Archive for February, 2011

by Brandon L. Rucker

Four years after learning to play guitar I started another long term affair when I began writing prose fiction. I was a wide-eyed novice to be sure, but with a serious goal to someday do it for a living, which I eventually did not want to do with music for various reasons.

By 1996, writing was my only art at that time and I had become even more obsessed and determined as I headed into my prolific boom period of 1997 to 2001. Whenever I look back on all the writing I did during that ‘golden age’ period, I marvel at what seemed to be a natural sense of storytelling, but I also can’t help but laugh at the wonky writing mechanics. And that’s okay because you’re supposed be able to laugh at your younger self and take comfort in the fact that you’ve grown as a writer.  I recently read some of the articles I had written (and regrettably published) over a decade ago and was appalled by the writing. The mechanics were actually fine, it was just some of the word choices…the overuse of adjectives alone made it cringe-worthy for me, but I’m pretty hard on myself, almost unforgiving.

Being an artist of any kind relies on devotion, discipline, and a certain natural sense of progression. You start out as a wet-nosed neophyte and hopefully through persistence and hard work you learn, improve and progress toward some kind of proficiency. This is especially true in the art of writing.  At some point in our straightforward trajectory we become even more serious about craft and certain mechanics of writing in general, fiction specifically. I believe the ‘organics’ of writing are usually already sound by your fifth year of writing because that is an innate thing, that intuitive sense of storytelling is just something you’re either born with or you’re born without.  The unstoppable drive and desire largely will separate the long-timers from the transient hobbyists.  However, that natural inner catalyst that sparks the progression? I don’t know that it can be manufactured outside your natural biological makeup.

In contrast, I believe the mechanical aspects of writing are certainly more indoctrinated than they are innate.  In other words, they may require a bit of active teaching, or at least passive, on-the-job learning. This is easily accomplished by reading good and bad writing, and learning from it. Yet we also pick up ‘expert advice’ along the way, either from our peers or from successful writers whose work we admire.  I am a ravenous learner who dines regularly on knowledge distilled from the work of others.

For this article I have chosen five specific writers—famous as well as not-yet-famous—who have given me invaluable guidance in regards to writing through their work, their work ethic and their advice.

The following is the advice that I have personally applied over the years to some variable degree:

  • ACTIVE VOICE: “You should avoid the passive tense. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous, as well.” – Stephen King, On Writing (2000)

In almost all cases, I’ve tried to avoid the passive voice.  The goal is to use a strong, active verb to describe action rather than a limp, indirect, passive phrase. It was a struggle early on (as it is with all budding writers), but I have been working tirelessly on using this crucial practice more consistently in recent years.

  • DIALOGUE ATTRIBUTION: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. And never used an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” – Elmore Leonard, Writers on Writing @ nytimes.com (2001)

After those first five years or so, this became a pretty easy one to put into regular practice. However, early on, I did what a lot of novice writers do, tried to over-direct the sound of the story by over-describing how a character said something.  In other words, trying too hard and going against the next piece of advice in this article.

  • READER CONSIDERATION: “Respect your reader’s power of imagination.” – Bob Thurber, How To Write a Good Short Story @ ehow.com (2008)

This one is not that hard to implement when you really think about it. All you have to do is step outside yourself a bit to realize you would prefer that other writers respect your intelligence and not dumb-down the writing by overwriting.  Most of us want to be challenged and given the chance to use our minds and interact intellectually with the story.

  • CONSTANT REVISION: “I don’t write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing.” – Dean Koontz (in various interviews over the years.)

He doesn’t actually advise this for any other writer, but it’s a method of his that I adopted early on from my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies.  I constantly revise my prose as I go along to achieve refinement early rather than later.  This leaves less work to ‘fix’ later on. It’s a much slower process, to be sure, but I’m just obsessive like that. I try to look forward rather than backward as much as possible.  Essentially the goal is that once I figuratively type “The End”, I can go back and focus on refining little things without the need to correct big things like inconsistencies in the voice, or holes in the plot because I have already labored over those aspects obsessively.

