Archive for August, 2009

TanyaschI have come to the conclusion that Ideas Are AliveI will explain with an anecdote.

Last night, I worked on a practice piece (from the prompt for the 25th.) I had shortened my brainstorm and actual writing time significantly, since I did want to get to bed sometime before I had to be awake. The stuff I came up with was, in a word, garbage. Regurgitated garbage, in truth, so I felt no guilt in closing the laptop when the timer went off and simply going to bed without giving the piece a second thought.

But then, something happened when the lights went out. My terrible idea began to bubble in the back of my mind, something I was only dimly aware of as I settled down. It percolated into something better as I sank into sleep, and I remember hoping that I would be able to recall the new slant for the idea when I awoke.

While I slept, the idea kept working – like yeast-leavened bread, it expanded and became something not so sticky and hard to work with, but the foundation for something delicious. I woke this morning with the story fully formed in my head, and wrote it down in an hour and a half. None of the prompt words made an appearance, but they didn’t need to. The idea did all the work. It needs tidying, of course, and several edits with breaks between before I send it out into the world. But it is there.

And all I did was sleep on it.

(reprinted from original at Blogging in the Dark)

TL.Schofield is the sum of an equation factoring in her upbringing, her love, her passions, her children, her pets, and her insatiable need to create something out of nothing. The results of this equation are often inconsistent, depending on the chameleon color of her hair, her proximity to the ocean, and her consumption of coffee and / or cheese. She is often lost in thought.

These observations about the submissions received in the String -of-10 Contest gayforwowsponsored by this site are more about me and my reading experience than about any one entry. However, I am sharing them with you so that if and when we sponsor a fresh new contest, those who read this and enter will be at a distinct advantage.

1)Titles
All fiction stories benefit from a well-thought out title. A title should reflect the overall story if possible. One classic rule says that a title should be the character’s name (Antony and Cleopatra, Ethan Frome, Moby Dick) or the setting (Howard’s End, Mill on the Floss, Our Town), both character and setting (The Old Man and the Sea, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), or they reveal theme, in abstraction (Sound and the Fury, War and Peace, From Here to Eternity) or suggest theme in a specific object or event (The Golden Bowl, Light in August, The Sheltering Sky), or character or setting that reflect theme (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Paradise Lost, The Grapes of Wrath).

Titles should enhance the story, add to it in some way, yet not telegraph so much that there is no surprise left at the end. Specific ambiguity? Is that possible? I think so. This is even more important when writing short fiction. Whenever there is a word limit as in this 250-word contest, every word MUST count. The title gives the writer another way to set up, entice, and pay-off the reader, and title words are FREE, above and beyond the word count of the work itself. So use a title. Writing isn’t just random thoughts. It’s thinking carefully about all the ways you can help the reader have an emotional response to your story.

2. Surprise
Many stories lack surprise and surprise is what jolts a reader into having an emotional response. I don’t mean just a twist ending either. Surprise is more than that.

First, surprise comes to the reader when a setting is specific and interesting. When there is no setting established at all, the reader is left in a blank empty space, and readers, like Mother Nature, abhor a void. A writer can engage a reader with a few small details that create a unique place in which the story can exist.

Second, surprise comes to the reader when a character is unique. When there is something different than we expect about the person, his attitude, his way of speaking, even his appearance. A wise teacher once told me (and our class) to always do something unique to a character, give him a headache, a limp, a funny haircut that reflects in some way who that person is. Actually he used “a toothache” as an example, and I watched a movie in which the character had a toothache throughout and that toothache paid off in the end in his own behaviour. I thought aha, Gordon’s toothache! Dang. I can’t remember what it was, something by Russell Banks I think.

Third, surprise –and delight–happen when the language is full of vivid specific detail, images that pop off the page, clear and precise and visual.

