elements of story


by Aliza Greenblatt

Joanna Bressler

Joanna Bressler was a dancer, therapist, researcher and professor. She has graduate degrees in psychology and epidemiology. Now she writes, edits and babysits her grandkids. Her short fiction and memoir pieces have been published in EDF, Trapeze, Flash Fiction Magazine, Persimmon Tree, AARP Bulletin, New Age Journal. As far as writing goes, she revises too much. She’s insanely grateful to EDF and its readers for giving her work such a boost.

Aliza Greenblatt: From your bio it seems you’ve worn many different types of hats. Do your professional interests often find their way into your fiction? Did your background in psychology influence The Throwback Girl?

Joanna Bressler: Everything finds its way into my fiction. Try as hard as I do to keep certain things out, in they come, often carrying a shotgun.

Epidemiology is a sure fire influence on my writing.

Diseases fascinated me way back in childhood. I had measles the winter I was ten and read Microbe Hunters (diphtheria, ticks, tsetse flies, malaria, rabies, yellow fever, syphilis) by flashlight under the covers while still miserably sick. My parents discovered me at about 3 a.m. After a whole lot of incredulous eye-rolling and head-shaking, they confiscated the flashlight.

In my epidemiology M.P.H. program, which I allowed myself as a reward for the struggle I went through twenty years earlier getting my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I learned gorgeous disease words like infectivity, pathogenicity, virulence, sputum cytology, herd immunity, case fatality rate.

Later on these words entered my fiction.

For example, I was having trouble with the male hero of a long story. He was too passive, too awkward, too distant, too defensive. A real wimp. I was at the point of hitting the delete button when I thought to give him a pronounced limp from childhood polio. Two pages on childhood polio flew into the story and in the process my hero became downright lovable. And not just to me, to the heroine of the story as well.

Characters do come alive in my stories when I make them sick.

Psychology, my day job forever and then some, is a big influence too. I try to blame it and not me for everything interminably boring in what I write.

The major influences on my writing, however, are the writing classes, workshops and critique groups I’ve attended during the past two decades. As with all influences, these include the good, the bad, and the ugly. But mainly I’ve been very lucky. Many terrific teachers and generous fellow writers have helped me learn to write.

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

JB: O.K. Here goes.

I came home late one night and my door key got stuck in the lock. Neither I nor a night-owl neighbor could budge it. I had to go sleep over at my daughter and son-in-law’s apartment and be very quiet about it because they had a new baby upstairs.

I was almost asleep on the couch downstairs when, not the new baby but this girl in my brain, woke me with a barrage of complaints about her mother, her father, her sister, her doctors, and how she herself was being forced to climb a horrible trail to some stupid place her mother liked.

She talked on and on and I didn’t know her from Adam but finally I felt honor bound to pry my eyes open, rummage around for paper and pencil, and write down what she was saying. It took everything I had but I got most of it and then about two hours of sleep.

In the morning, once the new baby woke everybody up, I found under the couch seven moderately legible pages in which a story was hiding. The new baby, my younger grandchild, had his 8th birthday the month and year (September, 2014) that EDF in its infinite kindness accepted a much more coherent version of those seven pages.

I really, really, really wish that this was my typical writing process. It is not.

Typically I believe that each new idea will be my last and is not very good anyway. Typically I have to search desperately for viable characters, plots and settings. Typically, to paraphrase Paul Simon, I know fifty ways to leave a laptop.

Often I consult the Rune stones from Scandinavia as part of my creative process. Earlier today, for example, I drew a rune stone from my little blue velvet bag to help me figure out what exactly to say about my writing process other than it being a complete shambles.

The pattern on the stone I drew was a lopsided cross. It stood for, get this, “Constraint,
Necessity, Pain.” I thought, “Uh-oh, this can’t be good. What does it even mean? How could the rune stones do this to me?” Only then did I realize that these three words pretty much nail my typical creative process to the wall.

