Archive for June, 2009

bosley

Ever notice how much writing advice there is floating around out there?  Well here are some of the most common ones I’ve heard and my take on them.

Advice: Writing is re-writing.

“I don’t write, I rewrite, that’s when all the fun begins. I just get it all out in the first draft, then I spend countless hours going back and editing, editing, editing.”

Okay, revision is important. But do we really just need to throw caution to the wind when do our first drafts? I contend that, especially with flash, the answer is no. I think those hours editing, editing, editing would be far better spent studying dramatic structure, successful stories we admire, or even just day dreaming. You put good stuff in, good stuff will come out. Overworking a flash piece can ruin it by the second pass. Too much revision is far worse than not enough.

Suggestion: If it doesn’t work set it aside for a while, a couple of months. Let the ideas percolate, then rewrite it from memory.

Advice: Keep a notebook for ideas.

“I keep a little notebook that I carry everywhere and record every stray thought that pops into my head. It’s a rich goldmine of ideas.”

Yeah, I’m sure it is a rich goldmine of random ideas. But good fiction is not made out of random thoughts. Yes, you might put a seed for a good idea in there sometime.  Yes, it might turn into a story for you. My line of thought on this advice is that if the idea is not good enough to stick in your head, it’s probably not all that great of an idea. If you aren’t obsessed with the idea, it’s not worth writing about. Flash is short and sweet, most of us are quite capable of rendering the whole thing in our heads.

Suggestion: Most authors I know do keep some kind of idea file on their computer usually just a one liner or a title. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, but again, if you can’t keep the idea in your head long enough to sit down and file it, it probably is not worth saving.

Advice: Write everyday, form a habit.

“I get up every morning at the crack of dawn, and write four pages.  If not, evil gremlins will come and eat my brains!”

Would be nice to have that kind of motivation, right? Unfortunately it is impossible to do this for most people. I think most of us writing flash are not professional writers and have jobs and families, and complex ‘real-life’  lives to attend to.  One of the fun things about writing flash is it doesn’t require long term commitment. Why not dash out a flash when you have a few minutes? No need to feel guilty that you can’t always find the time.

Suggestion: To be efficient with your time, combine daydreaming with a strong understanding of the craft of fiction. It’s often easier to fit in a few minutes reading up on writing advice than to produce a draft. Better that you do something towards developing your skills than nothing. Read, develop the story in your head, watch people (your kids, coworkers, etc) for details that might be useful. Anything.

Advice: Author’s should always get paid for their work.

“I only submit to top tier magazines that pay pro rates.”

Get published much? Probably not. The fact is there are a 1000 writers who are worse than you who are getting published. And there are a 1000 writers better than you waiting in line for their slots. Writers should get paid for their work, but keep in mind that flash is a close cousin to poetry, traditionally not a very lucrative venture. Most flash ezines need the money more than you do. Most flash ezines are labors of love with the editors paying out of their pockets.

Suggestion: Donate cash payments back to the ezine or some where like Duotrope these are the places that are keeping the scene alive. They are developing the audience for you. Think of your donated flashes as advertisements for your longer works (you are writing a novel aren’t you? Or will someday.) Creating ‘branding’ for your fiction has a long term value that exceeds the professional rates. We new writers have a vested interest in keeping the scene alive, right? (Obviously I’m not saying one should never submit to top tier magazines, just that not every story you write will be top tier.)

Advice: Writing is magical, mystical and hard.

“Every word I write is gut-wrenching agony, exposing my soul to the world.”

Right. This is the worst of the lot. I’ve often thought, I must be doing this wrong. I’ve never been miserable writing;  if so I wouldn’t do it. There are some stages I like more than others, of course. But if writing is a painful experience at any level, for god-sakes, go take up needlepoint or something. Writing is a craft; writing can be used to illustrate complex philosophy, existential woe, or something as simple as a lost pet that is found. Writing is like wood working, model ship building, or painting. It takes practice and determination. If it is causing you to suffer, go do something else; the world has enough writers. Flash is a bad place to try to unleash your angst and misery, not enough room for that sort of thing.

