Process


by Aliza Greenblatt

Joanna Bressler

Joanna Bressler was a dancer, therapist, researcher and professor. She has graduate degrees in psychology and epidemiology. Now she writes, edits and babysits her grandkids. Her short fiction and memoir pieces have been published in EDF, Trapeze, Flash Fiction Magazine, Persimmon Tree, AARP Bulletin, New Age Journal. As far as writing goes, she revises too much. She’s insanely grateful to EDF and its readers for giving her work such a boost.

Aliza Greenblatt: From your bio it seems you’ve worn many different types of hats. Do your professional interests often find their way into your fiction? Did your background in psychology influence The Throwback Girl?

Joanna Bressler: Everything finds its way into my fiction. Try as hard as I do to keep certain things out, in they come, often carrying a shotgun.

Epidemiology is a sure fire influence on my writing.

Diseases fascinated me way back in childhood. I had measles the winter I was ten and read Microbe Hunters (diphtheria, ticks, tsetse flies, malaria, rabies, yellow fever, syphilis) by flashlight under the covers while still miserably sick. My parents discovered me at about 3 a.m. After a whole lot of incredulous eye-rolling and head-shaking, they confiscated the flashlight.

In my epidemiology M.P.H. program, which I allowed myself as a reward for the struggle I went through twenty years earlier getting my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I learned gorgeous disease words like infectivity, pathogenicity, virulence, sputum cytology, herd immunity, case fatality rate.

Later on these words entered my fiction.

For example, I was having trouble with the male hero of a long story. He was too passive, too awkward, too distant, too defensive. A real wimp. I was at the point of hitting the delete button when I thought to give him a pronounced limp from childhood polio. Two pages on childhood polio flew into the story and in the process my hero became downright lovable. And not just to me, to the heroine of the story as well.

Characters do come alive in my stories when I make them sick.

Psychology, my day job forever and then some, is a big influence too. I try to blame it and not me for everything interminably boring in what I write.

The major influences on my writing, however, are the writing classes, workshops and critique groups I’ve attended during the past two decades. As with all influences, these include the good, the bad, and the ugly. But mainly I’ve been very lucky. Many terrific teachers and generous fellow writers have helped me learn to write.

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

JB: O.K. Here goes.

I came home late one night and my door key got stuck in the lock. Neither I nor a night-owl neighbor could budge it. I had to go sleep over at my daughter and son-in-law’s apartment and be very quiet about it because they had a new baby upstairs.

I was almost asleep on the couch downstairs when, not the new baby but this girl in my brain, woke me with a barrage of complaints about her mother, her father, her sister, her doctors, and how she herself was being forced to climb a horrible trail to some stupid place her mother liked.

She talked on and on and I didn’t know her from Adam but finally I felt honor bound to pry my eyes open, rummage around for paper and pencil, and write down what she was saying. It took everything I had but I got most of it and then about two hours of sleep.

In the morning, once the new baby woke everybody up, I found under the couch seven moderately legible pages in which a story was hiding. The new baby, my younger grandchild, had his 8th birthday the month and year (September, 2014) that EDF in its infinite kindness accepted a much more coherent version of those seven pages.

I really, really, really wish that this was my typical writing process. It is not.

Typically I believe that each new idea will be my last and is not very good anyway. Typically I have to search desperately for viable characters, plots and settings. Typically, to paraphrase Paul Simon, I know fifty ways to leave a laptop.

Often I consult the Rune stones from Scandinavia as part of my creative process. Earlier today, for example, I drew a rune stone from my little blue velvet bag to help me figure out what exactly to say about my writing process other than it being a complete shambles.

The pattern on the stone I drew was a lopsided cross. It stood for, get this, “Constraint,
Necessity, Pain.” I thought, “Uh-oh, this can’t be good. What does it even mean? How could the rune stones do this to me?” Only then did I realize that these three words pretty much nail my typical creative process to the wall.

AG: One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is the slow reveal of the narrator’s character – which is not an easy thing to accomplish in flash fiction. Was the pacing something you struggled with in the story? What were some of your favorite parts of the story? What were some of the most challenging?

JB: I’ve never heard that phrase “the slow reveal of the narrator’s character.” Thank you, Aliza, for introducing it to me.

O.K. When I brought the first draft of this story to a critique group, people thought Alicia was not a human being. Well, I did think she was a human being.

Getting her to that place where most readers could agree with me took so many revisions that it’s still embarrassing. Through them, however, I managed to soften Alicia without losing her true voice. The softening appears in the late middle and at the end of the story. I’m thinking perhaps that’s what you mean by “the slow reveal.”