  • BELIEVE: “Your confidence will come, but only after you write, write, write.” – AJ Brown, via e-mail (2010)

This is something that really got me back on track early last year. For most of the first decade of this millennium I had dealt with several bouts of writing blockage due to an overwhelming lack of confidence, which stemmed from putting unnecessary pressure on myself to be more literary and mainstream, and writing to impress with literary skill. That’s just not me – I write to entertain myself and the casual reader, not to impress the Literati. I had to start believing again that even if I’m not a ‘great writer’ by someone else’s standards, I am still one hell of a storyteller and I can write any kind of story I put my mind to and do it well if I simply believe in myself…and write it. Confidence is the fuel in a writer’s engine.

Now what follows is the next batch of guiding principles I’m trying to integrate, attributed to the same sources above.

  • RESTRAINT: “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • FOCUS: “Include no unnecessary elements. None. Zilch. Nada!” – Bob Thurber
  • COMMITMENT: “Follow your vision. Once you start you have to finish.” – AJ Brown

I have one major one of my own:

  • CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: Never be satisfied, always strive to do better

Perhaps some of these can help you with your writing. Of course, as with any bit of advice, you should use that which applies as you blaze your own unique path.


Brandon L. Rucker is a 37 year old writer, editor and recording artist from Indiana. He edits micro-fiction for Liquid Imagination Online, the literary webzine of fiction, poetry, art and music. He is also the editor of the upcoming anthology entitled LOCAL HEROES (from Static Movement Imprint). He is a co-trustee and treasurer of the fledgling Silver Pen Writers Association (SPWA), a non-profit organization that aims to promote literacy around the world. You can learn more about him at: http://brandonruckerwrites.blogspot.com/

We are still in the first quarter of 2011. So I guess it’s all right to ponder where we want to go as writers, specifically of Flash Fiction. By now we all know that working with this limitation in fiction–1000 words and under– is a tough and demanding job. You can get side-tracked into writing longer pieces, lose your initial enthusiasm and gusto, even give up for long spells. I know. It happens to me all the time with Flash Fiction. Keeping the motivation engine purring becomes a task in itself. Especially since writing is such a solitary job.

Flash Fiction is often not viewed as a serious writing form. It’s difficult to fill a book full of Flash Fiction by a single author. It’s far more difficult to do so than bringing out a collection of short stories and let’s not kid ourselves, despite spending more reading hours on our laptops, desktops and kindles, we all want that paper book out!

Despite the immense popularity of Flash Fiction, readers tend to take novelists and short story writers more seriously. We want to be respected for our craft, accepted as writers by people, the Muggles, who populate our lives. The scenario is changing for the better, but meanwhile, one needs to stay motivated and keep writing Flash!

Submitting to contests is a definite way to stay motivated. In fact there is nothing like a writing contest to bring out the zest back into a writer.The idea of contest as a motivation holds true for most things. Nevertheless, the reason why I think it’s vital to Flash Fiction because the rewards of writing Flash Fiction are not  glaringly visible, and it’s hard work.

Contests help to put out specific goals before you, with a tangible reward in sight. You get a date and sometimes a theme. In other words there is no procrastinating. If you want in, you have to do it now.  The theme acts like a map to a treasure. The treasure is your story, and you have to find it within the area specified.  All you have to do is lay out the theme before you and keep marking out, in other words writing down,  the pointers and clues, read ideas for your story.

There is also the money factor. Many contests ask for a fee which could range from a nominal 2 bucks to 30 bucks per entry. Putting your money down makes you more committed. Contests force you to be disciplined and stick to the job. You may or may not win a prize, but you will have written your story or, even better, stories. That is the first reward. As you get better at it and become more confident, other rewards will follow.

What you’ve read so far is what everybody knows. You know it too. Too well. But there is no harm in reminding ourselves during the first quarter of a new year. If we actively look at contests for Flash Fiction I am sure we’ll end up writing a lot more. So here are a few contests to get you started. Most of them are regular contests, you may already be familiar with them, but deadlines and rules do change, so it’s worth another look .

1) The Binnacle Ultra-Short Competition. The closing date has been extended to 15th March 2011.

2) The Commonwealth Short Stories 2011 . The closing date is 1st March. This contest is for those who belong to the Commonwealth countries.

