life experience


by Jessi Cole Jackson

Steven L. Peck

Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including  A Short Stay in Hell and the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press and named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book).  He has been published in Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article), Daily Science Fiction, Journal of Unlikely EntomologyNature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “Tales from Pleasant Grove”? 

Pleasant Grove is the small town in central Utah where I live, and it is so ordinary as to be rather unexciting sometimes. I began to imagine short vignettes about a much stranger city. I wanted a Pleasant Grove that was weirder and more exciting. I started writing these down, and soon I had an entire collection of Pleasant Grove stories that portrayed a world where anything could happen. I tried to keep the small town feel, but mixed it with far more magic and adventure.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What is your typical writing process look like? How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have any rituals or superstitions attached to your writing sessions? 

That’s a great question. I usually try to write at night at a given time, but I have to admit I’m not very consistent. Sometimes, though, especially when I’m really excited about a story, it takes over my life and I can’t put it down. Usually, so much that I’ll lay awake at night running through the story in my head. Several times this has produced new characters or even new plot lines.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I love the details of your story. They are specific and telling, making each moment feel real and immediate. At the same time, your protagonist is an everyman who could stand in for any one of us. Do you think most people would swap out their fears, or be like Hal, comfortable with the devil(s) they know?

Steven L. Peck: I think I’d be more the Hal type. I like the devils I know. And there is a slight streak of superstition that runs through me whenever there is a change, for example when I have to change seats on an airplane there’s always this discomfort that I’m not where I was supposed to be. I don’t take it too seriously (I’m a scientist after all), but it’s still there putting a little pressure on something that really is silly to worry about.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Is there a fear you would get rid of? Which jar would you choose to take its place? 

Steven L. Peck:  I wish I could lose the fear of pickpockets. I travel a lot, and I have this irrational fear I’ll get pickpocketed. I never have been, but I’m always on the lookout. It’s completely crazy. It’s almost as if I think pickpockets are magical beings that can get through any defense and that I’m helpless to their tricks. I’d take a jar with some fear I was absolutely sure that I was never going to run into, like a fear of deep sea angel fish that live so far down in the ocean depths that my chances of ever running into one are almost non-existent! (But as the story shows, these things have a way of backfiring).

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  The voice of your protagonist is very distinct. Did you work on cultivating his voice or did it come to you? Do you do anything to ‘find’ your characters? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems to me that it’s almost as if my characters find me. They just appear whole-cloth as if we meet by accident. One of my novels (The Scholar of Moab) was about an ordinary kid working in the mountains for a geology company. I didn’t expect it, but one day in my mind’s eye a conjoined-twin cowboy road up and started talking to my main character. It changed the entire book, and I never saw it coming. Characters are like that when I write. They seem to exist almost independently of me and I am only a kind of medium that encourages their visit from another world.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not writing. You’re a scientist, philosopher, and professor, correct? Where’s the intersection between those passions and fiction for you? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems funny to say, but in being a scientist and a philosopher of science I’ve found that my imagination the most critical talent I have. I’ve always loved discovering things, and I’ve found that the real art of good science is the ability to ask the right questions. The hard part of science is looking at the world and trying to discover what’s the next question to ask. Answering them is usually the easier part. Find good questions and discoveries follow. I think it is the same in fiction. Asking questions of our characters and settings are what set up the magic that follows. Trying to see what motivates them and what situations will best draw out the question you are exploring in your fiction, I think are the hardest parts of all. I honestly believe that my being a fiction writer and a scientist really play on the same strength.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published? 

