CRAFT


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarFor more than half my life, I believed myself constricted by a variant of the “those who can’t, teach” curse.

I’ve always been what people call “a good writer.”  I did well on essay exams even when I hardly knew what I was writing about, because I wrote so persuasively.  I was the perfect administrative assistant/executive secretary, turning other people’s less-than-sterling writing into correspondence and documents they could be proud of.  I edited manuscripts and created in-house newsletters, and people never stopped telling me what a great writer I was.

Badly-written books made me nuts; I’d mentally edit as I went along.

But I began to feel doomed; I had all the mechanical skills, but where was the fire?

I’d been writing poetry since the sixth grade.  In my thirties I participated in a weekend poetry seminar taught by an award-winning poet and respected professor at Queens College CUNY.  We distributed anonymous copies of our work within the group; I overheard several people discussing someone’s poems with rueful awe.  Turned out they were mine.  And the instructor told me my work was of professional quality.

But I can only write good poetry when ravaged by black despair.  Four years later I had my son, and I permanently renounced the self-indulgent beguilements of the dark side.

So I turned to prose.  And what terrified me most–after the need for coming up with a plot?

Dialogue.  I was convinced (a little light-gray despair here) I’d never be able to write realistic and believable dialogue.

It is, to me, miraculous that I now express not only my own voice, in nonfiction, but the voices of many characters through flash, and that readers respond to those voices with pleasure.

How did this happen?  I’m not sure.  Somehow, I learned to trust my own instincts; to feel when I’d caught the right rhythm, and to stay with it; to recognize when I hadn’t, and to start over.

I learned not to force a story.  I learned that even when expressing the thoughts and voices of male characters, or women in very different circumstances than anything I might have experienced, I had to be truthful to myself.  Otherwise the story just wouldn’t fly.

I once tried to write about a woman found by the now-adult daughter she’d given away.  I really, really wanted to write that story.  But I just couldn’t believe in my protagonist.  It was impossible for me to get inside her head, and God knows I tried.

Not sure what it says about me–that I have no trouble at all seeing myself inside characters who kill without guilt, but I can’t find any way to write about a mother giving away her child.

Perhaps the one urgent requirement of writing is to surprise yourself, and then to not let go of that moment of astonished revelation–to put it, somehow, in everything you create.

____________

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 Rohini Gupta

Rohini Gupta

There are many reasons why writers fail and one of the biggest–and deadliest–of them is distraction.

You probably recognize its symptoms. You are working well and then you feel like taking a break. Then you remember unfinished chores. You think, let me answer my email and then come back. That is the untimely end of your writing day.

At night, you wonder what happened, where the day went and why was it that, once again, you got no writing done.

There are people for whom this is a chronic condition. I have a friend who leaves early morning on an errand and comes back, late at night, having done a lot of small unconnected things, but not the errand.

Been there, done that.

There was a time when I, too, lived in that garbage heap, amid the obscenely unfinished story bits, novel ideas, dangling lines of poems, rotting remnants of chapters and books. I felt trapped and frustrated and needed a way out but everyone I asked was in the same leaky, listing, capsizing boat.

I had to turn inwards and look at my own behavior instead.

The breaks were the problem. Once I took a break I never returned. So I tried to take no breaks at all. That was even worse. My writing bogged down at once and my stress levels hit the roof.

So, I asked, what happens when I take a break?

That was when I saw that invisible, insidious second bird.

This is how it goes.

Every few hours, distraction hits. One shy bird alights on your shoulder whispering, don’t you want some coffee? Ignoring it does not help. It will not go away.

So, you follow the first bird and make a cup. So far, so good.

The mischief begins here. Distraction never comes alone. It comes in flocks. The first bird leads to a second, Now that you are up, why not finish that job you keep putting off?

If you go there it leads you to the graveyard of writing dreams.

It is difficult to see, but once I caught sight of that second bird, the solution turned out to be surprisingly easy and immediate to implement. It was one of the most important things I ever learned and it took me all the way to the publication of a book.

It worked for me. It worked for a few others who had the same problem. Maybe it will work for you and take you right to the threshold of your dreams.

This is the key.

That first bird is your friend. When it shows up, suggesting a break, take one. Even a long one. The length does not matter. You need that break to refresh and recharge. Take as many breaks as you need.