3) Chapati Mystery Contest. The closing date for this quirky contest is 28th February. This has a portion of a tweet as a theme! And is judged by Kuzhali Manickavel.

4) The Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction. This is part of the annual Bridport Prize. The closing date is 11th June.

5) Flash 500. This is a quarterly competition with 31st March, 30th June and 30th September as closing dates.

6) Fish Publishing One-Page Story Competition . This is a well known annual competition. The closing date for this year is 20th March.

7) The Lightship Flash Fiction Competition . This contest comes from UK publisher Lightship Publishing. The closing date is 11th June.

8) Carteret Writers Annual Writing Contest . This US competition is open to all. The contest rules are here : http://031a046.netsolhost.com/images/2011_Writing_Contest_RULES_1_.doc. The closing date is 8th March.

9) Early Works Flash Fiction Contest . This contest is open to anyone above 16. The closing date is 30th June.

10) Unbound Press Flash Fiction Award . The closing date for this is 1st August.

There are many more contests out there. I picked ten to get you and also me started. Let’s look positive and plunge into another year of writing. May your Muse be with you dear writing colleagues!

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Rumjhum Biswas has been published in countries in all the five continents in both online and print journals and anthologies. One of her poems was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize 2006 and is also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. She has won prizes in poetry contests in India. Her poem “March” was commended in the Writelinks’ Spring Fever Competition, 2008. Her story -”Ahalya’s Valhalla” – was among Story South’s Million Writers’ notable stories of 2007. Her poem “Bones” has been nominated for a 2010 Pushcart by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.  She was a participating poet in the 2008 Prakriti Foundation Poetry Festival in Chennai. She was a featured poet during the Poetry Slam organized jointly by the US Consul General, Chennai and The Prakriti Foundation in December 2009. In December 2010 she was a participating poet at the first Hyderabad Literary Festival organized by Osmania University and Muse India. She also blogs at: http://rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com/,http://polyphagous.wordpress.com

by Susanna Hartigan

It may be hard to imagine, but I am never out of ideas for writing. Finding inspiration to write can be very simple, but it’s important to be observant.

The place I go most often is within my own head, remembering, considering, conjuring the world around me. When I was in high school I used the artwork on the back of Reader’s Digest magazines to spark my creativity in writing poetry. I didn’t necessarily write what the painting or picture was about – I wrote whatever else came to mind by observing the colors and mood. Similarly, some poetry groups join with camera clubs to write poems according to photos. The same can be used in story writing. Meditating can be helpful, but visual cues can aid when trying to figure out a topic.

When I am working on a particular project and need to focus, there are a few places I physically go to gather ideas. Particularly, there is a Japanese restaurant where I enjoy going for lunch. I bring my notebook, order some sushi and green tea, take a look around, and start taking notes: an exit sign leading to a long hallway, a conversation between two male senior citizens about time served in the Navy, a certain shade of blue on a piece of dinnerware that Crayola once named cornflower. Paying attention to my surroundings is where I get several ideas for details.

I think it’s important to know and study people in order to develop characters. A great place to get ideas for that is during happy hour. That’s when I can hear many interesting stories, and there is almost a guarantee there will be at least one odd character that stands out above all the rest. I take note as to what the person is wearing, how he is gesturing, what type of accent he has. Is he wearing a wedding ring? Does he pay with cash? How does the bartender react? All of these things are helpful for character development.

Anywhere outdoors is a great place for me to write. I enjoy the beach, the river, parks, and places that are natural. Connecting with the earth and away from technology seems to help my brain function a little better when I need to write. I can hear the birds sing, watch dolphins swim by, or witness a bee working its way around a flower bush.

Although I can usually manage the slight rumbling of traffic or conversation, at times I need complete silence when I write. The best place I found is a cemetery. Not only are cemeteries quite peaceful, but reading the headstones can often jolt creativity for character development. One lonely stone, barely readable; an entire family for generations; an infant from 1946 – they each have their own real-life stories but perhaps some other meaning for the rest of us.

