GENRE


by Gloria Garfunkel

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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 James Claffey

James Claffey2

Growing up in an Irish home, poetry was always in the air. An aunt recited, “Maisie, Maisie, give me your answer do,” and my mother crooned, “Up the airy mountain, / Down the rushy glen…” and at school it was Padraig Colum’s “The Drover,” and, “To Meath of the pastures, / From wet hills by the sea, / Through Leitrim and Longford, / Go my cattle and me…” Even now, decades later, working on my own books and stories; the musical language of home and childhood and poetry infiltrates everything I write.

My wife is a poet, a painter, a writer, and one of the most creative souls I’ve ever met. From her I discovered the secret to writing—an unerring ability to write with not a care at all for the thoughts of editors, or other gatekeepers. Her poetry astonished me when I first met her: “Upon searching for a body, she will find herself.” She showed me that words can be fractured things, awkwardly spliced and stitched together. Not that my own exposure to Hopkins’ sprung rhythm didn’t alert me to some fierce capsizing of language, words like hoven chunks of glacier floating in some frozen sea. Still, her bookshelves made mine look extraordinarily pedestrian.

Not any more. My shelves contain Ben Lerner, Andrei Codrescu, Marthe Reed, Kathy Wagner, Ariane Reines, Martha Rosler, Kate Eichorn, and Kenneth Goldsmith, amongst others. Now, I read madness on pages of gritty creative writing as the hummingbirds zip about the bush outside my office window. All these words from obscure and known names have allowed me to dispense with standard writing form in my flash fiction. Mostly, I write surreal pieces that are more prose poem than traditional narrative. I weave pieces of eight and found flicker feathers into words, tapestries of trapped moments from dog walks on nearby hills, or by the coastline with the Channel Islands in the mist.

How this poetic influence improves my flash fiction is unclear. I’m guessing the way poets chisel away the unnecessary words, always searching for the most precise and perfect turn of phrase, is influential when it comes to writing short fiction. I go over and over any new writing searching for repetitiveness, for over-use of certain phrases, for redundancies in the writing. Having read so much poetry, I am aware of the importance of shape and form to a piece of writing. Many of the flash fiction pieces I write fit into a certain form; some being one long sentence, unpunctuated, and others being prose bookended in a particular way by a turn of phrase, or a particular image. Reading poetry and seeing how some poets use the white space provides inspiration to me when I sit down to a new project and have a desire to create something fresh on the page. Even how the physical shape of the piece looks is influenced by my consumption of poetry. Though, when I’m asked to describe my writing, I steer clear of saying it’s poetry.

Of course, “You’re a poet,” my wife frequently says to me. I balk, though not so much anymore. In a way, my being Irish stops me from claiming my truth. Growing up in Dublin—around the corner, literally, from James Joyce’s birthplace, and up the road from George Russell’s house, where WB Yeats used to visit on occasion—it takes some temerity to claim I’m a writer. We are all storytellers, and some of us write those stories down, and even fewer of us get to publish those stories, and fewer still enter the lexicon as the aforementioned poets have, so I have a hard time putting labels on my writing, and on my writing self. And every time I look up from my writing desk I am confronted by a wonderful hand-made concertina-like poem by Ambar Past in Chiapas, MX. I find deep inspiration in the beauty of her poem, Dedicatorias, and seeing it, pushes me on to write deeper and deeper from the heart, to find the poetry in everyday life and insert it into my flash fiction.

So, when I sit down to write, the words and the rhythm and the musicality are important to me. I want to know there’s some sort of a “poetic” flow to what I write, even in my most traditional fiction. I find direction in the old, remembered words of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” My desire is that my writing contains some form of the unheard, an aspect that the reader can’t put a finger on, but that is there, an undercurrent of sorts, and that current is the one that harkens back to the poetry of childhood and my mother’s voice delivering poem after poem from memory.

I carried on that tradition with my daughter, Maisie, when she was in the womb. Each night I’d quote William Allingham’s The Fairies, to her, and even today, nearing her third birthday, I can recite the poem and her little voice joins in with the words she heard before her birth. Strange thing is, I’ve never recited the poem to her post-birth. And that’s probably why poetry is so important to me as a writer, in that it informs and colors every aspect of my life, whether it’s as a father, a teacher, or a writer.

