Language


by Jim Harrington

jimharrington2I read a story a few weeks ago that contained the sentence, “He wished he owned a dog.” This may not be the exact sentence, but it’s close enough. I stopped reading when I got there and thought, what a waste.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the author chose the exact right words. I bet not, though.

Why did I think the sentence a waste? The word dog bothered me. Wouldn’t the reader learn more about the character by naming a specific breed of dog? Sure, I know the character likes dogs, as opposed to cats, or goldfish, or parakeets, but why not go for more? Why not write, “He wished he owned a pit bull.” Now, my curiosity is piqued, and I want to continue reading to find out why he wants a pit bull. Of course, the impact of the breed choice depends on the context. Here’s an example.

Shea’s head rose above those of his classmates, like a lone skyscraper hovering over a notched cityscape. He ambled from his classroom to other activities, tilted to one side, his shoulder rubbing against the wall. Mrs. Kelly, his sixth grade teacher, barked at Shea to stand straight. The kids, especially Kevin, teased Shea. Kevin went farther than that. Today, as Kevin approached on the playground, Shea wished he owned a dog.

Okay, there’s the setup. Now, what about the end phrase of that last sentence?

Shea wished he owned a dog. This sounds like Shea is looking for something to distract him from the approaching Kevin. It’s neither positive nor negative in my mind, and tells me little about Shea (other than his pet preference as noted above).

Shea wished he owned a pit bull. Now, I wonder, does Shea want a pit bull for protection? Does he want to train the dog to attack Kevin? Or does Shea think a pit bull will scare Kevin away? Is that all Shea wants? I have an insight into Shea that I want to learn more about. Why a pit bull?

Shea wished he owned a pomeranian. Maybe Shea wants a companion to sit with him in the corner of his room at home. Maybe he wants a small dog he can control, as opposed to Kevin whom Shea can’t. Maybe Shea has more sinister ideas for the dog. Maybe he simply wants an unquestioning friend who will accept him as he is, unlike his school mates. As a reader, I want to know more.

Here’s an example of a wasted verb.

Sara walked toward the street corner. Lots of people walk. What makes Sara different from everyone else walking on the street? If she isn’t, why should the reader care?

Sara struggled to reach the street corner. Why? What happened? Was she shot? Did she trip? Over a body? Is there a strong wind blowing her off balance? Does the wind equate to something else happening in her life? Is she carrying something that’s heavy and/or awkward? Again, a simple change of verb elevates the action and brings the reader into the story.

Being specific in word choice is essential in writing flash. Choose words, especially nouns and verbs, that do more than fill space. Don’t say he wants a dog. Let the reader know what breed of dog. Don’t say she drives a car (or truck, or motorcycle). Be specific. An elderly female driving a Ford Focus provides the reader with a different perspective on the character than an elderly woman who zooms into a parking lot driving a Corvette. With flash, the writer has a limited number of words to work with. Don’t waste them.

Here’s a challenge if you dare attempt it. Select one or two sentences from a story you’re currently working on and underline all the verbs and nouns. Now change them to words that are vibrant and challenging to the reader. Use words like struggled instead of walked and pit bull instead of dog. When you’re done, feel free to share the original sentence and the improved one in the comments section. WARNING: Don’t change words for the sake of change. Change words because they improve the reading experience.

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 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.

Bill Wardby Bill Ward

I’m a lot of different people — I’m a selfish urbanite looking for a fix in a dystopian near future, and a scared middle aged employee of a junkyard that is pretty sure something unnatural is out to get him, so too am I the drunken challenger to the greatest swordsmen who ever lived, and a confused animal given artificial intelligence. What I’m not — I hope — is just a guy clacking keys on a keyboard, because if you hear those keys click-clacking over what I’m really trying to say, then I’ve failed my job as a storyteller.

