CRAFT


by Aliza Greenblatt

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Amy Sisson is a writer, book reviewer, crazy cat lady, and former librarian. Her fiction ranges from Star Trek work for Pocket Books to the short stories in her Unlikely Patron Saints series, which have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Toasted Cake podcast site. She enjoys making artist trading cards, studying German and Japanese, attending Houston Ballet performances, and traveling with her husband, Paul Abell. Her story, On Not Noticing a Bear, was EDF’s top story for December

Aliza Greenblatt: I’m going to start this interview with an assumption so, correct me if I’m wrong, but if I read your blog correctly you started off as an avid reader (and still are) and picked up writing later. When did you decide to become a writer? Was there one particular story or moment for you?

Amy Sisson: In college I double-majored in English and Economics: English because I was thrilled that I could get a degree by simply reading books and then saying what I thought about them, and Economics to try and be a little more practical. In my junior year, I got it into my head that I wanted the “romantic” writer’s life—I thought I would strike forth on my own to live on the other side of the country, work odd jobs while I polished my masterpieces, and so on. (I may have been on a John Steinbeck kick at the time.) But I found out that I really didn’t have that much to say in my stories just yet.

I never gave up the idea of being a writer, but I decided to get a graduate degree in Space Studies, both so I could get a decent day job in that field and to gain some background knowledge for writing science fiction. Later I also got a library degree. None of that was my original plan, but now I can’t imagine a different path to my writing.

AG: When you sit down to write a new story, what is your process like?

AS: For me, most stories start with voice. Sometimes I know what the voice will be ahead of time, and other times I just type a first sentence and let the voice decide itself. I’ll admit that I’m not one of those writers who have fifty different ideas to work with at any given time—ideas that are big enough to become complete stories are really hard for me to develop.

The process for every story is different. A few of my stories seemed to just write themselves in a few hours, but on the other end of the spectrum, I have one story that I worked on over the course of fourteen years! The end result has very little resemblance to the story I started with, but I think it has ended up being one of my best, and I’m currently sending it out to markets.

AG: I really liked the versatility of this story. On one hand, it felt like a children’s fable but there were also deep undercurrents of adulthood worries, such as workplace unhappiness and loneliness. Was that your intent or did you have a particular audience in mind for this story?

AS: On Not Noticing a Bear is based on one of my favorite James Christensen paintings, which is literally titled Lawrence Pretended Not to Notice that a Bear Had Become Attached to His Coattail (Google for the image “lawrence notice bear” and it will come right up). It hangs over my piano and it was the most natural thing in the world to write about why that silly little man might try so hard to ignore the bear. And of course I wanted them both to have a happy ending. Oddly enough, my other Every Day Fiction story, The Lion Tamer’s Sock, is also based on a Christensen painting and it also has to do with a companion animal and with getting out of a rut.

AG: The thing that drew me into the story immediately was its voice. How did you develop it? (Or did it find you?) Was it a challenge to maintain the storytelling style within the flash fiction length?

AS: This was one of those stories that I started with a sentence and it just flowed from there. The original version was actually 1500 words, but I realized that I could take it down to flash length without losing anything important. I also think that this sort of affected writing style works best with flash fiction, because you don’t want the reader to get tired of the voice before they reach the end of the story.

AG: Can you tell us a bit about your Unlikely Patron Saints Series? Are you still adding stories to the collection?

AS: This series of stories is about little miracles, and people who discover they’re meant to protect some unlikely group of creatures or people through some small magic. The first one I wrote was about city squirrels, because I was in library school at the time and there were so many squirrels on the downtown campus that I was always petrified I would see one get hit by a car. So I made up someone to protect them. I called that one number three in the series even though it was the only one I’d written, as a way trick myself into eventually writing more of them. I’ve had four stories in the series published in different venues, a few more still unpublished, and a frame story to go around them for an eventual collection. I think I’m likely to write a few more, but I want them to come naturally instead of trying to force them so I’m in no hurry.

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

AS: I recently left librarianship to concentrate on writing full-time. My two main goals are to finish a young adult novel (I’m about a quarter of the way through) and to have a minimum number of short stories out looking for a home at any given time.

My favorite of my Patron Saints stories, Fella Down a Hole, is available free in the Strange Horizon archives and as a Toasted Cake podcast. Another one, Minghun, is also available free at Strange Horizons. And Waterfall, a standalone science fiction love story, is available free at Khimairal Ink.

AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.

