elements of story


by Perry McDaid

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Why problems arise when building races and/or cultures, is if such endeavours are attempted in a vacuum. Fantasy, like anything else in this world, requires a foundation. The creative process involved in good Science Fiction/Fantasy is not called “world-building” for nothing. The renowned fantasy author, Terry Pratchett, provides an excellent example with his Discworld series. He may have filched a few ideas from the mythologies of Native American tribes and the Greeks, but the weave is seamless and the composite purely his.

To create a culture/tradition/set of beliefs, we must have a world which catalysed same. Early religions were based on the human mind attempting to explain what was going on beyond their control. Accordingly, our fictional characters must have retrospectively evolved in their environment. We are ‘pigeon-holers’ in the main. If something doesn’t fit within our frame of reference—what we can understand—we get a mental plunger and stuff it into a space we create. In order for both writer and reader to connect with the characters within a story, they must reflect similar tendencies.

Building a world which is not a cheap copy of reality is difficult, which is why so many SF/Fantasy writers opt for the post-apocalyptic dystopia option.

Modern fiction writing has to go beyond the primal Bunyan-esque allegory to give creations a past which is not ours. Give characters frailties by all means, but it is important that the little people, “good” and the “bad”, can at some level be ‘understood’ by readers. But they must all be loved … yes, loved … by the author/creator. If a writer makes a character so detestable he or she cannot see from their perspective, that little bit of manifest imagination is ostracised from the core creative process: leaving it nothing but a shell, a shadow. This cannot help but detract from the story.

Our own society, that of what was once termed “The First World” has ‘progressed’ to the giddy heights of what has been termed “decadence”—as do most civilisations—where nothing much makes its components flinch in abhorrence. In a world where the terms “collateral damage”, “acceptable losses”, and “pre-emptive strike” raise few eyebrows, fiction writers feel compelled to push the envelope in an effort to compete with reality, and outdo the gory narratives encountered within more and more intricately programmed computer games.

The beauty of “world building” is that we don’t have to compete on the same playing ground. The harsh reality is that a lot of work and creativity has to go into building that space. The only drawback is lack of imagination and commitment. You think human relationships are high-maintenance? Pah!

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Gordon Gomper Award winner, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry close to the Donegal hills. His diverse creative writing appears in international magazines, anthologies and websites: most recently with AlfieDog, entropy2, 50wordstories, Amsterdam Quarterly, and Whitesboro Writers. He spans genres: subjects from the fantastic to grassroots romantic.

by Jon Sindell

Jon Sindell

Heard this one? A guy who walks into a sushi bar and orders … filet of sole. Then he walks into a tapas bar and orders … steak. Then he writes a flash–fiction “collection” consisting of … a single basic story told in fifty shades of same. The joke’s on him—and on the readers.

One reason I love reading flash, beyond its merits at the story level, is the capacity of a group of flash stories to satisfy our hunger for variety. Unlike novels, which for the most part explore a single world from a single perspective, flash lets us dip into world after world, and to explore those worlds from different angles. A flash–fiction collection’s inherent advantage is breadth: breadth of content, breadth of tone, and breadth of perspective. Regretably, many collections offer little more than one basic story—a first–person victim narrative, frequently—told over and over with minor variations. In such cases, stories that are perfectly worthy as individual stories are, when collected, unworthy of the flash–collection form.

Happily, some collections satisfy our intellectual and emotional hunger for variety. An excellent example is Robert Scotellaro’s Measuring The Distance, sixty–one flash stories that furnish a literary feast akin to a table laden with dozens of distinctive hors d’oeuvres. Scotellaro’s varied feast offers: a loving wife adjusting to her husband’s penchant for wearing tuxedos 24/7 (“Tuxedo Epiphany,” told in third–person); a child unable to apprehend why his betrayed mother arrays the house with a dozen rotting jack o’lanterns (“Twelve Collapsing Faces,” first person); a guilty married father flirting with the young party princess working his little girl’s birthday party (“Mr. Nasty;” first–person); a trash collector speculating about the disappointments of his customers’ lives based on their trash (“Sun–Ripe;” first–person); and on and on, with one unique gem following another. I chose to read this collection in dozens of sittings because each story was so unique that I wanted to savor it fully before covering up its flavor with a new story—just as you would pause to savor one superb appetizer before sampling the next kind.

