Process


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.

This post first appeared at FFC on August 26, 2013.

by Beth Cato

Most articles and blog posts on resolutions hit the first week of January. “Being timely” and all that. It’s silly, really. People start the year all motivated. By February or March, reality sets in. Those helpful articles on losing weight will be replaced by advertisements for chocolate.

No matter what writing goals you set, take heart! All is not lost (unless your hard drive died, in which case it IS lost, but don’t let that kill all of your motivation to write).

 1) Set a new start date.

January 1st is not the only day you can set as a start date for goals. Look at the excitement that builds for NaNoWriMo every November 1st. It’s a set date when the magic happens. Make your own magic, even if it’s May 22nd, June 2nd, or September 13th.

 2) Make your writing goals specific.

This is one goal that resolution mumbo-jumbo writers like to harp about, but it carries truth. There’s a world of difference between saying “I’m going to write this year” and “I’m going to write at least 30,000 words of short stories and keep at least two on submission at all times.” Goals are designed to keep you accountable, so if your goal is wishy-washy, it gives you too many excuses to be wishy-washy.

This is one reason I like Write 1 Sub .  It gives you a specific time span to achieve your goal: one story written and submitted each week, or one story and written and submitted each month.

 3) Reward yourself for a job well done.

Look at this bullet point on the small scale and big scale. Meet your weekly goal? Get yourself a treat–Starbucks, an evening out, a new writing journal, something. If you meet your big goal–say, finish NaNoWriMo with over 50,000 words–go big. Get yourself a new monitor, or Scrivener. Something cool, something useful. If money’s tight, make your reward an experience–a day trip or a visit to a friend or teacher you haven’t seen in forever.

It’s sometimes nice to have a deadline right before a vacation; that way you can work yourself into a frenzy, get it done, and then give your brain a break.

If you don’t make that deadline? Go home. See #1.

 4) Accept that writing time isn’t just about writing.

A writer should spend the bulk of time writing, yes, but there are other essential parts of a writing career: filing, blog posts, research, revisions, critiques (giving and receiving), industry blogs, market research, etc. I have spent whole days looking at poetry markets. I classify this as writing time. It’s something that needs to be done. It’s also something I might use as a semi-break after I do something like spend three days on a short story rough draft. Then the next day, I can proceed with revisions.

 5) Keep a writing day planner.

One of the best ways to know what you need to do is by knowing what you’ve already done. Every year I get a day planner to use for my writing. I use it to plan ahead for goals–market closures, scheduled blog posts, personal deadlines–but most importantly, I write down what I do each day. That includes places I submitted works, how many words I’ve written, what I have edited, etc.

For example, today is a lighter day of writing for me because I did errands and my son has a shorter day of school. This is what I have listed:

X – Bready or Not post: Chewy Raisin Cookies [scheduled]

– Write Chicken Soup holiday story [1100 word max]

– Blog prep

What I’m doing now is classified under blog prep, but I also went on LJ and scheduled three forthcoming posts on my blog. I have the opening of the Chicken Soup story done, but I’ll have the rough draft by the end of the day and note that word count. The Bready or Not (my weekly recipe blog) post was scheduled, and I verified that it posted, so I checked it off.

Writing can be discouraging at times, especially when it feels like you’re not making any progress. It makes me feel better to look back and see I edited so-and-so, sent off submissions, wrote a poem, and started on a new story, all in a week. If you’re just starting out, it’s great to just start by doing one writing-related thing each day.

 6) Accept that life happens.

Goals are great. Being kept accountable by a planner is great. But life is mean and nasty and crappy things happen. You get sick. The kids gets sick. Your hard drive dies. Your cat is deathly ill. There’s a horrible deadline at work. You’re on a road trip and it’s just plain not feasible to write.

There are valid reasons to not write. But if you feel that itch to tell a story, you know there are even more valid reasons to write. Take care of yourself, your family, the job that pays the bill. Then take care of your soul and tell those stories.

