Archive for April, 2010

Like many writers, I’ve read a wide spectrum of fiction.  I’ve read the classics and the out and out trash.  I’ve read genre and meta-fiction.  I’ve read prose poems and flash fiction.  Three writers spoke to my soul: Hemingway, John O’Hara and Raymond Carver.  For me, Hemingway made the fictional world a real place through his use of concrete sense details and through his use of sequences of action.  John O’Hara made me appreciate just how much weight good dialogue can carry and still sound natural.  From Raymond Carver I stole form.  There is a straight line that runs from Hemingway through O’Hara through Carver to Compressionism.  Compressionism is the use of words to paint a picture that tells a story.  If you want to go back further than Hemingway there’s Chekhov.

But now we must strip the language once again as periodically it must be stripped and return it to its concrete, distilled, image driven purity.  Image, thought and language help to make us human.  In the cluttered ultra-postmodern, apocalyptic world community we live in, we must constantly remind ourselves of our communal humanity.  We all dream.  We all dream in images.  We compressionist must commit to image in all its horrible clarity.  Clarity must be our artistic truth.

Some may ask, why must the image be horrible?  It is not the image but the clarity that is horrible.  It is this rendering of an image that has not been censored by the intellect, by the conscious mind that is horrible.  The conscious mind is merely an island on the ocean of the subconscious mind.  This is not to say the intellect has no place in the creation of art.  There would be no art without the vision and discipline of the intellect.  But it is the image driven nether inner world of the universal subconscious mind that the compressionist must seek to render.

So let it begin here in Pittsburgh, this struggle for a language so stripped, so concrete and so distilled and image driven that beauty is not the subject matter because the unflinching clarity of the rendering is the subject matter.  This is the goal of Compressionism.

What should be the length of the compressionist short story?  For the purist, somewhere around 1,000 words.  Of course, this is only a suggestion.  But an image driven flash fiction story will always be able to say more, to imply more, than a non-compressionist story of similar length.  We are not talking poetry.  We are talking about a prose that reaches beyond poetry, a prose that with luck reaches a third and forth and even a fifth dimension.

What should be the ultimate goal of Compressionism?  To produce flash fiction that revitalizes the language.  To have flash fiction writers read by the many and studied in our halls of higher learning.  To ultimately have the very short story take its rightful place along side the poem, short story and novel as one of the great artistic forms of literature.

Bio: Guy Hogan is a Vietnam War veteran and the editor/publisher of the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette.  He received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006.  Compressionism: The Pittsburgh Stories is his ebook of flash fiction.

Every writer needs material.  Every writer has material.  Remember, there are no boring stories only boring writers.  Maybe I was luckier than many who wanted to write short stories.  Let’s see.  I grew up African-American in a black ghetto in Pittsburgh when steel was still king in the city and television televised professional boxing every Friday night.  There was a chain of ice cream parlors in the city and a vendor came around our neighborhood at night selling hot tamales.  The three rivers and the many bridges across the rivers were here but not Point State Park which would come later. 

There was the army and Vietnam and then a local community college with a campus of bra-less young women in very short skirts and dresses.  You could score dope across the table in the snack bar.  On the jukebox in the snack bar was the music of The Doors and many of the professors had hair as wild or as long as your own hair.  Around the nation other young people occupied buildings and marched in the streets.  Everyone with a cause seemed to be marching in the streets and there were a lot of good causes.  There were so many good causes that cities were set on fire and the national guard was often called out.

I’ve had a lot to write about.  I have good material.  But a writer needs a vision, a voice and a method to mold the material, to give it form.  The form may come from a “school of literature.”  This school may provide parameters which keep the writer from always starting at ground zero every time he or she begins a story.

I teach Seminar in Composition (this was in 2004) to freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh.  I’ve been writing short stories for longer than any of my students have been alive.  I try to convey to them the fundamental impact writing will have on their thinking.  I stand in front of them and say things like, “You really don’t know what you think until you write it down.”  Or I’ll say, “A cliche is evidence of lazy thinking.”  And then there’s, “In your essays due next week be sure there is some thinking on the page.”  I constantly remind my students of the intimate connection between thoughts and words.

Recently, the class has been reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, her masterful work on the impact photography has had on the modern human mind’s ability to comprehend reality.  One of her arguments explores how for many people the photograph, the image, takes the place of the reality it represents.