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Aliza profile-pic-2

Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night.   Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper.   She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter  @AtGreenblatt.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarStill haunted by your high school English teacher? Elmore Leonard can help. Print out his Ten Rules for Good Writing and invoke as often as necessary.

I was already–uneasily–employing Nos. 3 (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”) and 4 (“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . .”) in my own writing, and I was thrilled to have had my instincts validated by a master.

To be a competent writer you must understand the rules of grammar and apply them appropriately. No matter how brilliant you are, you’ll be a bit hampered in life if you can’t write a decent business letter or error-free resume.

But great, compelling writers use language to capture essential truths; to paint vivid pictures; to thrust us into worlds we’ve never known existed and make us believe in them; to get inside the heads of anything that can even remotely be regarded as sentient and make us feel what motivates them.

The writing of young children is often remarkably effective because it’s unconstrained by rules. When you don’t know you “can’t” do something, your creativity soars.

But those rules aren’t intended to beat all the life out of your expression. They’re just an armature from which you build outward.

Part of becoming a fine writer is learning when to ignore good advice and follow your instincts. It’s dreadfully frustrating, because there’s such a very fine line, sometimes, between awkward misuse of language and the stunning power of authentic feeling.

Just keep writing til you get it right.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Jeremy Szal

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Obviously, not every story is suitable for podcasting. Some of the best tales ever penned may fall flat when translated over to the world of audio. In saying that, there are some things you can improve on, not just for a podcast, but for your writing overall. Here are five tips that should help you inch your way up and out of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, otherwise known as the slush pile.

Tip #1: Brevity

We’re talking short stories, so obviously you can’t afford to be lavish and extravagant, filling your paragraphs with endless descriptions of your character down to the shape of her skull. Don’t confuse this with length. I’ve seen flash fiction less condescended and more convoluted than some novelettes. It’s all about quick strikes to the yarbles, not slow, sluggish punches. Your short story can be touching the lengthy side, but it can still be moving at an incredible pace, not bogged down by weighty language and fluffy and mushy dialogue. Don’t try to squeeze a long story into a tiny one—you’ll just damage the material in the process. Instead, choose your words carefully. Give your work as much depth as you can without spilling overboard.

Tip #2: Don’t Play it Safe

As a writer, you’ll be bound to upset people with your fiction (I’ve received hate mail in the past). It’s inevitable. Writing is not an activity for people who value security. Worrying about what other people may think of the fiction you write (or what genre, for that matter) should not be your primary concern. In fact, it shouldn’t even come into the equation.

Don’t let political correctness censor or dampen your artistic integrity. At the same time, don’t go out of your way to upset or offend anyone, because you can sniff those stories out from the other side of the galaxy. But I do encourage authors to push the envelope and see what they can accomplish without fear of upsetting a blogger. Don’t be afraid to write from an alien perspective with a truly warped view of the human race. Don’t shy away from killing off or maiming your characters. Don’t restrain yourself from creating moral gravity or making your protagonist commit atrocities. I want to see more people take more risks and see what they can cook up. Don’t be afraid to shake up the recipe a bit and experiment. (Note I will not be held accountable if your kitchen goes up in flames.)

One only needs to look at the work of Mark Lawrence and his ground-breaking series The Broken Empire. Jorg, the first-person protagonist, is a complete and utter psychopath, depraved and sadistic. But this allows him to provide this world with a monumental amount of complexity and depth. It gives us stunning, darkly poetic prose that’s fresh, gritty and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. The books pull no punches and don’t allow themselves to shy away from the raw brutality of life. That’s the fearless writing that I want to see. The journey may be difficult, but the reward is ever so bitter sweet. And better yet, it lingers in the throat for a very long time.

Tip #3: Solid Prose

This is just as important and perhaps is the most significant when it comes to podcasting fiction. You need spectacular yet recognizable language. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. Traditional storytelling mechanics are always favored above semi-pretentious experimental approaches that your English teacher fawned over. Listeners are not interested in listening to long, lavish paragraphs of nothing, however beautiful they may be. And while we’re at it: a big no to phonetics. Anthony Burgess may have been able to do it in A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t mean that you can. You’ll tie the narrator’s tongue in a knot. Stick with the basics of good storytelling and compelling prose as opposed to trying to push the English language to new and unfortunate places. If you feel the need to do that, then I invite you to grow a mustache and march down to the nearest café with a rusty typewriter in hand, charging one coffee per poem.

Oh, and while we’re at it: no 2nd person. I mean this. Seriously. Just don’t.