No matter what the day of the year it is, go back to #1. Reset your goal. Find where you saved last. Resume the journey.

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Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Her website is BethCato.com and she’s on Twitter @BethCato. (Updated from original.)

 

by Beth Thomas

Beth Thomas

In flash fiction, we make up our own rules. Sure, story matters. Something has to happen. Characters must develop and change and become or unbecome. But flash allows you to skirt those hard & fast rules, to pick around the edges of plot, to whisper behind plot’s back, to refuse to look plot in the eyes, and still tell a full story.

The dust on the gate, a reflection in a broken window, a little boy and his kite on a stormy beach and that hollow flapping sound, weathered gray doors hanging cockeyed and loose like they’ve taken a beating, walls that are blue and faded and full of holes like the pants you used to wear to garden. I write flash fiction because these little things matter. They are not just scene setting or transition from one event to the next, or a throwaway character description. Sometimes they can be the whole of it.

I started writing flash fiction in 2003. I had just wrapped up my MA in creative writing and was looking for a new workshop group. This is how I found the online workshop called Zoetrope, and how I discovered Flash Fiction. I joined Zoe intending to workshop some back-burner short stories that hadn’t made the cut into my master’s thesis, but was immediately drawn to the Flash wing, where story turnover was insanely high (300 stories up for workshop at any given time, with several new ones being posted every day), and where the tight-knit community passed out constant support, brilliant critiques, and sincere high-fives.

I read flashes by some of the greats—Kathy Fish and Myfanwy Collins come to mind now—and realized that there was a whole other world of writing out there. A whole other kind of story to be told and way of telling it. I realized I didn’t have to write from A to B then C to the end, and wrap everything up nice and neat. And so I tried it. I tried and failed (hitting upon every flash cliché I’m sure) and tried again.

It was in Zoetrope that I learned the art of the not-saying. The art of the cut and white space and the silence between notes and the importance of the words  themselves – not just their meaning but the sounds they make next to each other, their cadence and mouthfeel and taste.

I write flash fiction because I suck at deliberate, complicated plotting and three-act structure. I suck at writing A to B then C to the end, then having that progression of things mean something. And in writing, as in real life, I have learned through trial and error that my instincts are not necessarily to be trusted. In plotting, this leads me to long arguments with myself about what would REALLY happen. What SHOULD happen. And… Am I getting this story WRONG? I go in circles and get nowhere.

I write flash because I like to experiment. I can try something new – a new angle at an old tale, a new voice or psychic distance or structure, and if it’s terrible, I am out a few hours or days, not months or years (as with the half-done novels sitting in my Writing folder). And if it’s not terrible, then I have grown and can push elsewhere next time.

And honestly, I write flash fiction because I like writing little things that people can read without some big commitment of their time or cash. I like being able to tell people, “Look at this little thing I wrote,” and they can just click and read and 2 minutes later it’s over and they know me a little better.

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Beth Thomas is a writer living and working in the desert southwest. Her flash fiction is full of dust, bones, arrowheads, and thunderstorms, and has been published in dozens of online and print venues including Wigleaf, Abq Free Press, El Portal, PANK Magazine, Corium Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

 

 

by Jessi Cole Jackson

Profile

Olivia Berrier is often clueless and always shoeless. She left behind many footprints at Hollins University in Virginia, where she studied Creative Writing and Mathematics. After college, her bare feet have carried her through many experiences, but her life remains anchored by writing. Olivia writes fantasy fiction, sometimes with a mathematical inclination, and has been dropping stories like breadcrumbs across the Internet since 2007. 

Jessi Cole Jackson: On your blog you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind The World As Seen By Angels. Could you tell FFC readers a bit about where your story began?