Suggestion: Write for fun; write for yourself; write from the heart, but most of all, write your best. If you’ve done your best then you’ve succeeded. Develop your craft; develop yourself as a human being, but where the two overlap is thin and fragile and can easily wreck an otherwise perfectly good story.

Advice: Bosley has a clue, listen to him.

“Bosley Gravel is a writing genius and with his dozens of published short stories and a forthcoming novel The Movie from BeWrite Books slated for pre-Christmas release), he must know almost everything there is to know about writing.”

Ahem, while I appreciate the flattery–what a load. If there were to be a Number One Rule about writing, it would be that there are no rules.

Suggestion: Do what works for you. Trust your instincts. That’s not to say ignore all advice you get because you know best. Lots of editors and writers will offer you perfectly good advice and lots of them will not ‘get’ your writing and make some very odd suggestions. Your job is to separate the two.

Knowing what advice to take and when to trust your own instincts can be hard and confusing sometimes, but becoming an expert in any field is difficult. The bottom line is that writing is an act of individualism. Only you can write your stories and only you can make them perfect. If some advice doesn’t suit you, ignore it. It’s allowed, and I’ll even suggest it for the best. Keeps things interesting.

Don’t agree?  Want to fight about it? :)  Post a comment and tell us your take on these or any other bits of advice you’ve heard.

 

Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico. He writes in a variety of genres. His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up. Visit his site for links to his fiction, and contact information.

Coming soon: his debut literary novel The Movie from BeWrite Books (for pre-Christmas Release).

SecretDiariesOfCharlotteBronte[1]A recent contributor to the Flash Fiction Chronicles, Syrie James, has a new book coming out June 30.  The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë is a bio-novel  about the author of the beloved 19th century masterpiece, Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte is Syrie’s exciting follow up to her best-selling novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen which was named Best First Novel of 2008 by Library Journal.  Here’s what Syrie has to say about her new endeavor.

Inspired by Charlotte’s correspondence, and based almost entirely on fact, Secret Diaries exposes Charlotte’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires, the inspiration behind her novels, her scandalous, secret passion for the man she can never have. . . and her intense, dramatic relationship with the man she comes to love.  Although I used my imagination to fill in gaps, I believe this is Charlotte’s story just as she might have written it herself.

For more about Syrie James and The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, check out her website www.syriejames.com.

djuse1I have a twinkling of an idea for a story:

She awoke slowly, sleep still grasping. Her surroundings were strange, her thoughts running to fear. A sharp clatter brought her fully awake now and heart pounding, she drew in a deep breath…

Flash, as a form, must be a whole story, not a scene, not idly lifted from some longer work, not open-ended. All stories have one thing in common—a beginning, a middle, and an end. And flash is no exception.

In poetry I can paint a picture, draw a beautiful scene, person, or object and set it before the reader to behold. A novel can plod along building like a wall through any number of scenes, dialogue, twists of plot, and a dozen characters. In a short story I can write five or six thousand words to get from start to finish.

But flash needs many of these points, as well as a quick, attention-grabbing beginning, all rolled up and tucked into bed in under a thousand words—and in some markets, far less!

So back to that twinkling. I’m like a potter at the wheel. I have this lump of clay of an idea. But although the clay is on the wheel, I need a bit of water and a flip of the switch to get the wheel turning—if not my foot to a peddle!

Now what? A pot, vase, or perhaps a bowl? Yes, I can go many ways. But if I don’t add water, spin the wheel, dirty my hands on the formation of whatever I decide to create then all I’ll ever have is a lump of clay.

So, I take that young woman and draw her through some conflict to a satisfying conclusion. From her awakening—in the future? a vampire’s dungeon? her Ex’s bed? along a dark roadside? She might have any one of these dilemmas. But I need to get her home, with peril on the way, or maybe drive her to oblivion—all to reach the final word.

