characters


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“You need to suspend disbelief–”

No.  You need to make me.

Critiquing another writer’s work shouldn’t be a bloodbath but it oughtn’t feel like a tea social, either.

I seem to get in trouble a lot on comments threads for pointing out that something in a story seems completely inconsistent with the world the writer has invited me, the reader, to enter. Reactions seem to be along the line that “it’s fiction, for heck’s sake, can’t you just admire the pretty words?”

Well, no, not if those pretty words strike me as somehow untruthful in the context of the story.

So how come, as I enter the crotchety years, my favorite reading remains that writing unfairly pigeonholed as “children’s literature”?  Isn’t that full of stuff that could never really happen?

Sure.  But a great writer makes you believe in every impossible word anyway.

As long as a writer is true to the created world, it doesn’t matter how strange that world might be.  And sometimes a writer’s failures are not what you’d think.

Take the Harry Potter series.  I did–making sad deprived faces until my son resignedly let me read each new volume first.

JK Rowling was superb at making Harry’s fantastical world perfectly plausible. But what made me nuts was her protagonists’s unswallowable treatment of each other. Rowling convinced me that animagists and boggarts might be found anywhere but not that Harry, Hermione and Ron could perpetually misunderstand and misjudge one another. They were more than best friends–they’d shown loyalty and courage beyond the capacity of most–and yet they kept snapping at each other for no good reason. I just didn’t believe that for a minute.

The mood captured in a story can be as fragile as a bubble, and once you’ve burst it, you’ll have a damned hard time retrieving the reader’s faith in your creation.

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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 Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

by Susan Tepper

Claire King is an English author, best known for her novel The Night Rainbow. She currently resides in Languedoc-Roussillon, France with her husband and children. [Wikipedia]

 

Susan Tepper: If you had birthed sons, rather than your two lovely daughters, would you still have written “The NIGHT RAINBOW”?

Claire King: What an interesting question, Susan. Nobody has ever asked me that before.

Your question talks to the personal experiences I have had which inform the themes I choose to write about (I’m assuming). Many of the characters and themes in The Night Rainbow are the negative (in a photographic sense) of my own experiences. So, for example, my own experience of being mothered was extremely positive: My mother is one of the strongest people I know, in terms of her ability to put caring for others above her own suffering, even in a very oppressive environment. Joanna, the mother in The Night Rainbow, turns that paradigm on its head. Not only is she unable to cope, but her surroundings are, by contrast, seemingly idyllic. 

There are, however, experiences which directly inform the story, and these admittedly would include my experience as a mother.

So to answer your question about birthing sons. I’m certain that The Night Rainbow in some form would still have emerged. Up until the moment of having children, my life experience would have been the same, and it’s sure that the first 33 years of my life count for a lot in the novel I chose to write. Would the protagonist still have been a 5 year old girl rather than a five year old boy? I don’t know. 

My own daughters have very different characters, and I can’t say that either one is particularly masculine or feminine. I’m not even sure if that is a distinction I would draw with anyone’s character. They are both highly interested in the world around them, which for us, often, is the natural world. I suspect that if I had had boys they would have been the same. But they would have been different people, so who can tell?

And all children, for sure, need parental love, and can be resourceful if that is somehow missing from their lives. The Night Rainbow really isn’t about being a little girl, it’s about being part of a complex, sometimes unfathomable world of human complications.

ST: Do you feel Maman (as she is called in the book) is a manipulative mother?

CK: Every reader has a different take on Maman. People have written to tell me that she is despicable, that her behaviour is unforgivable, how they dislike her. Others have written to say how much they identified with her and the battles she is fighting. That they wanted to help her as much as they wanted to help Pea. Each reader brings their own experiences and perspectives to the table and it will colour how they judge this character. 

ST: Absolutely. I personally felt for the mother, perhaps because of having grown up in a large Italian extended family where dramas of one sort or another were an everyday occurrence.