The second bird is your enemy, the masked and cloaked super villain who only wants to see your writing career die. It reminds you of all the things you have not done.

It has repetitive complaints–too hard, too long, too terrible.

This is too hard. How about working on that story you put away a year ago?

It’s taking too long, why not finish a quick one first?

The first draft is terrible, better try something else.

The second bird speaks in the voice of your doubts and fears and takes you down a very dark road indeed.

What you have to do is wait for it and recognize it.

When it does appear with its siren call, be firm, no, I am going right back to the very sentence I left. Be determined and return to the same page. Be clear in your mind, I will finish this before I go to anything else.

I always finish what I start. I am a finisher.

Get into the habit of finishing everything even if it is worthless. A particular story may be no good but the habit of finishing is worth all the wealth in the world.

That one small adjustment will enable you to leave the junkyard far behind and enter the blue summer skies of writing completion.

It’s a very simple rule.

Go with the first bird and take all the breaks. Relax, enjoy.

Then, return and pick up exactly where you left off.

Never, ever, follow that career destroying, morale sapping second bird.

____________

Rohini Gupta is a writer living by the sea in Mumbai, with a houseful of dogs and cats while working on short stories, poetry and a book. Her blog is at http://wordskies.wordpress.com.

 

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

August is known for the dog days of summer, described as the “most sultry period” of the warm season; it certainly fits the line-up of passionate and seductive pieces FFC dished up last month.

What better time than the first part of the month to consider submitting your flash fiction? August started with a snapshot of flash fiction markets that were waiting for your words. And speaking of words, we were treated to another visit from Matt Potter and some of the authors involved in the Year in Stories over at Pure Slush, who gave insight into the process of participating in the project. Be sure to visit Pure Slush to read the full interviews.

Susan Tepper connected with Robin Stratton for an in-depth UNCOV/rd discussion about genes, jeans, and love. Robin offers a number of salient points about inspiration, motivation, and how to weave a story from what may initially seem disparate ideas. Sarah Crysl Akhtar helped us keep those creative juices flowing, but in a different direction by reminding us to check under the bed twice; she offered us a well-received piece of horror fiction from the EDF Archives as the month continued to sizzle along.

Joanne Jagoda and Ethel Rohan took us for a mental ride as they each shared about their writing journeys. Jagoda white-knuckles us through the power of beshert and how it, combined with a “take this job and…” attitude, led her to a writing addiction. Rohan offers a few preciously spicy words about the rebelliousness of flash, while Sarah Crysl Akhtar allows us to ponder the possibilities of crafting a story around a character who, by her very nature, is a woman of few words, and provides powerful pointers on the importance of language; with proper attention, words become images that open a world of possibilities for both the reader and writer.

Jim Harrington took us to Singapore for a visit with the people behind The National Schools Literature Festival, which is an effort that encourages literature education for secondary school students. Participants have the opportunity to create flash fiction submissions of 200 words for the event.

As August turned the corner into its final full week, Christopher Bowen offered an in-depth review of T.A. Noonan’s Four Sparks Fall and introduces us to CCLaP Publishing. Julie Duffy brought us another entry in her continuing tour through genre, this time wrangling with slipstream with the help of E.S. Wynn, who reminds us that the final frontier is anything but. Aliza Greenblatt introduced us to EDF’s top author for July, Tina Wayland, who shares that her writing process is not neat or straightforward.

The month closed its doors on the unofficial end of summer right where it began by offering updates on flash markets. As we draw the shutters on the tourist stands and hustle the children back to school, let us grab our pads, pens, styluses, and keyboards if we allowed them to gather dust through the dog days–there are markets to conquer and flash stories waiting to be written. And as you peruse the FFC pages, you will see that our colleagues in the business are already busy as September moves forward!

____________

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

No longer simply a genre of heaving bosoms and discreetly closing doors, Romance burst into the digital age as one of the broadest, most forward-looking—and profitable—genres in the publishing business. Harlequin was the first major publisher to make all its books available as ebooks. Romance titles represented $1bn in sales last year, or 13% of the adult fiction market.  Academic conferences on Romance as a genre have been held as such august institutions as Princeton University.

There couldn’t be a better time to be writing Romance, so whether you’ve ever hidden a Harlequin between the covers of the latest Pulitzer Prize winner, or if you have no idea what all the fuss is about, prepare for a brief encounter…with Romance.