When I’m not teaching I attend classes, too.  I’m working on my MFA in fiction writing.  I attend a writing workshop and a film class.  The film class is on American silent films of the 1920s.  I am convinced of the intimate relationship among thoughts, words and images.  Do you sense a pattern, too?

Of course, Seminar in Composition is not a fiction workshop.  It’s a composition workshop.  I try to demonstrate for my students what I feel are the parameters of good old fashion concise writing.  Concise writing is always highly esteemed.  No matter what fields my students go into, what they learn in my class will help them to express their thoughts on paper in clean, lean prose.  They will have a heightened awareness about placing the right word, the right sentence, the right paragraph and the right punctuation in the right place.  They will know the value of no unnecessary words.  In fiction, Compressionism does all these things and much more.

The nature of the writing my students are doing is of necessity exposition.  They must explain things.  Compressionism reduces exposition to a secondary role.  Compressionism is a word I made up.  It means: using words to paint a picture that tells a story.  It is the kind of writing I try to do.  In Compressionism there is very little explaining.

Many readers may argue that exposition has always held the primary position in fiction, that it is the driving force of fiction.  We compressionists are calling for a new fiction, a fiction that purifies the language, that reduces the language as near as possible to its true metaphorical roots, a language that is relentlessly concrete and unadorned.  It is my argument that only an image-driven language can do these things.  Why image driven?

Let’s go back to the silent films of the 1920s.  The silent film was a purely image-driven narrative.  Even the inter-titles had to be read.  The inter-titles were the exposition.  A piano player or an orchestra might accompany the film but the film was purely image driven.

Let me ask this.  How do we dream?  What are our dreams made up of?  Our dreams are not made up of a stream of words.  They are not torrents of exposition.  They are images.  Of course, all our senses can be involved in dreaming but the main sense is seeing.  And it is not seeing with our eyes.  It is seeing with our minds.

 

Guy Hogan is a Vietnam War veteran and the editor/publisher of the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette. He received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006.   Compressionism: The Pittsburgh Stories is his ebook of flash fiction.

Gaius Coffey’s pieceTerry and the Eye is the most read story at Every Day Fiction for the month of March, and has been hailed as being “nicely uncomfortable,” “amusing,” and “brimming with life.” Today we’re sitting down with Mr. Coffey to find out a little more about him.

 Gaius has written full outlines for two sit-coms, several novels, a couple of screen plays, a stage play and a radio play. He has even completed some of them. His story, “Alone, Not Lonely” has recently been shortlisted for the Fish Publishing One Page Story Prize. Currently, he is working on the final draft of a novel and flash fiction is just one of the many exciting and enjoyable diversions he has found to prevent him from actually finishing it. He lives in Dublin with his wife and two cats.

Gaius, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: “Terry and the Eye” is a story with a rather … unusual topic.  What was your inspiration to write this piece?

Gaius Coffey: The actual prompt was something like “look at page 56 of whatever book you are reading and take the first line of dialogue” (the book was “A Fraction Of The Whole” by Steve Tolz). When I saw what my prompt was, it felt like I’d won the lottery; so many ideas jumped into my head and I had any number of reasons as to why an eye being open or closed didn’t matter. However, my wife had complained that a lot of my flashes end with the horrific, often humiliating, and usually painful death of at least one character and… um… it was a difficult accusation to refute.

So, “Terry and the Eye” became an experiment to see if I could write something a little warmer.

FFC: How did you feel when you found out you had the most read story for March at EDF?

GC: Pretty good, actually. Thank-you. J

FFC: Your bio blurb indicates that you have a wide variety of literary pursuits. What is your favorite form to write?

GC: It depends what I’m writing and why.

When I just want to have fun playing with words, I write flash. The only constraints are the ones you give yourself and there is no pain; you have an idea, you write. It either works or it doesn’t. It is rare that I redraft a flash piece and, when I do, it is almost always in response to specific feedback from specific readers whom I respect.

But, though I love flash and will always write flashes, one thousand words are not enough to tackle anything seriously.

I did try writing plays for various media and I enjoyed both the immediacy and the very visual way of thinking that those required. Maybe the ideas weren’t right, but ultimately I found plays unsatisfying as, even with an hour to play with, I found the results quite superficial. What I needed was a way to get truly intimate with my characters as I explored their worlds in a meaningful way.

