Archive for July, 2009

From now on, let it be known that I am not a writer of flash fiction, slam poetry, prose poetry, poetry, oral tales, character studies, monologues, mood pieces, memoir, reviews, rants, open letters, hyper-extended tweets, shout-outs, sketches, biographies or rune interpretations. I am a writer of short. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what I write, its just how long I do it. And I am a person of brevity (in my writing at least) and that is what I do.

When someone asks me what I write, I say, “About 600 words.” I write short. I like short things. I like to share short things. If you can move someone, make them laugh, piss them off, turn them on, change the way they think in under two pages, well dammit Janet, that’s good enough for anybody. The idea that such power can be embedded in such enclosed spaces is as bright and exciting as nuclear fusion.

I will no longer allow myself to be labeled a slammer, or a flasher (I was busted once, and have learned my lesson) or any other pigeon hole we allow ourselves to be placed in. I will not alter what I write, because it doesn’t follow a narrative arc and I must have that to be a flash fiction writer. If I want a piece to stop suddenly, then it will. If the piece refuses to have plot adhered to its skin, then baby, be naked and free. If I let the piece dictate its form and not the markets, or the trends, then perhaps something worthwhile will occur. Perhaps there will emerge something worthy of sharing.

My name is David Macpherson and I am a writer of short things.

 

Dave, a writer of short things, lives in Northbridge, Ma. He is a co-editor of Ballard Street Poetry Journal. He has been published in several on line and print publications. He is a former slam poet and has performed across New England.

me with smile biggerI’m trying to remember what I know about comma-splices without getting out of my chair.  It’s been a while since I had to think about it,  let alone explain it.  (I know.  I don’t HAVE to explain it.  But it’s Wednesday and I need to post a post).

A comma slice comes under the heading of “run-on sentence.”  There are a couple kinds of run-on sentences as I recall, but I think a comma splice comes into being when a comma tries to create a sentence from two clauses where two clauses don’t exist.

A comma alone isn’t strong enough to be used between two clauses, but should only be used between a clause and a phrase.

Let me back up.

A clause has the same weight as a sentence in that it contains a subject and a verb and is a complete thought. A sentence is a clause with a period at the end. One complete thought. It can stand on its own.

Two clauses create a compound sentence. Both sides of the punctuation are complete and each could stand on its own, but if the writer of a sentence decides she wants a softer connection than a period, a comma won’t cut it.  Two clauses need a hard connection.

Let me say that again: If there is a strong divide between one complete thought and the next complete thought, it requires period or punctuation equal to a period.

A period is a hard connection.  And if the writer decides he wants a softer “hard divide,”  he turns to colons, semi-colons, and commas mated with conjunctions, one of the FANBOY set, “but” and “and” the most commonly used.

A phrase is like a clause, kind of, but it’s not a complete thought because it’s missing either subject, verb, or both depending on what kind of phrase it is. A phrase cannot stand on its own. It needs the rest of the thought to be considered a clause or a sentence.  It must be attached to or shored up by a clause.

There are exceptions to this rule. In some progressive and/or experimental fiction, incomplete ideas are acceptable. Rhythm and pacing is often more important to a writer than following certain rules.

Grammar exists, however, for the sake of clarity. If I break a rule, I have to ask myself, will the reader still understand what I am saying? If the answer is “YES,” then I go for it. If it’s “NO,” I refer back to the rules.

Now have I totally confused everyone out there?

gayforwowContent, structure, and language work together. No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story.

  • The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.
  • A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 
  • How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.
  • Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.
  • Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.

Structure refers to the basic organization of a story.

  • Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments
    • The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.
    • The main body of the story (Act 2) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.
    • The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.
  • Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene
  • Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.
  • Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.
     

Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea.

  • Diction refers the specific words that are chosen
  • Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.
  • Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.
  • Language evolves from revision and rhythm.

Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together.

Writing is a Process. Yeah, it is!

The rough draft is about content…
making it up.

The second
draft is about structure…
making sense.

The third
draft is about language…
making it clear.

The fourth draft is about perfection…
making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.

 

This post appeared last year at Gay Degani’s Words in Place Blog.

marksutzby Mark Sutz

I have set stories in many places, all of which, now that I think of it, I have either visited, lived in, passed through or been introduced to by friends who have either visited, lived in, passed through or been introduced to by other friends. All, without any notable exception that spring to mind, I have had some personal connection with, if a degree or three removed.  In noting this, my statement seems a bit glib — after all, doesn’t every writer just somehow reconfigure a place that is somewhat familiar to her, however slight that may be, and just stick the characters in? — but I don’t mean it to be.  I couldn’t set a story on Mars or in Atlanta.  No connection. Perhaps I should elucidate by telling you how I don’t work with setting.