Paul Beckman’s new collection, Peek, likewise exploits the potential of the flash–collection form. As you pass from the sad first–person account of a confused old man who can’t keep his pills straight (“Green Guy, Whitey and Red”) to a darkly humorous third–person tale of snobbery at the dog park (“Separate But Equal”) to the bitter childhood reminiscences of a man whose mom has just died (“Kosher Soap”) to the pointed account of a pair of adult brothers whose terse exchanges say nothing and everything (“Brother Speak;” first–person), you experience pleasurable anticipation as you move from one distinct story to the next.

The benefits of writing a varied collection enrich the writer as well as the reader. Chefs who cook up true flash collections project themselves into the skin of a range of people and look at the world from their point of view. This exercise furnishes one of the chief benefits of writing—the opportunity to leave one’s own head and enter another’s. It is an exercise which, if done with a clear head and an open heart, can lead to compassion. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun traveling from one world to another.

This is an age that variety rules. Hundreds of channels, thousands of podcasts, millions of blogs … tapas bars, dim­–sum carts, sushi bars, and variety packs of luscious mini­–cupcakes. If cooked up right, flash collections are perfect for the age.

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Jon Sindell is the author of the flash–fiction collection The Roadkill Collection (Big Table Publishing, 2014), the story collection Family Happiness (coming in 2015), and over seventy published short stories. Jon is a fulltime personal humanities tutor and a writing coach for business professionals. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and near fledglings, curates the San Francisco reading series Rolling Writers, and ends his bios with a thud.

by J. Chris Lawrence

Denise Beck-Clark, no longer having to earn a living as a psychotherapist, is a full time writer, Raphael’s mother, and not-frequent-enough traveler. She lives in metro New YorDenise Beck Clarkk.  Her blog and info about two published books can be seen atwww.denisebeck-clark.com.

 

The Handkerchief
by Denise Beck-Clark

My dearest friend Peter left New York for the West Coast, saying that if he didn’t accumulate a new set of esthetics he was bound for Gehenna.

“New York is too European,” he explained. “Too old. I can’t handle the emotional intensity here.”

I tried convincing him that you take yourself and your emotions wherever you go, but his mind was set. He was determined to follow this imagined route to serenity.

So he went. I missed our talks; I missed sharing books. Though we still communicated by mail and phone, it wasn’t the same as co-existing in the same neighborhood.

As the years went by, we corresponded less. Then one day I learned that Peter’s body was found in the home of a well-known drag queen in San Francisco, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. Shortly after, I received a letter on scented paper in an unfamiliar hand. The message was succinct: “Peter saved this for you.”

It was a handkerchief. Pale, egg-shell, with delicate flowered embroidery. A little tag said, “Czechoslovakia, 1921.” Also, a note in Peter’s writing: “For Sarah, from a time before everything went south, and I went west.”

I had seen the handkerchief before; it belonged to his grandmother who was murdered in 1944. That this little square of cloth continued to exist while Peter did not was a sad, unbearable irony. I used it to dab at my eyes, then put it away so safely I would never find it again.

 ***

 J. Chris Lawrence: I love the theme of pursuing a false sense of serenity. It’s the classic “grass is greener” adage that so many of us can relate to that really brings Peter to life, and it is Sarah’s struggle to show him this that not only clutches the heart, but earns this excellent piece our PMMP award. How much did the aphorism influence your work before writing? Did you expect Peter’s fate to end as it did from the beginning?

Denise Beck-Clark: I’ve come to understand that a lot of my writing happens below the level of consciousness.  In preparation to write this story I looked over the prompt words and read the aphorism a few times, then just started writing.  I think this particular quote fit well into my thinking because I’m a former psychotherapist and, as you might imagine, a lot of what I did was help people to discover within themselves the truths they needed to know, about themselves and in general.

JCL: Speaking of themes, many authors tend to explore and revisit specific themes that may speak to them in some personal way. Are there any themes or genres that you find yourself returning to with your work?

DB-C: Definitely.  My work tends to be psychological and/or philosophical, and character-driven.  I tend to present emotions and behaviors that most of us grapple with to varying degrees, such as ambivalence, indecision, self-image, self-esteem, etc.

JCL: Despite the limitations of the contest, your story manages to capture a depth of history and a sense of a living world. What were some of your biggest challenges while attempting to do so much with so few words?

