Archive for January, 2011

Let me start by saying that I do not believe in writers’ block. One of my first writing teachers gave me this brilliant piece of advice: “Writers’ block is not the feeling that you have nothing to write. It is the feeling that everything you write will be complete and utter shit. You have to give yourself permission to write some shit.” When my students come to me and tell me that they’re blocked, I pass on this advice. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes not. It is in these moments that I unleash the wisdom of self-hypnosis.

If you want to be a writer, half the battle is learning about your process and then exploiting that knowledge. I tend to work best when I have limited time. If I have the whole day to write, I feel too much pressure to use it all and end up doing nothing. But, if I only have forty-five minutes before I have to go to a meeting, I can almost always bang out 500 words. Now that I’m on fellowship and I have all the time in the world to write, I knew I was in danger of suffocating under all those hours. So I’ve built myself a limit. I go to my office from 12-2 every day and that’s when I write. It works great for me. And, on the occasions when I get swept up in what I’m doing, I write all night long.

Routine is a key part of self-hypnosis. Now, after several months of this routine, when I get into my office at 12, sit at my desk, and open my document, the words just come. This is because I’ve told my brain, “When I get in here, it’s time to work,” just like you tell your body, “When I get in bed, it’s time to sleep.” If you can’t write at the same time every day, try writing in the same place. If that’s not possible, there are other ways to trigger self-hypnosis. You can try always writing in the same sweatshirt or using a travel size bottle of perfume or cologne to create an olfactory trigger wherever you are. Some writers pair music with specific projects, switching from one playlist to another when they’re working on a story vs. a novel.

It also helps to keep track of your weird compulsions and use them to your advantage. For example, I have terrible vision, so I always set my screen to 166% zoom when I’m writing. But when I’m reading student work, I don’t do this. This way, just by looking different, my word documents themselves help trigger my productivity. Some writers only write on legal pads, or with certain pens, or while they’re drinking tea, or when they’re barefoot. Find whatever strange thing you’re already doing and make it work for you.

If this all sounds a little weird, that’s because it is. It totally is. But it also really works, especially if you often find yourself feeling blocked. If you have an example of self-hypnosis that works for you, leave it in the comments! Maybe it’ll help somebody else, too.

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Aubrey Hirsch’s work has appeared in journals such as Hobart, Third Coast, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Annalemma and The Minnetonka Review, and in the forthcoming anthology Pittsburgh Noir (Akashic Books). Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Micro Award and honored on the short list of Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. She currently serves as the Daehler Fellow in Creative Writing at Colorado College.

To read some of Aubrey’s current work, check out her stories in Vestal and SmokeLong as well as  in Metazen’s charity e-book. You can find her online here.

Any writer who has ever critiqued another writer’s work will be familiar with that awful sensation when a well-intentioned critique causes offence and results in bad-blood. Such exchanges are inevitable whenever honest opinion is sought or given, especially where the opinion surprises the recipient. However, if you accept the premise that the purpose of critique is to develop a writer’s skills, it is precisely those surprises that are potentially the most valuable.

I was genuinely stunned by the negative reaction of female readers to one of my male characters; I meant to show a man nervously preparing for a big meeting whereas the majority of female readers saw a distant father ignoring his children. Without that feedback, I would have finished my novel draft unaware that it alienated a substantial portion of my potential readership. Instead, I learned about readers’ different perspectives and the importance of detail. That’s in addition to the side benefit of rewriting a main character and plotline more carefully.

Despite the value of those surprises, it is tough to create a safe environment for both the writer and the reviewer – both are taking a risk in presenting their ideas. This is why so many established critique groups have a firmly ingrained etiquette. For example, in the group I host at http://www.writewords.org.uk almost every critique includes some variation on the statement: “This is just my opinion, take what you find useful and ignore the rest.”

Etiquette, however, is only part of the solution. Someone who is either unsure of their ability or who is writing purely for the pleasure of using words is unlikely to thank you for a robust critique aimed at pushing a piece to publication quality. Equally, someone who is confident of his skills and actively seeking publication is unlikely to value a critique that says simply “I enjoyed this” (though it is nice to know when you get things right, too). Fortunately, responsibility for this is in the hands of the writer when he chooses to participate in a given group.

With good etiquette in place and all parties matched for level and ambition, the next problem is critique philosophy. Before I continue, I should lay my cards on the table; I am serious about publication and serious about improving. My group is called “Intensive Critique” and its clearly-stated mission is to provide honest, considered and detailed critique. It attracts good writers who are also serious about publication. My critique philosophy is in line with that and, as such, I would like to challenge some myths about what is and is not good critique.

Myth 1: Good critique is always encouraging

A writer should not be put off when a few paragraphs don’t work for a reader. It is more valuable to state clearly, with reasons and examples, when something doesn’t work than to bolster the ego of a writer who is already confident of their skills.