 Steven L. Peck:  A lot of my previously published short fiction can be found on my website, including my Daily Science Fiction short story and myNature Futures story, including a number of others. In addition to the collection of Pleasant Grove stories I’m working on (and my hope to find a publisher soon!), I have a book of short stories coming out later this summer, called Wandering Realities, published by Zarahemla Press, which I’m very excited about. It’s about one half speculative fiction and half literary fiction. My most popular book is A Short Stay in Hell and a volume of short stories set in the Hell of this novel is going to be published soon as well (with one by me, too!). It’s got some best selling horror writers contributing (I’d name them but contracts have not been finalized—watch my website for news). The book also is going to be made into a full-length feature film by David Spaltro (Director of the just released horror film, In the Dark) and filming starts at the end of this year. I’ve also got a couple of novels I’m putting the final touches on and hope to start shopping them soon. One is a follow-up to my book, The Scholar of Moab, called Gilda Trillim: The Shepherdess of Rats, and the other a young adult fantasy called, The Airships of Gumpta.

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Jessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150

Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.

by Jim Harrington

jimharrington2

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 I feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Here’s the first one.

***

The Rejection Blues (first published on October 23, 2009)

As part of a panel on “Submitting Your Short Story,” I found myself saying, “I totally grant the possibility that a story I sent out sucks, and I do give rejections and comments the power (eventually) to let me know such a thing. But I would never grant them the power to determine whether I’m a writer or not. No one gets to decide that but me. -Randall Brown in Submitting Your Story (As Opposed to Yourself).

Randall’s post comes at a perfect time for me. I received two rejection e-mails this week, and the last two stories I submitted to a weekly writing challenge received less than rave reviews. I checked my submissions database, and I’ve received 181 rejections since July of 2007. I didn’t look at how many stories this covered. Some were rejected multiple times.

You might think I’d be used to rejection, but it still hurts; especially when, for whatever reason, I expect an editor to fall in love with a story. One aspect of the process that bothers me is when an editor (and this happens in critique groups also) explains how he would have written the story, or what he expected at the end. Gosh, if I wanted to write his story, I would have interviewed him before I started. Okay, that may be sour grapes, but I’m interested in how my story worked, not what someone else’s expectations were. I don’t remember who it was that suggested no critique should include the word I, but I agree.

In the end, I have to remember Randall’s advice and realize it’s not me an editor is rejecting. It’s my story. On the good news side, I received three acceptances this week, and a three-to-two ratio is something to be happy about. Still…

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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.

 

by Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen

Due to some recent life changes, I’ve had to limit my writing and editing time drastically; stories, though—characters’ situations, lines of dialogue, phrases and titles—keep flipping me around at night. I guess the simplest answer to the question “Why do I write?” is that the ideas keep coming. Brilliant or bollocks, they keep coming.

But why do I write flash fiction? It started at university—or it tried to. I was making up 16 hours of undergraduate English in a summer so that I could start a graduate program in English lit (I’d majored in music and music business as an undergrad). On one of my papers, my Victorian lit professor wrote that my essays were like tiny stories—I think she might have used the word “gems,” but my self-congratulatory memory might have sneaked this in. The papers were those 500-word ditties we’re all familiar with. Later in the semester when I told her I was writing a screenplay, her reaction was “You should write short stories.” This was 1992. I published one short story in the university’s journal in 1993, but between then and 2007 I wrote two screenplays and three novels—never another short story. Call me hard-headed. Go ahead.

Maybe I was resisting “tiny” and “short” and “ditty”—and not only because I’m relatively tiny myself. Maybe I was under the impression that “tiny” meant unimportant, that what I had to say wouldn’t fit into “tiny.” Maybe I’d read way too much Henry James and George Eliot. You are, after all, what you read. (And if this is true, I’m Bill Bryson and Virginia Woolf’s unlikely lovechild.) My love for other people’s words is another reason I write. And edit.

The often condensed syntax of sudden fiction represents a uniquely contemporary voice. Trimming syntax urges the eye along so that the reader experiences text almost in a single moment. Of course this is impossible, but it seems to be the goal. Technology keeps changing the way we read. It’d be dishonest to say some (many?) contemporary writers are not reacting to current tastes and reading formats when choosing to write shorter texts. In Internet writing workshops and communities you’re much more likely to get feedback on a 500-word piece than a whopping 5000-worder. Just have a look at a few litzines’ word-limit guidelines. Scrolling sucks, and it definitely contributes to carpal tunnel syndrome. Faster online fiction is healthier fiction.

