characters


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 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.

by Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen

I was first introduced to the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography’s publishing when I downloaded a free pdf of a book by Chicago local, Ben Tanzer. It was a book based on his thoughts while jogging.

Years later, I found myself part of a reading in Chicago through Curbside Splendor, where I met Ben, had coffee, and discussed CCLaP and Jason Pettus.

 

CCLaP

The design work in CCLaP’s books is phenomenal. And their website boasts multiple free pdfs of titles—something I had tried as a chapbook publisher, but executed here very well just by the sheer numbers in their line. I believe this is not only extremely innovative, but an important note to the literary community.

When I returned to Cleveland, I wrote Jason and requested an ARC pdf of one of their most recent titles, Four Sparks Fall, by T.A. Noonan.

foursparksfallcover400

A novella of a coming-of-age story between two teenage twin girls, Four Sparks Fall will catch you off-guard. As one of the sisters reconciles her friendship with her twin while preparing to leave for an acclaimed prep school, the story is told from the two perspectives of one leaving, of one behind. It’s difficult at first to decipher their individual voices this way (as one’s thoughts are in italics, the other’s grounded in unitalicized paragraphs) but as twins doesn’t this make sense?

The story goes and the pages turn, you see these two distinct young women for who they are, who they were to each other, and for what they may become from “the biggest small town in the world,” Baton Rouge.

T.A. introduces us to a slew of mutual friends: the boy who comes between the twin sisters, the parting gifts these two girls leave for each other  in reconciliation, hope for the future, a new diary.

What I found really entrancing about this novella was its seriousness about adult issues given to teenagers. They ‘inherit’ the problems of their Baton Rouge adults and parents. How do we escape our past? How do we reconcile for the future, even with the things we are born into? Part dark, young adult literature, part smart, literary process, Four Sparks Fall is just that. It’s about sparks that have fallen, the lost optimism and innocence of youth, and the story of twins, Geminis, meant for distant, distinct places in our universe.

If you get the chance, I would definitely meander over to the CCLaP website and browse their catalog. Find this book, download it (it’s free) and enjoy. Chicago has a lot to offer the literary world.

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Christopher Bowen is an Ohio author and culinary chef. His recently-released personal fiction chapbook, We Were Giants, is available from the publisher, Sunnyoutside Press. He blogs at burningriver.info.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

I thought I was writing a simple, direct piece of flash–protagonist has problem, and resolves it.

Found myself wrestling with one of the Big Questions–what does it really mean to be human?

And how do you express the capacity for complex thought when your characters have only a limited vocabulary?

More than with any other story I’ve written, for New Song (Every Day Fiction, 3/15/14) I had to look out at the world from my protagonist’s eyes, and try to understand how she’d express her own feelings to herself. A first-person story is either an interior monologue or an intimacy between the narrator and the implied listener. But how can a primitive character speak convincingly to us, through eons not only of time, but of transformation into what we’ve ourselves become?

I had to bring the reader into my heroine’s sensory world; write a powerfully visual story without much description; express intense emotions without elaboration. And I couldn’t impose on her the horrors of “primitive-speak”–think of every silly movie you’ve ever seen, where characters never, ever use contractions, and even three-word conversations sound like epic proclamations

If characters can be expected to use colloquial speech among themselves, we should resist the temptation to “translate” that into something that screams “not our English [or whatever language we're writing in]). Credit your readers with enough intelligence to figure that out, once you’ve set the scene for them.

Is recognition of the power of language–as thought or out loud–something that distinguishes us from other sentient creatures?

My protagonist uses her unspoken words as if she believes they might have almost magical properties:

Suddenly I hated Old Ma. I wanted to smash her.
But I was clever even in that moment. I stopped
my hand and sang my anger inside my head where
nobody else heard it.

Later, as she hunts desperately for her child:

I made a song to my baby inside my head. Where
are you? Don’t you feel me searching for you?

My character doesn’t just see–like all of us, she perceives in accordance with the priorities of her world:

That night the moon showed its whole face, eating
up the dark.

From the response of first readers during the editorial process, it seems I succeeded in what I hoped to do. One editorial commenter called it a “[v]ery visceral piece.” And it’s one of the very few of my stories accepted without a rewrite request.

My protagonist struggled to make sense of her place in a vast and largely unknowable universe. Perhaps the characters we write help us to do the same for ourselves.

____________

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 and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Susan Tepper

RStratten

Robin has been a writing coach for almost 25 years. Her first novel, On Air, was a finalist in the Indie Excellence Book Award. She is the author of Of Zen and Men and In His Genes, and co-author of Then She Ran. She also has two full-length collections of poetry and short fiction: Dealing with Men and Interference from an Unwitting Species. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, and many others. Her short story, “Ma Writing,” was a finalist in The Lascaux Review flash fiction award, and appeared in their 2014 Anthology. In her spare time, Robin edits the Boston Literary Magazine. Learn more about Robin at http://www.robinstratton.com/

Susan Tepper: Your novel In His Genes opens in a most unique way. What underlying forces or personal drama drew you toward a medical-mystery as the book’s focal point?