Fourth, surprise happens when an ending provides both the unexpected and a sense of the inevitable. The reader might guess from the title, the specific character traits of the hero, the dangerous setting, that the story may end badly, but the reader should not know the exact details of that ending (I am thinking here of The Old Man and the Sea here or Of Mice and Men).

It is in the details that the reader will be surprised and satisfied because though the writer may have promised an unhappy ending, he ends it with epiphany or an unthought-of-sadness. The twist must NOT be the pulling out of a gun that the reader didn’t know a villain had, but rather the pulling out of the gun the reader knew he had, and then decides not to fire.

So yes, twist the ending, but don’t create surprise with a non-sequiter. Classic rule from Master Chekov: If there is a gun on the mantle in the beginning, use it by the end. And the reverse is also true, if you are going to use a gun in the end, put it on the mantle in the beginning, but do it all subtly because…

The real surprise should come with the revelation of the human spirit. We need to know the person, the character a little before we can appreciate the surprise. Can it be done in 250 words? Yes.

3) Cliched story plots
Third and last observation for today. It’s hard for a new writerto know what a cliched plot is. Everything feels new to him because he hasn’t written before. But what’s new to the writer isn’t necessarily new to the reader, especially an editor. Therefore if you are going to write about illness, revenge, execution, suicide, dead mothers, boy meets girl, Martians landing on the earth, and football quarterbacks, etc, then it is important to pay attention to the details of your story and create unique characters, unusual settings, screwy attitudes, a strong identifiable voice, anything that lifts the cliched plot above the mundane. Most of the time this means a lot of writing practice and thoughtful revision. Reading every line, every word, and doing the revision without overworking it. Not easy, but it comes with working at it every day, just like playing the basoon.

The classic belief in storytelling is that there are only 5-12-24 actual plots in the world, and that’s true on some levels. It’s what the writer brings to a cliched story that makes it good. This has been proven over and over by Will S, Charlie D, John S, Edith W, Charlotte B, Tommy Hardy, Margaret A, Carole S, Willie F, and even Stephen K.

 

This post by Gay Degani is reprinted here from her Words in Place Blog.

jonpinnockby Jonathan Pinnock

It’s not often that I find I can start a post by saying that it was inspired by hearing Irene Cara singing “Flashdance … What a Feeling” on my car radio. But it’s true, although we’ll come on to the reason for that later. What I really want to talk about is problem solving in writing, and how the most creative thing that can sometimes happen to you as a writer is to get stuck, because it’s often how you get yourself out of a tricky situation that can be the difference between a dull piece and something that’s truly inspired.

A classic example of this is in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” As you may remember, Adams – who was possibly the most disorganized writer of all time – ended the first episode of the original radio series with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect being blasted into space with only seconds to live.  It made for a fantastic cliffhanger ending, but it presented Adams with something of a problem, because he’d painted himself into a corner.

The problem was that any way of extricating his two heroes from this situation would be so improbable that it would immediately be dismissed as an amateurish “deus ex machina.” So what Adams did was to turn the problem on its head and invent something that relied on the very improbability of the situation. The resulting concept of the infinite improbability drive is possibly one of the most inspired ideas to have come out of speculative fiction in the late twentieth century.

Here’s another example. The writers of “Back to the Future”, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, made a problem for themselves when they decided that their two key characters were going to be a schoolboy and a mad professor. But here’s the conundrum: how on earth could they establish some kind of link between these two disparate characters? The solution was that classic opening sequence where Marty McFly breaks into Doc Emmett Brown’s lab, plugs his guitar into that massive speaker, turns the volume up to 11, plays a single chord and gets thrown right across the room.

And so we come to Irene Cara. As soon as the song came on the radio, I immediately thought of that wonderful sequence in the film “The Full Monty”, where they’re sitting down to watch “Flashdance” to pick up some dancing tips, and Mark Addy’s character misses the point entirely and starts complaining about the quality of Jennifer Beals’ welding. The joke is so perfect that I started to wonder if it contained a clue as to how the entire film came about. I have no idea if this is remotely true, but what if Simon Beaufoy, the writer, happened to watch “Flashdance” one day, and thought to himself: wouldn’t it be hilarious to do a film like “Flashdance” except set in England, and about a bunch of male steelworkers who took up dancing?