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Writer James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.

 

 

by Gay Degani

Michelle Elvy

 Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand and currently sailing in Southeast Asia aboard Momo. She edits at Blue Five Notebook, Flash Frontier and Awkword Paper Cut, where she also curates the Writers on Writing column. She is an Associate Editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015), and has guest edited at Smokelong Quarterly and lent her reading eye to a number of competitions. Her poetry, flash, nonfiction and reviews can be found in numerous journals, most recently in JMWW, Word Riot, The Linnet’s Wings, Takahē, Ika, Html Giant and PANK. More at michelleelvy.com and Glow Worm.

Gay Degani: Somewhere on the Flash Fiction Day site or your own blog spot, I saw this quotation: “Because life is short. And so is some of the best fiction.”I love that. Are you the founder of National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand or is there a group who decided to launch this enterprise?

Flag_of_New_Zealand Michelle Elvy: I am the founder. National Flash Fiction Day was born on the road between Northland and Auckland one day in early 2012. I had tremendous support in the first two years from Sian Williams, who also was the first co-editor at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction. Since 2012, National Flash Fiction Day has grown, and we now have a committee of five in our creative brain trust, covering the whole country and making it a truly national project – from Northland to Auckland to Wellington to Christchurch.

That quote – our tag-line for NFFD – came flying out of my mouth one day and stuck. I like the idea that some of the best things in life come in small packages.

GD: You say that National Flash Fiction Day has grown.  Can you talk a little about some of the things you’re doing to make this “celebration” fun and informative?

ME: It feels like a grassroots kind of thing, growing from one starting point and spreading out from there. I hatched the idea, sure, and I still run the national competition and serve as a central contact point for the various events around the county, but in the last three years, NFFD has become a celebration within smaller writing communities as well, so there is both a national component as well as a local rallying around flash every June, with regional activities and competitions as well.

During our first year, we were mainly Auckland-based. This year, we saw three events occur simultaneously in our three main cities, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. The success of those events was hugely due to the organizers on the ground in each place. I helped co-ordinate from afar, but all went smoothly with our regional co-ordinators taking charge. Our two judges this year were from Wellington and Christchurch, respectively, so they were able to extend their congratulations in a personal manner.

We put a lot of effort into running the national competition as smoothly as possible and lining up details so the winners would be announced at all three events simultaneously. It is quite a lot of work, since it’s not only a national competition occurring online, but a series of real events with readers, judges, readings, prizes, celebrations, etc. I’m grateful for the people who make it happen as it grows bigger and more complex each year.

GD: What is your definition of flash fiction?

ME: Flash fiction is a complete story (emphasis on complete) compacted down to a tiny space – the space of a page or the palm of your hand. A good flash story contains the essentials, and then something else too – something that is often hard to put your finger on but that makes the story feel full, even if the word count is sparse.

GD: What are some of the wrong assumptions new writers make about flash?

ME: Here are five quick notes. I offer more at The Lascaux Review.

  • Flash is not accomplished in broad strokes and it’s not for the lazy writer. It’s an extreme sport, requiring extreme attention to detail and intense concentration.
  • It is not a venue for dumping your emotions, and it’s not merely a vignette. The best flash contains a subtlety and intricacy that reads like poetry.
  • Humor is wonderful in flash, but leave the gimmicks out. Flash is not about the gotcha moment or the aha ending.
  • You can’t cut corners just because it’s short.
  • Writing with an economy of words is hard work. Don’t be fooled by writers who make it look easy. Flash requires as much editing as longer works.

GD: Who are some of the best Kiwi writers of flash?  Can you provide links?

ME: At the top of my list are Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe. As an Associate Editor for the forthcoming collection of international flash (W.W. Norton 2015), I’ve had the honor of reading an enormous number of talented flash writers from around the world – and was pleased to see two New Zealand writers in the final table of contents. Both have been involved in the National Flash Fiction Day campaign (McMillan as one of our 2014 judges and Norcliffe as a member of our central committee).