AG: One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is the slow reveal of the narrator’s character – which is not an easy thing to accomplish in flash fiction. Was the pacing something you struggled with in the story? What were some of your favorite parts of the story? What were some of the most challenging?

JB: I’ve never heard that phrase “the slow reveal of the narrator’s character.” Thank you, Aliza, for introducing it to me.

O.K. When I brought the first draft of this story to a critique group, people thought Alicia was not a human being. Well, I did think she was a human being.

Getting her to that place where most readers could agree with me took so many revisions that it’s still embarrassing. Through them, however, I managed to soften Alicia without losing her true voice. The softening appears in the late middle and at the end of the story. I’m thinking perhaps that’s what you mean by “the slow reveal.”

One of my favorite parts was the Wizard of Oz metaphor. I’ve had to watch that movie maybe ten, fifteen, times with this little girl I know, my older grandchild. I felt pure glee when it fit so easily into the story.

The most challenging part was every word after Alicia pushes Mindy into the stream.

AG: The tension between Alicia and her mother is quickly established in the story. She’s constantly giving examples of her mother’s inability to see and accept Alicia for who she is. But by the same metric, do you think Alicia was perhaps also misjudging her own family in the same way?

JB: Mainly I see Alicia as an adolescent. In my opinion, it’s an adolescent’s job to misjudge their family, probably so that they can separate from it without feeling a terrible loss.

AG: Aside from unfinished novels, what else do you like to write? Do you write many flash fiction stories or is this new territory for you?

JB: I’m not a real fan of writing unfinished novels.

And I feel compelled to add that I do have one still in the works. I just can’t seem to advance the plot. I can’t even find the plot. Perhaps I’ll get back to this novel on my death bed. Rear up, wave my arms wildly, scream out, “Aha! ‘Sister Clare leaves the convent and marries the Chief of Homicide.’ Please, somebody, write that down this instant.”

For now, I’ve switched over to fine-tuning several of my short stories (ranging from 100 to 8000 words) for submission. I don’t submit very often so this is proving to be a challenge.

On the subject of flash fiction, a beloved aunt of mine who was an artist once made me two elegant little paintings with her own maxims embedded in them. “Lose Not Thy Marbles” is one; “Hasten Thy Story” is the other. They hang above my desk. Writing flash fiction keeps me true in the moment to both maxims. My aunt would approve.

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?

JB: Post-Mortem Exam was posted in Flash Fiction Magazine on June 26th. Two other stories are in EDF. Some funny tweets are up on Trapeze Magazine. And, as I just hinted, a veritable meteor shower of stories is on its way running.

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

JB: Thank you, Aliza, this was exciting for me. I love your work. It’s wonderful having you give such thoughtful attention to mine.

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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 Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill

Suzanne Conboy-Hill

Some while ago Walter Giersbach (Hook Your Readers) wrote this:

Advertising copywriters insist that a good poster capture the attention of a commuter dashing to catch the 8:05 train. That’s a tough chore—almost as tough as grabbing a reader in the first 30 words of your short story. The grabber is the narrative hook, an intriguing opener that makes the story impossible to put down.It better be good, because an e-zine RSS feed may give the subscriber just that 30-word teaser to invite a click-through.

And I wrote this:

Openers tread a fine line between unselfconscious intrigue and the dangling lure crafty old pikes are going to give a wide berth. It’s probably horses for courses, but I prefer an intro that doesn’t make me feel I’m being hooked.

Silly me, should have kept my mouth shut. I’ve been challenged to expand.

Luckily, after some thought I find I still agree with myself but I have had to take apart the rationale for that and also consider what it means for people who aren’t me because it turns out there’s quite a lot of those.

If we stay with the metaphor of lures and hooks, we know that there are different kinds for different fish—what catches a trout won’t (so I imagine) snag a pike. I think that extends to opening lines or excerpts too because this is not a one-way process. It’s interactive, and we need to find the right line for the right reader.

