Archive for February, 2010

From Every Day Publishing:
Every Day Fiction

gayforwowStories sometimes fall out of our heads and onto the computer screen, surprising us, filling us with an elation that comes mighty close to other kinds of elations.  The temptation is to get it out there into some editors hands immediately.  Usually we zip it straight to the editor we want most to love our work, an editor who’ll email us with praise, no edits, and a Pushcart nomination.  We are hot and bothered, and to use a phrase from my junior high years –STOKED–because we realize we’re beginning to get it. Writing is getting easier…

Beware the flush of love…I mean, the flush of drafts that are effortless.  Sometimes they really are good.  Sometimes they just FEEL good.  The most important thing to remember is WAIT.  Sleep on it.  Don’t lose your heart on a one night stand.  At least not yet. 

After you’ve cooled down, taken a hot shower, and rested, you may discover that what you’ve written is almost ready to go, but it needs proof-reading, a little polish, it needs to be more than it is.  On the occasion when the Muse has guided you, maybe a proof-read is enough.  But most of the time–I’d say 99% of the time–if it’s that good, it can still be better. 

Taking a piece of writing one more level up can mean the difference to finding a home for a story and not finding a home.

It could be as simple as doublechecking to see if your opening is sharp, seductive, and just as important, prescient.  Does it set up your ending.  If the first sentence, the first paragraph is a scene where siblings fight, then what you have communicated to the reader is that the relationship between this brother and this sister is important enough to start off your story.  I’m basically talking about short stories here, especially flash because the word count is such that nothing can be put into the story because because the author likes it or because that how it started in the head of the writer.  Not good enough. 

That opening paragraph must signal in some way, and yes it can be subtle, what it is this story is about. It should suggest both the main characters “journey and epiphany” without giving away the ending.  It can be done in clear straight forward way or it can be subtle, even metaphorical, but it does need to give the reader a hint to the main conflict, what this story is about on a “plot level” and on a “thematic level.” And yes, good genre writing has a theme just like “lit.”

 Creating the link between the beginning of the story and the end will bring complexity to a story.

Word count is a tool.  It sets up boundaries and when there are boundaries we are pushed to know about them, accomodate them, and break away from them.  Word count forces us to look at our stories under a microscope and to needle away anything that doesn’t do service to the story.There are almost always words and phrases that can be cut or sentences reworded by finding more exact and vivid language.

We all put words and phrases in stories when we are writing drafts and some of them eventually become invisible to us. But many of them become obsolete or unnecessary as we work with the material zeroing in on just what the story is about. 

I am trying to teach myself patience.  Trying to set aside work I think is strong in that first rush to the page, just for a day or two, before deciding if this is the best I can do.  And it never is because when I reread the attachment to the submission I’ve sent off in the afterglow of a good write (and I can never resist), there’s always a flaw in the first paragraph, a misused word, an awkwardness, and I want to haul it back from the ether and have it at least one more time.

 

Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and The Best of Every Day Fiction  TWO (2009)Her stories online can be read at Smokelong Quarterly, The Battered Suitcase, Night Train, Every Day Fiction as well as other publications.  Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and blogs at Words in Place.

EricaNaoneI’ve read a lot of online discussion lately that suggests flash fiction stories are quick, easy pieces that you can dash off in a morning. That’s not my experience at all. The only reason I can afford to write flash is that I have a day job.

As an example, I thought I’d describe the process I used to write “Home to Perfect,” a flash piece published in the Best of Every Day Fiction Two anthology. This story took me a solid 15 hours to write. I’ll try to break down how those hours were spent. (The description below assumes you’ve read the story).

I got the idea for the story when I was poking around the Internet one day and found a clip on YouTube of a kid playing “Through the Fire and Flames” perfectly in expert mode on the video game Guitar Hero. At the end of the clip, the kid is visibly trembling, cursing in disbelief, and totally overwhelmed. I found myself thinking over the next several days about the kid’s awe and how he shared it with an audience on YouTube. I wondered if his parents had any idea what that moment meant to him.

I spent about 3 hours over the next several days developing the idea. I asked myself who Vic (my main character) was, why he cared about playing through the song perfectly, and what else was going on in his life. I wrote extensive notes on him, his mom, his dad, and his brother Kurt. This was the point at which I realized that I was writing about domestic violence. I could tell you a lot of details about all of these characters that never made it into the story. I believe a story should be an iceberg–what’s visible should be only a small amount of the material that’s in the author’s possession.