Tip #4: Strong Character-driven Stories

This is a winner every time. Stories where the characters are the main driving force are compelling and reinvigorating, especially when it comes to science fiction. Fleshed out and captivating characters can make the most absurd of worlds seem real and ground the reader in the most bizarre of alien planets. It allows us to have a connection to this world we otherwise might not have had. It’s one of the reasons why the omnipresent perspective is so rarely seen in science fiction and fantasy. People want to be drawn into these worlds, and a well-written character is the conduit.

At the same time, make sure there’s a plot as well. If your character is a war veteran and a psychopath living in an overcrowded city ruled by self-righteous alien dictators, he can’t very well be plodding around his apartment, drinking herbal tea and staring out the window, contemplating philosophy and his life. No, he’d be out in the rain-drenched streets, looking for trouble. Except trouble finds him. Strong characters and a robust story go hand-in-hand. Take advantage of his. Let the character guide the reader through the world. Whether it’s in 1st person, 3rd, or even switching from multiple perspectives (I rarely recommend this, because in a short story, especially in a podcast, this can be very jarring and confusing. If you fairy dance the point of view like a ballet dancer on hot coals, then you’ll lose the narrator and the listener), seat us behind the character’s eyes and let the plot unfold.

Tip #5: A Good Podcast Narrator

Unfortunately, this one is out of your control for the most part. But a brilliant narrator can make all the difference in a story. It’s all about marrying the right person to the right narrative. Some narrators are better suited to doing gritty, visceral fiction from the perspective of a hardboiled war veteran who frequently doles out harsh curses. Others may find their place combining strong character voice and multi-layered dialogue. Some work best when reading beautiful prose and tight, evocative language. There are several things to take into consideration, and finding the best narrator for your story can be tough nut to crack. There’s no definite answer. I always read the story with a narrator style in mind, then try and match it up with the best suitor.

I cannot stress how important this is. The right podcaster can either bring a story to life in all its glory, or kill it off and leave it half buried in the mud.

Bonus Tip: No Polemical/message Fiction

In journalism, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fiction, one should never let a message get in the way of a good story. This might be obvious, but if you’re going to pen a story, the point of it should be to tell a story. Not provide a ham-fisted political argument that damns anyone and everyone except [insert random perspective here]. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t work with themes and topical subjects. 99.99979% of fiction does, but they interweave the fine threads of themes and issues into the story. It’s fine if a story has a message, especially if it doesn’t drag down the story along with it. But straight up, undiluted “messages” told in the form of a story? Nope.

Listeners want to be thrilled by your exquisite command of the English language, your deft ability to juggle character and plot, your meticulous crafting of alternative worlds and your down-to-earth dialogue and the believable characters who voice them. They don’t want to listen to a political/religious sermon as they drive to work or be told how evil a group of people are or have some “fact” hammered into them through explicit, preachy dialogue. If they wanted that, they’d pick up a newspaper or go to Tumblr. Podcasts aren’t the place to push an agenda. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t work with themes or controversial topics. By all means: do so! But no story’s existence should be to stuff an opinion down the throats’ of listeners.

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Jeremy Szal is the assistant editor for Hugo award winning science-fiction podcast StarShipSofa. He has worked with many best-selling, award-winning authors, such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, Adrian Tchaikovsky and more, helping to bring their work to life in audio. He is also a writer, having sold more than twenty-five short stories and nonfiction publications to various magazines, anthologies and journals. He has also received an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future, and his short story Heart of Steel, published at Every Day Fiction was nominated for the 2014 Parsec Award. Find him on Twitter @jeremyszal or at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/

by Gloria Garfunkel

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Lydia Davis is an exemplary and intellectual flash fiction writer. So why did she choose to translate Proust of all people, whose seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time, seems the opposite of flash fiction? Because I think a lot can be learned from his work to apply to flash fiction.

First of all, like me and a book of linked flashes I am writing, Proust struggled to decide if his book was memoir or novel. He felt he had tinkered enough with reality to call it a novel but he went back and forth because so much was based on memory, though distorted and deliberately recombined to express the essence of his meaning. That has been a major issue for me for some of my flash fiction that I submit to journals as fiction and they decide is nonfiction. Just because it sounds autobiographical doesn’t mean it is literarily so, and I think the writer should get to decide. Memoir is a sort of compromise, a little of this and a little of that, but not purely nonfiction or even creative nonfiction. I think it is in a class all itself but closer to fiction, which gives the writer more free reign to change reality. I like to call my work fiction simply to protect the identities of people I write about. But memoir can do that as well, since everyone knows memory distorts reality. Still, I think memoir is closer to fiction than to nonfiction.