Many stories are published in a genre context, and so we already know what kind of content is coming. When I go to Clarkesworld, for instance, my head is geared to science fiction and fantasy, and so it’s ready to deploy my stock of SF/F references. But where there is mixed content or multiple feeds, this context is missing, which makes those openers or excerpts critical to engaging the attention of a receptive reader.

I wondered then about a catch-all formula and I recall a writer (whose name escapes me but may have been Steven King) saying that the opening paragraph should a) introduce the main character, b) contain an action, and c) deliver a piece of dialogue. A handy template, which I think has merit because it at least stops you from stuffing yards of exposition and scene-setting into it, and you can ‘season to taste,’ as it were.

My concern with templates though is first that they can so easily become rules, and second that attending to them risks drawing attention away from the purpose of the exercise. In this case, the purpose is initially to alert the right reader to the right material and once there to have them ‘read ready’ very quickly by establishing the contextual references—dystopia, humour, SF, literary, are they supposed to ‘get it’ or is ‘getting it’ not part of the contract? That sort of thing.

I think if we ignore targeting and fail to give potential readers what they need in order to be ‘read ready’ for our material, we run the risk of missing the right readers and disappointing the ones we pull in. For instance, anything beginning: ‘The thing in the swamp licked the blood of its last victim from its fangs and surveyed the lone house in the distance where the last man on earth sat shivering,” is pretty much not going to be a romance, unless the author’s next paragraph goes, “Sharon put down her horrible horror book, turned on all the lights, and hugged John’s pillow – oh why did he have to be away on her birthday?” and how would we know? So while it may be a well-baited hook, it won’t be a very satisfactory one for the gore-fest aficionados who bite on it. Of course, if we knew and trusted the author[1], we might have followed the teaser anyway and been rewarded, but if we did not, we and everyone else looking for a romance piece would miss it.

Flash asks a great deal of the reader; it is succinct in the same way as poetry, it tends to focus on the essence rather than the detail of a story, and it is part of the deal that the reader brings something of their own into the reading of it. It may not be fully closed, more ‘openly closed’ as Elaine Chiew has it[2]. It is also permitted to ‘start in the middle[3]’ which I think makes the title a critical part of the lure, and I wonder how much consideration we give to this before we saddle our protégés with a clever word salad and send them off.

So the beginning is not necessarily the beginning and the ending is not necessarily the end, which means those first few words have a very big job to do. I think that job is not to draw in anyone and everyone but to engage the interest of the right reader for the piece and to prepare them, to help them find the right set of mental references, for what is to come. That done, it’s up to us whether we throw a fine gauge net, blow a circle of bubbles, cast a line with fancy dancing feathers on the end, or drop a chunk of raw meat into the water.

***

1. That said, all that Rowlings is not Potter, as we now know.
2. Elaine Chiew, Endings. In Short Circuit, Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing, 2009. P188
3. David Gaffney, Get Shorty: The micro fiction of Etgar Keret. In Gebbie, op cit. P173

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Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a past psychologist, present writer with publications in Every Day Fiction, Zouch Magazine, Ether Books, and Full of Crow amongst others. Website: http://conboyhillfiction.wordpress.com/

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve nothing against the gangrenous undead or a serious bloodsucker (as opposed to those vampires who appear to have gotten lost on their way to a Calvin Klein photo shoot). But when I want something to really scare me off to dreamland–the kind of story that’ll force me out of my warm cozy bed to check the doors and windows one more time–I’ll take the shredded wallpaper and that nice etching. Or a sandbar on the Danube.

The really terrifying stuff is what you don’t see. The greatest horror writers don’t hit you over the head with a bloody bucket of chum. They unlock doors to primal human emotions and let you have the fun of trying to wrestle them shut again.

Stories I think essential to every horror lover’s collection include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, M. R. James’s The Mezzotint and Casting the Runes, and Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. They’re oldies, all right–but they haven’t lost any of their vigor.