As fast as it is to read, though, sudden fiction can take a long time to write (I don’t write sudden fiction because I like to write fast). It’s rare that I’ll sit down at my computer and whip out a 700-word story that I love at first read. It happens, but I usually come back to the story after a week with ideas that rip it apart. Then more ideas rip it apart two weeks later. And so on. Each ripping strips unnecessary bits, refines character—and sometimes completely screws the story to hell and back; yet more often the story evolves, becomes bigger and rounder as it grows smaller, tighter. Tight is, after all, the new big.

Each time I finish one of these tiny stories, I have to look at what I’ve created and ask myself. . .Is this whole? Is the reader’s eye urged along? Will the reader have the same visceral reaction to this moment as I do? Will these characters, whose visit was so brief, stay with the reader beyond the reading? Or is this just a ditty?

I hope other writers of sudden fiction will agree with me that we write sudden fiction because we have so many different moments of being to share: those particularly deep moments my mother Virginia Woolf talked about. In this way, we’re more like painters, songwriters and chefs than novelists.

You know, it might be as simple as feeling satisfaction in the completion of all those ideas that keep coming, the opportunity of plumbing, shaping and completing not just a few pieces of art but many—that’s why I write flash fiction.

____________

Christopher Allen is grateful to have his sudden fiction in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly’s Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine and many other great places. His book reviews have been featured at [PANK], Word Riot, The Lit Pub and Necessary Fiction, among others. He’s won some awards and come close to winning others. He keeps trying, and so should you. He lives in Germany and blogs at www.imustbeoff.com about his slight travel obsession.

 

by Joanne Jagoda

Joanne Jagoda

I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to my young bitchy boss with her ice pick style of management. When I finally had enough of her poking away at me, I decided it was time to retire at the age of 59. So there I was, at a new juncture of my life, a youngish senior, trying to figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life. I found several volunteer jobs right away, including teaching English as a second language to Chinese seniors and working with children in a poor school in East Oakland. I needed something else. I knew I could only exercise, go out to lunch, and shop for so many days until I’d be bored. I needed to find something to keep me feeling vital and alive. What would open the magic gate to lead me on a journey I had not ventured on before?

I had always liked to write, and as a history major and English minor had done endless term papers, but I never attempted any serious creative writing. I was fortunate, or maybe a better word is the Yiddish expression, that it was beshert or destined for me to find a daytime writing class, Lakeshore Writers in Oakland, which had a spot in the spring class. It was a writing workshop using the Amherst method. The class met Thursday mornings for two and a half hours. I was willing to give it a try. One class…it couldn’t hurt. If I hated it I just wouldn’t continue, lose the deposit, whatever.

I got to the class early that Thursday, chatted with the facilitator as the other women rolled in. We eyed each other. I was the oldest. What the hell am I doing here? I sat down on the mismatched chairs, clutching my lemon ginger tea listening to the instructions. We would write on three prompts during the class time, read our work out loud and give positive feedback to each other. We were to treat everything we heard as fiction. My first prompt, I still remember it … “write about hair.” Oh shit, I’ve got nothing to say. I take a breath, gulp my tea, stare at my blank yellow legal pad. Maybe I could write something about my daughter’s mane of wild curly hair which has always been a source of drama for her. It had a life of its own, and I had my story.

And that one class was enough. I was hooked. Who would have ever believed that I had words, and sentences, and images and memories waiting to burst forth out of me. It was as if I had new glasses on and could see for the first time. I started to look at things differently. I started to hear snippets of conversations everywhere which I wanted to incorporate in my work. I found colorful characters lurking in the supermarket checkout line, on the BART train, in the jury pool when I had jury duty. I went back to my childhood in my head, remembering the poppies Mrs. Mialocq used to give me over the fence and the neighbors down the street who had a drunken brawl and my tap dancing class. I wrote fiction, nonfiction, and found I had a gift to write poetry.