So let’s look at the problems that this implausible scenario presents, and how solving them might have created the movie. First of all, why do they take up dancing? Because they’re broke. Why are they broke? Because the steel industry’s collapsed (and already we’re getting a much richer concoction). But why would anyone pay to watch them dance? Because they’re really good? Nah. Won’t work. Because they’re going to do something special? Maybe. Like what, though? Stripping? And at that point, you have the bare bones of the entire film.

Now I’m only guessing that it happened like that. But it strikes me as highly plausible. So don’t run away from problems – seek them out. The solution that you come up with to get yourself out of a hole might just be the thing that takes you to a different level.

clifford-g1My short story collection, In an Uncharted Country, will be published by Press 53 in early September. I’m truly excited by the thought of people holding my book in their hands and maybe even reading my stories, now that the book is finding its way into the world. Since I’m a man, I can’t and won’t use the birth metaphor, but it certainly is odd to think of this little part of me existing on its own, having a life that’s separate from mine. (Except, of course, for that mystery known as “marketing” which will keep me tied to the book for months to come, but that’s a whole other subject.)

How did I get to this point?

I wrote a novel. I thought it was great. It wasn’t. It needed and still needs a lot of work.

But in order to feel like a writer, I needed to publish something. I needed to finish things and send them to editors, and I needed to see them in print, and, most of all, I needed other people to see them in print.

So I started writing short stories. I liked the fact that I could be “done” with something. I could submit it—to several journals simultaneously, usually—and editors would read it and a magazine might actually publish it. That happened almost immediately, and continued happening as I kept writing more stories.  

I wasn’t thinking “collection” when I started, but I discovered that my process of writing stories is rather organic. That is, there is usually something in a story that serves as a seed for the next one—a minor character who needs to be explored further in his own story, for example, or a resolution to a story that suggests further conflict and another story or two. I wrote about a couple with marital problems living out in the country, and all I had to do to get the landscape right was look out my window. And all I had to do to get ideas for characters is walk down the street in the small town near where I live.

One thing led to another and I had a pile of stories that felt like a book. Because the stories were linked by overlapping characters, location, and even theme, they fit together nicely. But I thought something was missing, and I came up with the idea of a “cap-story”—a final story for the collection that tied together most of the other stories and suggested a thematic resolution, almost as if it were the end of a novel instead of a book of short stories.

So I had a finished manuscript, but story collections are notoriously hard to publish and, as a result, most agents won’t touch them unless they can be sold as part of a two-book package with a novel. The only novel I had was that manuscript that still needed a lot of work—work that I wasn’t mentally prepared to do yet—and so I didn’t have what agents wanted.

As a result, I turned my attention to small presses. For many emerging writers, small presses are the way to go, especially as the large trade publishers go after bigger and bigger blockbusters in order to maximize profits. The small presses follow a different model and many of them are willing to look at stand-alone story collections. I sent my manuscript out to a few, and Press 53 was interested. They’ve been terrific to work with, allowed me some say in the choice of cover and other design features for the book, and I’m grateful to the publisher, Kevin Watson.

Cliffs bookIronically, though, while I was searching for a publisher, I was working on a new book. I still couldn’t bring myself to work on the old novel, but I felt that I needed a novel to be taken seriously. But I love stories! And so I took a shot at a hybrid form—a novel in stories. Some readers may consider In an Uncharted Country to fall in this category, too, but with the new book that’s what I set out to do. The stories are even more closely linked, and there is a story arch that connects all the twelve pieces together. At this point four of those stories have been published and, somewhat to my surprise, an agent was interested in representing me for that book—I signed with her the same month I signed with Press 53 for the story collection.