Complete. Beginning, Middle, End. And all in a thousand words.

 

DJ Barber writes stories, flash, poems, and novels. He was born in the northeast and lives in the northwest. When not writing he has a wife and two dogs that keep him busy.  He has been published online at Every Day Fiction, Moon Drenched Fables, Tales From the Moonlit Path, Big Pulp, Every Day Poets, and Everyday Weirdness.

In print, DJ has been published by Darker Intentions Press, Odyssey Magazine, has a short story in the anthology, Damned in Dixie, and has a flash in the Best of Every Day Fiction 2008.

DJ would like to remind everyone that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

gayforwowConsider lightning.  This phenomenon cracks open the sky, takes our breath away, but we might miss it if not for the warning of thunder.  We hear the deep rumble, we look up, tension sparking the air, and wait for the flash.  Thunder grabs our attention and lightning dazzles our eyes, and together they stir our hearts. 

Flash Fiction is fast, a 1000 words or less, every sentence written with purpose, not a word to waste.  And if this statement is true, it’s even truer for the first few words.   

In a story, especially a short story, the opening sentence, like thunder, arrests our attention, charms us, makes us curious.  If it doesn’t, we’ll turn our heads, move on, and miss the show. 

Consider the following examples from Every Day Fiction’s Top Ten List

We were children, not lovers, but as we lay on the grass looking at stars, talking of angels, she took my hand and said that a moment can change everything.  One Bright Moment, by Joel Willans.

“You are my heart and muscle, Yardi,” Napier would say. “There is no criminal in all of Marseilles who can stand against us.” Without Napier, by Michael Ehart.

Do they create tension?  Do they conjure up an image? How much do they tell the reader about character, plot, and setting?  What do they promise the reader?  Do they have a rhythm that seduces? In other words, do they rumble

Although not every first sentence can fulfill every purpose, a well-crafted one will announce, at the very least, something is about to happen.

What is “about to happen” in “One Bright Moment?”

Two children are star-gazing, talking of angels, and one says “a moment can change everything.”  The reader might be thinking, “what kind of moment?”  A good one?  Bad one?

Is there tension? 

The two main characters, a boy and a girl, are talking about angels.  This might suggest to a reader that death is lurking down the page or perhaps an illness.  The reader knows the peaceful first moment is brief. 

Is there an image? 

Children on their backs in the grass close enough to each other to join hands. 

What does the first line promise? 

This boy and girl are “not lovers,” but the reader might wonder, will they be lovers, and is this what this story is about?  Or will it be about what stands in their way, what will change in a moment?

What is “about to happen” in “Without Napier,” the second example.

Two men work as an “invincible” team against the criminal element, but the reader senses that one of the partners is no longer around through the words, “Napier would say…”  This perception is reinforced by the title of the story. 

Is there tension? 

Each of the two characters, Napier and Yardi, has his own skill set.  The reader understands that if Yardi is the heart and muscle, then Napier must be the brains. If one of the partners is gone and the other must fight alone, will he survive?

Is there an image? 

An implied image of two men working together on the side of right because they work against the criminal element, but with the designation of the setting, “Marseilles,” the whole of a reader’s knowledge of France, sea ports, and a few French words comes into play.  

What does the first line promise? 

The partner who is left behind will probably have to fight against the criminal element.  Without the “brains” of the operation, he will be the underdog.  Will he be smart enough to succeed?

 In the examples above, much is given to the reader as soon as he or she begins to read.

  • The general nature of the characters, children, not old enough to be lovers, in one; male colleagues in the other. 
  • A sense that whatever the situation has been, that situation will change in the story, thus creating tension.
  • The setting is also suggested by the language used, a grassy place at night in “Moment” and a French seaport in “Napier.” 
  • Characters set down in a specific place and time create an image for the reader.
  • Each first line offers a question to be answered by the end of the piece: what will change for the two children in a moment and will Yardi survive without Napier?
  • Each line has a rhythm that suggests the tone of the story.