In a flash piece, I look for the iceberg effect even more. In very few words, I have to make the reader aware of significant emotions and history that bear on the scene I chose to show.

At that point, I wrote my first draft, spending about 2 hours on it. (My first draft rate for longer pieces is much faster, but my speed of writing seems to be inversely related to the length of the piece).

I put my first draft down for about a week. When I picked it up again, something was wrong with it, and I couldn’t figure out what. After much rereading and consideration (which I’m not counting towards the total time spent on the work), I figured out that “Through the Fire and Flames” was the problem. I had no emotional connection to the song, and I hadn’t spent much time playing Guitar Hero. I had, on the other hand, pulled many all-nighters playing Rock Band. There’s a song on Rock Band called “Green Grass and High Tides” that I love deeply and find wickedly difficult. I changed the story so that Vic is playing Rock Band, and spent about 5 hours writing a new draft. While I wrote this draft, I listened repeatedly to “Green Grass and High Tides” and periodically took breaks to watch videos on YouTube of people playing this song on Rock Band.

At that point, I thought I’d finished the story, so I let my husband read it. As always happens, he made me realize that I had a lot of work left to do, pointing out several problems with how it was structured. I spent about 3 hours restructuring and fixing those problems. Then, I spent 2 hours doing a final polish and preparing the story for submission. For me, this consists of reading the whole thing out loud several times, fixing anything that trips me up, and fiddling with things until I’m sure I really want to send the story out into the world. I run spellcheck. I obsessively study the guidelines for the market to which I’m sending the story.

And that’s a wrap. I’ve wished that I could write faster, but I’m proud of the piece and am glad I took my time.

 

The original version of this post appeared as Best of Every Day Fiction on Words, Words, Words.

Erica Naone writes by day about topics related to the Internet and computer software. Her fiction has appeared in On The Premises, Storyglossia, Every Day Fiction and Flashquake. She recently received an honourable mention in the 32nd annual International 3-Day Novel Contest. She lives with her husband in Allston, MA. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter.

TanyaschOn January 26th, I sat down and wrote 1,000 words for the first time in something like two months. (There has been a staggering lack of writing at my house lately.) It was a first person narrative that began with:

“I’m no hero, all right? Let’s get that straight up front.”

As of today, 15 days later, I have an entirely outlined and characterized novel plan. This is how I did it.

_____________

The initial narrative took several days to get out of my system, so I went with it, following the narrator right into the middle of his current situation. I would revise the beginning to reflect things I was learning as I wrote the continuation. I shoved “show don’t tell” under my chair and let him tell me about each of his companions, until I felt like I knew them all. (I did all of the preliminary writing in a simple text-edit program so I could easily bounce back and forth between Bianca (my main computer) and Cheese (my baby hackbook).) I took the file with me everywhere for a few days, and worked on it in all of my spare time.

For several days after that, I characterized. (Maker bless the StoryMill for giving me one place to keep track of everything) I made an entry for each character, then jotted ideas and asked questions and bounced from one character to the others as I learned how they all interacted with each other, and why. The characters told me their stories, and I took notes.

Then came the outline, which was a relatively simple matter of piecing together all the quilt-square-stories my characters had told me into one ‘big picture’ of a story. The only challenge this time was puzzling out the right order in which to tell four separate stories until they could unite into one.

With the piecing came more learning, and some of the stories shifted or grew or became less important. I made notes along the way in each of the character’s records … going so far as to use strikethrough text for older ideas instead of deleting them outright, so I could see what I had scrapped in case I needed it again. I determined how many key events occurred during the scope of the tale.

At this point came the numbers – I need the numbers, they act as a boundaries to keep me from going on and on and on like some reincarnation of a famously verbose author (who shall remain nameless even though the fact that he is still being published after his demise is something of an annoyance to me, being that one printing run of his book could theoretically wipe out an entire rainforest in Bolivia.)

Anyway. I picked 65,000 as a starting point for my first draft (not too short, but with room to grow later when things require more explanation and detail.) I determined that the story could best be told in 10 chapters. Behold, each chapter now has a temporary goal of 6,500 words.