CK: I have my own points of view, which you can probably glimpse in Pea’s narration, but I’m not sure they are important. I did not intentionally write Maman to be manipulative, but that doesn’t mean that some readers won’t see that in her behaviour.

ST: Would this be an entirely different story had it been told in an urban setting?

CK: I read the novel Clay by Melissa Harrison this year. Each of our stories has a young child as a central protagonist. In each the child is missing parental love and attention. And in each the child turns to an adult man, a stranger, to meet those needs. In Melissa’s story the child is a boy and the setting is a depressed, inner city apartment block. I mention this because, regardless of the setting, many people have drawn parallels between our two stories.

Both certainly look to show the strength and tenacity of children in difficult circumstances. Both treat loneliness. In The Night Rainbow, Maman and Pea (and Claude) are isolated both physically and emotionally. In Clay, the characters suffer similarly, despite living in the midst of a city.

I chose a bucolic setting for The Night Rainbow for two reasons. The first was to allow the reader to live with Pea for a while in a seemingly idyllic landscape – a long hot summer with meadows to explore, streams to paddle in and fresh peaches to eat. I wanted readers to feel the magic of the place through a child’s eyes, whilst still appreciating the threatening aspects we can only see as adults. My other motivation was to explore how human struggles and tragedy can sometimes overshadow even the bluest of skies.

I don’t believe this would have been an entirely different story had I set it against an urban backdrop, but I think it would have been relentlessly dark, and possibly lacking in dimension.

ST: I believe the bucolic setting you chose was the perfect one for the story you chose to write in The Night Rainbow. Even your title— a bright rainbow in the night’s darkness that seems to cradle the book in an arcing sweep of colored bands. A beautiful book and highly recommended.

_______________________

 Susan-Tepper200w

Susan 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 2013, 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

by Aliza Greenblatt

JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre. His story, Speed Demon And Clockwork Dancer, was the top story at Every Day Fiction for October.

Aliza Greenblatt: I’m always curious about how writers’ daylight careers affect their stories. According to your website you are a US Army veteran and have worked as a farmer, air traffic controller, and auto mechanic. Do influences of your previous careers often find their way into your fiction?

JR Hume: Yes. For instance when I write about soldiers it’s easy to get the details correct. Likewise, my knowledge of farming, automobiles, and aircraft make it simpler for me to write stories involving those things. I’m now retired so, in theory, I have more time to write. Somehow that hasn’t been working out.

AG: You’ve also written a few military science fiction novels. Are any of your short stories ever off-shoots of the worlds and characters in your novels? Or do you treat your short fiction as a reprieve from the novels?

JRH: Short stories, especially flash fiction usually stands on its own. The ideas for flash fiction tend to start with simple things, often no more complex than a catchy title. “Tears of the Android” and “The Last Station” sprang from a desire to show how our humanity could survive even when we are no longer organic in nature. “Dust on the Sun” tried to show how even a hostile environment, like Mars, could become “home” to those living there. “Genesis” had its beginning in the one-word title and my own curiosity about genetics: could a clone inherit murderous tendencies?

Flash fiction is a pleasure to write even though the format requires extreme brevity. It’s a lot more fun to write a thousand word story than to slave over a 100,000 word novel. :)

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

JRH: Chaos. Speed Demon, for instance, sprang into being about four years ago, but I was never completely happy with it until I’d rewritten and edited it several times. That’s not usual. For flash fiction I make notes relating to ideas, then at some entirely random time I’ll sit down and write the thing, often straying very far from my original plan. Experience has taught me to lay the finished product aside for at least a few days and then do a final edit before submitting it. Longer fiction is more difficult and time consuming, but follows a similar path, except I try to be more organized when working on a long story or novel.

AG: I loved how Speed Demon pitied the engineers because they could not spend all their time riding the tracks like he did. But, the whole story is shaped by limited perspectives of each character. What were some of the advantages of working with such a perspective? What were some of the challenges?