I like the way McMillan’s story “Truthful Lies” (selected for the Norton anthology) handles emotional depth with a sense of control and detachment (read it here).Norcliffe writes with breakneck speed and wit (and clever dialogue that hits you sideways) in colorful, delicious prose. “Kissing the Sky,” originally published in Sport, can be found here, and was later anthologized by Richard Peabody in Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix.

Another Kiwi writer I admire for stories and poetry is Mary McCallum, the other judge of the 2014 NFFD competition (you can read her story “Dead Space” here). Other writers I should mention from this year’s competition are the top three winners – all of whom you can read in a special issue of Flash Frontier. I admit that I’m especially fond of the way Patricia Hanifin plays so cleverly with Charlie Brown themes in the second place story.

Flash has been on the rise in New Zealand, made accessible first by the anthologies assembled in the 1990s by writer/editor Graeme Lay. These books provide a good foundational introduction to the short short form in NZ writing, and include nationally recognized writers such as Kevin Ireland, Vincent O’Sullivan, Witi Ihimaera, Frank Sargeson and Patricia Grace, as well as many others. Many newcomers now play with the genre, some quite experimentally. Take Reuben Todd, for example, whose story “Miri” (long-listed in this year’s NFFD comp; scroll down the page and read it here) tickles me each time I read it.

I’m also a fan of Elizabeth Welsh’s writing. She can be found in the June Flash Special at Blue Five Notebook(which includes, coincidentally, Mary McCallum as well, plus a handful of US writers). Other NZ writers whose work has stood out recently at Flash Frontier and/or Blue Five Notebook include Nod Ghosh, Rebecca Simons, DR Jones, Kate Mahony, Janet Pates, Mike Crowl, Alex Reece-Abbott, Jane Swan, Raewyn Alexander, and Celine Gibson. There are many more – too many to name here. It’s a small country with plenty of writers packing a solid punch.

For excellent and current writers of flash, I recommend Flash Frontier (naturally), as it’s the only zine in NZ dedicated to the craft of writing extremely short prose. Some of our issues are focused entirely on Kiwi writers, like our scattered issue from April 2014, guest edited by James George, and dedicated to Auckland writer, Miles Hughes, who passed away in February. Then there are the international issues, such as June’s sugar issue and the forthcoming September falling issue, guest edited by Christopher Allen. In each edition, there’s a real diversity of writers tackling one theme – playing the game with a good deal of enthusiasm and discipline.

GD: How did you discover flash?  Can you give us links to one or two of your stories?

In 2010, I had been working on several longer projects and also travel articles written as a part of our sailing routes around the Pacific – and I wanted to shift focus in my discipline, to drill down to each word. Also, I wanted to push myself to write more creatively, to experiment beyond my comfort zone. I set up a challenge for myself: to write a story a week for a year, and to limit the word count to 250.

I shared this idea with high school pal (and present-day writing instructor) John Chapin, and he said – quite unsolicited: “I’m in.” We set up a website and called it 52|250: A Year of Flash (52 weeks, 250 words every week). And the rest followed: in a very short time, John and I found ourselves in the middle of a wonderful writing community, with nearly 200 people participating in the project. Soon Walter Bjorkman came on board and helped manage the website, which grew in complexity every week: more contributors, more reading, more editing – alongside our stories every single week.

That discipline – writing a story a week for a year – seemed to fit my life so well. This love I feel for small things – sometimes subtle, sometimes explosive – is an extension of my own reality. Seeing the world in my slow-travel way as we meander around the world on our sailboat (Momo has been our home for eleven years), taking life in small doses, glimpsing reality a day at a time: flash fiction fits.

Incidentally, the novel and the travel writing still happen, but flash is deeply embedded in my heart, and the things I’ve learned from focusing on flash have changed the way I write, read, and edit.

As for my own work, a story written for the 52|250 challenge and read on Radio New Zealand in conjunction with National Flash Fiction Day in 2012 is “Nothing Happens at Sea.” The sea figures rather centrally in my world. Another more recent one – originally longer, but tweaked into a 1000-word experiment and presently under consideration by an editor I greatly admire – is “Cornfield,” which is decidedly different in tone and pacing than my little sea story.

