INSPIRATION


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar Sarah Akhtar

Can sophisticated palates coexist with a hankering after Cheez Whiz™ on white? Mais oui, dude.

Popular fiction can be great—even superb, like a freshly-made soup from a good deli department—and be worth more of your money and your time than anything the cognoscenti might be touting.

I’ll take John Le Carré, Elmore Leonard or Eric Ambler over most literary prize-winning authors any day. I like something I can get my teeth into and savor, without vaporously yearning characters spouting five hundred pages of angst. I admire authors who can make every word of spare lean prose do the heavy lifting where someone else might inflict a fifty-sentence paragraph on me.

And I’m not ashamed of enjoying a well-worn Agatha Christie paperback either.

There’s some stuff, though, that I can’t choke down even if I’m climbing the walls for something—anything! to read. There’s Cheez Whiz™, and then there’s Cheetos™, and even with a rumbling stomach I find that there is a junk food too far.

A lucky few writers have become very, very rich from truly awful books. And with tears in my eyes and a ragged throat I cry “more power to them,” even if I find it more pleasurable to read the text on an orange juice carton than a chapter in any of their works.

What does all of this mean?

Before you can write bad stuff for big profit, you need to learn how to write well.

You need to know the difference between a commercial decision and an inability to produce good prose.

Publishers are always looking for their new blockbuster flagship author. There’s plenty of competition. They don’t have time to deal with amateurs who think it’s got to be easy to do a knock-off of Mary Higgins Clark. They want professionals who can grasp not just that something sells, but why. Who can write to an editor’s request or a division’s need.

Fellow readers often respond to my critiques on comments threads as though I’m Attila the Hun’s cranky sister. Why must I be so picky? Yeah, someone’ll say, the story had a few holes in it but heck, I gave it five stars anyway!

That’s a fine way of encouraging a young, hopeful writer not to get any better.

Maybe this is your first publication, or your third, and your critique circle and your MFA instructor have all been incredibly encouraging, and finally you can call yourself an author. And now all these readers out there are patting you on the head. Except for the mean one who’s managed to find an absurdity or some slightly overheated prose, and call you on them.

People read stories for a lot of reasons, all of them equally valid. Some just want a quick entertainment that hits the mood of the moment. Some hope for something memorable and moving. Others are trying to refine their own craft, and the story and the reactions to it are both valuable.

For real writing success, you need to know what’s good, what’s bad, and why, and then reach for the audience that suits you best.

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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, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

 

by Aliza Greenblatt

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Amy Sisson is a writer, book reviewer, crazy cat lady, and former librarian. Her fiction ranges from Star Trek work for Pocket Books to the short stories in her Unlikely Patron Saints series, which have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Toasted Cake podcast site. She enjoys making artist trading cards, studying German and Japanese, attending Houston Ballet performances, and traveling with her husband, Paul Abell. Her story, On Not Noticing a Bear, was EDF’s top story for December

Aliza Greenblatt: I’m going to start this interview with an assumption so, correct me if I’m wrong, but if I read your blog correctly you started off as an avid reader (and still are) and picked up writing later. When did you decide to become a writer? Was there one particular story or moment for you?

Amy Sisson: In college I double-majored in English and Economics: English because I was thrilled that I could get a degree by simply reading books and then saying what I thought about them, and Economics to try and be a little more practical. In my junior year, I got it into my head that I wanted the “romantic” writer’s life—I thought I would strike forth on my own to live on the other side of the country, work odd jobs while I polished my masterpieces, and so on. (I may have been on a John Steinbeck kick at the time.) But I found out that I really didn’t have that much to say in my stories just yet.

I never gave up the idea of being a writer, but I decided to get a graduate degree in Space Studies, both so I could get a decent day job in that field and to gain some background knowledge for writing science fiction. Later I also got a library degree. None of that was my original plan, but now I can’t imagine a different path to my writing.

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

AS: For me, most stories start with voice. Sometimes I know what the voice will be ahead of time, and other times I just type a first sentence and let the voice decide itself. I’ll admit that I’m not one of those writers who have fifty different ideas to work with at any given time—ideas that are big enough to become complete stories are really hard for me to develop.

The process for every story is different. A few of my stories seemed to just write themselves in a few hours, but on the other end of the spectrum, I have one story that I worked on over the course of fourteen years! The end result has very little resemblance to the story I started with, but I think it has ended up being one of my best, and I’m currently sending it out to markets.

AG: I really liked the versatility of this story. On one hand, it felt like a children’s fable but there were also deep undercurrents of adulthood worries, such as workplace unhappiness and loneliness. Was that your intent or did you have a particular audience in mind for this story?