Sometimes a perfect first sentence comes into a writer’s mind and inspires a particular story.  The words grow from those beginnings for the writer just as they grow for the reader.

However, frequently the language a writer uses to get himself started will not survive the rigors of writing and rewriting .  What the writer thought he was going to write changes.  In that case, it is the responsibility of the writer to craft openings that will entice readers and authentically enhance the story that follows. 

I’m not saying that a strong first line can make or break a story, but if a reader isn’t caught up in the first few sentences, he may not read far enough into the story to find out how good it is.

Here are some examples of openings.  Which entice you enough to click the link?  Do they have rhythm? Do they rumble?

“H… hello, Mr. Sterne.”

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window.

It was over 80 degrees in our Hollywood bungalow when my mother opened the door to our O’Keefe and Merritt oven, turned on the gas, and stuck in her head.

 He was D44 and Linda was D45, and, not being the earliest to take their seats, they did the sideways shuffle, coats in hand with smiling apologies.

 Aye aye, lad. You made it then. You cut it so fine I was beginning to think you might not be coming.

Tires crunched driveway stone and a black sedan appeared at the gate.

A toothpick hung from Lester’s mouth.

Three cookies arrived with our check from Pappa Chow’s Chinese Buffet.

whatif useI pulled out my old copy of  What If? (1990) by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter last week after reading  Ms. Painter’s essay “You and the Piano Bench” in Rose Metal’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih. 

Running through the table of contents of What If? was like being plopped down at a Ritz-Carlton Sunday Brunch of Butt-Kicking Advice.   The “table” is piled with tasty dishes: “Beginnings” and “Notebooks” offer ways to get started. The main entrees of “Characterization,” “Point of View,” and “Plot” come next, followed by just desserts, “Resolution and Meaning.”   Garnishes such as “Dialogue” and “Games” crowd in between. 

The chapter I dove into is called “From Situation to Plot,” and that’s where I found the delicious quotation from Heraclitus:  “Character is destiny.”  Wow, I thought, I gotta share this.  Great advice for short fiction writers!

In their writing handbook, authors Bernays and Painter reference another book  Technique in Fiction  by Robie Macauley and George Lanning, stating that this “observation ‘character is destiny’ should be ‘written on the wall of every novelist’s study.’ ”

Why? Because it contains the two basic ingredients for any story, long or short.  

CHARACTER and PLOT: A particular character with specific strengths, flaws, and desires is put into a particular situation where he or she must take action and eventually resolve that situation either happily or tragically. 

Who that character is  (strengths and weaknesses) determines the action taken in the given situation, and  therefore also determines the results of that action.  This revelation of character under duress is why we read, listen to, and watch stories.

“Character is destiny.”  This aphorism from a Greek philosopher from Ephesus offers the some of the best advice I’ve seen for the writing of flash fiction.  herclitusIt’s short!  No words are wasted.  Each word is essential. A character creates his own life by the actions he or she takes in any given situation.  Perfect. 

So for the writer of flash, I offer two bits advice.

1) Character: create a specific character who has  flaws; however, in the brief space of 500 or 1000 words, focus on one flaw, one weakness, something that creates doubt in the reader: how will this character come through this specific situation because, oh my gosh, he might not!  This helps instill empathy and emotion in the reader.

2) Situation: create a specific situation that challenges the very flaw a character has and don’t make it easy.  The choices available to the character depend on genre, but most choices work best when they aren’t between obvious good and obvious evil, but two evils.  Maybe between two goods also, but the point is that the choices be difficult, that the choices must call up in the character all his strength to choose right if the story is to end well…or choose wrong if the story is to end in tragedy.

In this way, the character creates his own destiny by his choices.  It is evitable and therefore, rings true.

So. 

“Character is destiny.”  

Write it out. 

Tape it to your computer.

Now get to work.