Flash is the perfect vehicle for experimentation, and specifically experimentation in voice, for several reasons. Firstly, it is a medium that lends itself well to play and risk-taking because it does not require a large investment of time. Did your slangy dialect flash turn out to be an impenetrable mess? No problem, bury it in the hard drive and bring it out on rainy days for a chuckle, after all you wrote it in less than an hour. Did the 1,000 word stream-of-consciousness story meant to evoke the internal dialog of a madman come across more like a lame derivative of every other story of its kind that you’ve ever read? Hardly a big deal, no one need read it, not even you — if it’s really that bad, hit the DELETE key and admire your own ruthlessness.

Beyond the potentially disposable nature of exercises in flash fiction, you also have the delicious constraints of the medium. Of course, we know that flash has to be tightly written and as concise as possible, ideally with every word chosen for effect. Operating under such limits it would be a shame to write plainly, at least in every case, when instead one can use language to evoke mood or construct character. This is the second reason why flash rewards experimentation in voice.

However, ‘voice’ can mean many things. There is an author’s voice, his style, which mostly means the way he uses words; his quirks of diction, syntax, and punctuation, and really almost anything else about his work that lends it a recognizable quality. This is essentially unconscious and hard to change or embellish — which is reason enough not to worry all that much about it.

Instead of voice I like to think of many different voices, those tricks of style that are as different from story to story as the characters, themes, and settings of each piece. Different because they are integral, indivisible parts of the story itself, whether they are the actual words of a first person tale or the differences in cadence and inflection in a third person narrative, there is no excuse not to bring a conscious mind to the creation of these voices. Especially, as I’ve said, in flash fiction where to fail to do so is to write without one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s arsenal.

How do you do it? Well, in one sense you just do. You get in the head of your characters, you let them speak through your fingers. Such voices are very often verbal, borrowing the rhythms of speech, the informal language, the jagged construction. I want to stress that this does not just apply to obvious cases like first person stories in which the character is narrating, and sometimes literally speaking his part, but also to those of third person (and second, too, if that’s you cup of chai latte). Third person stories can be every bit as influenced by voice, just so long as they do not become the actual words of another unintended character.

All of us have models that we draw upon when writing. These of course influence our authorial style without us even knowing it, but if we want to put on that second layer, our ‘many voices,’ consciously imitating these styles is a great way to achieve a better story. Whether we take Dickens or Hemingway, A Clockwork Orange or Beowulf, as our model, mimicking these sources can lend a dramatically different feel to our writing. While we cannot really change our fundamental authorial voice (at least, not so quickly or radically as would suit a story by story readjustment), we can pay attention to the effects of voice and deploy it as deliberately as we do character, setting, and plot.

And, while it sometimes may blow up in our faces, there is no more perfect way to play with this dangerous toy than to try it out in a piece of flash and see what happens.

This article was originally printed at Flash Fiction Chronicles May 13, 2009.

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Bill Ward is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is an Editor at Black Gate  and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at Bill’sblog, Down Genre Hound.

Kathy Fishby Gay Degani

One of the first names I heard when I discovered Flash Fiction was “Kathy Fish,” and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview her about her newest collection, Together We Can Bury It.

Gay Degani: Your stories are clear-eyed and lyrical with characters that provoke curiosity and concern. It’s easy to make a connection to them, their humanity, their strength, and their frailty. But there’s something else, something I find most intriguing about your writing.

Your work is subtle and sometimes the “meaning” seems just outside my reach—until I read the story again. Each new look produces a fresh nuance and I can’t quite figure out how you create something that circles back on itself the way “Swicks Rule” or “Baby, Baby” “Orlando” or “Maidenhead to Oxford” or “Moth Woman” do, and still satisfy the reader so thoroughly? How do you break the “rules” we take so seriously?

Kathy Fish: Thanks so much for the kind words, Gay. The simplest answer I can give is that the way I write is the way I think. I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to the voices in my head or rather, the sound in my head. I hear a certain rhythm to a narrative and plug in words and images to fit that rhythm. This is especially true of first sentences and paragraphs.

Imagery takes over after sound and I just layer image upon image and somehow in that process, something like a narrative emerges. I guess when you put sound and imagery first, rather than plot and characterization, you’re going to break a few rules. I know what the rules are and I know I’m breaking them, but it feels right to me, so I trust it.

