stress-free life.

So, love your characters as you love yourself. But look for the emotion in their lives, and if you find you haven’t included enough, figure out why. Slip inside their skin, search for the tension, and communicate it to the reader.

When someone critiques your work and suggests it lacks tension or drama, don’t get defensive. Don’t start listing all the worries and concerns they’ve missed because odds are, if someone says it’s lacking, there’s either too little and/or it’s not well communicated.

Don’t write a fantasy about how wonderful your life could be. Write like a writer.

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Fiction is Glenn’s most recent area of study. The first discipline was music, where he completed a masters degree in music composition, followed by accounting, more practice with jazz music, and then writing about online poker, where he remains winning micro stakes player. His ruminations about fiction can be found at www.intermittentrain.com.  Follow him on Twitter @gmori.

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