One of my favorite parts was the Wizard of Oz metaphor. I’ve had to watch that movie maybe ten, fifteen, times with this little girl I know, my older grandchild. I felt pure glee when it fit so easily into the story.

The most challenging part was every word after Alicia pushes Mindy into the stream.

AG: The tension between Alicia and her mother is quickly established in the story. She’s constantly giving examples of her mother’s inability to see and accept Alicia for who she is. But by the same metric, do you think Alicia was perhaps also misjudging her own family in the same way?

JB: Mainly I see Alicia as an adolescent. In my opinion, it’s an adolescent’s job to misjudge their family, probably so that they can separate from it without feeling a terrible loss.

AG: Aside from unfinished novels, what else do you like to write? Do you write many flash fiction stories or is this new territory for you?

JB: I’m not a real fan of writing unfinished novels.

And I feel compelled to add that I do have one still in the works. I just can’t seem to advance the plot. I can’t even find the plot. Perhaps I’ll get back to this novel on my death bed. Rear up, wave my arms wildly, scream out, “Aha! ‘Sister Clare leaves the convent and marries the Chief of Homicide.’ Please, somebody, write that down this instant.”

For now, I’ve switched over to fine-tuning several of my short stories (ranging from 100 to 8000 words) for submission. I don’t submit very often so this is proving to be a challenge.

On the subject of flash fiction, a beloved aunt of mine who was an artist once made me two elegant little paintings with her own maxims embedded in them. “Lose Not Thy Marbles” is one; “Hasten Thy Story” is the other. They hang above my desk. Writing flash fiction keeps me true in the moment to both maxims. My aunt would approve.

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?

JB: Post-Mortem Exam was posted in Flash Fiction Magazine on June 26th. Two other stories are in EDF. Some funny tweets are up on Trapeze Magazine. And, as I just hinted, a veritable meteor shower of stories is on its way running.

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

JB: Thank you, Aliza, this was exciting for me. I love your work. It’s wonderful having you give such thoughtful attention to mine.

__________________

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

[This article first appeared at http://tgenedavis.com.]

by T. Gene Davis

t gene davis

Congratulations! An editor loves your prose. You’ve sold your story. Feel wonderful. You should.

After the euphoria collapses, you wonder when the fan mail and comments will start pouring in. Experienced authors acknowledge, selling the story is only one of many steps necessary when building a fan base.

Selling your story to readers begins before you get the editor hooked. You must write your story for your market—the web skimmer. Most magazines publish or advertise stories on the web, and most users of the web skim. Close to 80% of all people visiting your story or story’s advert will skim the page, rather than read the page.

Gaining readers is the act of converting skimmers into readers through a three-step combination of hooking them with a great title, convincing them to read on with an engaging first sentence, and pulling them into the story with a compelling first paragraph. I’ve heard this approach summed up with the words, “Catch, grab, and keep.”

Skimmers are embryonic fans. Convert skimmers into readers by catching their attention. Your title must stop the skimmers’ eyes from roaming the page. Story titles are critical to readership. Trite as it may sound, your title can make or break your story. A catchy title is your first hook. If your story’s title stops the skimmers, you now have the chance of converting them into a reader.

Catch the skimmers’ attention with a title that fills them with wonder. They need to wonder if the rest of the story is as good as the title, or they need to wonder what the title is describing. Either way, you have one title to create an unfulfilled need in that skimmers. You must create a desire in the skimmers to read your first sentence.

Follow up the title with an amazing first sentence. Realize, your story’s first sentence must keep those skimmers from going back to their unhelpful skimming ways. Opening with a shocking or humorous statement may catch their attention. The first sentence must interest the readers, and leave them hanging. If your readers doesn’t have at least one unanswered question because of the first sentence, they may go back to skimming. The key, again, is creating unfulfilled needs in the readers. The readers must feel a nagging desire to know what happens next.

If your title and first sentence engaged the skimmer, you’re ready for the power play—your first paragraph. You have almost turned a skimmer into a fan. Don’t blow it with a boring first paragraph.

Your first paragraph must make your readers care, and leave them wanting something. If the first paragraph fulfills the readers’ needs and answers all their questions, it must introduce more questions and needs. Remember, unfulfilled desire keeps your reader reading. When your reader stops wanting something from your story, you lose your reader.

One rule of thumb I’ve heard, is to give your reader no less than three reasons to keep reading. If you’re skilled, the readers might care about one of the reasons enough to continue reading. At this point, you have turned a skimmer into a fan.