The Basics

A Romance story has two crucial elements, according to Romance Writers of America (RWA), who should know what they’re talking about:

  • A central love story
  • An optimistic ending

The Central Love Story

Romance comes in many flavors (and many sub-genres: Contemporary Romance, Historical, Paranormal, Regency, Multi-Cultural), but every story must have a central love story between two characters.

Marcy Kennedy, author of A Crash Course In Romance Sub-Genres, points out that “those two ‘people’ don’t have to be human.” This is certainly the case in the popular sub-genre of Paranormal Romance, where the love story can be between a human and a supernatural creature (think “Twilight”).

The most important thing is to show readers why these two characters belong together. “We need to know why they belong together,” says Kennedy. “Even if they don’t see it at first (and they shouldn’t)…you’d be surprised how many authors forget that they can’t just tell the reader these characters are perfect for each other—they need to show it too.”

Unless you’re writing erotica, there has to be more to the lead characters’ attraction than just lust.

Readers of Romance want to relive the rush of falling in love. More than that, Romance readers want to feel “emotion, emotion, emotion,” according to Kat de Falla, editor of Romance Flash. For a central love story to work, the writer has to combine the escapism of meeting and falling in love with the agony of all those near-misses, all those obstacles that come between the lovers, before they ultimately end up together.

The Optimistic Ending

Ah, the happily ever after…

Well, it turns out that Romance doesn’t require a Happily Ever After. In fact, in flash fiction, you’re unlikely to have time to construct a Happily Ever After (more on this later). Instead, Romance, according to RWA, merely requires an optimistic ending. The possibility of a Happily Ever After. This is good news if you’re a writer who doesn’t want to end every story with the characters getting together in the second last paragraph. Instead of consummating the relationship at the end, you can leave your characters on their way to a happy-for-now ending and still satisfy dedicated Romance readers.

Marcy Kennedy shares one more definition, though:

“If you have an ending that’s sad or bittersweet, you’re probably writing women’s fiction (think Nicholas Sparks) rather than Romance.”

Romance Sub-Genres

There are many well-defined sub-genres in Romance. While some can cross over (like Contemporary and Paranormal, or Historical and Mystery Romance) others cannot. Regency, for example, is set in a strictly defined time and place (the 1790s-1820, in Great Britain) and couldn’t be mixed with Contemporary Romance. Fans of Regency Romance are looking for Jane Austen-esque wit and banter, social scandal and innuendo, not sex scenes, whereas Contemporary Romance fans are probably looking for a more realistic kind of escape.

You can find a good definition of many of these sub-genres both at the RWA site and in Marcy Kennedy’s primer, but if you really want to know what these sub-genres’ audiences expect, there is no substitute for reading it yourself.  Luckily, hundreds of new Romance stories are published ever month, in every conceivable sub-genre. However, before you get excited about the size of the audience and decide to switch to Romance and cash in,  LaShaunda C. Hoffman, editor of Shades of Romance, has a word of caution.

“As a writer you have to find the sub-genre that you are comfortable writing in.  If you pick something you don’t care about, it will show up in your writing.

In other words, even if Paranormal Romance was still the new big thing, it would be dangerous to try to write it if you weren’t reading (and loving) the sub-genre.

How To Woo Romance Readers

“Romance readers are idealistic believers in eternal love and in the incessant search for one’s soulmate,” says Kat de Falla of Romance Flash. “If an author can elicit an emotion from a reader, they are doing their job.”

Just because there is a formula of sorts to a Romance doesn’t mean your writing can be formulaic. Characters must be rounded. They must have character traits that make them attractive and inner demons that cause problems. The settings must be well-researched and there must be tension…lots and lots of tension.

“We know,” says Marcy Kennedy, “the couple in a Romance will end up together. It’s a Romance after all. But as we’re reading, we should feel like there’s no possible way for this to work out for them. Part of the fun in reading a Romance is in the agony that comes from worrying they won’t end up together after all and the emotional release when they finally do.

She adds that one of the ways to add tension is, “..whether you’re building toward a kiss or much more, drag it out. Give them a couple of “almosts” before the actual act. Torture them and your readers.”