I’m now working two projects. One is a novel. A real novel. And the other is a different animal altogether: a novel in flash. It’s a collection of flash fiction pieces that all deal with the same character. Although a number of those have been published, it’s too soon to tell where that one is going. But it’s been a blast to write.

 

My collection of linked short stories, IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY (Press 53, September 2009), is set in rural Virginia, where I now live. Before turning to writing fiction, I was an international lawyer and spent most of my career in Asia. I have an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. For more info: http://cliffordgarstang.com

bwheadshot2There seems to be a notion among some writers that flash fiction is just too darned short. Non-writers don’t share this opinion — that is, if they even think about flash fiction at all — to them the shorter the piece, the easier it must have been to write. Writers know better. It becomes pretty obvious to anyone even attempting flash that its hard word-count ceiling creates a different set of challenges than the average short story. Many writers, therefore, give flash fiction a wide berth — it’s just too much of a headache to get everything done in less than a 1,000 words.

Me, I’m relieved that flash has a ceiling. That’s what makes it fun, a snack, something I can have complete control over as a writer.

But there is more to it than that. In imposing sharp limits on a story’s size, flash fiction liberates the writer by forcing certain kinds of behaviors. You cannot write an effective piece of flash that is bloated or rambling — though I believe a good writer could suggest those very things with clever prose. You cannot have sprawling plots, or a large cast of characters, or multiple points of climax. You cannot spend words to no effect.

It’s the difference between the sport of fencing, and an actual sword fight. You’d be liable to see more technique and control in a fencing match precisely because it is limited, because it has rules that govern movement, striking, duration, and so on. Not so a free-form dual with the same weapons, in which a whole host of variables from screaming and spitting and sand-throwing, to hurling one’s blade and hiding up a tree, or, just maybe, to cheating by showing up with a gun, could lead to utter chaos. The second situation is the harder situation to control (and, in my example, clearly the more dangerous), and it is also the situation in which one can cheat.

You cannot cheat with flash — at least, ‘cheating’ in the form of going over the word limit would render one’s flash fiction piece into something else, and would most likely get you rejected from markets specifically looking for flash. But not being able to use words numbered 1,001 to infinity means you never have to worry about them — they don’t exist in the world of flash.

To use another example, imagine a situation in which you were hired as a landscaper. You’ve got to create a full-blown paradise behind someone’s house, complete with garden, little ponds, strategically placed trees and hills, maybe a gazebo — you get the idea. So, you’re led to see the vacant field where you’ve got to do the work and it’s big enough to function as a landing strip for a DC-10. Sure, you can do it, it’s a question of time. But, will you end up with a unified garden, or a lot of little patches of paradise all over the place? Will you have to bring in colossal trees and engineer dramatic slopes and defiles to balance the sheer size of the plot, or will just putting a lot more little stuff in there get the job done?

Of course, the same job on a plot one tenth or one one-hundredth the size of our landing strip will be much, much simpler. That is not to say that the work will be easy — indeed, you won’t have as much space and freedom to include everything you like within your tiny yard — but you will gain a sharper focus for knowing you cannot plant or dig beyond the sturdy little fences ringing you in. And, when the two jobs are done, both may turn out to be magnificent, but only in the small garden will the appreciative viewer be able to step back, and take in the entirety of the composition at a glance.

This is not to say that one form is better than the other, only that each offer different challenges and rewards. Flash may seem to some writers who have not really given it a try to be too constricting, too limiting. But it’s these very limits that make it great — flash’s rules encourage the kind of sharp focus and tight control that make writing, and writers themselves, better.

Bill Ward is, most probably, a figment of his own imagination. His flash has appeared at Every Day Fiction, Murky Depths, and the anthologies Dead Souls and Northern Haunts, as well as The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008. He blogs about all things genre at www.billwardwriter.com.