I created the 10 chapters, and named them to give myself a reminder of what happens in each one. From the chapter overviews, I determined the scenes – what events occur in what order to convey the story of the bigger picture? Sometimes there were two scenes, sometimes there were four. I entered them into the program as well, giving them names that helped me remember what happens within them, and assigning them to the appropriate chapter. I applied the numbers again, to give myself a framework for how many words each scene in each chapter should have.

At this point, I took an afternoon and made scene notes … one scene at a time, I made the notation: “In which …” and described the action that would be taking place in that scene when I wrote it. This is my map, the road marker I look back on when I am tempted to tangent in a wonderfully written side-story which is completely irrelevant and that I would only have to cut later.

Yesterday I was back to characterizing, since a few of them had come forward while I was making scene notes and requested some changes, or suggested some motivational aids. That was when I got to the nitty-gritty – the physical appearance, the life goal/motivation, the internal agendas, etc.

I also started the list of the things I need — as I encounter something in my descriptions that is incomplete, I make a note of it and keep going, so as not to slow myself down on the details that don’t really matter and can be dealt with later. Currently this list is begging for a world map, names for towns and countries and Inns, and a real name for a guy I am referring to as “Nameless Guy” in every section of notes – before “Nameless Guy” sticks and I have to name him that – keep an eye out for a guy named Inconnu or some form thereof. It’s french for “nameless”. (Thank you Babel Fish!)

I should be starting the actual writing today or tomorrow.

And that’s how it happened.

The problem I am having, however, is the guilt. I have this terrible feeling that working on a long piece, a novel-length work, is nothing but selfish indulgence. Only short pieces are going to make it out into the world and keep my name in the pond … so how can I justify taking the time to write something no one will ever read because the publishing world is a dank, scary place and I don’t have a map or a sherpa? *sigh*

(previously published at Blogging in the Dark)

Marianwood“You need to hear what this woman wrote. Marian, she really understands what you and I are going through. Just listen.” This was the beginning of a phone conversation I had with my friend Gayle a few months ago. It was a Sunday, and she had just finished reading the Ask Amy column in the Washington Post.
 
After reading one particular letter, Gayle knew she had to call me. The writer wanted to know how to maneuver what Gayle and I term “the minefield of middle-age dating.” Gayle’s divorced, and I’m widowed. We have spent countless hours over coffee and on the phone dissecting each new relationship. Gayle and I have both come to the conclusion that dating in one’s fifties is not easy at all.
 
As Gayle read the letter, I told her to stop. “I don’t need to hear any more of this.” I’m not a person to stop someone in mid-sentence, but the words were too familiar to me. Why? I wrote that letter. Several months earlier, I sent off a letter to the advice column more as a lark than anything else. I was still confused and hurting from an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who decided to move to California. There were no good-byes before he left. His silence told me that he was gone, and I was hurt. Once he got settled, he started to call occasionally, but I never picked up the phone. There seemed to be no point. When I sat down and wrote that letter, I was upset. I was hoping that someone who dubbed herself an advice columnist could wave her magic wand and make me feel better.
 
 Once I sent the letter via email, I got the standard canned submission response. It was the typical “thanks, but no thanks” letter. I never told my friends about what I had done, and after reading what I thought was a rejection letter, I promptly forgot all about Amy and her advice until Gayle’s phone call.  I told Gayle that I would call her back.
 
I went to my unread Washington Post and thumbed through the Style Section. There in black and white was my letter. My first published piece. There were my words, my heart, and my feelings all right in front of me. Gayle’s phone call made me realize that I really did know what I was doing when I wrote that letter. I wanted to connect with other people who had been hurt in a relationship even if I didn’t know them. I wanted people to read my letter.
 
I wanted them to nod in agreement with everything that I had written or shake their heads in disagreement. I wanted to evoke some kind of response from others whether it was positive or negative. And I had succeeded. Gayle was living proof of it. If my words resonated with her, then I’m sure that they resonated with others.
 
Sitting on the living room floor, I stared at my letter and loved the power of the written word. This connection to others felt almost heady. It was then that I smiled and silently thanked the man for leaving the relationship. I knew that I wanted to write.
 
 
Marian Wood is a high school English teacher who never thought about writing until recently.  A native Washingtonian (of the East Coast variety), she lives in Northern Virginia.  Passionate about travel, she blogs at www.wanderlustandlipstick.comHer next immediate goal?  Setting up her own blog.