Catch the skimmers with an amazing title that makes them want to know what your story is about. Grab them with an engaging first sentence. Keep them reading with a paragraph that gives them answers, but leaves them asking even more questions.

That’s what you need to do to hook the skimmers.

____________

T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. In the 1990s, he spent six years editing and publishing the zine, Of Unicorns and Space Stations. These days his zine mania has morphed into three blogs: one for speculative fiction (tgenedavis.com), another for hobby farming (davishobbyfarm.com), and yet another for shogi and computer programming (genedavissoftware.com). Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s speculative blog at http://tgenedavis.com.

 

by Cameron Filas

Cameron_FilasYour writing is accepted for publication, but then you never hear back.

Sadly, this phenomenon does occur occasionally in the world of writing. You craft a brilliant piece of work, polish it through countless revisions, seek out the perfect publisher, submit, and get an acceptance letter. The letter might include something to the effect of “we’ll contact you in a month or so with a firm publication date.” You rub your hands together in gleeful satisfaction and begin writing more works of genius.

Then a month or so passes and you’ve heard nothing. Have they forgotten about you? Was your work misplaced? Could it be possible your work was never intended to be published and they sent you the acceptance letter by accident? Improbable thoughts and scenarios begin flooding your mind. But here’s what you can do when this happens.

Don’t panic! Just keep in mind it’s not personal. A good majority of the time, editors are just too overwhelmed to keep up with their own timelines. Many online publications are volunteer-based so the staff has to juggle personal lives and regular work with the running of their magazine or journal. Even when publications are paid, and the staff is full time, there is a high chance they are drowning in the sheer volume of submissions they receive. This is not to say you should not take notice or action when they don’t get back to you in a timely manner.

Remember writing and publishing is a professional business. If you take a publishers’ failure to keep up with their own timeline personally and opt to rant about them on your blog, or send them a nasty email, chances are you will find you are not welcome to publish with them ever again (and might even have your original work’s acceptance redacted). The proper response to a situation like this is to craft a concise professional email, or correspondence through their website, which objectively inquires about the status of your work. Something like this is a good starting point:

Dear Editor(s),

I am emailing to check on the status of “My Wonderful Story” and see if you have picked a publication date. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Your Name Here

It’s as easy as that! Chances are they will get back to you shortly and let you know either 1) the publication date they’ve selected, or 2) they still need more time but will get back to you shortly. This usually is all it takes to show the editors you are engaged and to give yourself peace of mind. However, in rare instances you may never hear back.*

Sometimes, no matter how many queries you send regarding the status of your work, you’ll never hear from the editors again. This could happen because you just have awful luck and the publisher decides they can’t keep up with their hobby of running an online magazine. It could also be the result of extremely lazy or unprofessional editors (yes, even in the world of writing there are lazy unprofessional people). The good news is this is an opportunity!

If the publisher you submitted to shut its doors or is too unprofessional to get back to you, that means you have an opportunity to submit your work somewhere better. The best part is your piece was already good enough to be selected for publication once. Use that glass half-full mentality as a drive to seek out other venues to submit to knowing your work already caught the eye of someone before.

In short, when publishers don’t get back to you right away it’s probably them not you. If they never get back to you, there’s no need to yell at your houseplants or cry yourself to sleep. Pick yourself up and submit somewhere else!

*Don’t forget electronic communication sometimes has bugs and you may have overlooked something in your spam folder (or vice versa for the editor). However, after two or three follow-up emails it’s probably a lost cause.

____________

Cameron Filas is an avid reader and novice author of short fiction and other various work. Though he has enjoyed writing from a very young age, he has only recently begun a serious pursuit of the craft. Cameron lives in Mesa, AZ, with his girlfriend, a dog, and a demon cat who he is pretty sure is plotting to kill him. You can visit his corner of the web at cameronfilas.wordpress.com.

 

by Susan Tepper

Bonnie ZoBell

Bonnie ZoBell’s new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories, was released on May 3, 2014. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has held resident fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, and Dorland, received an MFA from Columbia University on fellowship, and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

Susan Tepper: What Happened Here is a captivating book title because it’s so beckoning. It is also the title of your first piece (a novella) in this collection, which encompasses so much life and death simultaneously.

What-happened-HereBonnie ZoBell: Lord knows I appreciate that, Susan. I went through so many titles over the years before arriving at this one. Briefly I liked Block Party, but then it seemed too ghoulish since the party in the book is commemorating a real-life plane crash in which 144 people died. Vessels was a little too. . .literary? Trying too hard? Before that it was This Time of Night, after one of the stories, and then Why Are You Here.