And that’s not to say I don’t revise. I just don’t revise to fit the rules, I revise to get it closer to how I hear and see it in my head.

As to making it work, I think there’s something to be said for staying true to your own style and voice. There’s a certain authenticity to that. Also, I realize it probably doesn’t work for every reader, but I’m very grateful there are readers for whom it does work.

GD: What about the “voices” in your head? Most writers experience this, but often discover “voice” only takes them so far, but I see in your response you’ve developed a process that goes beyond voice. When you say, “I revise to get closer to how I hear and see it in my head,” what questions do you ask yourself?

KF: There is always that voice asking me, “Why are you writing this?” that I have to try to shut out. Confidence, as a writer, is not so much always feeling like your instincts are right, but doubting them and writing anyway.

I think process is ever changing, for all of us and what works now may not work later, but it helps to have an approach to writing fiction and that’s my approach. My road blocks in the beginning had to do with not knowing my own voice and trying out all kinds of other writers’ voices. I suspect that’s how we all start, like learning to speak, it’s all about imitation. Also, there was the self-doubt that had me changing tenses and POVs compulsively. I still do that, but not like I used to.

When I revise, I read the story aloud, over and over again. Almost always I will find myself stumbling in the same places and it’s usually where I’ve overwritten or gone off-voice. Flow and rhythm are huge for me and where a story is lacking in those becomes really obvious when it’s spoken. I think it does take practice and lots of trial and error.

GD: Your work has a lyrical beauty to it that must come from this technique of reading your work aloud. I see it especially in your opening sentences. You say “Flow and rhythm are huge for me and where a story is lacking in those becomes really obvious when it’s spoken.”

I love sentences like “I stand hugging my light sweater around me on Platform 6 at Maidenhead Station.” Or from “My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade that has probably been cancelled.” (“Tenderoni”)

Or “It was like the time we broke icicles dripping from the low eaves and brandished them like swords, slashing and sparkling, and you cut my cheek and dropped your weapon.” (“Watermelon”)

Or my favorite: “My twin cousins, Margie and Mae, are manning the grill, telling me about their diverticulitis.” (“Swicks Rule”)

You do more with these opening sentences than seduce the reader with rhythm. You promise something else is in store for the reader.  The way you work is to “get closer” to what you hear in your head. Is this how structure evolves for you?

KF: I think a mosaic structure is a means of reining in stream of consciousness writing. Thoughts and images and language shifts from section to section rather than sentence to sentence or word to word. Meaning emerges from how the sections are ordered, emphasis, etc. I like using it when it feels right for the story.

GD: “Mosaic structure” doesn’t seem easy to pull off, yet you manage to do so time after time. Can we talk a little bit about pulling this collection together? You’ve created section in your book using lines from one of the stories in each section. What were your guiding thoughts?

KF: Pulling the collection and ordering the stories was very difficult. My stories are all over the place in terms of theme, point of view, and style. I envy writers who write all their stories in first person, for example. And write stories that are semi-autobiographical. There you already have one voice, a unifying theme, a sense of cohesion. I just don’t do that. My narrators are not “me” and so there are all these disparate voices.

But some themes do run through my stories with consistency and that was our starting point. Molly Gaudry, who runs The Lit Pub, was extremely helpful with this task. She gave me lots of intuitive and intelligent feedback as to how the stories felt to her. She also noticed how the stories seemed to weave in an out of the seasons of the year and also, the seasons of one’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. This gave us a starting point and we started grouping the stories this way. I also wanted to begin and end on “wintry” stories so that the book resonated with the stunning cover art by Jana Vukovic.

I pulled sentences or phrases from the stories to introduce the different sections of the book. I felt those phrases gave a good sense, emotionally, of the stories for their sections. I wanted each section to feel like a mini collection in its own right. It took a long time to get it just right but I think we were successful. I am very happy with how the collection reads and flows and the overall feel of it.

GD: You’ve been a pioneer in the genre of flash. What advice would you give new and emerging writers about writing in general and writing flash in particular?