JRH: Flash fiction establishes many limits. In the case of Speed Demon, his perspective was very narrow at first, broadening as he learned from his environment, but still limited. Other characters, like the engineers had to be spear carriers appearing only briefly due to the length restriction of the flash format. Also, the story’s focus was his love for Clockwork Dancer, which imposed more limits on scope, but also allowed me to concentrate on that love.

AG: Throughout the story, the Speed Demon struggled to express his love for the Clockwork Dancer. It was only when they were being destroyed that they could communicate clearly and express their love in words. As a reader, I wondered whether their love would endure in the next form they took or like their bodies, it was just meant for the time they were made in?

JRH: I envision Speed Demon and Clockwork Dancer clinging to one another throughout the smelting process and living on in some finished project, such as in a bridge girder or the hull of a ship. Hah! That would be a ship that really did have a soul. Two of them.

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?

JRH: My two military SF novels, Gehenna Station and Pawn’s Gambit are both available on Kindle and Nook as well as in regular ebook format at Booklocker.com. I have some short stories posted at my website: www.jrhume.com. I will be releasing a collection including some of my published flash fiction and other stories within a few months.

I am working on half a dozen flash fiction tales — in my usual chaotic manner. Some will eventually end up in EDF slush. One of my long-term projects is Pursuit Pilot, a WW2 novel set in the Southwest Pacific theater during the early months of the war. Other possible novels include a couple Western-themed stories and at least one fantasy. As usual, I also still commit poetry on occasion and write stuff that fits into no particular genre.

__________________

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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

If they’re on my bookshelf, eventually I’ll reread them.  Even mysteries.  The pleasure of an old friend, revisited–lingering over paragraphs I should know by heart already–

Then I began seriously writing, myself, instead of just playing around with the thought of, you know, like, maybe, someday being a writer.

Actually writing concentrates the mind wonderfully–to paraphrase a great aphorism.  But once you start paying attention to every word–

Recently I confessed to my son–grieveingly, like a heretic wishing her eyes had stayed closed–that I was finding Asimov dated.

“Lots of people think so, Mom,” he said.

Saved from the pyre!  But why does one author’s work age so badly in fifty years or so, while another is clearly in possession of the alchemist’s stone after two centuries?

Don’t Austen’s people reflect the manners, jargon and prejudices of their time–yet manage to sound like our contemporaries?  Why are Asimov’s lady characters now making me cringe?

I’d loved Asimov’s short story “The Ugly Little Boy” since my adolescence, and I recently read it again, and it’s just ruined for me.  Wish I could roll back time.

Asimov’s protagonist, Edith Fellowes, is willing to risk the unknown terrors of existence back in prehistory for the sake of a little boy whom she’s come to love as her own.

She is a true heroine–that dreadfully misused word often just signifying “main character.”  But Edith shows courage far beyond a willingness to die for someone.  We’re all going to die, sooner or later, regardless of the choices we make.  Edith has the guts to face life in an utterly unknown landscape she’s not even minimally prepared for.  Yes–she’s a trained nurse–but she’s heading into Neanderthal times without even a Swiss Army knife in her pocket (no time to grab a sturdy pair of hiking boots, either.)

How does Asimov portray this woman who has discovered within herself a boundless capacity to love?  As an awkward, frustrated spinster (that word should be burned at the stake) whose romantic prospects are so grim, what could she lose by hurling herself in front of a tribe of cavemen?

In this story, Asimov manages simultaneously to portray the ultimate definition of “human being”–and to denigrate women in the silliest way.

Austen’s novels get to the heart of the human condition–which clearly isn’t ever going to change, based on, say, yet another evening with Shakespeare–and Asimov, too often, reveals in himself the contempt of a smaller window of time.

I try to capture the first circumstance in my own sci-fi writing–the primeval nature of inter-human conflict that survives every technological innovation.

And I revisit fairy tales because they still pulsate with dark truths that never–for me–become tiresome.