Hiding in Plain Sight — the elusive Carina Dwarf Galaxy

Robin Stratton: It’s a bit of a long story… I have had a passion for genetics for years, and I read a book called Decoding Darkness by Dr. Rudy Tanzi – about the race to figure out what gene mutation causes early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

ST: A pretty heavy topic.

RS: Tanzi’s book, which I highly recommend, is also his story as a young researcher, and the story of a family stricken with the disease… the early onset type can begin in your late 30s… and if you’ve got the gene, not only are you absolutely going to get AD, but there is a 50% chance that you’ll pass it on to your children.

So I contacted Dr. Tanzi, and asked if we could work together on the movie of his book. He said yes! And so we did… I got most of the way through before the family who’d been featured in the book got cold feet. I think Rudy did, too. Anyway… so I had to let go of the project.

ST: Oh what a pity! I hate to see good work go down the drain.

But your book In His Genes is also a love story. Did you find it difficult placing genetics into the context of a love story? Or, are genetics also about love? Or is it the other way around?

RS: This is the perfect question for this book, Susan! I think romance and love are essential in any novel about human dynamics, which is the topic I prefer, and so there was no question that there would be a romance. Cassandra (Cassie) is very much like me (all my female leads are) and so when I crafted her love interest, I described the man I would be in love with— scientific, kind, warm, great conversationalist, and passionate.

FRONT COVER(1)

ST: The title is great, though I must admit I kept thinking jeans…

RS: I really wanted a blockbuster title, and I had a lot of trouble… there were these three things going on: the science of the story, the romance, and the supernatural theme. I wanted a title that would reflect all those things. When I hit up In His Genes I felt that it was reminiscent of that old book, In His Steps— it directly referred to genes, and it had that nifty sexual innuendo. 

ST:  I wasn’t going to bring up the supernatural theme, don’t want to give too much away… but since you already gave us a whiff…  did you know at the outset you would bring the supernatural into the book?

RS: My boyfriend is a UFO freak and buys into everything alien, and when we started going out, he wanted me to write a book about an alien titled “My Boyfriend Wasn’t From Here.” I am not a big alien believer, but thought it would be interesting to have a character that leaves people thinking, Is he… or isn’t he…. ? For a little while that was the working title, until my writing partners begged me to change it. My boyfriend had to settle for a short poem I wrote with that title that was published in my chapbook Dealing with Men. So, yes, I began with those two intersecting/contrasting themes: rigid scientific testing of data vs. faith without evidence of any kind.

ST: That’s a very cool contrast of themes in a book since they are (traditionally) diametrically opposed. I was captivated by this character you introduced, Palmer, but also leery of him. I am leery by nature. I wasn’t born that way, but over time… I think one tends to grow leery and time-worn. Too many struggles and let downs and you just start to see things differently.

Do you feel your protagonist Cassie becomes leery or time-worn as the book moves along?

RS: I think the whole point is that she starts out by being leery. Cynical, I guess is the word I’d use. To me, she’s a reflection of people today who are cautious about allowing mystery and beauty… what if you’re wrong about something? You’ll feel so let down! Best to just doubt everything.

ST: It is a tough world out there in a lot of ways. Trust can be difficult. It’s sad.

RS: Yes, and that’s typical of a particular scene when her car won’t start, and this guy Palmer (who she just met) comes outside of the bar to see if he can get it going. All she can think about is how she always complains that no one wants to help and yet when someone does… it all becomes suspicious! So her character arc had to involve learning to trust— without using scientific data which is the nucleus of her work life and her thought patterns.   

ST: This book, with its unusual and compelling focus on science, also manages to be character driven. I found Cassie an endearing character. She is flawed like all of us, yet she allows us into that dark space that most people (in real life) work hard at covering up. Do you, as her creator, identify with her?

RS: Cassie is a woman who hasn’t been able to find The One, and is mystified at the ease with which all her friends have accomplished this romantic feat. Like so many single women, she got ditched by her friends when they got married. I think of her as very strong and independent. She’s smart and knows what she wants. Her dedication in the lab and her passion for genetics would have happened even if she weren’t madly in love with her boss.

ST: Ah… her boss. A strange fellow in many regards, because he feels so ‘perfect’… (may I have his number please.) And speaking of please, she goes out of her way to please his every whim, or so it seems.

RS: I think that Cassie was raised to think of others first, the way I was, but I don’t think she goes overboard. She’s not suffering in silence about anything; I think she acts out of love. I sandwiched her between an older sibling and a younger sibling so that age wouldn’t be an “excuse” for her station in life, ie, no money, as compared with her “successful” brother and sister. I wanted to touch on the idea that success doesn’t have to mean money or a great marriage and kids. It can be about personal fulfillment. In fact, it should be about personal fulfillment. (But money and a great marriage are nice, too!)

ST: Not too many people would argue that point, Robin. No spoiler alert here: I just want to say I found the characters and plot fascinating. This book really held me. As we all want to be held.

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 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

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