elements of story


by Aliza Greenblatt

blunk_team

Dan Blunk is an aspiring fiction writer who loves stories of all kinds, golf, the outdoors, and a nice bourbon on the backyard deck as the sun goes down behind the mountains. He lives in northern Colorado with his wife and dog.

Aliza Greenblatt: What inspired you to start telling stories? How old were you? Who are some of the authors that influenced you? Favorite books?

Dan Blunk: My family was pretty book-crazy. My mom was a librarian and so some of my favorite parts of my childhood were going to the library with my two younger brothers and reading and letting my imagination run wild. I was pretty young when I thought I wanted to be a writer, probably seven or eight. Around that time I started a ‘novel’ a time-travel story with dinosaurs and adventure and a daring male protagonist. I’d go up to my room, write a couple chapters, and come down and give them to my parents to read. They must have thought I was nuts, but they really encouraged me. I read a lot, but one book that I really connected with as a kid was a book called The Missing Persons League by Frank Bonham. It’s a dystopian story about a high school kid trying to track down his dad, who is missing. I was in fourth or fifth grade when I read it and it blew me away. I was so entranced I said to my mom how cool it would be to actually talk to the author about it. She got the publisher’s address and told me I should write him a letter. So I did, and he wrote back! It was really exciting, I was such a nerd, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. It was a formative experience in my life. We carried on a correspondence for a while, it just made me want to write more. Other authors I love are Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Ursula K. LeGuin (Earthsea Trilogy is amazing), Michael Chabon, Stephen King, so many others. I’ll read anything that interests me.

AG: You mentioned on EDF that Rig #9 was your first published story. Congratulations! What a great way to start your fiction endeavors. Can you tell me about your writing goals, both some long term and short term ones?

DB: Thanks! It was a pretty exciting thing for me. I’ve always kind of thought of myself as a writer, but only in the last two years or so have I gotten ‘serious’ about it. I started taking classes at a place called Lighthouse in Denver, it’s an outstanding community of really talented teachers and writers and going there has really energized me to actually apply myself. They have really taught me to have fun but to take responsibility for developing myself as a writer by reading a lot, critiquing the work of others, and just keeping at it, never stopping. I fell in with a group of writers and we started our own writing group (Knife Brothers!) and it’s a lot of fun. We get together every month at someone’s house and have some wine and some food and chat and share and critique each others’ latest stuff. That has been really energizing for me, it forces me to work hard because I don’t want to show up with nothing for the group to talk about! As far as goals, I would like to keep working on short stories and flash fiction, which I really love, but eventually I’d like to try writing a novel or screenplay.

AG: Can you tell me a little about your writing process?

DB: For me, things start with a kind of day-dreamy ‘what if’ chain of thought. I have always had a very active imagination, and I’ll see something in real life and that will spawn a chain of questions. For example, I’ll see a guy walking out of an assisted living facility wiping tears from his face and I’ll just imagine, ‘what happened in there? Is his dad sick? How do they get along? Did they argue all the time when he was growing up?’ And it will just go on like that, I’ll have this spur-of-the-moment exploration of possibilities in my own brain. That starts way before I ever actually write anything down. I have a day job that I really enjoy and that challenges me a lot. In order to make time to write, I started getting up around 5:30 and spending 45 minutes or so. I’m not that great about doing it every day, it’s a tremendous feat of discipline and I really admire people who can stick to a regimen like that.

AG: One of my favorite parts of this story was the voice. Immediately from the opening line, the mood was set and it was clear that even though the narrator is an old hand at this business, he also has a good grasp on literature and the local history. How did you find the voice for this piece? Or did it find you?

DB: Thank you very much. This piece started with my wife wanting to go for a drive. We live in northern Colorado and there are a few little ghost towns to the east of us, and as you get away from the mountains you get into the windy, flatness of the western Great Plains. It’s a hauntingly beautiful place, with the tall grass and the wind and the open sky, but it’s incredibly inhospitable and it feels hostile and alien and it just struck me as very powerful and it just got my creativity flowing. So we went out to see one of the ghost towns and it kind of started the day in the creepy old-West way. Then we drove to a really cool hiking place with all these big rock formations and while we were out there I started seeing all these oil wells pumping. So then it was a little bit of a lightning strike moment for me, I imagined this old oil rig worker dealing with something that had happened to him that he couldn’t really explain, but I wanted him to be trustworthy and intelligent, someone who is more than just a simple roughneck because I wanted to present the nuance that I imagined when I heard him in my head. So I think the voice came from a deep connection I had with that place and it kind of flowed from there.

AG: What were some of the challenges of writing this story? What are some of your favorite parts?

DB: I would say my main challenge was making the voice of the main character ring true. The first part kind of came to me, but I had to work hard to maintain the voice and keep momentum going in the story and, hopefully, give readers a payoff in the end. My favorite parts are probably when the narrator is at his gruffest when he talks about what an idiot the Kid is, and the way the birds gather together to form the shape of the Kid, that image just bubbled up from deep in my subconscious and frankly scared the hell out of me.

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

DB: I am working on a couple short stories, I am due to submit one to my writing class in a few weeks, so I’m working hard to get that into shape. I’m also working on a few flash pieces that kind of came out of a trip we took to Florida during the holidays. I haven’t submitted in a while, but I should have some things ready to submit by spring.

 

ED: This is Aliza’s last EDF Top Author interview. I want to thank her for her time and effort in providing us with these interviews and wish her well with her future writing endeavors. Beginning in March, Jessi Cole Jackson will take over these duties.