But just throwing obstacles in their paths (or removing them) isn’t enough. Remember that every development should further the plot by developing the characters. Kennedy explains,

“Every time your characters are physically intimate—regardless of whether that’s holding hands, hugging, kissing, or sleeping together—it needs to forward the plot. It should mean something more than simply the physical act. The ripples from that touch should be felt across their relationship, across their relationship with others, and across the external circumstances in the story. A touch is never just a touch in a truly great Romance.”

Romance In A Flash

In Flash Fiction the challenge is in the constraints: what to include and what to leave out. Now that you know the two essential ingredients for Romance (the central love story and the optimistic ending) it’s a little easier to make those choices.

The challenge now becomes how to, as Kat de Falla says, “make us believe these two people belong together” without “rushing a story just to keep your word count,” a pitfall highlighted by LaShaunda Hoffman. “Readers can tell when a story is rushed.”

One suggestion on how to handle the shorter length comes from Marcy Kennedy who suggests that you write a story about a “meet cute”: the moment a possible romantic duo first meet. This moment should be unusual in some way—awkward, embarrassing, funny, oppositional—and then, “The tension in the story should come from whether or not these two characters will come through that moment with a desire to see more of each other.”

Follow this advice and readers will fall for your writing, in a heartbeat.

 

Further Reading

____________

Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

By Jim Harrington

jimharrington2

As part of the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day-New Zealand, a contest was held for the best flash story of 300 words or fewer. Below I interview the winners–Sarah Dunn, First Place for Islands and Cities; Tricia Hanifin, Second Place for With Our Eyes Closed We Begin to Dance; and Sue Kingham, Third Place for Just My Luck.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: What draws you to flash fiction?

Sarah Dunn2

Sarah Dunn: It’s an interesting new shape. I didn’t give the form much thought until it occurred to me that flash fiction could be treated like a hybrid between poetry and traditional short stories, and there’s a lot of fertile space between those two poles.

Partricia Hanifin

Trisha Hanifin: A number of things: the challenge of brevity and intensity, and the sense of intimacy such intensity can create; the process of finding what is essential in a story and what is superfluous; and the condensed nature of flash makes it a close relation to poetry.

I’ve always liked Frank O’Connor’s argument that short stories represent a struggle with time, that they’re an attempt to reach some vantage point from which past and future are equally visible. I think this is especially true of flash fiction because what you often see on the page is a mid pointor flash point—between the past and future, both of which are not mentioned but are somehow made visible by the tiny, spotlighted moment of the story.

Sue KinghamSue Kingham: I am a student on the Hagley Writers’ Institute first year course in Christchurch. This year I began entering writing competitions and submitting my stories to the Flash Frontier website. I enjoy writing flash fiction and the length has enabled me to produce a number of stories in a short period of time.

FFC: Once you decided to enter this year’s NFFD NZ competition, what was your process for developing a story to submit? Where did the idea for your story come from?

Sarah Dunn: I might get into trouble for telling you this, but when I’m writing short pieces, I like to email early drafts to my work inbox and then leave the replies open all day so I can fiddle with them whenever I have a spare minute. For me, there’s a bit of a bell curve effect that governs how much effort I can successfully put into editing without sending the story off into wild and hostile territory, so addressing the job in short intervals keeps everything low-key.

The idea for Islands and Cities came from a combination of two pieces of media: Andrea O’Neil’s 2013 news story from the Dominion Post about the Spicer Landfill’s real-life seagull problem; and a majestic clip I saw on a David Attenborough documentary showing thousands of white seabirds plummeting into the sea all at once. Bird (and human) societies are fascinating.

Trisha Hanifin: This particular story developed out of an older, much longer story I’d been working on for a couple of years. I’d tried a number of different versions and lengths and never felt happy with them so this competition was an opportunity to try and find the core of the story again. In a more general way, a lot of my ideas for stories come from an imagined intersection between images, emotions and characters from popular culture and the character’s life in the story. Often I use songs, but in this instance, it was the Peanuts cartoon. I’m fascinated by the way in ordinary life, music, lyrics, images and symbols infiltrate our imaginations, become attached to our emotions and memories and become markers for important phases of our lives. I’ve always loved the qualites of sadness and bewilderment Charlie Brown has, and Snoopy’s joy and imagination, and I wanted to suggest all those possibilities and qualities in the story.