Finally, Steve Almond, who was a wonderful mentor and reader for me for this book, pointed out that often when I talked to him about the novella, I started sentences with, “What happened here was . . . ” Finally I had a title.

ST: I’ve had some personal experience with a plane crash, but nothing near what goes on in this novella you wrote, Bonnie. What makes your novella so masterful is the way you interweave past and present, allowing the current inhabitants of the neighborhood to lean into the ghosts of those who fell from the sky. At the same time respecting them, while trying to exorcise them. It’s tricky business.

BZ: Part of the reason I wrote about this crash is because I live only feet away from where it occurred thirty-five years ago.

ST: I had no idea!

BZ: Debris fell on my cottage, though it didn’t get demolished like twenty-two nearby houses did. Next door a body fell through the roof and landed on the then-owner’s home. Refrigerated trucks were a regular feature on our streets for some weeks because of the number of body parts found and the need to identify who they belonged to. I lived in this neighborhood, but on the other side of it—some miles away. I remember that morning distinctly.

ST: It isn’t the sort of thing you’d ever forget, right?

BZ: Right. But as for melding past and present together—I was writing the novella about a man who is bipolar and sinking fast, and I was living in this cottage where the crash had occurred, and they sort of melded in my mind—the trajectory of both.

ST: That’s a perfect example of the creative mind putting together seemingly diverse incidents to form a work of art. You set the story in the present time to integrate the character of the bipolar man.

BZ: Yes, most of the story is set in the present, and it was hard not to spend too much time in the past. The crash and the ghosts left behind from it inform the present story, but I didn’t want to bog the story down with too much. I took a lot of the parts about the crash out. It was tricky.

ST: I can imagine. Because such a thing is so emotionally charged. So inconceivable really. Planes are supposed to stay in the sky, not crash down onto neighborhoods. Similar to when the World Trade Center came down, people cannot let go of that, and those living in that area will never let go, I suspect.

Your character inhabitants, though it’s many decades later, have identified with the crash and can’t seem to shake it off, though some were probably not even born when it happened. Why do you suppose it has its grips in them?

BZ: It’s part of our history. And there are very physical elements still here that mark where it happened. The neighborhood is full of Craftsman-style homes and Spanish Revivalist cottages built in the ’20s and ’30s. Twenty-two homes were demolished in the crash and others were damaged, and these homes were replaced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As you can imagine from the unfortunate architecture of those later dates, these places look entirely different than the rest of the neighborhood.

We’re reminded, perhaps more than other neighborhoods, that fate can step in and change everything in an instant. It would be like if there was a home in your neighborhood where someone was murdered. Afterward, the home will always be remembered in that way. Often-times it’s even hard to sell a house like that. This is on a much larger scale. Besides which, we have the spirits of all those poor souls still here. We have to respect them.

ST: At the conclusion of the novella, you have added ten stories to this book. How did ‘Uncle Rempt’ find his way into the storyline?

BZ: “Uncle Rempt” was written from a prompt on Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I like him—he’s an oddball of a guy, which the narrator of the story, Susan, really needs. He’s some bit of light-heartedness, needed after the novella, which did have some dark humor in it, but was a much more serious story. Since Uncle Rempt was already off to some idyllic sort of spot, I just made that be North Park, where the rest of the book is set.

Susan herself is imprisoned at the beginning, as many of the characters in the collection are, and manages to find her way out to a better life as even the macaws in the neighborhood have. She comes of age and no longer has to be beholden to her archly conservative and overly-religious father. With her foot already halfway out the door and into the dorm her father only recently let her move into at a Catholic university, it’s easier. He becomes enraged when he finds out that Susan has taken a liking to his free-spirited brother Rempt. When Susan’s father summons her back to the house, she instead takes off cross-country with her uncle to a great place in Cali called North Park. There they sell air, and Susan lets her hair fall into dreadlocks. A whole new life!

ST: Uncle Rempt being attached to North Park, where the novella is set, breathes new life onto North Park in an abstract sort of way that’s really interesting.

Your final story in this collection is titled “Lucinda’s Song” and involves an elderly woman. A kind of circling around and coming to rest. But, gently. You wrote:

But mostly North Park brought Lucinda peace.