Olivia Berrier: Absolutely! This story began with a bracelet I received from my aunt a while ago. I’m not sure why, but I love playing with this bracelet while I’m thinking (it just has a nice weight to it, I think) so I decided I wanted to write a story involving both angels and beaded bracelets. A few false starts later, I had the ‘seeing in metaphors’ idea, and the rest of the story took root from there.

Bracelet

JCJ: Would you tell me a little about your writing process?

OB: I do most of my best writing in the early morning, from about 4:30 – 6:30 before I go to work. My morning sessions involve tea, three writing candles, soft music, and if I’m lucky I have a kitty cat named Dickens on my lap. It’s deliciously distraction-free, and since I just woke up, my mind is still in ‘dream’ mode, which is very similar to writing mode.

 

JCJ: I loved how the story’s clear details clashed with our inability to understand what beads and knots represented for the men and women. Yet the Angel specifically understood the young man’s struggle in real world terms. Why focus on depression, out of all of life’s struggles?

OB: I have some personal experience with the challenges of depression, and it took me many years to understand that the time I spent fighting for my mental health isn’t wasted time as I once believed. I think the turning point for me came when I stopped trying to carve this problem out of my world and started learning to live with it. I know there has been a lot of movement in recent years towards ending the stigma and bringing these topics out to really talk about them, and I saw an opportunity with this story to be part of that movement.

JCJ: You mention in your author profile on Amazon that you studied mathematics and you memorize the decimals of Pi for fun. Does your love for math and telling stories intersect at all? Also, how many decimals are you up to?

OB: At the moment, about 60 decimals. My goal was to crack 100 by the end of the year, so I should probably get moving on that… But, yes! I do have some math-writing crossovers. The only one currently published is my short story featured in the No More Heroes Anthology, which has a mathematician main character who specializes in Julia Sets. In the recesses of my computer, I have others in the works as well. They haven’t yet found publishers, but I’m hopeful. One of my goals as a writer is to help bring math to people who might not have enjoyed it otherwise.

JCJ: What are you reading? Who are some of your favorite authors?

OB: At the moment, I’m reading a lot of Dean Koontz. I find that his incredibly concise writing style helps me improve my own. Some of my literary heroes include J.R.R. Tolkien, Tamora Pierce, Jonathan Stroud, and Brian Jacques.

JCJ: What projects are you currently working on? Can you point readers to some of your other stories, either forthcoming or published?

OB: Why, yes I certainly can! I have a list of all of my published fiction here on my blog. I’ve been published by Every Day Fiction four times, as well as other online and print venues. However, the thing I am most excited about is a fantasy web serial which I am posting on my blog every Wednesday. The story focuses on a world where magic is created by dancing, and both have been outlawed due to a mysterious 300-year-old tragedy, but my main character hopes to unravel that mystery and bring dancing and magic back. We’re only a few segments in, so if anyone wants to hop on board the story I’d be thrilled to have you! (https://oliviaberrier.wordpress.com/web-serial-dancing-and-magic/)

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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 J. Chris Lawrence

Denise Beck-Clark, no longer having to earn a living as a psychotherapist, is a full time writer, Raphael’s mother, and not-frequent-enough traveler. She lives in metro New YorDenise Beck Clarkk.  Her blog and info about two published books can be seen atwww.denisebeck-clark.com.

 

The Handkerchief
by Denise Beck-Clark

My dearest friend Peter left New York for the West Coast, saying that if he didn’t accumulate a new set of esthetics he was bound for Gehenna.

“New York is too European,” he explained. “Too old. I can’t handle the emotional intensity here.”

I tried convincing him that you take yourself and your emotions wherever you go, but his mind was set. He was determined to follow this imagined route to serenity.

So he went. I missed our talks; I missed sharing books. Though we still communicated by mail and phone, it wasn’t the same as co-existing in the same neighborhood.

As the years went by, we corresponded less. Then one day I learned that Peter’s body was found in the home of a well-known drag queen in San Francisco, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. Shortly after, I received a letter on scented paper in an unfamiliar hand. The message was succinct: “Peter saved this for you.”