Sue Kingham: I frequently get ideas from reading the newspaper. I spotted the name Rowdy in an article and in the same paper I read a quote from someone who said they thought they were cursed although they didn’t believe in God. Creativity is a blending process, and these ideas were in my mind when I opened a photograph album with the intention of writing a story based on an old holiday. The image which caught my eye was of a South America street performer dressed as Jesus. My story came together from these three prompts.

FFC: Is your approach different depending on the length of story you plan to write? (Do you have an idea in advance how long a story will be?) For example, in the case of this competition the maximum word count was 300. What if the max was 1500?

Sarah Dunn: Whenever I’ve asked my chief reporter how many words she wants on a particular news topic, the answer has been: “Write it for what it’s worth.” It’s very difficult trying to craft story to fit a particular word count, but some ideas are worth more words than others. You get a feeling for which ideas might work with different shapes.

Trisha Hanifin: Mostly when I start writing a story I have no idea how long it will be or what will happen, I’m just exploring a mood or an emotion—sometimes I’ll have particular words or a voice in my head and I just try and follow that. I write very slowly over a long period of time, trying to find the center of the story. Writing flash fiction is often a process of removing everything unnecessary, no padding, no flab, so it’s a great writing teacher, a great discipline to learn. It’s enabled me to go back and look at longer stories and ‘flash’ sections of them—cut and shape them—until they’re clearer, cleaner, tighter. Less is, by definition, more in flash.

Sue Kingham: With flash fiction I enjoy capturing a specific moment in time while hinting at a complex backstory. There is little room for character development or a large cast list. If the maximum word count had been 1500 words, I would have been able to show some of the protagonist’s home life with his mother and Rowdy. However, the joy of flash fiction is that less is always more.

FFC: What other works have you published? What does your crystal ball say about your writing future?

Sarah Dunn: Working in the newsroom sucks up a lot of time and energy, and so far, all of my major writing achievements have been in journalism. I’ve just returned from six weeks reporting in South Korea, thanks to a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the material I gathered in Seoul and at the Demilitarized Zone published as long-form articles shortly.

I’d love to eventually see my work in fiction and non-fiction evolving a little more in parallel, but as long as I’ve got interesting things to write about one way or another, I’m content.

Trisha Hanifin: I’m quite new to flash fiction, I’ve only been writing it for a couple of years. This year I’ve had pieces published in Turbine and in Flash Frontier. In the past, I’ve been shortlisted in longer short story competitions in New Zealand and I completed a Masters in Creative Writing in 2010. I’m currently trying to complete a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time but often get sidetracked by writing other things. I love flash fiction because I get to finish something!

Sue Kingham: My other two published works have been flash fiction. My story, Family Outing, was chosen for Flash Frontier’s February 2014 collection, and in May I won the Scottish Literary Trust’s 50 word competition with a piece entitled The Twitcher. I am currently working on a YA science fiction novel and my dream is to make a career as an author. I appreciate this is a long shot – my crystal ball must be second-hand, because it refuses to reveal anything beyond this year.

____________

Sarah Dunn is a journalist who lives in Nelson. She graduated from Wellington’s Victoria University with a B.A. Hons in English Literature and Religious Studies. She is 26.

Trisha Hanifin has worked in adult education and adult literacy for over 25 years teaching a range of subjects including reading and writing at both foundational and academic levels. She has written on the nature and extent of adults’ literacy issues in Facing the Challenge: Foundation Learning for Adults in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Dunmore Press, 2008). In 2010 she gained a Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology. Trisha writes short stories, flash fiction and is currently working on a novel, Ghost Travellers. Her stories have been shortlisted in a number of New Zealand competitions including the BNZ literary awards. This year her flash fiction has been published in Turbine and Flash Frontiers.

The February 2011 earthquake shook a love of writing back to the surface of Sue Kingham’s life: a case of literary fiction as opposed to liquefaction. She joined Helen Hogan’s WEA creative writing class in Christchurch and went on to become a member of the South Island Writers Association. Sue has attended several short writing courses and is currently a first year student at the Hagley Writer’s Institute. She has written poetry, a play for children, numerous short stories and she particularly enjoys writing flash fiction. She is currently working on a YA science fiction novel. She is married and is a busy mum with two primary aged children. When she’s manages to grab a spare moment, she can usually be found with her nose in a good book.

**Ms. Dunn’s picture taken by Marion van Dijk.

Next Page »