DB-C: To be honest, this story came rather easily to me, perhaps because of, rather than despite, having to use specific words.  But in writing flash fiction in general, the biggest challenge is presenting everything about the characters and what happens to them with a limited number of words.  You have to think of the shortest and most vivid way of saying things.  In a way I think that’s why incorporating prompt words into a story helped because the story evolved around them rather than the other way around.

JCL: How did the prompt words affect your process? Did you choose them prior to beginning the story, or did they evolve as part of the process?

DB-C: As I’m realizing now the prompt words had a large effect on the writing process.  I zeroed in on the words that I liked or was drawn to and constructed a story around them.  I had thought of doing a memorial to an old friend of mine who did move to San Francisco, live in the LGBT community, and die there, though of course, other details are fiction.  The story evolved as a process of semi-consciously combining the prompt words, the theme, and thoughts of my friend.

JCL: What is it about flash fiction that you find appealing? What drives you to create short shorts like this?

DB-C: What I love about flash fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, is that it’s one form of instant gratification I don’t have to give up because it’s not good for me!  I love being able to read a complete story in a few minutes’ time.  Likewise, I love being able to write and complete something without spending months or years on it.  I also enjoy the specific challenges of writing flash fiction, as indicated above.

JCL: Now that you’ve won our PMMP award, what’s next for Denise Beck-Clark?

DB-C: Well, before I win the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes :), I’ll need to finish several works-in-progress and then have many of my already written works published.  This includes many poems, short stories, and novels, one completed and several in the works.  And, I will keep writing flash, because it’s an enjoyable treat that’s proven to be possible.

JCL: Finally, what advice can you give for the aspiring authors out there?

DB-C: Well, Chris, besides the old saying “practice, practice, practice,” I’d say stick with it.  Find whatever in yourself that is stubborn and tenacious and don’t give up.  It’s also good to learn craft, both by reading a lot and in more formal ways such as classes or workshops.  In the end, if you’re meant to be a good or great, and/or published writer, you will be.

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 j chris lawrenceBorn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence  spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/JChrisLawrence) and Facebook (facebook.com/JCLFiction).

By Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300For those of us raised on the movies, it can be hard to know exactly how to define ‘Horror’ in short story form. Is it any story with a monster in it? Is a dark story with supernatural elements enough to count as Horror? Is Twilight Horror or Romance in disguise?

What Is Horror?

Horror, put simply, is “fiction intended to frighten or disturb the reader on some level,” says Shawn M. Garrett, editor of Pseudopod.

“On the surface, people enjoy the thrill related to being scared/threatened in circumstances which are obviously artificial, much like a roller-coaster … On a deeper level – people enjoy being able to explore dark thoughts, ideas and scenarios [to] reinforce previously held beliefs or…to question presumptions.”

“Horror is about fear and how people deal or sometimes don’t deal with it,” says Paul Popiel, a writer and editor with horror stories in two recent anthologies (Fantastic Futures 13 and Vampires Suck).

“Horror also is comfortable blending with every other genre, or taking over other kinds of stories and mimicking their elements while injecting fear into the whole.”

SubGenre Confusion

Speaking of ‘other kinds of stories’, Horror is another of those genres with a dizzying array of sub-genres: the classic ghost story, dark fantasy, the conte cruel, splatterpunk, bizarro, quiet horror, the weird tale, monster stories, psychological horror, some noir and dark literature…and more.

So does a writer need to know/understand them all? Our experts came firmly down on the side of ‘no’.

Shawn M. Garrett of Pseudopod, says, “while I think writers should have at least some fast and loose knowledge of the various ways things can be done in their genre of choice, they shouldn’t let a lack of an intensive knowledge of those approaches hinder them in writing.”

But it does help to “know what the reader expects out of the niche,” says Popeil. For example, splatterpunk readers expect graphic descriptions of violence, while fans of bizarro want their stories “to fall down a much weirder, and much deeper rabbit hole.”

While everyone agreed that writers should write the story they want to read, it can be useful to be knowledgeable about the genre if only to “know a little about where the sub-genre’s gone and what areas are over or under explored” (Popiel).

Garrett adds that being well-read in your genre includes knowing a bit about its history and the master writers who came before you.