Regular things that happen in everyday life can be a story. The trick is making them interesting. For example, there was a huge vulture across the street this morning pecking at the carcass of an armadillo. I noticed my own pets staring at this creature from the window, as if they were witnessing a movie. How can I take those simple occurrences and put them into a story? I could write a horror story about the vultures in life – the ones that circle around us, waiting for us to die so that they can devour our bodies. Or I could tell a more innocent story using the whining dog’s point of view and wondering why he can’t go out to play with the big bird across the street.

Finding ideas and places to write isn’t difficult – it’s how you use the tools you have been given that can be challenging.

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Susanna Hartigan is a research journalist living in Florida. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction books and magazine articles, Susanna is an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. Susanna’s story “Charidy’s Case” was recently chosen as a finalist for NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction Contest. Her first book, UNHEARD: a memoir, is based on her childhood experiences. Susanna’s next book will be available in the latter part of 2011. It is a combination of writing and diary entries from her teenage years.

by Katherine Lopez

Many years ago, I signed up for a fiction workshop led by a writer/author named Mike McCarthy, stocky Irish, ponytail and a missing fingertip. Mike told us at our first meeting that he had no interest in literary fiction; we would be focused entirely on writing commercial fiction.

Well shoot; I couldn’t remember the last time I had read anything off the bestseller lists. But I had paid the fees, I was there, I was willing to learn what I could about writing for the popular fiction market. So I wrote what I thought was a pretty good intro to a novel I envisioned would be romantic/political in nature with thriller elements: think The Bodyguard cast by the Kennedys. Mike yawned through the first reading, and gnashed his teeth through the second reading. Week after week, I would read what I had revised, and week after week, he would bust my chops. “Where’s the hook? You need more action.” “Too much back story. You need more action.” “Get rid of all this internal dialogue. You need more action!”

Even today, I will sometimes get this type of critique, or some version of it, when I workshop stories with men. This needs more action! I’ve learned there is a huge difference between writing literary fiction and commercial fiction, particularly the kind that will appeal to men. Men need more action! It seems that men insist on readers being meat-hooked into a story with a shock-and-awe opening, their interest sustained by skull-rattling special effects action interspersed with pornographic sexual gymnastics, and dialogue so dazzlingly clever, convoluted, and obscene that, read aloud, would induce brain bleed in comatose mobster politicians from New Jersey.

When it comes to literary fiction, I have found that women, both as editors and readers, are better at picking up subtle clues as to what a story is about, and often more patient in allowing a story to develop. Recently, I submitted two stories I had written for Valentine’s Day to a popular flash fiction e-zine. One story was rejected, the other accepted; attached to both the rejection and the acceptance e-mails were comments by the panel of editors, one male, two female. The male editor rejected both stories, praising the writing, but citing “no real tension” in the first story, and that the second story “just didn’t resonate” with him. Need more action! The women concurred that the first story was well-written, but would have liked a “more active story,” however, they liked the second story very much, only suggesting that I revise the opening sentence for the sake of clarity, which I did; I am now awaiting publication of that story. My guess is the reaction to the story will be split down gender lines. Women: Understated, subtle, great ending. Men: There’s no action!

I would like to be a writer that appeals to readers across the board, to write in a way that draws in both men and women. My hope is that a well-crafted, well-told story, one that doesn’t depend on gimmicks, will make people want to read what I have written. Unless you want more action! In that case, I suggest you look up Mike.

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Katherine Lopez’s short stories, poems, essays, and other writings, have actually been published. Also, she has four cats.

 

By Len Hazell

Everyone, at some point or another, has had the criticism that his characters do not live, do not jump off the page, are too ‘wooden’ or  not believable. What makes a character real is believability and to achieve that, you have to know your characters. You have to know they will behave in any set of circumstances with consistency.

So how do you create a character that you know, that you can be sure you understand, who will behave consistently and predictably in any situation.

Two ways you could go about it is to first, base characters on people you know, or second, to base characters on other writers’ characters and in both cases, change the names.

The problem with the both options, of course, is that it’s not ethical and liable to get you sued.  And, of course, in the case of using your friends,  no one knows that many people.

I have developed a safer alternative: character cards.