And yet… it’s an unlikely sea story, too, because, well, there’s Cape Horn right in the middle of that mess, and it’s the opening chapter of the series I wrote for the  2014: A Year in Stories project (a project where our paths cross, Gay!). The 2014 project has been a wonderful inspiration for me, along with other things in the works, because it has also offered a set of guidelines steering the work over the course of a year and unleashed larger things in my writing track. For me, in fact, 2014: A Year in Stories feels akin to 52|250: A Year of Flash – and I’m grateful for both.

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gay deganifor WCB choice 3Gay Degani has published fiction on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, is live in serialized format at Every Day Novels. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

 

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

Slipstream is one of the newest and most indefinable sub-genres to gain notice in the science fiction universe. According to some literary observers, it has been there since the beginning,

Considering the uneasy reception of Bradbury’s work by purist critics of SF, The Martian Chronicles could be said to exemplify what today is referred to as slipstream…From the moment of its naming SF has always had its slipstream—a steady line of texts that failed to contain themselves within the envisioned borders of the genre. – Paveł Frelik

Flash Fiction Chronicles contacted E. S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, to find out more about this intriguing sub-genre.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: How would you define slipstream as a genre?

2523121E. S. Wynn: When defining slipstream as a genre, it’s important to be vague. As soon as you try to tack down, pigeonhole, or apply rules to set the boundaries of slipstream, you kill all of the potential it has to really soar. Slipstream is anything and everything. It’s Dungeons and Dragons meets Dragnet. It’s angels and cyberpunks. It’s Kafka, Lovecraft, Asimov and Anne McCaffrey all rolled into one story. It’s cosmonauts and argonauts teaming up to battle Huguenots in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. It has no bounds, it slips between the streams, and the weirder it is, the more your fans will (probably) love it.

FFC: What do readers come to this genre for?

ESW: Slipstream is fresh. It’s new, it’s the final frontier. It’s the place where other writers have never dared to go. That’s what makes it good. That’s what fans of the genre look for. Newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.

FFC: Complete this sentence: Slipstream is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to_____

ESW: Slipsteam is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to mix otherwise incongruous elements into a fruity cocktail drink as potent as a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

FFC: What are the most common pitfalls when writing slipstream?

ESW: One common pitfall is a writer’s inability to really make things weird. Having a skunk for a pet is not weird. Finding out that the young, buff, handsome CEO crush of your story likes to wear lingerie when he’s alone is not weird. People from other countries than yours are not weird. Talking dogs from alternate dimensions that lead people through libraries full of hairy books whose knowledge can only be smelled, not seen– that’s weird. The basic premise can be as mundane as Michener, but the story itself won’t be slipstream unless the imagery and the meat are all outside the conventions of multiple genres.

Also (it doesn’t happen often) but the story can’t be too weird. Stay with me– if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time. The weird is important, but it must make sense.

FFC: What difference does it make when the story is 1000 words or fewer?

ESW: All the difference. Writers these days have to compete with the fast pace of television, video games and Youtube. Stories in the 300-500 word range are all that most people think they have time for these days. If you can’t streamline your stories into a box that size, you’ll still find readers, just fewer of them.

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E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books in print and the chief editor of seven online fiction journals, including Smashed Cat Magazine.

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

 

by Julie Duffy

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In this series, we’re taking a ‘back to basics’ look at Genre: what certain genres encompass, what readers look for in a particular genre, how to write well (and terribly) in that genre. We’re talking to writers, editors and publishers to bring you the tools you need to succeed in genre flash fiction.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is big. Really big. Both in terms of audience and the many ways you can write fiction and have it called ‘science fiction’. It is also a mature genre, having come of age in the first half of the 20th century. Since then, its vast audience has had time to form strong opinions about what is and is not science fiction.

“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘what is science fiction,’” warns writer Linda Nagata, with her tongue only partly in her cheek.

The good news is that, with such a large and popular genre, there is room for all flavors of story: from Star Wars-style ‘space opera’, to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘hard’ science fiction, to ‘science fantasy’ time travel tales. Then there’s your post-apocalptic, near-future, military and sociological fiction, not to mention, cross-genre, bizarro and slipstream, all of which can end up under the ‘science fiction’ banner.