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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 Kyle Hemmings

METornEdge

First of all, let me say what inspired me to write at all. Of course, there were precedents in childhood. I liked the poets, such as Lorca, Rimbaud, the poems of Poe, even the verse and lyrics of Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison. That’s not to say that I understood at a young age a Rimbaud or Lorca, but I fell in love with the sound of their words, the connotations. So poetry for me was always a first love. In more recent years, since I joined Zoetrope and fell under the spell of the great poet, Lisa Cihlar, I became enamored of the prose poem.

In the early 80s, I stumbled upon a collection of stories called The Gold Diggers, by Robert Creeley. Now here was a book of prose/fiction written by a poet. It was published very early in his career, around the early 50s and at least one story, The Unsuccessful Husband mirrored his situation, living in Majorca with his first wife. She was the breadwinner, while he was pursuing the writer’s romantic dream of making great literature that grappled with relevant themes: solipsism or the difficulty of communication, the problem of identity and whether any moral imperatives still exist in a world where old values, such as conformity, were being questioned or overturned. In the story, the husband and wife are caught in a loveless tug of war, she, wanting him to conform to society’s standards of what a good husband should be like. And he, trying to resist or sabotage her efforts. By the end of the story, the wife is dead by attrition and despair, a kid of murder in slow doses. In real life, the strain of their relationship caused Creeley and his first wife to divorced.

The reason I bring up that collection is because it alerted me to the possibilities of language, how a writer can use style to bolster a theme. Many of the stories did not have a traditional narrative arc but employed voice and a skewed vision to grapple with a certain truth of the moment. In fact, looking back, I think some of those stories could now be called flash fictions. Whatever, the collection is a mesmerizing one and still haunts me.

I should also cite as another source of inspiration the rock bands of the mid to late 60s. I studied the lives of some of these tragic or not so tragic figures, musicians such as Roky Erickson, Arthur Lee, Skip Spence, Tim Buckley and even wrote a chapbook of flash and poetry loosely based on their lives. Music always had a big effect on me, and I suppose those pre-punk garage bands, psychedelic bands, will always stay with me. Sometimes a title or a lyric from one of their songs will work its way into my work or inspire me to a new riff.

And also, in contrast to some writers who seem to still struggle with an episode or issue in childhood, much of my impetus to write comes from a more recent period of my life where I became addicted to the NYC club scene in the late 80s, early 90s, the Ed Koch period spilling over into the Dinkins era. Times Square was not cleaned up. There were so many people I encountered living on the fringe. I spent many nights on a dance floor, drunk, spinning myself into oblivion until 4 a.m. And there were the incredible hangovers. It was in some way an unreal world, a form of escape. Some of my chapbooks of flash/poems were born from the struggle to deal with that experience, Chapbooks such as Cat People, Avenue C, and Zin! were testimonies to that dizzying surreal experience.

And lastly, as to why I write flash fiction, I think it’s because it’s a brother/sister of one of my favorite forms—the prose poem. In a flash you can turn things on a detail. In such a short amount of space, every word or detail has to weigh. I think this is true in the great work of a Kathy Fish or Randall Brown. It’s something I still must learn to master. And whereas the longer short story places more emphasis on developing a linear narrative, flash can develop a tremendous depth, a kind of horizontal depth in a snapshot of the life of its characters.

Which is not to say that flash can’t have a narrative or elements of plot and action. It often does. But what I like about the form is that in the best flashes there is not so much the danger to plateau as can happen somewhere in the middle of a novel or longer story, where the reader’s attention begins to flag.

I like flash because it can hit you good and fast and hard. It can hit you in the gut like nothing can. It can stay with you like a song.

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Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Your Impossible Voice, Night Train, Toad, Matchbox and elsewhere. His latest ebook is Father Dunne’s School for Wayward Boys at amazon.com. He blogs at http://upatberggasse19.blogspot.com/.

by Jeremy Szal

Jeremy Szal2

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

if

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 Rohini Gupta

Rohini Gupta

So, there you are, trying to write another flash fiction story. You have written hundreds of them—surely it is easy? It’s not easy. It’s not difficult either. The best way I can describe it is—strange.

It’s like waiting for sleep to come. Some nights you are overwhelmed and lost in seconds, on others you count early morning bird calls and try not to look at the clock yet again.

Neither sleep nor story will come to heel on demand. They are, in fact, impervious to demands.

The best you can do is tidy up a bit, clear the clutter, make some space in your mind, and hope the weather is right. The mind needs to remain as blank as the page, but it’s an exciting blankness into which an idea can come softly, shyly, tiptoeing on silent feet, lingering in the dark, just out of sight.

A story is a wild animal, like the delicate footprints in Ted Hughes’s The Thought Fox poem. All you can do is wait patiently for it to emerge.

That is what I love about flash fiction—the risk. Never knowing what lurks in the thought forest until it comes out into the white sunlight of the page. Till then you can only guess, and whatever you guess will be way off the mark.

What will it be?

Which genre?

What voice?

Whose viewpoint?

Which words will come pouring out like a crowd of jostling, unruly children?

Who knows? And that is the beauty of it.

You will never know beforehand but one thing is certain.

It will surprise you. It will not be what you expect, barely even in the range of what you can imagine.

There is nothing small about flash fiction except the word count. In the tiny playpen of 1000 words or less, lies a universe of infinite possibility. With flash, and with short stories, every day is a new adventure. The longer forms of writing may not take you so close to the edge. Flash leaves you gasping in the rarefied air, with nothing but a crumbling cliff under your feet. That is the beauty, the sheer breathless risk of it, the dizzying jump off that ledge into depths unknown.

As you teeter at the edge, something will spark. A memory, an image, a character. From the mist, ghostly forms will come. Let them take you.

Fall.

Go ahead, let go. You won’t fall in the same place twice. You won’t even fall in the same world twice.

And, there is usually a story at the end of it.

So, that is what I like most about flash fiction—living dangerously, never knowing the face of that stranger in the deep shadows—your next story.

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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.

 

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