Myth 2: You cannot critique in a genre you don’t read

Critique is about looking at a piece with fresh eyes, to see the things writers haven’t, can’t or don’t want to see for themselves. Genre rules can be like the emperor’s clothes; readers assume that’s how it should be and read it that way.

Much the same as reading your paragraphs backwards when proof-reading for typos, reading outside your genre not only broadens your skills as a writer, but allows you to see things as a reviewer that you might otherwise have missed.

Myth 3: Critique must be sensitive to the writer’s intentions

A reviewer cannot know the writer’s intentions.

Some writers—I’m one of them—go out of our way to obscure our intentions. Others adjust how they describe their intentions to suit their audience. Still others write a piece because it felt right and are unaware of their unconscious intentions.

In my opinion, the only way to critique is to read and react to the work as you find it.

Myth 4: Critique must be correct to be useful
As with the example of the misunderstood man above—where readers understood the exact opposite of what I meant—it is invaluable for a writer to find when readers have not understood what the writer intended. The reviewer cannot say when that has happened because they are unaware of it. But these misunderstandings are visible to the writer reading the critique and they should direct the writer to problem areas that need work.

But if all those myths are discounted, what is left to separate robust critique from a vindictive attack? In my opinion, the only thing that can be expected of any critique is that it is honest and that the reviewer’s intent is to be constructive.

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Gaius Coffey’s story “Alone, Not Lonely” was shortlisted for the 2010 Fish Publications One-page Story competition. His story “Terry and the Eye” was Every Day Fiction’s most read story in March, 2010. He lives in Dublin with his wife, two cats and a baby daughter; the latter being as much an inspiration to write as an impediment to writing resulting, on balance, in bafflement.

One of the comments that’s difficult for many of us to come to grips with is when someone tells us our stories aren’t deep enough or that we haven’t given the reader enough to go on. I’m thinking:  we’re talking flash here, micro flash, hint fiction, short shorts!  How am I supposed to “go deep?”

But for something to resonate, it must have context.  Readers want to feel empathy with the main character—or some kind of emotion for the main character—even if it’s distaste.  The question is, how does a writer do that with a limited word count?

One way is to use specific details that not only set up the time and place, but also suggest a back story, the circumstances, or even a trait or two of the main characters.  Specific details also anchor the story for the reader, giving them something to visualize while waiting to find out what happens next.

I’m not suggesting that a writer needs to describe an entire room, tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do.  If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair  and a swish of red to suggest a skirt.

These details do not need to be written into a piece  immediately in the rough draft, but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands herself what the story is about.  Then the details can also serve the story in a thematic way too.

Here’s an example:

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.

This is the opening to a story called, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke.  The whole house isn’t given, not even a whole kitchen,  just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof.  There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.

There are two other ways to help deepen the story, one by showing tension between the characters through dialogue and the other by having one of the characters reflect on something that has happened in the past.  This brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No”  tries to do both.

…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.

“I met him once,” she says and smiles.

When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.

Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”

And what, Matthew?”

“You were flirting.”

“I know.” And she slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”

People in stories don’t always have to agree and when they don’t, they argue, and when they argue, they bring up old grudges, other disagreements, and reveal who they are and what’s important to them.  In the example above, the relationship between the two characters is revealed by how she parries Matt’s jealousy.  It’s not a fight, but it’s still a moment of revelation.  Then Matt remembers how it feels to run his tongue along the scar on Anna’s mouth showing that although he is jealous of her past with men, he’s also aware she isn’t perfect.

Sometimes stories work without specific detail,  but going deeper can of ten be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events of the story like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee.

Flash Fiction Chronicles announces an upcoming flash contest, the String-of-Ten Flash Fiction Contest.

I like FFC, but I hate writing prompts. I think they are absolute bullshit. Weak. Victorian even. Hey, here’s a writing prompt: Get your fucking ass out of bed and write.

I do like that there is no entry fee.

Here’s a prompt: Imagine you are a crop-duster shack.

Here’s a prompt: Stop watching your neighbors.

Also, at FFC, Aubrey Hirsch argues for plot in flash fiction. She feels this is what separates the prose poem from the flash fiction. I don’t know. I wish she had defined what she means by plot.

She does say, “I need to see something important shift in the course of the story.”

Ok, well a lot of prose poems shift. I wonder if Aubrey is saying she just needs something to happen. Like a conflict. Or possibly a stirring of a theme? Is she arguing for intent?

Prose poems often have all of the above.

What if we don’t separate the prose poem and the flash fiction? What will happen?

Her ponderings remind me a little bit of Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer.” Moore’s story is NOT about how to become a writer, but it is about plot. The protagonist takes a CW workshop and everyone–including her instructor–comments that she has no sense of plot. That’s her problem–she doesn’t do plots. And this is a bad thing. Pretty much a deal-ender, as far as the workshop is concerned.