Swann’s Way, the first volume, is Lydia Davis’ translation. Being set in childhood but told with the insight of an adult’s voice and perspective, the long meandering but structured sentences of sensual detail work well. If a story is told about childhood in the present, short sentences are the only option. Flash, like Proust, can easily flow back and forth, like poetry.

Proust did not pretend in any way to write chronologically. His fragments of memory were constantly shuffled around like pieces of a puzzle, like little shards of flash fiction looking for a home. He kept doing this in his revisions up to the last minute before publication. Like Proust, flash fiction plays with time, consciousness, and the levels of reality we experience. The only difference is that flash needs to be worked around a sense of tension to ground the story. Proust didn’t have to do that. He could take his time.

Proust tried to pack all the information of one particular thought in his long systemic meticulously crafted sentences. Flash fiction does that with one story. Lydia Davis, like Marcel Proust, is concerned with liminal states of consciousness, between waking and sleeping and that hypnogogic state of transition, as well as between versions of memory and reality. That is why Lydia Davis was such a perfect choice for this first volume of Proust’s memoir/novel.

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Gloria Garfunkel has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University and was a psychotherapist for thirty years. She has since started writing flash fiction and memoir and published over fifty stories. She is working on two collections.

by Dino Laserbeam

Many writers don’t understand what flash fiction is. It’s not just an extra-short short story; it’s not just a scene—it’s something else entirely. It gives the reader a glimpse into a world or a character, and most of the time, that glimpse is layered into details put forth in very few words.

Because of its short form, flash fiction is home to many twist endings: an extra something to make up for lack of length. Most of the time, it’s done terribly wrong.

Tip #1. Know that twist endings are not a requirement for flash fiction.

It’s a common misconception that flash fiction and microfiction require surprises at the end in order to be satisfying to the reader. This definitely isn’t true. Flash fiction can tell a complete story about real, developed characters without a twist ending. There can be open-ended endings; clean, precise endings; happy or sad endings. And there can also be twist endings. In order to be successful, there doesn’t have to be a twist: there just has to be an ending of some sort. This is a big part of what distinguishes flash fiction from vignettes, which are merely scenes.

Tip #2. Avoid punch lines for the sake of punch lines.

People love to be clever. One way they can do that is by ending a story with not only a twist, but also a joke. Something you as the reader didn’t see coming, and something that might make you chuckle. If you’re telling a story to friends (or an audience during a stand-up routine), this is great. If you’re writing flash fiction, it’s not—not if the punch line is the only thing the story has going for it. Too often, writers sacrifice plot and/or character in the name of cleverness. Just because you’ve done something amusing at the end of a story doesn’t make up for the fact that the characters are underdeveloped, or the plot either doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t make sense, or has giant holes in it. Don’t get me wrong: if you can tell a joke at the end of a great story with true-to-life characters, good for you. Great, in fact. But if you miss out on the other things, it becomes obvious the punch line was the entire point. That might be a clever anecdote, but it’s not a good piece of flash fiction.

Tip #3. Remember point of view.

If something is a surprise to the reader, it ought to be a surprise to the POV character; otherwise, it just rings untrue. It reads as the author withholding information for effect, and it feels like a gimmick.

Tip #4. Don’t be too misleading.

Dropping false clues can be okay, but not when they’re outright lies. Readers are people, too. They don’t like to be messed with. It feels like deception because it is deception. And if you’ve done your job well as a writer and gotten the reader invested, they probably won’t be too happy about the lie. A true and well-planned surprise can be pulled off without leading the reader on emotionally.

Tip #5. People may not want to read your story more than once.

There’s a chance, if readers enjoy the story, and especially if they are surprised by the ending, they might go back and read it again: looking for clues, wondering what they missed, etc. However, beyond that, twist endings are mostly a one-off. Once the reveal’s been made, readers can really never get the same thing out of the story as they did the first time they read it.

Just remember, flash fiction is in many ways the same as any other length story: it requires real characters in an interesting plot with some sort of conclusion. You have far less words to make that happen, but a twist ending is not a good easy out.

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Dino Laserbeam is the Editor-in-Chief of freeze frame fiction, a quarterly digital flash fiction publication. With a master’s degree in mechanical and nuclear engineering, Dino is now starting work toward a PhD, writing flash fiction and short stories whenever possible.

 

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