___________________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

by Jim Harringtonjimharrington2

The inciting incident is the event that causes the protagonist to act. In a police procedural, a crime is committed—usually a murder. Once the crime takes place, the detective’s goal is to find the criminal and bring the person to justice. In a romance novel, the inciting incident may be a desire to learn more about someone based on a chance encounter. In a suspense story, someone threatens to do something that will cause great harm. The protagonist’s goal is to stop the person. In a literary story, a woman faces a life after divorce. The inciting incident may be the signing of the final papers ending her marriage. In each of these examples, a character is required to act. Well, I suppose they don’t have to, but then where’s the story?

In a flash story, the inciting incident often takes place before the piece begins. Here’s an example…

The Robber’s Fiancee

by Jim Harrington

First published in Static Movement

Dressed in a jogging suit, her hair damp from the shower, Inocencia sits on the sofa in her parents’ guest house and lays her head on Javier’s bare shoulder.

“I thought you loved me,” she says.

“I do,” Javier replies.

“Clareta says she heard you telling your friends you would have the drugs for the party Saturday night.” A purple­tipped finger traces a vein on his leg.

“Am I going to this party, or just my father’s drugs?”

Javier sits her up and turns her to face him. “Of course, you’re coming to the party.”

“There may not be a party,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Javier turns at the sound of the door opening. Inocencia’s father enters, followed by two men each twice Javier’s size.

“Did you think I wouldn’t tell Daddy?”

What is the inciting incident in “The Robber’s Fiancee?” It’s an event that happens prior to this scene. Figured it out yet? It’s Inocencia’s conversation with Clareta. That’s the event that causes Inocencia to confront Javier.  It’s important to know what causes your main character to act in order to understand what the story is about and where it should start. As I stated above, in flash, this inciting incident often occurs before the reader is invited to join in. If the event happens within the story, it should take place as soon as possible, preferably in the opening paragraph. The word limitations imposed by flash don’t allow for a long build­up.

Character arc is something else editors look for in a story. They want a tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. One where a character changes is some way. Is there a character arc in “The Robber’s Fiancee?” Does the story have a beginning, middle and end?

I submit all of these elements are part of the overall story but many aspects are left for the reader to discern. After all, flash is a shared happening between the writer and the reader. Right? Unlike a novel or short story, the author doesn’t have the time (i.e., word count) to spoon feed the reader every detail of a story.

Here’s how I see “The Robber’s Fiancee.”

The beginning: Javier and Inocencia are a couple in love with plans to marry.  They’re spending some alone­time in her parents’ guest house.  The middle: Inocencia and Clareta have a conversation that makes Inocencia doubt Javier’s love. She tells her father what’s about to happen.  The end: Inocencia confronts Javier and the father shows up to address the situation.

In my scenario, the beginning and middle happen before the reader joins in. The fact the couple is in love is implied by the title. The opening places them alone in the guest house and infers they may have made love—she’s had a shower, his shoulder and leg are bare. Or maybe they recently returned from jogging or playing tennis. I leave that detail for the reader to decide. The specific activity isn’t important to the story.  The conversation with Clareta is mentioned in the story. It’s important to do so because this is what causes a change in Inocencia. After hearing what Clareta has to say, Inocencia begins to doubt Javier’s love and decides to let her father know what’s going on as a way to get revenge. The reader isn’t a direct part of either of these conversations and doesn’t need to be. Why include boring conversations? Why not get right to the action—in media res, as I’ve seen suggested many times?

So is this a complete story? In my mind, yes. All of the elements of a beginning, a middle and an end are contained in the tale. Part of the challenge of writing flash is to provide only those pieces of information needed for the reader to be a partner in how the story turns out. And it’s okay in many instances if readers come to different conclusions. What happens to Javier in the end? Does the father present him with a pair of cement boots to test in the ocean? Does he order Javier beaten? Does Javier talk his way out of the situation? I leave that to the reader to decided. This is not a technique that is specific to this story. Have you ever read “The Lady or The Tiger” by Frank Stockton?

Now go back and read a piece of flash that you didn’t consider to be a complete story and see if there are pieces of the puzzle the author left for you, the reader, to discover on your own. I bet they’re there if you look closely.

__________________________

Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears,  Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

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