BUT, read a bit more closely, or view the protagonist a bit closer, I mean to say. Her father is cheating on her mother. Her brother has returned from the Vietnam war without his leg. Her own personal relationships are a dismal series of nothings. Her life has no PLOT. There is no tidy narrative, linear or otherwise. And now Moore’s story has left character and situation and has become a conversation on the short story form. What story structure represents our daily lives? Is it plot?

Our need for plot possibly because we want to feel we have a narrative, our lives? Some arc? Or, even better, some theme. Would suck if we had no theme, right? Well, I’m going to have language in my life. I’m not sure on the structure part. I push against structure sometimes. I push, possibly a form of structure in its pushing. And I sure don’t know about theme…theme. Did this matter. This me. Uh.

Well.

Speaking of, of this thing we call words, this PANK by Hirsch is rather glow here:

Your dream may not be that far off,” he tells me. “Studies have shown that the human brain makes no interesting distinctions between the past and the present.  If someone looks at a hot dog, or remembers looking at the hot dog, the same parts of their brain light up.”


The above post was originally published by Sean Lovelace at his Sean Blog: Nachos Miles Hack Disc Clank blog, January 14, 2011

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Sean Lovelace is an English professor at Ball State University,  a registered nurse (prior career), as well as a father and husband.  He  loves to disc golf,  run far,  fish and hunt.  In fact, he  only eats meat that he personally hunts. He loves quality ale and nachos.  He loves to write and read.  He is the author of HOW SOME PEOPLE LIKE THEIR EGGS which can be ordered from Rose Metal Press!

I’m currently teaching a flash fiction course and my students and I have spent a fair amount of class time discussing the borderlands between flash fiction and prose poetry. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of overlap, for me what makes a piece “flash fiction” is the story, the plot.

One thing this course is teaching me is that there are many, many ways to avoid writing a plot. The following are some common traps I’ve seen my students fall into that get in the way of the plot.

  1. Focusing all of your energy on rendering a static moment with beautiful, lyric language. I love lyric language as much as the next reader and there’s certainly a place for this kind of descriptive writing (it’s called prose poetry). But in my class, you have to push beyond just writing lovely sentences. I need to see something important shift in the course of the story. Read your piece from beginning to end and ask yourself “What changes?” If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have a story.
  2. Writing a really quirky interesting character and showing us how quirky and interesting he is. This is one I see a lot. The story is a long, detailed account of an obsessive compulsive earthworm salesman going through his day. The details are strong, the writing is compelling and the character is fascinating, but there’s no plot. No matter how interesting your character is, you still need a plot. Don’t just show me an ordinary day in the life of a quirky character, show me the day when everything changes for him. If you happen to find yourself in the bottom of this well, there is good news. You’ve already got an interesting character! So if you can find the right plot for him, you’ve got a recipe for a successful flash.
  3. Revealing something at the end of the story that the character knew, but we didn’t. This is an especially tricky one because there is often an epiphany involved, the problem is that the epiphany is for the reader not the character. So you get to the end of the story and it turns out, the whole thing is being narrated by a plastic snowman inside of a snow-globe. Whoa! the reader thinks, I didn’t see that coming. In this way the story acts as kind of a joke, meant to surprise the reader. But is it a story? Not yet. The snowman knew his situation the whole time, so nothing has changed or been revealed for him. Surprises are fine in stories, but you must make sure the surprise isn’t covering up the fact that there’s no plot.
  4. Something huge and life-changing happens to the character, but the character has nothing to do with it. Passive people make great, low drama friends, but passive characters make boring stories. Say your character is a low-income mother of four desperately trying to pay for her youngest son’s lung transplant. In the final paragraph of the story, she receives a phone call informing her that an anonymous philanthropist has donated the money for the surgery. Sure, something changes, but our character had nothing to do with it. Make sure your protagonist has some agency in the story and that she acts. In this example, perhaps the more interesting point of view character might be the philanthropist. How did he find out about his woman? What made him choose her as a benefactor for his good deeds? We want to know about him because he’s active in the story, even if he never actually appears on the scene.

There are countless ways to avoid writing plot. And it’s a difficult task, especially in flash fiction where you have limited space. Be on the lookout for these four common traps and you can avoid falling into them.

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Aubrey Hirsch’s work has appeared in journals such as Hobart, Third Coast, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Annalemma and The Minnetonka Review, and in the forthcoming anthology Pittsburgh Noir (Akashic Books). Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Micro Award and honored on the short list of Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. She currently serves as the Daehler Fellow in Creative Writing at Colorado College.

To read some of Aubrey’s current work, check out her stories in Vestal and SmokeLong as well as  in Metazen’s charity e-book.