“Having some idea of the major figures and what they wrote can help sharpen one’s focus as to what you do and do not want to achieve,”

It also keeps you from falling into a common trap: using overly-familiar tropes.

What Not To Write When Writing Horror

As with all well-established genres, there are some well-worn plot paths that the new writer should tread with caution. Strange Horizons’ Writers Guidelines page offers a useful list of the Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.

They go on to acknowledge that “horror stories are more often about mood or tone than about original plots”, but it’s worth treating these familiar tropes with caution. Instead, dig deeper, says Ben Phillips, a Pseudopod editor,

“If your entire plot and resolution can be summarized in a simple sentence like one of these at all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to complicate it.”

Another sign of an underdeveloped story, says writer Popiel, is “using the monster name as a way of describing the creature instead of showing the reader its powers, weaknesses, what it likes for dinner on the first Thursday of the month.”

Pet peeves for Garrett include, “over-explanation, poor pacing (rushing things when suspense would help, dragging out events for no good reason – especially when the story is merely attempting to just deploy a twist or a small idea), ambiguity used to cover writing weakness or lack of focus (or as an easy out).”

How To Horrify

But don’t despair! Our experts shared some tips for writing truly great horror, too.

Garrett says that on one level great Horror writing shares the hallmarks of all good genre fiction: “…concision, self-awareness of your goals and purpose-driven writing (what are you trying to achieve with the story?  How best to do that? How not to waste the reader’s time?)” adding that in Horror specifically, the writer needs to pay close attention to “…atmosphere, interesting (not necessarily likeable) characters, pacing, use of ambiguity, acheiving the ‘uncanny’.”

R. Tallis, author of the Gothic horror novel Forbidden, says, “I have a feeling that real horror requires incomprehension.”

There is a danger, he says, in the recent trend towards creating sympathy for the monsters. It robs the story of a true sense of horror “when we give our monsters an internal psychology.”

Paul Popiel values writers who “build an atmosphere of terror or dread. Keep the reader guessing as to what’s going to happen.”

He also encourages writers to use “old monsters in new ways…building cool new creatures that I wish I’d thought of.”

The Challenge of Flash Fiction Horror

Writing flash fiction is a challenge in any genre, but it presents a particular difficulty for Horror writers.

“Horror stories depend on a ramping up of tension to the scare,” says Popeil. “… If you only have a thousand words then it’s all about picking the right details to bring things to life.”

“Honestly, I’m still on the fence about flash fiction,” says Pseudopod’s editor Garrett. “At its best, a good flash story should be hard and compact like a jewel, shining with purpose and function.  At its worst, it may be costume jewelry—it looks exactly the same on the surface but is cheap, disposable and lackluster.”

He confesses he’s worried that flash fiction can tempt writers to be lazy and uncritical in their own writing (“it can be justified as undeveloped because ‘hey, it was a flash and I didn’t have the space'”).

A valid concern, especially in the atmospheric world of Horror.

To help, Garrett shared his notes on the introduction to Irving Howe’s Short Shorts, which describes four types of story structures that work well for flash fiction. Garrett suggests that the third and fourth (“Snap-Shot” stoires and “Fable-like”) might work best for Horror.

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One of the strengths of the Horror genre is its ability to absorb and play with the tropes of every other genre while examining the human condition. So if you’re a writer who likes a challenge, and you’re willing to dig deep, why not try your hand at Horror?

There’s nothing to be scared of!

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

by Gay Degani

There is no exact price one can put on words when we consider what words teach us, how they inspire us, where they take us, but writers selecting those words must always weigh their value—how much bang for the buck does each word give—before sending them off as a story, especially a piece of flash fiction. Words are precious in any work of fiction. They are the stuff that create mood, reveal character, offer tension, but in flash, each word must be absolutely worth the space it uses.  If it does not serve a very specific function, then it must be reconsidered for one that does.

If you read my previous essay about questioning the text, you know that one of the ways to learn craft is to spend time with the texts of admired authors to learn how they do what they do, how they manage to convey a whole personality, a setting, a complication in so few words.  How do they do it? Let me provide some examples.