AS: On Not Noticing a Bear is based on one of my favorite James Christensen paintings, which is literally titled Lawrence Pretended Not to Notice that a Bear Had Become Attached to His Coattail (Google for the image “lawrence notice bear” and it will come right up). It hangs over my piano and it was the most natural thing in the world to write about why that silly little man might try so hard to ignore the bear. And of course I wanted them both to have a happy ending. Oddly enough, my other Every Day Fiction story, The Lion Tamer’s Sock, is also based on a Christensen painting and it also has to do with a companion animal and with getting out of a rut.

AG: The thing that drew me into the story immediately was its voice. How did you develop it? (Or did it find you?) Was it a challenge to maintain the storytelling style within the flash fiction length?

AS: This was one of those stories that I started with a sentence and it just flowed from there. The original version was actually 1500 words, but I realized that I could take it down to flash length without losing anything important. I also think that this sort of affected writing style works best with flash fiction, because you don’t want the reader to get tired of the voice before they reach the end of the story.

AG: Can you tell us a bit about your Unlikely Patron Saints Series? Are you still adding stories to the collection?

AS: This series of stories is about little miracles, and people who discover they’re meant to protect some unlikely group of creatures or people through some small magic. The first one I wrote was about city squirrels, because I was in library school at the time and there were so many squirrels on the downtown campus that I was always petrified I would see one get hit by a car. So I made up someone to protect them. I called that one number three in the series even though it was the only one I’d written, as a way trick myself into eventually writing more of them. I’ve had four stories in the series published in different venues, a few more still unpublished, and a frame story to go around them for an eventual collection. I think I’m likely to write a few more, but I want them to come naturally instead of trying to force them so I’m in no hurry.

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?

AS: I recently left librarianship to concentrate on writing full-time. My two main goals are to finish a young adult novel (I’m about a quarter of the way through) and to have a minimum number of short stories out looking for a home at any given time.

My favorite of my Patron Saints stories, Fella Down a Hole, is available free in the Strange Horizon archives and as a Toasted Cake podcast. Another one, Minghun, is also available free at Strange Horizons. And Waterfall, a standalone science fiction love story, is available free at Khimairal Ink.

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

__________________

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

Sarah Akhtar

I was musing over a recipe in the newspaper recently, wondering if I should give it a try. And before I knew it, I’d written and submitted a story about two grandmas and the mysteries of time and connectedness and love—you know, all that big cosmic stuff.

Just because of a recipe for orange flan in the New York Times!

It’s taken me a long time to vanquish the terror that used to come with finishing a story—the absolute conviction that this would be the last one ever—that I’d never be able to come up with another worthwhile plot again.

One of the cheeriest things to come out of the writing life, for me, is learning that there’s no such thing as wasting time. Everything you do has to do with writing.

Writing is all about how we feel about…everything. Plot, technique—these are tools we use to make sense of what we experience. Anything—really anything—can set off the wondrous chain reaction leading to a story that’ll make you sit back in amazement and say, “I wrote that!”

We’re told, over and over again, that we must be busy and productive all the time. Writers begin to think that their value is measured by the number of words they churn out in a day; the number of submissions they achieve in a month.

To me, “multi-tasking” is one of the vilest words in modern vocabulary.

Give yourself time. Notice everything, with pleasure or bemusement or pain. Let all of it simmer quietly inside you, like a good rich stew.

When it’s ready to ladle out, you’ll know.

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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, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Jim Harrington

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I began writing fiction in January of 2007. In October of 2008, I created a blog where I posted a quote and then wrote about what the quote meant to me as a writer. Honestly, the daily posts were intended for myself. They were a way to force me to think about each quote and how it might change my writing. If people reading my comments gained from them, so much the better. I’m going to post a few of these as I wrote them—even if feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Here’s today’s article.

***

Fugedaboudit (first published 2/15/10)

Forget symbolism, forget literary theory, put aside your desire to be anthologized. Tell the most authentic story you can, with as much attention and sensitivity to life as you can muster. — Randall Silvis Write to Connect With Readers. [The Writer, January 2010]

It’s all about the story.

Beginning writers, and those somewhat beyond the beginning stage, struggle to find their writing voice. Sometimes the struggle is such that the writer stops writing. In other cases, writers attempt to copy voices from novels and short stories they like. My guess is this doesn’t work out very well. Understanding how a writer writes and being inside the writer’s head when he does are two separate things.

I don’t remember struggling with voice. I probably did. It’s always been about the story with me. If a piece failed, it wasn’t because of the voice. No, it was because I wasn’t invested enough in what happened to the character to be able to write the tale.

I like today’s quote. Why? Because it tells it like it is. Forget about similes and metaphors. Forget about writing “fancy” prose. Forget about getting published and being famous. Just write the story. If the writing is good and true to the characters, the rest will take care of itself.

______________________

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.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.

____________

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, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

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