Novel writing gives me that. The constraints drive me mad as characters have to be credible and consistent as well as to grow and change. The plot has to be paced and the storyline tweaked to build suspense. I have frequently discarded huge chunks and edited twenty-thousand word sections down to just five. But, when it finally comes together, and the story works how I intended it in the first place, it feels great.

FFC: Who or what do you credit as your biggest influence with regards to your writing?

GC: No one influence and what I am looking for changes over time. I’m more into ideas than pretty prose so Roald Dahl was close to deity for me at one point and probably no surprise that I was also impressed by the complete realities invented by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett (though I think Adams had more fun doing it).

FFC: Where do you see yourself and your writing in the future – say, a year from now?

GC: My current novel will be out there, somewhere, and I will be working on the next one.

FFC: That’s a great attitude to have – I look forward to reading more of you in the future. Once more, thank you for your time.

 

Tanya L. Schofield is the recently appointed Assistant Editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles. You can read her blog at Blogging in the Dark.

These days, Kuzhali Manickavel blogs, and the Rhinoceros beetle has crept out of the shot glass on her desk. Which is a good thing in a way – not the rhino beetle, the blog - because we get slices of her sharp incisive humor more often. On the other hand,  I am getting rather impatient waiting for her next book or flash fiction collection to hit the stands!

Like her publisher, Blaft Publications, I discovered Kuzhali’s writing floating effortlessly in the deep and expansive ocean of the WWW. I was hooked from the very first story I read.  In fact,  a bunch of writer friends and I got busy emailing each other links to her stories, and wondering  all the time we were at it, where exactly that Temple Town in South India was and who exactly was this writer who lived with a rhinoceros beetle in a shot glass! It was not just her stories, even her bio intrigued!

I finally met her at the launch of her book – “Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings” here in Chennai a couple of years ago. I found a very amicable person, on the reserved side but with such generous dollops of that by-now-familiar deadpan humor that her innate reserve was barely visible.   

  As for her stories, they may be presented with dead pan humor, but they are much too layered to be read and laughed off just like that. Even the shortest ones, like “Do You Know How To Twist With Girls Like This?” which is less than a page long is drizzled with images that tend to stick to you like Voodoo pins. To give a couple of examples: ’our eyes click and hum inside our head,’ ‘cloud of halitosis’. “The Unviolence Of Strangers” is another less than a page long piece  which has images like ‘dying like a freshly pinned dragonfly,’ and breasts that have ‘collected in sagging puddles of discontent. Afterwards, when the story ends you realize what the ‘pavement piece’ in the narrative really was.

Each of the thirty five stories in the book sparkles with metaphors; the stories simmer in your head long after you have read them. Some stories like “Suicide Letters Are The Most Common Form of Letter” (one of my favorites in this collection) convey a whole range and depth of emotions in tightly packed prose; the humorous tone is misleading, because we are treading on sad soil here. But Kuzhali’s dexterity is such that the sadness hits you only when you are done with the reading. Her stories are fast paced, at times almost breathless; this could be one of the reasons why their full impact is felt after the reading is done – pretty much what good stories ought to do!

The unique experience of Kuzhali’s writing is the collective effect of her pace, her seemingly fractured imagery and her often tongue in cheek references to serious things; all three elements blend together to give you an unshakable reading experience. ”Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings” is a slim book that you can slip into your bag and carry while travelling. The stories buzzing with humor make for easy reading in trains and airports. After that the stories continue to journey with you long after you’ve shut the book.

Adapted from an earlier post in Writers & Writerisms 

Rumjhum Biswas lives and writes in Chennai.

by Walter Giersbach

Neophytes often begin with genre fiction as being easy stuff to get into.  And this is where I stumble when I critique their work. Their characters are overdrawn, descriptions distract from plot flow, story lines get bogged down in irrelevancies, and memoir fogs the exposition.

I was hauled back to the basics of conventional writing by James Wood, professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, reviewing books in the New Yorker. Key here is his word convention: what today’s reader expects.