Though I would like to, I haven’t set a story in Sao Paolo.  I don’t feel close enough to it because it meets none of the criteria I seem to unconsciously use when setting a story:  no friends there, never been, never chatted someone up who’s blown through.  Things I’ve read about Sao Paolo, pictures I’ve seen and its weirdness intrigue me:  the busy air highway of helicopters that the rich use to avoid the daily kidnappings that go on in the streets below; the billboards advertising bulletproof glass for the urban businessman and promising the lowest price, if not guaranteeing the life behind the glass; the plastic surgeon who’s made a career singularly from reattaching the ears of kidnap victims.  This odd and curious hunger for the world I have goes for Alaska, Detroit, Seattle, Moscow and dozens of other places I’ve wanted to set a story in but find myself too paralyzed to do so.

I have, however, set stories in Arizona, from top to bottom; the black and white beaches of Hawaii; Chicago and her delicious tree-lined suburbs; the marred rural halfway homes in the forests of Maryland where old drunks sip orange soda and smoke thin menthols; a Toowoomba pub; the schoolyards of Switzerland where ski jumps litter the grounds like baseball fields do here; myriad locales in eastern Europe that I can recall like photographs fifteen years after; Alaska fishing boats that have been described to me by friends so dear I have phantom pains from them nearly losing fingers or hands; rest stops along the I-10 in vague, dusty in-between places; the immediate space above Hemingway’s Ketchum grave; the sad motel room and bar of a Rockville, Maryland motor hotel where a woman was raped and never shared her story; my boyhood housekeeper’s bedroom, wrongly remembered, no doubt, but still spooky with its assorted wigs on styrofoam heads high and lined up and hidden in the long closet.

I’ve set stories in a great many places and have a many more locales that I’m familiar with which I haven’t yet used.  So, I guess for me, the elements that prescribe my settings are:

  • that I feel I could somehow truly pass it off to a native who reads my story and
  • that the setting gives me a little chill in the possiblility it is the only place on earth I could tell a particular story.

These last points are interesting to me in that I’ve never really though about setting that way.  But the composition of this essay has convinced me, though I seem to understand it intuitively, that setting  is of primary importance to the thrust and ultimate success of one’s story.  It seems obvious, maybe the kind of observation only a child writer may make, but in thinking about the settings of my own stories, the stories of others that I love and the stories of writers who are abysmal, that if setting is of secondary or tertiary concern, the story fails.  So many writers, who I won’t name here for fear of offending anyone who might be a fan, could set their stories in a gargantuan bag of sand, the surface of the moon or a Venetian gondola and it wouldn’t matter.  They’d still be unable to transmit any emotion through their words.

 

Visit www.littlefiction.blogspot.com for a selection of Mark’s stories and www.fictioncontests.blogspot.com for the best contests on the web.

Alexander BurnsRecently I was invited to submit to a new market, and even given a prompt with which to work, but none of my initial attempts were panning out. Then, random perusing of the Internet gave me this interesting bit of trivia – there is a clock tower in Ireland, in Cork, which has four faces, and each face tells a different time. This inspired the thought: “What if, rather than three of those faces being wrong, all four are right?”  Breakthrough!

Wait, and somebody even wrote a poem about this clock? Get outta here! The story practically wrote itself! Seriously, I’m not sure why I showed up that day.

Research can take a number of different forms, each of which serve different purposes, and all of which are invaluable to honing the craft of writing. Here’s a few:

Reading other stories in the genre is research, as you need to see how it’s been done, learn the conventions of the genre, pick up tips, etc. Don’t put blinders on to what’s going on in your chosen field.

Names are important, so don’t just randomly grab a name from a phone book. Make sure characters have period-appropriate names, and be aware of ethnic implications (of surnames in particular). Look out for historical or pop culture significance that might color a reader’s view of a character. There are plenty of resources to check (my personal favorite is Behindthename.com). Don’t overlook the meanings of names, there’s rich material there for inspiration. I’ve jump-started stories based purely on some interesting meaning of a randomly-generated name.

History matters. It seems silly, but there it is. Even if you’re radically changing the history of a place, it’s important to know what really happened, how the people lived, how they thought. Not just the bare facts of how many people lived in what city, but what their philosophy was, what the issues of the day were, and so forth. What’s the difference between a 20th century hero and a 16th century brigand? How did people talk in the 1200s? Or even last year? A single bit of slang can transport the reader to an entirely different decade.

Technical vocabulary can make or break a story for some readers. Tom Clancy has legions of followers who read his work simply because he can, step by step and with all the right technical terms, describe how a nuclear reactor on board a Russian submarine can melt down. Does the gun in your narrator’s hand use shells or bullets? Was the city hit by a meteor or a meteorite? Is this cop a detective or a constable? Does this patient need blood or plasma? Some portion of the audience, maybe even most of the audience, won’t know the difference, but some will and they’ll nitpick themselves out of enjoying the story. Then they’ll post about it somewhere online.

Research is important to creating realistic and believable people and settings, and just as important in flash fiction as in a novel. Be as familiar with the subject matter as possible, because for your flash piece it needs to be summed up in a sentence, or a few words of dialogue. You won’t have the luxury of a whole chapter to explore the ideas.

Most of all, let research inspire your stories. There’s so much available in the real world that’s interesting, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the free ideas. Research is not a chore. And it gives you a good excuse to check out a lot of cool books.

Alexander Burns lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, A Thousand Faces, 10Flash, and forthcoming from The Future Fire.