All four tales are masterworks of psychological terror; only in  Casting the Runes is actual blood spilled. But not in front of us.

Over the years, The Yellow Wallpaper has been a darling of feminist scholars. Gilman, who had her own unpleasant run-ins with analytical types, doesn’t require interpretation and is best enjoyed straight-up. Her heroine speaks for herself just fine.

Too much contemporary horror writing seems like sadistic versions of the shaggy dog story. A little mayhem is fine. But when authors keeps tossing bodies in various stages of dismemberment at me, my blood stops curdling.

One of my favorite stories on Every Day Fiction does involve a horde of the undead closing in on two hapless victims. Check out Willow Road by Lindsey R. Loucks. You’ll see why I couldn’t get it out of my head.

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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 FictionFlash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

[This article first appeared at http://tgenedavis.com.]

by T. Gene Davis

t gene davis

Congratulations! An editor loves your prose. You’ve sold your story. Feel wonderful. You should.

After the euphoria collapses, you wonder when the fan mail and comments will start pouring in. Experienced authors acknowledge, selling the story is only one of many steps necessary when building a fan base.

Selling your story to readers begins before you get the editor hooked. You must write your story for your market—the web skimmer. Most magazines publish or advertise stories on the web, and most users of the web skim. Close to 80% of all people visiting your story or story’s advert will skim the page, rather than read the page.

Gaining readers is the act of converting skimmers into readers through a three-step combination of hooking them with a great title, convincing them to read on with an engaging first sentence, and pulling them into the story with a compelling first paragraph. I’ve heard this approach summed up with the words, “Catch, grab, and keep.”

Skimmers are embryonic fans. Convert skimmers into readers by catching their attention. Your title must stop the skimmers’ eyes from roaming the page. Story titles are critical to readership. Trite as it may sound, your title can make or break your story. A catchy title is your first hook. If your story’s title stops the skimmers, you now have the chance of converting them into a reader.

Catch the skimmers’ attention with a title that fills them with wonder. They need to wonder if the rest of the story is as good as the title, or they need to wonder what the title is describing. Either way, you have one title to create an unfulfilled need in that skimmers. You must create a desire in the skimmers to read your first sentence.

Follow up the title with an amazing first sentence. Realize, your story’s first sentence must keep those skimmers from going back to their unhelpful skimming ways. Opening with a shocking or humorous statement may catch their attention. The first sentence must interest the readers, and leave them hanging. If your readers doesn’t have at least one unanswered question because of the first sentence, they may go back to skimming. The key, again, is creating unfulfilled needs in the readers. The readers must feel a nagging desire to know what happens next.

If your title and first sentence engaged the skimmer, you’re ready for the power play—your first paragraph. You have almost turned a skimmer into a fan. Don’t blow it with a boring first paragraph.

Your first paragraph must make your readers care, and leave them wanting something. If the first paragraph fulfills the readers’ needs and answers all their questions, it must introduce more questions and needs. Remember, unfulfilled desire keeps your reader reading. When your reader stops wanting something from your story, you lose your reader.

One rule of thumb I’ve heard, is to give your reader no less than three reasons to keep reading. If you’re skilled, the readers might care about one of the reasons enough to continue reading. At this point, you have turned a skimmer into a fan.

Catch the skimmers with an amazing title that makes them want to know what your story is about. Grab them with an engaging first sentence. Keep them reading with a paragraph that gives them answers, but leaves them asking even more questions.

That’s what you need to do to hook the skimmers.

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T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. In the 1990s, he spent six years editing and publishing the zine, Of Unicorns and Space Stations. These days his zine mania has morphed into three blogs: one for speculative fiction (tgenedavis.com), another for hobby farming (davishobbyfarm.com), and yet another for shogi and computer programming (genedavissoftware.com). Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s speculative blog at http://tgenedavis.com.

 

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

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

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