From Sherrie Flick’s “Secrets(New Flash Fiction Review), her second paragraph:

High up in the hayloft, Robbie looked down on the pile of fresh hay. The sweet smells; stark blue skies ringing outside the barn door. Dust sparkled in the air around him–and his brothers romped all around. Hand-me-downs, crew cuts, hard-soled shoes. (43 words)

What do you know about this piece?  My suppositions are

hayloft = a barn, a farm, out in the country, rural

sparkled = summer or Saturday, at least a break. Could be winter but since there is no word used to provide a sense of cold weather…

brothers = family, at least two brothers, maybe more

romped = young, fun-loving, teasing

hand-me-downs = poor or at least middle-class

crewcuts = perhaps in the past, 40s 50s even 60s, unlikely current

hard-soled shoes = these boys work on the farm; this is probably just a break

Sherrie Flick In this paragraph, the author provides the reader with an anchor, a visual setting, a sense of the characters: a rural place where the air is pure, where poor farm boys roughhouse in a loft during a break in their chores. With the title Secrets and the first paragraph, which uses precise language to set up the rambunctious spirit of boys, “Robbie jumped out of the hayloft and hit his head,” Sherrie Flick sets up tension and foreboding. What happens in this 238-word story comes to the reader as a movie would with a specific situation, actions taken, a moment of revelation. The impact of the story comes from the opening, from the exact nature of information given. The reader does not have to wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how.  This evidence is there, not necessarily to be understood in an absolute sense, but rather tethered to a reality that can be “seen” and “felt” by the reader. Every word counts.

 

Here’s another example from Barry Basden’s story, “We Continue to Evolve ” (Fwriction Review) The first line:

“Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards.”(25 words)

What are the suppositions?  What does “the drought” tell the reader?  Bad times! Vultures! But what does the word “turkey” add to this piece?  Why use it if words are so precious? For me, “vultures” alone hypes the piece, tipping it toward melodrama or horror, while “turkey” mellows the concept out just enough to put in a sense of gritty everyday reality.

After writing the above paragraph, I looked up the difference between “Vulture” and “Turkey Vulture” to help me understand why this might be.  According to the Audubon Society, there are “black vultures” and “turkey vultures,” turkey vultures being the more common. On some level, I think I understood this, and why I felt in reading the first line, I would be getting reality rather than melodrama. What else does this first sentence tell us? With the specific use of “turkey” and the specificity of “thermals,” I feel a confidence that this writer knows things, and I trust him.  He is choosing his words with great care.  I want to keep reading.

Then there is the image of birds of prey with “enormous wings” hunting for “heat-struck pets.” Again the author has worked a bit of magic.  It is the pets who are in danger—do they have any chance of survival? The stakes are presented for the story and they feel high, yet still grounded in reality. Then we are given wasps “there to fuss and worry the dove.” We don’t know yet exactly what this story is going to mean in the end, but now we have a dove in contrast to the turkey vultures circling.  The tension is ratcheted up because now we must worry not only about the pets, but this lovely dove.

We have a lyric opening to a story, high stakes proposed, as well as being engaged by tension created by the subliminal question, “What does this mean?” The next line, “It’s mostly quiet now,” brings pause to the story, before understands with the next line, that “Melissa left.” Ahhh, we meet the “dove.” There are two people in the story, the woman who has left and the man who is left behind:

“I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves.”

This carefully constructed sentence parallels the opening sentence, but now there is this man “looking for snakes and frogs” rather than turkey vultures seeking “heat-struck pets in parched backyards.”  Now a correlation comes into play. Although the birds are preying on the creatures below to pick their bones, the man is lying in wait “to save” the creatures who “bob up to gulp the fiery air.”  And this comes together in the last line, “Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.” The careful placement of the word “lure” in this sentence brings with it a certain amount of discomfort. Wince by Barry Basden This word, every word, plays its part in this piece, suggesting not just a man whose wife has left him, but a man with a net, a man who believes he has the answer, a man presented to us in a way that suggests this is not a simple story.  There are complications here. We do not know the right or wrong of her leaving and therefore, we are left with something more thought-provoking, something that lingers. Ambiguity occurs at the end of these stories, but only at the end.

Both authors have taken great care to give readers specific concrete details throughout so we as readers are anchored in the stories. They have both used words as if those words cost about $1000 each. Thank you, Barry Basden and Sherrie Flick for allowing me to use your excellent work as examples!

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.

Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country and edits Camroc Press Review. His latest flash collection is Wince.

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  Gay Degani’s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book formats and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found.

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