Is your head spinning yet?

What Are the Basic Requirements for Science Fiction?

Linda Nagata provided us with a good definition of science fiction,

“Loosely, science fiction is a story that involves some speculative or yet-to-be-invented technology.”

She goes on to qualify this: not every story involving gadgets counts as ‘hard’ science fiction.

“If magic or supernatural elements are present, I think of it as fantasy, even if technology is part of the story.”

The Twilight Zone is an example of this. Many stories revolved around technology, aliens or space travel, but there was never a technological ‘answer’ to the story’s puzzle. The mystery was supernatural, and so, while it appeals to the kind of audience that likes science fiction, The Twilight Zone is more properly called ‘fantasy.’

What Readers Want

Again, let’s remember that genre definitions have more to do with ‘helping the audience find stories they like’ than they do with ‘defining your work.’ With a focus on the reader, it’s easier to see how all these sub-genres fit under ‘Science Fiction.’

Science fiction readers tend to be looking for action (physical or mental), a story that challenges assumptions, and stunning, thought-provoking ‘what ifs.’ At the very minimum, says Nagata, readers will;

“…have a curious mind and be open to stories set in worlds that are not outside our front door.”

Most of all, however, readers want stories about interesting people who are facing up to new challenges (or perhaps old ones) in the face of the technology in the story.

How to Squeeze Science Fiction into Flash

In flash fiction, there is very little room to build a realistic world. Genres and sub-genres can help readers make mental shortcuts and understand what to expect.

“A reader has to have some common shared background with the writer in order to understand what he reads,” adds Mark Budman of Vestal Review. “This background comprises the language, the vocabulary, the experience, the culture, the history.”

Of course, relying too much on a genre’s tropes leads to clichés.

“If you’re seriously interested in writing science fiction,” says Linda Nagata, “you need to be aware of [the] diversity, at the least so you’ll know what the clichés are, and also so that you’ll understand the needs of different story markets. So read widely, and read a lot.”

She suggests that, because of the tightness of flash fiction, science fiction flash writers might rely on standard settings — “a present-day laboratory, a space capsule that has lost power, a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland—something the reader has seen before and can grasp without much explanation.”

Another way to make room for world-building is suggested by Michael Arnzen, flash fiction author and Professor of English at Seton Hall University.

“Start as close to the end as possible. Perhaps we are just one character decision away from an outcome, or one clue away from solving a mystery.”

Both approaches allow you to spend time following the characters through their emotional journeys.

And, to satisfy a science fiction reader, it’s not enough to throw in a bunch of gizmos and technobabble: the events in the story must make sense. Even in the champion-of-weird sub-genre of “slipstream,” the plot (and the technology) must follow the story’s own internal logic.

E.S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, stresses that in slipstream stories;

The weird is important, but it must make sense. Stay with me—if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time.

Just as in any science fiction story, one might say, ‘The science is important, but it must make sense.”

How to Write Science Fiction Badly

As with any genre, the worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. It’s especially true in science fiction. As E. S. Wynn points out;

“Fans of the genre look for…newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.”

The second-worst crime is to unwittingly use clichés that make readers groan. Luckily, this second crime is easily avoided by, as Linda Nagata suggested, reading widely in the genre.

Reading voraciously in your genre also helps you develop a deeper understand of what it means to write in that genre.

“There’s a common misconception,” says Nagata, “that hard science fiction (my specialty) is all about the technology, with little good characterization. That simply isn’t true…the story needs to be about people living in those story worlds and the challenges they face because of the technology around them.”

Without interesting characters facing fascinating challenges, stories in any sub-genre of science fiction flash will fail.

As for the how to end a science fiction flash piece, Mark Budman cautions against “moralizing, clichés, puns for the sake of puns or poorly-executed jokes.”

And with that, I’ll resist the temptation to end this on a pun and simply invite you back next month for the next in our series on Genre.

 ____________

Julie Duffy writes short fiction and is the host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay.org.

 

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