KF: That is a very kind thing to say, Gay, thank you. My advice for new, emerging writers:

1. Work hard.

2. Actually have something to say. Maybe you will have to do a lot of thinking to figure out what you want to say. Thinking takes time and you might be in a hurry to get published, but there is enough trite bullshit in the world. You’re better than that.

3. Read read read read read. Read only what excites you. Don’t read, ever, out of a sense of obligation. Read what inspires and challenges you. Fall in love with stories and books and other writers. They’re your true teachers.

 

Kathy Fish’s short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, The Denver Quarterly, New South, Quick Fiction, Guernica, Slice and elsewhere. She was the guest editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010.  She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011) and Together We Can Bury It, the 2nd printing of which is forthcoming from The Lit Pub.

 

 

Has anyone ever handed you a sheet of paper and you immediately notice how beautiful the handwriting is? You look up and smile at the writer of those graceful “G’s,” “E’s,” and “D’s,” and mutter, “Nice writing.”  Then you start to read.  And yes, it IS nice handwriting, but you can’t figure out what the writer is trying to say.  Lovely, but indecipherable.

This happens in that other kind of writing we do, in our storytelling.  We lay down beautiful words, one after the other, and when we read the sentence, the paragraph, the whole 1000 words of flash out loud, we think the rhythm and the ring of the words sound just right.  As the story’s creator, we know what we’re saying and we don’t realize that behind all those carefully-wrought phrases the reader may find a knotty tangle of logic and sense.  I contend that as writers we have a responsibility to strive toward clarity and coherence in our writing whether we use traditional or non-traditional forms.

I read once that “complexity” and “complication” are not the same thing, even though we often see them used as synonyms.*   We want our stories to be complex with characters who have deep character and lives that reveal the pain and joy of existence.

In other words, we want characters who are forced to make difficult decisions not only between GOOD and EVIL, but between the better good and the lesser good, between the skinned-knee bad and heart-break evil: not the stuff of melodrama and comic book heroes, but rather the painful choices human beings must make every day.  We want stories that result in loss, wisdom, gain, and battle scars.

Complicated stories, for my purpose here at least, are often a result of being “writing drunk” and I don’t mean the writer’s finished off a bottle of Makers, but rather she or he is drunk from the process of creating, that a writer’s brain can become pickled with our characters, the events of our tale, and most often with the sound of our own words.

This occurs when a writer reads over what he’s worked so hard to produce and isn’t certain what the gut of  the story is.  This is when a writer may decide to keep beautiful language because it seems to make sense, and well, it’s effing beautiful.  I do this too. I never discard anything I like until I’ve made up my mind what the story is about, but then I make my reluctant self become Alexander with the Gordian knot, whap! because a writer owes his readers style, language, complex characters and stories, but also clarity and coherence.

Making sense doesn’t necessarily mean telling the reader everything in straight-forward subject-verb sentences.  Reading a story that is “on the nose” often feels as if the writer doesn’t respect or appreciate his readers.  Instead of being told THE meaning of a story, most readers want SOME meaning to unfold in a subtle, surprising, satisfying way.

Readers want allusion, they want illusion,and they want the thrill of that moment when they “get” it. They want complexity and they are willing to deal with focused reading. Think The Hours, Middlesex, House of Sand and Fog. These books are masterfully written and when an author’s evidence begins to come together for the reader, there should be a lightening bolt of delight.  But most readers do not want complications that come out of nowhere,  have set-ups that never pay-off, have characters that change their behavior half way through for no apparent reason.  A story benefits from sound logic, a loose plan, and a desire by the writer to communicate something that reveals to the reader something about humanity.

Clear, complex, and coherent stories earn their readers whether they are traditional or non-traditional pieces. Even the most densely-written pieces (Middlesex) have their rewards because the writer masterfully leads the reader there.  I’m not sure that it’s the writer’s responsibility to make sure every reader “gets”  it.  However, it is the writer’s responsibility to determine what it is he’s trying to do with his writing and to use all his or her skills to achieve that goal.