Okay, I’ll give you five minutes to get some pens, 52 pieces of paper or index cards in seven different colours and (six sets of 8 and one set of 4) and I’ll give you the cheater’s way to make up an infinite number of believable, well-rounded characters.

Take your first set of eight blue cards and write in the top right hand corner of each, the word “NARRATIVE.” These cards provide your character with back story, the life that has led he or she to this point in the story.  You can fill in details later, but each card will  be marked with one of the eight primary stories.

 

  • The Quest
  • Forbidden Love
  • The Trap
  • The Debt To Be Repaid
  • The Love Triangle
  • The Fatal Flaw
  • Good Will Out
  • Unstoppable Hero or Villain

Next, take the eight red cards and in the top right hand corner of each mark the word “ROLE.” These cards will give your characters their place in your story, you can read up on this aspect of characters by Googling “VLADIMIR PROPP” who was the first to formalize the idea of  these character  roles within folk tales and narrative generally.

 

  • The Villain
  • The Hero
  • The Enabler
  • The Helper
  • The Prize
  • The King
  • The Quest Giver
  • The False Hero

Now take your eight yellow cards and in the top right hand corner mark the word “TYPE.” These cards will define how your character relates to other characters within the main story.

 

  • The Experienced: or aged one
  • The Naïve:  or youthful one
  • The Wise Fool: one who is insightful in his simplicity
  • The Lost Scion: A great but humble person brought low by themselves or others
  • The Social Climber: One who seeks to better themselves
  • The Hypocrite:  The crooked honest man for instance
  • The rogue: The Honest Thief
  • The Common Enemy: The focus of animosity (need not be the villain)

These are the primary character traits. The secondary character traits are less complicated, a mix of good and bad, which will give your characters depth and motivation.

On the eight orange cards, mark in the top right hand corner the word “VIRTUE.” This will be the character trait that defines the good side of your character, the aspect of his/her personality that rightly or wrongly drives the character to do what he/she perceives as right.

  • Empathy
  • Altruism
  • Generosity
  • Humility
  • Willpower
  • Diligence
  • Wisdom
  • Reason

On the eight Purple cards, mark in the top right hand corner the word “Flaw.”This will be the character trait that defines the bad side of your character; this will be the aspect of the personality that selfishly motivates the character to go after what they want.

 

  • Possessiveness
  • Envy
  • Greed
  • Egoism
  • Lust
  • Indolence
  • Gullibility
  • Anger

On the eight green cards mark in the top right hand corner the word “FEAR. Hero or villain, everyone fears something and avoidance of that fear can be a powerful motivating factor in shaping a character.

There are eight primordial fears.

  • The Predator : Something is out to get me
  • The Beast Within: I cannot control myself
  • Being Controlled: Something is taking away my free will
  • Responsibility:  What I done, I am accountable for
  • Pain
  • Death
  • Loss
  • Being Found Out: Old sins will find me out

The final four cards, can be any colour but I suggest white.  Mark these cards with the word  “INFLUENCE.”  These are things over which your character can have no control, but which nonetheless have an effect.

 

  • Fate/ Destiny
  • Chance/Luck
  • Society
  • Family/friends

You can also personalize this deck by adding another suit containing random habits, quirks, preferences, physical traits, phobias – what ever you like.

Now you have your deck. Choose if your character is male or female and randomly select one card from each colour.

EXAMPLE:

So we have a  one eyed man he is naturally lucky and very clever and so is prone to Indolence, he does not like to work and so as The Quest Giver will charm others to do his work for him, he is a bit of a con man, but only steals from those who can afford it. He is The Honest Thief. His family were once well off but were robbed of their wealth. He feels his life style is a Cinderella story “Good Will Out”, however, above all, he fears being poor again. His major fear is the Loss of what he has.

Here very quickly and with the use of only eight points we have a very clear character whose actions and motives can be clearly understood and predicted within any give story.

I hope this is of some help, to you all.

__________________________

Len Hazell is 46 years old from the north east of England, holds a degree in Media, and is majoring in writing for the print and broadcast media.  He has published in various magazines in the UK, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and has had  plays produced throughout England.  He is currently working on his own musical adaptation of Arsenic and old Lace which he hope to stage in 2011.