It was a handkerchief. Pale, egg-shell, with delicate flowered embroidery. A little tag said, “Czechoslovakia, 1921.” Also, a note in Peter’s writing: “For Sarah, from a time before everything went south, and I went west.”

I had seen the handkerchief before; it belonged to his grandmother who was murdered in 1944. That this little square of cloth continued to exist while Peter did not was a sad, unbearable irony. I used it to dab at my eyes, then put it away so safely I would never find it again.

 ***

 J. Chris Lawrence: I love the theme of pursuing a false sense of serenity. It’s the classic “grass is greener” adage that so many of us can relate to that really brings Peter to life, and it is Sarah’s struggle to show him this that not only clutches the heart, but earns this excellent piece our PMMP award. How much did the aphorism influence your work before writing? Did you expect Peter’s fate to end as it did from the beginning?

Denise Beck-Clark: I’ve come to understand that a lot of my writing happens below the level of consciousness.  In preparation to write this story I looked over the prompt words and read the aphorism a few times, then just started writing.  I think this particular quote fit well into my thinking because I’m a former psychotherapist and, as you might imagine, a lot of what I did was help people to discover within themselves the truths they needed to know, about themselves and in general.

JCL: Speaking of themes, many authors tend to explore and revisit specific themes that may speak to them in some personal way. Are there any themes or genres that you find yourself returning to with your work?

DB-C: Definitely.  My work tends to be psychological and/or philosophical, and character-driven.  I tend to present emotions and behaviors that most of us grapple with to varying degrees, such as ambivalence, indecision, self-image, self-esteem, etc.

JCL: Despite the limitations of the contest, your story manages to capture a depth of history and a sense of a living world. What were some of your biggest challenges while attempting to do so much with so few words?

DB-C: To be honest, this story came rather easily to me, perhaps because of, rather than despite, having to use specific words.  But in writing flash fiction in general, the biggest challenge is presenting everything about the characters and what happens to them with a limited number of words.  You have to think of the shortest and most vivid way of saying things.  In a way I think that’s why incorporating prompt words into a story helped because the story evolved around them rather than the other way around.

JCL: How did the prompt words affect your process? Did you choose them prior to beginning the story, or did they evolve as part of the process?

DB-C: As I’m realizing now the prompt words had a large effect on the writing process.  I zeroed in on the words that I liked or was drawn to and constructed a story around them.  I had thought of doing a memorial to an old friend of mine who did move to San Francisco, live in the LGBT community, and die there, though of course, other details are fiction.  The story evolved as a process of semi-consciously combining the prompt words, the theme, and thoughts of my friend.

JCL: What is it about flash fiction that you find appealing? What drives you to create short shorts like this?

DB-C: What I love about flash fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, is that it’s one form of instant gratification I don’t have to give up because it’s not good for me!  I love being able to read a complete story in a few minutes’ time.  Likewise, I love being able to write and complete something without spending months or years on it.  I also enjoy the specific challenges of writing flash fiction, as indicated above.

JCL: Now that you’ve won our PMMP award, what’s next for Denise Beck-Clark?

DB-C: Well, before I win the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes :), I’ll need to finish several works-in-progress and then have many of my already written works published.  This includes many poems, short stories, and novels, one completed and several in the works.  And, I will keep writing flash, because it’s an enjoyable treat that’s proven to be possible.

JCL: Finally, what advice can you give for the aspiring authors out there?

DB-C: Well, Chris, besides the old saying “practice, practice, practice,” I’d say stick with it.  Find whatever in yourself that is stubborn and tenacious and don’t give up.  It’s also good to learn craft, both by reading a lot and in more formal ways such as classes or workshops.  In the end, if you’re meant to be a good or great, and/or published writer, you will be.

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 j chris lawrenceBorn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence  spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/JChrisLawrence) and Facebook (facebook.com/JCLFiction).

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