While a writer cannot always guarantee that every reader will get his story or the point of his story, it is his responsibility to make sure he has spent time and effort to figure out what he’s trying to achieve and then more time and effort trying to achieve it. This means rewriting and editing until some sliver of meaning is clear to the writer. That sliver of meaning may not be what the reader takes away from a story, but the work that the author puts into the piece will allow the reader to take away his own meaning.

That said, let me just add, “You can’t please all the people all of the time, but you can please some of the people some of the time.”

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Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including three The Best of Every Day Fiction editions and her own collection, Pomegranate Stories. Nominated for a Pushcart, she has been a finalist or short listed at Glimmer Train and The Fish Anthology and won a first place at Women on Writing’s Quarterly Flash Fiction contest. She edits EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and blogs at Words in Place where a list of her online fiction can be found.

 

* My guess is the “where I read this” was in Robert McKee’s Story.

by Dawn Maria

The instructor told the class, “I want you to finish this sentence: I would never want to write—fill in the blank.”

Soft giggles were heard around the room, my own included. I sat in a new writing class feeling both excited and nervous as I took in the new teacher, who appeared younger and more daring in the wardrobe department than I would ever allow myself to be. Here in the first few moments of class, I’ve already been challenged to demonstrate my brilliance (or shortcomings) in front of a built-in audience.

The answers come from around the room without much fanfare. Some people hate science fiction while others dread historical settings. The young Marine seated next to me declares, “I would never want to write about falling in love… or ponies.” Everyone laughs after that one. I’m up next.

After stating my name and writing history I finished my sentence quickly. “I would never want to write a graphic love scene.” I noticed several nods and felt less anxious than I did before.

The last to speak was a young man who hadn’t laughed out loud with the rest of us. His hair was matted and messy, an effortless chic like I’d seen in ads for expensive fragrances. Slim, with torn jeans and thick black combat boots, I saw a thin line of white T-shirt visible underneath the opening of his faded, black leather jacket. I couldn’t call him handsome, but I felt drawn to him nonetheless. An energy floats above his body and I almost wanted to risk grasping for it in front of everyone.

I don’t remember his name, even moments after he said it. What I recall is how he filled in the blank. “I would never want to write,” he began in a smooth voice with a chord of sharp angst at the end of each word. “I would never want to write anything that makes someone feel like a better person after they read it.”

His words sped through the room making others uncomfortable and me the most interested I’d been since class began. What was inside this young man that needed to come out? And in that moment I felt longing; a longing to hear the words in his heart assembled to paint the picture of his soul.

Having listened patiently to our answers, our instructor smiled while one hand played with an unusually large earring that dangled from her ear. Her other hand released a pen.

“Your first assignment,” she told us. “Is due next week. One page on the very thing you named just now. No cheating, I took notes.”

I spent the next week laboring over a dismal scene between two doomed lovers. Since this was my first written love scene, I foolishly modeled the female character after myself, thus halting any wild fun the pair might enjoy. Weighted by the clinical details of various acts, my best efforts couldn’t conjure up a morsel of intimacy.

We were not required to read aloud our weekly homework assignments. I still wonder today whether the young man would have returned to class if he had known that.

In his one sentence, he knew something I believe the rest of us didn’t. He knew why he wrote and whom he wrote for. This forced me to consider my own audience. For whom did my bell toll? For the readers I hoped to have or for a release of the pressure inside my being? The work was mine, but what did it stand for? Sure, I could learn to spit out mechanical details that gave a reader an idea of what was happening, but could I also learn to give the reader something more? Something that transcended his own experience in such a way it floats by, leaving no visible mark but instead a sense of satisfaction? Perhaps he is not a better person afterward. Perhaps he merely remains a human being: thinking, breathing, desiring the touch of another.

Perhaps it’s all a graphic love scene.

And I need to keep practicing.

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Dawn Maria lives in Scottsdale, AZ surrounded by books and stories. By day she works as a Media Tech in a high school library and at night she works on her novel. She draws humor and inspiration for her work from her busy life as a  mother, wife and harried pet owner. Visit her blog, Method to the Madness, at www.dawnmaria.com

 

 

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