Stephen Crane could write in, “The Little Regiment,” in 1896, “And yet the spirit of this little city, its quaint individuality, poised in the air about the ruins, defying the guns, the sweeping volleys; holding in contempt those avaricious blazes which attacked many dwellings. The hard earthen sidewalks proclaimed the games that had been played there during long lazy days.” And so on. No reader today would patiently suffer an omniscient author describing an anthropomorphic little city.

Old fashioned? Yes. Now what are the new fashions we expect when approaching a story? Conventions are akin to entering a strange building: we want to know the stairs will have handrails and there will be light switches next to the doors.

Here are a few of the amenities—Wood’s “basic grammar”—we look for:

Sweep and Focus. Wood sees “cinematic sweep followed by the selection of small, telling details” at the core of realist fiction. It’s the vernacular in which mainstream stories are written—the very language readers anticipate, beginning with the establishing location shot. (I stepped from the air-conditioned bus into another world. Humid air made me recoil as I dropped my bag and stared at the shimmering white courthouse, the blank-faced stores, the dusty asphalt of an empty street.

A Mix of Detail. These are the small, crystal-clear items that define a person in a few words. (Sam’s money needed to be leashed to keep it from running into a bar or bookstore. I figured I’d hit the middle class when I could afford to kill cockroaches with Raid spray instead of a hammer. Sam would need to borrow the hammer.)

Specifics, Not Generalities. Where did Crane get off using a word like “quaint,” and what “games” were played there? Readers want details. (Evenings started with us sitting on a stoop drinking Rheingold. Then someone would suggest going over to Second Avenue to get a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring. Saturdays, there were demonstrations and anti-war protests, but no one wanted to get involved. It was too hot and depersonalizing to carry a placard. Our Tar Beach was the rooftop on East Sixth Street. Always there was the sound of drums echoing down the street.

Characterization through Minutiae. Flash fiction’s word limitations require the most concise way of drawing a character. Done once—and well—you may not need to revisit your character’s description. (Sarah didn’t open up much. She kept her emotions tightly packaged like a souvenir piece of wedding cake, full of memories but totally indigestible.

Padding. A little filler helps a story the way bread extends a good meatloaf. Padding doesn’t move the story ahead as much as it lets the reader catch a breath and—hopefully—empathize with a character. (What made me feel so fine was the danger that I was Pinocchio and somebody would turn me into a donkey for running away to the circus. I don’t think Pinocchio ever had a girl hanging onto his arm, though. The warm sweat of her hand made the forbidden pleasure feel specially good.

Memories. Recollection and reflection offer depth to a plot, a protagonist or a situation. It’s also a way to bring in a back story. (They had been solicitous after David Marshall Sullivan’s coronary embolism. They regretted that by dying unexpectedly he hadn’t lived up to his contract, but they didn’t hold that against her when she was severed. They said it was just a corporate reorganization. Their severance package was generous when they fired her, but her own regrets had more to do with losing David than their employer.

Lyrical Phrasing. A touch of poesy ratchets the story up a notch over pedestrian writing. Call it a blossom dropped on a sidewalk; it heightens the beauty. (The trail of her footsteps in the sand back to L.A. would imitate those just-born turtles flailing their way to the sea to drink up a new life.

Writing instructors demand a “story arc,” from the introductory “narrative hook.” through increasing suspense, and on to a “blackest moment” before the story is resolved. This is satisfying to the reader, even if it’s predictable. At its clumsiest (and especially in movies), it requires the hero to duke it out mano a mano with the enemy, the alien, or the undead until the nemesis is properly dispatched and the screen fades to black. In flash, the resolution needs to take place in a final paragraph or even the concluding sentence. (Humans would probably call our love incest, but there’s no comparable feeling among androids.

Your challenge then, at least until your experimental or literary masterpiece is created, is to fulfill these conventions in the most inventive and entertaining manner. Grammar, sweep, detail, specifics, characterization, padding, memory and lyricism all function in greater or lesser amounts as the tools to build a short story. Sidestep or ignore them and the reader won’t recognize the “reality” of your story.

All parenthetical examples are from published stories I’ve written.
1. “Gothic Revival
2. “Sarah, My Donna and Child”
3. “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge”
4. “The Ghost on the IND Line”
5. “Louise from the Bar
6. “Cable Window
7. “Last Year’s Icon”
8. “Who Dares Call It Murder?”