BZ:  Glad to hear you feel “Uncle Rempt” is a nice change after the opening novella. I mean to show how eclectic the neighborhood is by placing stories with dissimilar characters close to each other. Lucinda in “Lucinda’s Song” may be an octogenarian and her story might be at the end of this collection, but she’s no shrinking violet, as she’d be the first to tell you. The story starts in her voice:

“The night Ramόn Fernández first turned up at Sunday bingo hosted by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Lucinda Sánchez couldn’t have cared less. He and all those old hussies in attendance could kiss her eighty-year-old ass. And, frankly, it wasn’t such a bad ass. They might be surprised. “

Lucinda is finally free in this tale. Like the macaws and other stories in this linked collection, she has found a way to leave her unhappy past behind and has fallen in love and into a torrid love affair with Ramόn, so much so that when they make love, one or the other always seems to throw his or her back or hip out when they do it against the dishwasher or refrigerator.

ST: I can think of worse ways of getting injured!

_______________________

 

Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

 

by Aliza Greenblatt

Marisa Mangione

Marisa Mangione is a medical writer from New Providence, NJ. She writes about medicine and other weird, gross, and magical things at www.marisamangione.com/. Her piece, The Goose with Zero Down, was the top EDF story for August.

Aliza Greenblatt: So, I usually like to start off these interviews by asking the writers to tell us a bit about themselves. Why did you decide to start writing stories? Is there any particular type or genre that you favor?

Marisa Mangione: I write stories because I’ve always written or told stories, and I can’t imagine not doing it. I believe that children are natural storytellers, but as we get older, most people channel that creative energy in other directions. So maybe I write because I’m immature.

In general, I write young adult or middle grade stories because I like the immediacy and heightened emotions for that age range—everything is happening RIGHT NOW, and if it doesn’t happen now, it might never happen. Writing flash fiction lets me experiment with different genres and styles.

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

MM: I often start with an idea for one scene or a piece of dialogue. I try to write an outline for every piece. For longer stories, I like the 7-point story structure. For flash fiction, that’s sometimes too much, but any outline keeps me on track. Then I fill in any other dialogue or description that comes to mind before I start seriously writing from beginning to end. After that, I obsess about it for a couple months, send it to my writers’ group, rewrite everything, lose the draft for a while, find it again, then decide that it’s good enough to submit.

AG: In your biography included with the story on EDF, you say you write “about medicine and other weird, gross, and magical things.” Can you elaborate on those weird, gross, and magical topics?

MM: I’m a medical writer by trade, so I filter a lot of my daily experiences through that lens. I’m always interested in experiences that might change someone’s body or mind, both in my professional life and when writing fiction. So many things that happen in our bodies are complete mysteries to us, but our bodies are such a strong source of pride and anxiety. Plus, everyone has a body, so the line between an engrossing and mundane story is very thin.

For example, I just had a baby, so the substances going into and coming out of this little body are suddenly very important to me. It’s a cliche of the kind of boring conversation that new parents have, and I recognize that it’s completely ridiculous to have this much anxiety about someone else’s poop, but I think others can relate to the anxiety, and laugh along with me when he pees on the pediatrician or has a blowout on my lap. Finding the humor and magic in these mundane experiences is very appealing to me.

AG: There was a bit of a debate in the comment section about the voice in this story and the use of slang; so naturally I have to ask. Why did you choose to use words like “toosh” and “mooks?” Did you realize you were taking a bit of a gamble by doing so?

MM: I honestly expected this story to be much lower rated than it was because I’ve always gotten mixed reactions to the voice. I was thrilled that so many readers connected with this little story, but I was expecting a good number of readers to be turned off by the slang, or just not find the story all that funny or relatable.

If you’re going to retell a well-known story, you need a new angle, and the voice, including the slang, was necessary to providing that angle. If someone is going to tell a story, they’ll use their everyday language, including slang. That was important to me in conveying the stress she felt and the humor of the moment.

AG: Anyone who’s ever frequented a grocery story has seen these two characters at some point—that is, the bored kid and the parent who just wants to get through their shopping list alive. But why did she retell the story of the golden goose? Did she realize that the story was soothing herself as well as her child?

MM: I like that observation. I’ve never thought about her in quite those terms. I think of the mother as being at the end of her rope. As long as she’s in motion, she feels like she’s going to make it, so in that sense, telling the story is soothing to her. Plus, I think it’s natural to hope that if you can explain your reasoning the child will understand you and stop whatever they’re doing, but that doesn’t really work.

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?

MM: I just had a baby in September, so I’m currently working on staying awake! Having a story published was one of my goals for my pregnancy, knowing that I might not get much writing or submissions in for the rest of the year. I’m hoping to get back into a routine soon and keep writing!

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

 

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