I had discovered a new world like some intrepid explorer stumbling upon the universe of literary magazines, online submissions and contests, and a whole new vocabulary of “simultaneous submissions” and “flash fiction.” I started to submit and was in a writing frenzy. I was like an addict hooked on a drug which gave me a fulfilling high. In the beginning, I had some surprising successes even placing in the Writer’s Digest contest with an honorable mention. I didn’t realize that was a pretty big deal. There were other first place and second place wins, and it was a thrill seeing my work published. Then came the Rejections…there have been plenty of those sometimes arriving on a half sheet of paper. I mean really, couldn’t they at least send it on a whole sheet?

Now five years later I am still on this writing journey, and there are days when it is not easy. The most difficult challenge is making writing part of my daily routine. This requires a steely resolve to make time to write no matter how busy I am and treating my writing as a job. It is easy to put it aside when life gets too full. I still struggle in believing in myself. There are days when I’m a “writer” not a WRITER. One of the nicest things that happened to me early on was when a friend who encouraged me tremendously held a “Salon” for me to read some of my work at a tea. It was a thrill to share my writings with a rapt and appreciative audience.

I have been fortunate to become involved with the website, Pure Slush, and have written a number of pieces, which have been published by editor Matt Potter, who lives in Adelaide, Australia. I am one of the thirty-one writers in his ambitious 2014 project where a monthly anthology will be published for the twelve months of 2014. Each writer takes a different day. Mine is the thirtieth of the month, and I wrote a mystery. It has been amazing to become part of a group of writers from all over the world. A reading is in the works for November in New York City, and I’m thinking of attending to read one of my chapters. Maybe then I will finally consider myself a WRITER and not just a “writer.”

____________

Since retiring in 2009, it took one inspiring writing workshop to launch Joanne Jagoda of Oakland California on a long-postponed creative writing journey. Since discovering her passion for writing, she has been working on short stories, poetry and nonfiction. Her work has been published widely online and in print magazines and anthologies including Pure Slush 2014; 52/250, a Year of Flash; Persimmon Tree Literary Magazine; Women’s Memoir-Seasons of Our Lives, Summer; and Still Crazy. Joanne was the poet of the month for the J, a Jewish news weekly. She continues taking writing workshops and classes in the Bay Area, enjoys tap dancing and Zumba, traveling with her husband and visiting her four grandchildren, who call her Savta.

 

by Carly Berg

This article first appeared at The Writer’s Forum (9/2013).

Coming up with an author bio can seem overwhelming. But really, it’s easy, and soon becomes second nature.

I include my author bio with each submission unless they say not to. I mention that because sometimes publications don’t say everything in their guidelines.

I’ve never heard of the bio being a deciding factor in a story being accepted or not. So just getting a serviceable one down is good enough.

A bio is about two to five sentences and gives the reader a peek into your life. Why? Well, because people are nosy. I enjoy reading a bit about the author along with the story. Don’t you?

Please don’t think you won’t have enough to say. There’s always enough to say. Also, you don’t have to give out any information you don’t feel like giving out. If you don’t want the world to know it would be your first published story, don’t mention it. If you use a pseudonym and worry that giving too many details will ‘out’ you, then don’t. You need a bio you’re comfortable with.

Some common things to include are: where you live, what your education or job is, and who you live with, including pets.

You can also include what your interests are, especially if they relate to the story. Or, any tidbits that relate to the story.  If you have any publishing credits, about three can easily be added, as can, ‘this is his first published story.’ If you’ve won a contest, belong to a writer group, or have taken a writing course, that works, too. You can include a link to your writer site or blog, if you have one (if you don’t have one yet, don’t worry).

A few tips:

* The bio is always written in third person. Write something like ‘Here is my bio,’ in the cover letter, then insert your bio.

* Some publications have serious bios alongside silly ones. Others have a definite preference. If possible, look at the publication. If the other bios list things like education, career, accomplishments, publications, do the same. If you don’t have many, that’s okay. Just don’t pull out your funniest lines, like, ‘Carly Berg likes to beg the neighbors for sandwiches.’ Or, ‘Carly Berg is a gigantic third-grader.’

* If the bios for that publication tend toward crazy fun, don’t be stuffy, right? If you can’t check them out, stick to one that is more middle of the road.

* I like to include something in my bio that goes along with whatever I’ve submitted. Sometimes it’s silly. Other times it’s something about the impetus for writing the story or other fact of interest. However, first I check the publication to see where the bios are listed. If they’re listed with the story, great. But, if the bios are in the back of the volume or on a separate part of the website, chances are it is going to look strange to say, ‘Her friend Jackie is still spoiled.’ That would make sense in a bio placed with the story about my friend Jackie. Put elsewhere, however, it doesn’t make any sense. If I can’t check the publication to see where the bios are located, I avoid mentioning anything that is specific to the story.

*The best way to get bio ideas is to read other bios.

*Don’t make it too long. It tends to annoy editors.

* Don’t brag. Listing a few qualifications is great. Claiming that you plan to write the next best seller isn’t. Neither is stating that you are the toughest cat on the south side. Well, you get the idea.

* Don’t overshare or put yourself down. It’s kind of cringey to read. Making fun of yourself in a funny way with the silly bios is okay though. Mostly.

* Don’t say that you’ve been ‘writing since you were six.’ This comes across as empty bragging. It suggests you consider yourself to have been quite the child genius. Alternately, it looks like you believe childs’ play equates to professional level storytelling. We’ve all been writing since we were six. They made us do it in school. Come on.

* Vary your bio sentences. The first sentence usually starts with your name or pen name. Don’t begin the other sentences with the same pronoun. In other words:

This:

  …‘She lives with her husband. Her work has been published in Stupefying Stories.’

 Not this:

      …‘She lives with her husband. She has a story published in Stupefying Stories.’

It’s not a huge deal, but beginning both sentences with the same pronoun sounds a bit clunky.

Here are a few sample bios.

All-purpose, basic bios

Carly Berg lives in Texas with her husband, son and two cats. Her best story ideas come to her while washing the dishes.

or

Carly Berg is grateful to get to stay home and write. Her degree is in English. She is working on a book of stories.

Now, those may not make anyone swoon. But they’ll do.

With some progress, you’ll have more to say.

All-purpose, more advanced bios

Carly Berg lives with four males, two of whom are cats. Her stories appear in several dozen journals and anthologies, including PANK, Word Riot, and Bartleby Snopes. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well. Here’s her website: http://carlyberg.weebly.com/

Later, or now, if you’re up for it, you can jazz it up.

Bios having to do with the particular story

Carly Berg is a heart-shaped box with a couple of chocolates gone. She is a member of Absolute Write writer’s forum. This is her first published story. (For a he-done-me-wrong story).

Carly Berg lives near Houston. She’s had a story accepted by a publication beginning with every letter of the alphabet. This story came to her when they bulldozed the woods behind her house, and wild animals roamed through the neighborhood.

     …she always minds her mother (in a story about one who did not).

    …is a firm believer in coming in out of the rain (in a story about one who did not).

    …she is always properly attired when she goes out (in a story about one who was not).

Fun bios

Carly Berg lives with a sweet baboo, an Easter peep, and a visiting lightning bolt who wants you to know he’s an adult and a guest. Her stories appear in some fine places. And  some middling to low places, too…

    Carly Berg is a decorative couch pillow who doesn’t want to be judged….

    Carly Berg gets her three hots and a cot near Galveston…

    … She wonders if a fruitbat bounced off her head or if she just imagined it.

If you get stuck, use the suggestions above to jot one down, and move on to the next thing.

Carly Berg is done talking about bios.

____________

Carly Berg‘s work has been accepted by publications beginning with every letter of the alphabet except for “K,” the absence of which keeps her up at night. “The Care and Feeding of Non-Writers” is from her book in progress, The 100 Credits Club. She can be found at http://carlyberg.weebly.com/.

 

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